Practicing Islam in Fairbanks



In the comforting warmth of former church on Fort Wainwright with winter sunlight streaming through its south windows, the peaceful atmosphere is enhanced by the melodic song of the muezzine.

"Allahu akbar! God is great! I bear witness that there is no god but God. I bear witness that Mohammed is the messenger of God. Come to prayer! Come to contentment! There is no god but God." In Arabic, Imran Khan sings out the call to prayer.

Heeding the call to gather in the mosque to kneel on prayer rugs and bow towards the Kaaba in the city of Mecca, the Fairbanks congregation of Muslims pray to Allah.

The holy month of Ramadan, observed this year from Dec. 31 through Jan. 29, is when Muslims around the world celebrate how the prophet Mohammed received the teachings from the angel Gabriel that would later comprise the holy Koran. Prayer, fasting and abstaining from secular pleasures during daylight hours are some ways Muslims observe Ramadan.

"We restrain ourselves and try to avoid the stresses of everyday life," said Adrian Jackson, 26, a recent convert to Islam. "Ramadan is a time to fast and reflect on the importance of our faith."

The religion of Islam shares its monotheistic roots with Judaism and Christianity, and their fundamental belief in one and the same God. Judaism and Christianity descend from Abraham and Sarah's son Issac. Abraham and Hagar's son Ishmael is the ancestor of the prophet Mohammed and Islam.

Genesis 21:11-13: "Abraham was greatly distressed, especially on account of his son, Ishmael. But God said to Abraham, "Do not be distressed about the boy, or about your slave woman ... As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a great nation of him also, since he too is your offspring."

In Islam, Jews, Christians and Muslims are referred to as "People of the Book."

Islam teaches that the five major prophets before Mohammed were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Muslims believe that Mohammed was the last prophet and a messenger from God and teach that he was a perfect human being, but not a god. Mohammed lived and was buried in Medina, but it was in Mecca where he received the teachings from God through the angel Gabriel and is also where the Kaaba was built. A shrine about 36 feet long, 30 feet wide and 18 feet high, it is the most holy place in Islam. Adam is said to have built the Kaaba, which was restored by Abraham and Ishmael, and it is also believed that Ishmael and his mother Hagar are buried under it. During the annual pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca, the prayer lines of pilgrims face the Kaaba in a circular pattern.

Muslims around the world pray in the direction of the Kaaba. In Fairbanks, for the small congregation of 35 that meets at what once was the North Post Chapel on Fort Wainwright, that direction is north/northwest, looking over the top of the world.

The building was provided to the Islamic community five months ago and has been a blessing to the group. Pews have made way for prayer rugs and a compass rests on the pulpit. Because Islam prohibits depicting people and animals in pictures, there are posters with readings from the Koran along the walls for both decoration and inspiration.

"Having our own place, a mosque, has given our group a stronger identity. As our (post) chaplain recently said to me, we are a faith with a congregation like any other," said Sa'Eed Mustafa, one of the imams, a prayer leader, of the group and a sergeant at Fort Wainwright. Mustafa is a four-year member of Islam, who converted to the faith in Somalia where he was stationed during Operation Restore Hope.

"I had previously studied the religion of Islam while in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War," said Mustafa, who was raised Methodist and later attended Baptist churches. "The Army chaplain briefed us on the people's religion and culture which I found interesting at the time, because I really didn't know that much about Islam."

After his initial impressions, he was given some tapes by Louis Farrakhan. "I listened to them and there were things that caught my attention, but I could not swallow the whole concept of what he was talking about," said Mustafa. "One person who was very close to me during the Gulf War was a Caucasian person, a white person, who was my platoon sergeant. We were going through this experience together, and then I hear this information saying that all white people are devils."

Mustafa went on to say that true Islam does not condone racism of any kind. An excerpt of the Koran which speaks to the issue of racism and hate reads, "O mankind, behold I have created you that you may come to know each other.

Behold the noblest of you in the sight of God is the most righteous."

