A journey into Islam

Lisa Robertson

On a cool Tuesday evening, I make my way to Jazzman’s Cyber Café in the basement of the Student Center. I am looking for a young Muslim woman who said I will know her by her headscarf.

I worry that there will be more than one young woman wearing a headscarf waiting for me. I worry I will approach the wrong young woman simply because she is wearing a headscarf. But there, in a booth, sits my contact, a young woman studying and grabbing a quick meal. A purple hijab (headscarf) covers her hair, and she wears a jet-black abaya (a long, dark robe some Muslim women wear that covers them from head to toe) over her clothes.

Her name is Maram Manjouna, and she is one of the kindest people I have ever met. She speaks to me like we are old friends meeting for a weekly dinner, not as two people meeting for the first time after exchanging only a few phone calls and e-mails.

What led me on this journey of speaking to Maram, and through her other young Muslim students, was a desire to learn more about Islam at a time when every news cycle brings another story of American unease with the faith. An unease that is turning into outward acts of violence against a religion it seems easier to vilify instead of try to understand.

Maram dives right in. She is a junior studying political science but wanting to change her major to applied conflict management. Her family is Syrian, but she was born in Cairo. She has lived in America for most of her life and considers it her home country. She lives with her parents because her family believes it proper for an unmarried daughter to live at home until she marries. She shares this belief.

Over the past year Maram has begun to more fully embrace her faith as a young Muslim woman. She attributes this change to her recent engagement, and a fiancé who, she tells me, is deeply religious. Showing a bit of a romantic side, Maram tells me of meeting him at a Muslim youth conference and falling quickly in love. His firm faith helped her become closer to Allah. As she recounts this story, the look of peace on her face showcases the happiness this change has brought to her life.

Maram taught me my first Islamic hadith, or narrative story, from the time of the Prophet Mohammed. It related closely to her current life, as it concerned marriage. The narrative says that a man should marry a woman for either her piousness, beauty, wealth or lineage.

“Those four things are also things that we consider as women when we marry.” She told me of the four, religion should always be the main reason.

We sit deep in conversation as the minutes fly by and the meeting time of Kent State’s Muslim Students Association is suddenly upon us. We climb to the third floor where Maram introduces me to her fellow group members: Ibsitu, Anisah, Imina, Faisal and Jamal. She constantly apologizes for the small numbers and tells me she had hoped a larger number of people would have shown up.

Not wishing to intrude, I sat a table apart from the small group, which like any other organization on campus met to discuss how best to promote its group and raise funds for projects and charitable causes. Faisal immediately asked me to join the main table, where I was welcomed by everyone.

The meeting is short. Maram has to leave halfway through, but promises to meet with me again soon. A short time after she leaves, the meeting ends. Anisah, Ibsitu and I are the only ones left. We begin to speak of their experiences as Muslim students.

Neither young woman is as conservative as Maram. Neither wears the abaya. Both are veiled and seemingly shy, though when Ibsitu speaks it is with conviction and confidence. Anisah is more measured, often letting Ibsitu answer any question first so that she can write down and think through her answers more carefully.

On understanding Islam, Ibsitu put it best when she said she wants non-Muslim students to stop her and ask her about her faith. In this way, those who seek answers can receive them from an actual Muslim, instead of “going to some news station,” as she says. Answering these questions also fulfills the religious duty of educating others about Islam.

No topic is off limits—from suicide bombings, death sentences and mosque construction, to community justice, humanitarian aid and new Muslim boys on campus.

When discussion moves to the current backlash against Islam, Ibsitu says she “expects America to be a lot better.” Neither woman gives any obvious sign these attacks are hurtful, but it is difficult to imagine hearing such vile things being said about one’s faith and not having some strong, perhaps internal, feelings.

Each time I ask a question, they smilingly have one of the Prophet’s narratives ready to illustrate their answers. They explain to me that this is one of the great things about Islam — always having that guidance to look to. Anisah is a bit self-deprecating about it, beginning each narrative with a “Sorry, I know we keep bringing these up.”

When I ask what they think the biggest misconception about Islam is, they laughingly and in unison shout “that we’re [Muslims] all Arabs!”

“I’m American,” Anisah says. “I’m African,” says Ibsitu, who was born in Ethiopia.

One of the most surprising things for Anisah and Ibsitu is the number of young people they know who have converted to Islam, especially the number of young American women converting. They see this as a contradiction to Islam being portrayed as anti-woman.

We speak until the sun starts to set, as they realize they need to get to the prayer room quickly for nightly prayers. They gather their bags and rush out of the room to continue the practice of their faith in the ordinary rhythms of everyday life.

Contact columnist Lisa Robertson at [email protected].

Learn about Islam: facts and denominations

Islam is the second largest faith in the world yet is commonly misunderstood. Here is a very basic guide to facts, beliefs and practices of the diverse community that considers itself Muslim.

The Muslim prophet Muhammad (570-632) was born in Mecca, in what is present day Saudi Arabia. Muhammad believed that he was continuing the message brought by previous prophets of God including Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

Like the Christian and Jewish faiths, Islam has divided over the centuries into distinctive denominations based on geography and belief. Different denominations have variations on spellings, for example: Quran/Koran. The two largest denominations are Sunni and Shiite, which split shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad over differing ideas of who should succeed him as leader of the faith.

Five Pillars of Islam: The core beliefs and tenets of the faith

• Shahadah – The declaration of faith. “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.” This statement is the basic devotional statement and a key to converting to Islam. The text of the Prophet Muhammad’s message is the Quran, the holy book of Islam.

• Salat – Prayer. Muslims face Mecca and pray five times daily at certain times, usually in Arabic.

• Zakat – The giving of alms, donations to the needy. The general excepted amount of alms is between two and three percent of a followers income, and can be given in the form of money or food, depending on the culture of the giver.

• Sawm – Fasting. The ninth month of the Islamic calendar is Ramadan and during the month Muslims abstain from food, drink, tobacco, chewing gum and sexual intercourse during daylight hours.

• Hajj – Pilgrimage. If Muslims are financially able and physically fit enough to do so, they are required to make a trip to the holy city of Mecca.

Muslim Denominations

• Sunni – The largest of the Muslim denominations, nearly 80 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni. Sunnis believe there was no leader chosen by God after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The four leaders chosen by the community and the leaders’ heirs are historically the leaders of the religion.

• Shiites – Shiites believe that after the death of the prophet the leadership passed to Ali, his cousin and brother-in-law, and to the heirs of Ali. They are the second largest group of Muslims, with most living in Iran, Lebanon and Iraq.

• Progressive Muslims – A small but growing group of forward thinking Muslims who emphasize a personal relationship with God and expanded women’s rights within the context of the Qur’an.

• Sufi – Sufis focus on the mystical aspects of Islam, seeking to gain closer personal connection to the divine through intense meditation and prayer.

• Wahhabism – An offshoot of the Sunnis, Wahhabism is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia. They take a literal approach to the study of the Qur’an.

• Nation of Islam – An American-born school of Islamic thought that mixes teachings from the Qur’an with elements of black nationalism. The Nation of Islam was founded by Wallace Fard Muhammad in Detroit in 1930.

–Mark Haymond