On a recent Friday afternoon at the Al-Mahdi Islamic Center on 12th Avenue South, a young Christian man stood before several hundred shoeless, kneeling men and repeated these Arabic words: “Ashhadu an la ilaha illa Llah, wa ashhadu anna Muhammad rasulu Llah.” (“I testify that there is no God but God, and I testify that Muhammad is God’s messenger.”) With those words of the shahadahthe declaration of faiththis man turned from Christianity and embraced Islam.
It’s a scene that few Nashvillians may realize is happening in their midst, but Imam Abdul Hakim, the leader at the Islamic Center, estimates that it has taken place in Metro Nashville area mosques as many as 500 times in the past few years. That number may even be shocking to some Nashville Scene readers, the majority of whom have been raised as Christians and tend to think of their faith as the prevailing religious force in the world. While this assumption may be truestudies suggest that Christianity accounts for a third of all religious practice across the globeIslam is the second-largest faith in the world. Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University, writes in a recent book: “Recent surveys indicate that there are more American Muslims than there are American Episcopalians, Jews or Presbyterians.” And when it comes to proselytizing, Muslims are no less dogged than their Christian brethren in attempting to convert people to their faith.
That has potentially profound implications for Nashville. Our city may rightfully be known as the buckle of the Bible Belt, but it’s also home to a growing immigrant population, and many of those immigrants, both longtime residents and the newly arrived, are Muslims. As they become more tightly woven into the city’s social fabric, they’re helping to change American perceptions of Islam, even bringing new believers into the fold. Imam Hakim calls these new Muslims “reverts,” as opposed to “converts.” “We believe that everyone is born a believer,” he says. “These people are just returning to the true faith they were born with.”
As for conversions in the other direction, Hakim acknowledges that some Muslims are converting to Christianity, but he believes this often comes about because some Christians perpetuate false stereotypes of Islam. Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, recently called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.” And Rev. Jerry Vines, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, called Muhammad, Islam’s founder and revered prophet, a “demon-possessed pedophile.”
Most Muslims at the Islamic Center here can tell of occasional slights and discrimination they’ve encountered in Nashville, particularly in the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. These Muslims, particularly women wearing their distinctive head and body covering (known as hijab), tell of overhearing rude comments in grocery stores and other public places, but they are quick to say that most of the prejudice seems to have greatly subsided.
Nehayet, a student at Tennessee State University who came here with her family from Kurdistan about 13 years ago, is one of those who believes there is now a greater acceptance of Muslims. “You will run into ignorant people now and then...,” she says, “but most people seem to have a general understanding of what Islam is, and I do get a lot of respect from that. I am actually free in this country to worship what I want to worship, to practice what I want to practice, dress how I want to dress. I am really thankful for that. You cannot say that about a lot of countries.”
Jameel Uqdah, a young African American Muslim who came to Nashville from New Orleans, sums up his experiences this way: “As far as discrimination is concerned, I’ve experienced more racial discrimination than religious discrimination.”
When talking with him one on one, there is no overriding impression that the controversies of current world politics drive the life of Atif Abdul Hameedborn James Milleran African American records clerk at the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Each day, just after noontime, Hameed turns toward Mecca, the Islamic holy city in Saudi Arabia, kneels, touches his head to the floor of his workspace at the DOT garage on Centennial Boulevard in West Nashville, and recites a prayer called Zuhr. He repeats the ritual again in the late afternoon with a prayer called ’Asr. Islamic men the world over, from Inglewood to Indonesia, perform these same actions every day along with Hameed.
“I first encountered Islam on a golf course in Maryland,” he says. “I had aspirations of becoming a professional golfer at one time. One day I was playing golf with my brother. It must have been around sundown and my brother knelt, faced Mecca and said his prayers right there on the golf course. That impressed me. Later my brother gave me a book about the Qur’an, and I began reading about Islam and became more and more impressed.”