While in Somalia, he met Muslims from many other countries. "There were the people of Somalia, and soldiers from Kuwait, Nigeria, Egypt, India, Tunisia, Pakistan," said Mustafa. "I had a chance to really talk to them and discover what they believed. I went to some prayer services and saw their tranquility."

A Somali interpreter began teaching Mustafa the concepts of conventional Islam and inviting him to the feeding centers for the Somali children. "This is when I really started to have some changes in my life, because when I saw these kids I would think of my own children and how fortunate we are," said Mustafa about his conversion to Islam. "Through that experience and being in those conditions, reflecting on what I believed to be the true faith, I accepted Islam."

Families of those who convert to Islam may be hurt or frightened by the many misconceptions about Islam in the United States.

"I haven't felt what I would call a wholehearted acceptance from my father, but after years of not communicating very much, we've found that religion is something we can really talk about," said Adrian Jackson, obviously pleased about this new dimension in their relationship. "My mother, now," he added, smiling, "she can be pretty stubborn."

In Islam, the rite of initiation is simple and straightforward. In the presence of another Muslim, the shahadah is said, "La ilaha illa Allah; Mohammed rasul Allah." "There is no god but God and Mohammed is the messenger of God." All prayers are in Arabic, and all of the basic practices are the same everywhere, with the Koran having a set example.

What differs are the conditions in Fairbanks, especially in the month of Ramadan, when fasting is called for during daylight hours. Because the Islamic calendar is on a lunar basis, the months, with their holy days and observances, move through the seasons 10 days earlier each year. "May you live to celebrate Ramadan in every season of the year!" is a common greeting during this holy month.

This year the daylight hours are short, but years from now when the month of Ramadan moves toward summer, Muslims in Fairbanks will have an arduous fast. But despite the restrictions, Ramadan is seen by Muslims as a time to be reminded of their spiritual life and a way to empathize with the suffering of the poor.

The local Islamic community is but one small part of a vast population. One of the most common misconceptions about Islam is that most Muslims are Arab. What is true is that most Arabs are Muslim, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States and there are approximately 1 billion Muslims worldwide.

The foundation of the Islamic religion are the five pillars of faith. The first is the declaration of belief based on the shahada, the second pillar is prayer; the third is charity; the fourth pillar is fasting and the fifth is the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca that all Muslims are encouraged to make at least once in their lifetime.

According to a special edition of ABC's "Nightline" filmed in Mecca in April of 1997, about 2 million Muslims from all over the world make the pilgrimage annually.

Imran Khan, 30, went on his first hajj in 1994 and will leave in April for his second pilgrimage. Originally from Pakistan, Khan is now in the Army and works at Bassett Army Community Hospital.

"You hear about Saudi Arabia being nothing but sand and desert, but Mecca is very mountainous," said Khan of his first impressions of Mecca. "I was really excited to see the Kaaba. It seemed small in pictures, but the size was really quite impressive. Being there, with the other millions revolving around the Kaaba, the feeling is hard to put into words." Khan was one of the pilgrims who was able to touch the sacred structure for a brief moment.

Near these sacred historic sites pilgrims relate feeling almost a tangible presence of God and an inner sense of peace. Although it is considered good to make a pilgrimage to Mecca anytime, the hajj takes place just once a year, in the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah. Pilgrims gather in groups and go through special classes to learn the history of the hajj and about the sacred places they visit and rites they would perform. All men wear two plain white cloths, and women wear plain robes. Women are not permitted to travel alone while on a pilgrimage, but must be accompanied by a male family member.

Another misconception about Islam concerns the role of women. Although there are rules regarding sexual modesty which sometimes restrict them, Muslim women have had many significant freedoms, like the right to both own and inherit property. Women in Muslim countries have been voting longer than in many other countries, and if the United States is considered a prime example of women's liberation, consider the fact that both Pakistan and Bangladesh have had women prime ministers.