Miller became a Muslim in 1979 in Washington, D.C., then moved to Middle Tennessee in 1983 because “life in Washington was not well suited to being a good Muslim.” He and his wife and five children now live in a Muslim enclave of 17 families in Dover, Tenn., and he commutes the 79 miles each day to his job at the DOT garage.
Imam Hakim estimates there are between 15,000 and 20,000 Muslims in the Nashville area. There are four Islamic houses of worship in Metro, including the Al-Mahdi Islamic Center, which opened in about 1979 and will soon build a new mosque and school in Bellevue at the corner of Old Hickory Boulevard and Charlotte Pike. A mosque on Nolensville Road is popular with Nashville’s substantial Kurdish population, while another closer to downtown on Fourth Avenue, near the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, is frequented largely by Somalis. The Nasjid of Islam on Clifton Lane in North Nashville is associated primarily with the Nation of Islam, the black Muslim group led by the controversial figure Louis Farrakhan.
The Islamic Center on 12th Avenue was once a single-story residence out of which all the interior rooms were removed. The building has a windowed, rotunda roof rising upward in the center. Below is a carpeted sanctuary, about 90 feet along each wall. In the northeast corner of the sanctuary, exactly in the direction of Mecca, the Islamic holy city, is a green-painted alcove, the entrance to which is cut out in the onion shape of a minaret. The person leading the service sits or stands inside this alcove and the worshipers face him, and thus face Mecca.
One corner of the otherwise square sanctuary is interrupted by a partitioned-off room, set aside for women to participate in the worship service out of the view of men, but with the ability to hear the service through the public address system. Imam Hakim says that although the women enter by a separate, women-only entrance, they are free to come into the main sanctuary. However, few women ever seem to choose that option.
Services at the Islamic Center each Friday afternoon begin when the muezzin, an official of the mosque, chants the call to prayer (the adhan) in Arabic. This call is that wavering, haunting melody most people have heard emanating from the minaret of a mosque, if only on TV and in movies. Those entering the mosque for prayer first go into the rest room and wash their hands, face and feet. They must also remove their shoes before entering the sanctuary. Prayers begin with the worshiper’s hands raised to the ears and the recitation of the phrase “Allahu Akbar” (Arabic for “God is the greatest”). Next, various prayers are said as the worshiper repeats certain bodily positions: bowing at the waist, kneeling on the floor with the forehead touching the floor, kneeling with the body upright, etc. Many of these same prayers and prostrations are said at appointed hours throughout the week, wherever a Muslim finds himself in his daily routine.
One thing most Westerners know about Islam is that gender roles are very pronouncedalthough to varying degrees, depending on the practice of the religion. Hakim says that women are welcome to attend Friday services at mosques, but only men are required to attend. Those women who are present are free to worship in the back of the main sanctuary, but most often, they prefer to worship in the partitioned room. According to Hakim, they prefer this because some are nursing babies and some prefer not to perform the expected prostrations in front of men.
The imam also defends the Islamic rule that a Muslim man is allowed to marry a Christian or Jewish woman, but a Muslim woman can only marry a Muslim man. “This is because we believe in Islam that the female usually follows the male. If a Muslim woman married a non-Muslim man, she would be influenced by him to leave her own faith. But, on the other side, if a Muslim man married a Christian or Jewish woman, there is a great possibility that she will convert to Islam.” As sexist as this sounds, the idea seems to be borne out by the fact that, according to Islamic sources, among those converting to Islam currently, women outnumber men 4 to 1.
Like her friend Nehayet, Kasar is a TSU student who came here with her family from Kurdistan. Both of these young women with ample, seraphic eyes and infectious smiles express strong support for being separated from men at worship and disagree strongly that Muslim women are oppressed. “Islam is a religion based on law and reason,” Nehayet says. “Everything we do is for a reason. This way we can focus on worship. I would not feel comfortable if I had a man staring at my behind when I am trying to focus and worship God. This way, it removes all the sexuality from it. You are able to come here solely to concentrate and worship and not have to worry about contact with the opposite sex.”
Kasar, who is unmarried, adds: “When it is time for worship, everybody’s mind should be focused on worship and not on one another. If we are all sitting together, men and women, and there is a good-looking guy sitting next to me and my hand rubs on his hand, my mind will not be on what the imam is saying.”
After group prayers at a recent Friday service, Hakim gave a rip-roaring sermon in English on the importance of marriage, and the tone of that sermon would match the hellfire and brimstone preached in any Protestant pulpit in Nashville. It’s just one of many ways that the two religions are more alike than different. Another similarity was the collection: As the men left the sanctuary that day, they dropped their offerings into tool boxes, one red and the other yellow, held aloft by men standing on each side of the entranceway.
In its simplest terms, Islam is a fiercely monotheistic religion, and this drives some of its main differences with Christianity. Although Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet, they see the Christian claim of his divinity, as well as the general concept of the trinity, as anathema to the pure idea of one God. Islam also prohibits statuary or other depictions of religious figures, which Muslims consider idols.
At the center of Islam are five rituals, the Arkan al Islami (Pillars of Islam), which every good Muslim is required to follow. They are: 1. shahadah, declaring allegiance to the one God; 2. salat, daily prayer; 3. zakat, annual charity; 4. saum, monthlong fasting during the month of Ramadan; and 5. hajj, making the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a person’s lifetime. Not even on the list is the Western bugaboo: jihad, which does not mean “holy war,” as many Westerners erroneously believe, but rather to struggle or strive for somethingespecially to struggle inwardly against evil.
Although the Muslim service is led by an imam, Islam has no sacraments and no priesthood. In a small mosque, the imam might be just an ordinary man from the congregation selected to lead the prayers because he has a stout, clear voice. Islam stresses that the imam is not an intermediary between the believer and God. “It’s just between you and God,” says Hameed, the DOT clerk. “No one is going to stand in your place when you are judged by God.”
Jameel Uqdah, the young African American transplant to Nashville, was born into a Muslim family in New Orleans. While some converts to Islam say they have a strong desire for religious rituals and Islam fulfills that desire, Jameel says that the pure strength and straightforward, simple message of Islam are the reasons his parents and many other Christians have converted. “I would hope the reason people come to Islam would be the true religion, that they feel that there is nothing worthy of worship except the one who created everything and that Prophet Muhammad is his messenger. That is simple enough for everybody to agree with.”
Hameed believes that many African Americans become interested in Islam “because they realize that their ancestors were Muslims when they were brought to America in chains as slaves. It’s a matter of wanting to get back to your roots.” This theory is often expounded by American Muslims who maintain that Christianity was forced upon the slaves by their white masters.
Kasar, on the other hand, sees Islam as a way to mold one’s life and give it meaning. “Islam actually perfects good character,” she says, “and when you have good character, you have a good life. You live life to its fullest. God sent us here for a purpose, and we are not here just to wander around and say, 'Well, I wonder what the purpose is?’ Islam gives you a purpose, gives you a direction.”
Perhaps Kenneth Caine, a thirtysomething African American, was at the Islamic Center worship service last week looking for that purpose. As the prayers ended, he turned to me and asked, “Are they through?”a sure tip-off that he was a Christian visitor. He told me later that he was born in Alabama in a military family, but raised on military posts all over the world “in a Christian home.” But now, he was “just lookin’ for the truth,” he said. “I know it’s here and I know it’s an old religion. And so as a Christian, I don’t feel like I have anything to fear, particularly if God is the one the Christians say. I have nothing to fear. To me, it’s just exploration. I just sort of want to see what they consider the truth to be. I want to weigh it with mine, with what I’ve been taught and go on from there.”
Would he make his decision soon?