"Just because the man is considered the head of the household doesn't mean that the women are second-class citizens. Every member in the family has a role in the decision making--at least in our house!" said Sheryl Marion-Mustafa, of the household that includes her husband Sa'Eed, two daughters and one son.

"A lot of people from Middle Eastern countries don't understand why we do some of the things we do here in the United States," said Marion-Mustafa, "but there are many misconceptions that can be cleared up if we just ask questions of one another."

Although she frequently attends the Friday prayer meetings, women are not required to go to prayer meetings and would not serve as imam except in a gathering of women.

"We have get-togethers as women of the community to learn from each other. Last summer we invited a woman interested in Islam who happened to be very knowledgeable about computers. We answered her questions about our faith and she taught a class in computers for us.

"A lot of people are now starting to realize we have a building on post," said Marion-Mustafa, who has seen the increased awareness in their community.

Awareness in the country is increasing as well, evidenced by events such as "Iftar at the Pentagon," sponsored by the Pentagon chaplains office, which Sa'Eed Mustafa attended in Washington, D.C. during the final days of Ramadan. Iftar is the meal that breaks the fast of Ramadan. The Pentagon event was a type of banquet.

Although proselytizing to others about their faith isn't typical of Muslims, members of the Islamic community are willing to answer questions and also to learn from others. Mustafa was pleased to attend a synagogue at the invitation of a Jewish soldier. He was welcomed by the congregation and found the services interesting.

"I wear a kufi, headgear, which is usually identified with a Muslim," said Mustafa, "and so with that and my name, those things identify me as Muslim to those who don't know."

Mustafa wants his actions to speak to what his faith teaches, from being involved in the community through Volunteers in Policing and coaching in Interior Youth Basketball to treating others with respect. He is also appreciative of the respect and consideration he receives from others.

"We were moving from the Geist Road area to post, and I had just had surgery," said Mustafa. "I was unable to do much, being on crutches. One of the parents of the kids I was coaching came over with his truck and he and his son literally moved us to our new home. That's what I call Christian people for real."

"There are a lot of common things between Islam, Christianity and Judaism," said Ataur Chowdhury, professor of physics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "In Islam we believe in the universality of religion, and that it has been the same for ages, because we believe in one God and believe that his message is the same for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Each religion says good things, encourages people to do good things and discourages them from doing bad things. Islam is not an exception, just a final edition."

Chowdhury, a lifelong Muslim, is originally from Bangladesh and lives in Fairbanks with his wife Zakia and two children. Too often, he said, the actions of bad people, individuals acting on behalf of governments or because of hate, create the belief that all Muslims are radical terrorists.

"As a Muslim living anywhere in the world, we never condone, Islam never condones killing other people. Terrorism has no place in Islam. Speaking as an American Muslim or a Muslim from anywhere, there is no room in Islam for terrorism--absolutely!

"The extremists do this in order to get Muslims in other countries involved in their support, which is just wishful thinking, no one is going to support them," said Chowdhury. "The only time we are obligated to self-defense is when our religion is at stake, if someone is trying to enforce another or prohibit our religious rituals and duties. But that is not terrorism, any nation would do that. We are not different from anyone else in that sense."

The word Islam means "giving your life to God in a peaceful way."

"We want to encourage a dialogue between religions, said Chowdhury. "We cannot deny the fact that Christians, Jews, and Muslims will have to learn to live side by side each other as well as with those of other religions. We like to get along and have nothing against other religions."

Mustafa has found Fairbanks to be a welcoming place for his family. "Fairbanks is a great place to live--I'm actually trying to stay longer, if my request (for an extension of his military tour) will go through. In terms of being a Muslim in Fairbanks, I have had no problem with prejudice--not openly, anyway. The people have been beautiful, and we feel comfortable in this community."

Cynthia Rinear Bethune is a local free-lance writer. Some of her background research for this story included the book "How Do You Spell God: Answers to the Big Questons From Around the World" by Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman. She recommends the book as a straightforward reference about many of the world religions presented in a respectful and sometimes humorous manner. Amber Bethe is a local free-lance photographer.


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