“I don’t think it works that way,” he said. “God will let the person know whether he will be revered as Allah or, as we know it, as God Almighty. I don’t think anyone just says, 'I’m going to be a Christian tomorrow.’ ”
Hakim, a vigorous but slightly built man with a thick, black beard, was born in Yemen and moved to Detroit with his parents when he was 4 years old. He later attended the Islamic University in Medina, Saudi Arabia, and earned his bachelor’s degree in Islamic jurisprudence. Later, he earned a second bachelor’s degree in Yemen and then an advanced degree back in Medina. After serving as imam in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Brooklyn, N.Y., he came to Nashville in 2000.
Life in Nashville since Sept. 11, 2001, has not been without its humorous moments for him. “I go to the gym at a sportsplex,” he says, recalling one memorable day. “There was a gentleman there who has seen me exercise. He said, 'Are you an A-rab [pronounced with a heavy accent on the first syllable]?’ I said yes. He said, 'Why are you exercising? Are you intending to bomb anything?’ I said, 'No, those who bomb things, they don’t exercise.’ ”
Imam Abdul Hakim is not alone among Muslim leaders who see the outlines of what amounts to a new crusade, a 21st century version of the eight major crusades that took place between 1095 and 1291 A.D. Those crusadeswhich were for the most part a failurewere military expeditions organized by Western Christians against Muslim powers to take possession of, and maintain control over, holy places associated with the life of Jesus. Now the word “crusade” turns to acid in the mouths of many Muslims because Christians slaughtered vast numbers of Muslims during those expeditions. In truth, there was a good deal of slaughtering perpetrated by both sides.
Although Hakim agrees with those who say evangelical Christian missionaries are using the U.S. Army occupation of Iraq and the claim of humanitarian efforts as a cover for proselytizing Muslims, he shrugs off recent, vicious statements against Islam made by various Christian evangelists. “I am not shocked or surprised. These evangelists, that’s what they do for a living. They view Islam as an evil faith. They have said that, Pat Robertson and so forth. That’s what they do for a living. If you listen to their TV shows, they have nothing else to say. You can sense that they have a very strong hatred or they don’t know anything about what they are saying. So I am not shocked. I am not offended, because to me they are just a waste of time.”
In a telephone interview from his office in Richmond, Va., Southern Baptist spokesman Mark Kelly disputed claims that his denomination was zeroing in on Muslims in the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, or that Baptists are disrespectful of Islam. “Some statements made by some people have been blown out of proportion,” Kelly says. “We are very respectful of Muslims. We have many beliefs in common. They believe that Jesus was born of a virgin. They have great respect for people who believe in Scripture, such as Jews and Christians. We emphasize doing things that help people in a physical sense. We have people working to improve drinking water, helping with medical needs, etc. Of course, we do these things fully realizing that we are Christians and we have a Christian mission.”
Kelly’s assertion is echoed by Dr. Kevin Shrum, pastor of Inglewood Baptist Church in Nashville. “We have always tried to do humanitarian things,” Shrum says. “We are truly concerned about their physical needs, and we are not doing it just to manipulate people into heaven. Southern Baptists do not separate the physical needs and the spiritual needs. We believe that the human being is a whole.
“As far as Muslims,” Shrum continues, “the thing that amuses me is the implication of the question: Should Christians be evangelizing Muslims, or Jews, or gays, or green people, or yellow people? That’s amusing because it shows a lack of understanding. I would say that Christians should share the Gospel with everybody.”
Imam Hakim likewise wants to share Islam with everybody. But he reacts to the old concept of so-called “rice Christians,” impoverished people who convert to Christianity simply to obtain food handed out by Christian missionaries, and he reacts to threats and tactics that some Christian proselytizers use. “It is part of our faith that we teach people about Islam,” Hakim says. “But...we don’t give them that only option: either convert or you die of hunger. We teach people that we are Muslims. We show everyone out there who we are through our work, through our character. So if you act the way you are supposed to act at your work, your colleagues will ask why are you doing this, doing your prayers, even though you are a doctor or a professor somewhere. We also tell them, 'If you have neighbors, let them know who you are.’ ”
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