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The Islamic community: unity, variety and change
Layers of violet silk pile on top one another as Mahera Soonasra eases herself onto the well-worn brown carpet.
Seated alone, she smoothes the folds of her gown, called a shahrarah, and pushes her back against the wall of the empty mosque.
Within 15 minutes, the tiny room is crammed with women seated shoulder to shoulder in neat lines that leave scarcely an empty spot on the floor.
From the outside, the Chew Street building in Allentown looks like little more than an abandoned city store front. But for Soonasra and the 100 families who worship here every week, this run-down former movie theater serves as a makeshift mosque for the Shia Ithna Asheri Jammat of Pennsylvania, Shia Muslims.
Space is tight and not always ideal in the middle of one service, mice created an uproar when they scurried across the floor where the women were seated.
But the Muslims still appreciate their modest space. In 1979, when the congregation had grown too large to continue meeting in private homes, it was the height of the Iranian Revolution and the congregation had difficulty finding a new place to worship. Then, a group of Jehovah Witnesses learned of their plight and offered to sell them the Chew Street building they had been using.
And so it has become the religious home to Lehigh Valley residents of Shiite faith. It is where they come to celebrate holidays and marriages, mourn deaths and honor prophets. It is a place they have made their own.
It really speaks to the immigrant experience in America, says Soonasras husband and mosque board member Mohamed Rajmohamed.
A spacious new mosque, complete with the domes and arches of traditional Islamic architecture, is being built in South Whitehall Township.
But in many ways, the old mosque is a symbol of what it means to practice the religious and cultural traditions of Islam, an eastern faith, in America, a western nation.
Sometimes, says the soft-spoken Mohamed, whose niece has been taunted at Parkland High School because she wears the Islamic head-covering, we have to adapt.
In the Lehigh Valley, the Shia Ithna Asheri Jammat of Pennsylvania is the only Shia mosque. The majority of the worlds 1 billion Muslims, including those in the Lehigh Valley, are Sunnis.
But many Muslims, both Shiites and Sunnis, say the differences between the two groups are slight. And many say that in the Lehigh Valley as across America Middle Eastern immigrants from both faiths have undergone similar adaptations as they practice an Eastern religion in a Western world.
In addition to the Shia mosque, there are at least five other mosques in the Lehigh Valley and surrounding region. The majority of the world's 1 billion Muslims are Sunnis. Sunni mosques here include the 500-member Islamic Center of the Lehigh Valley in Whitehall Township, the 150-member Islamic Society of Schuylkill County in Pottsville, 600-member North Penn Mosque in Lansdale and the 130- member Stroudsburg Islamic Center.
The Masjid-Ath-Thuba, a predominantly black and Latino mosque in Allentown, is not affiliated with either Sunnis or Shiites.
Shia is a major branch of Islam whose members are called Shiites. The Shiites believe the prophet Muhammads descendants are his successors. The Sunnis believe that his sucessors were elected.
Shiites here belong to Ithna-'Ashariyya or Twelver Shia, the largest of the Shiite schools of thought. Their name springs from the fact they believe prophet Muhammads descendants were the first 12 imams, or leaders, of the Shia community.
In the Lehigh Valley, there are also differences between the Shia and Sunni mosques: The Sunni mosque has a modest, almost stark interior; the Shia mosque features a velvet-covered pulpit and gold-colored figurines in the shape of hands. The hands symbolize an arm of the third Shiite imam, which was severed.
But in recent years several Shiite leaders, including the Iranian political leader Ayatollah Khomeini, have advocated Shiites establish solidarity with Sunnis.
In the Lehigh Valley, the Sunni and Shia congregations often interact socially and even attend each others mosques. Sometimes they help each other financially, as with the Shiites new mosque for which many Sunnis have donated money.
The differences are minor, Rajmohamed says. We are really more alike than different.
All Muslims follow the Quran, the book of Islam that is written in Arabic. Muslims believe that there is one God, called Allah, and that Allah sent a series of prophets to the world, the last of which was Muhammad. They believe in the five pillars of Islam: the profession of faith, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca, where Islam began in Saudi Arabia. The prayers are required five times daily, just after: dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and evening.
Most Muslims also believe in modesty. In dress, that means men arent allowed to wear shorts or tank tops and women cant wear anything that shows more than their hands and feet. Additionally, women are encouraged, and in some cases required, to cover their heads with scarves, called hijabs.
In the United States, adhering to the rules of Islam can be difficult, and some local Muslims say they have had to adapt some of their traditions including their language, dress and prayer in America. As Soonasra settles herself on the carpet inside the Shiite mosque on a recent Thursday evening, she knows the service she is about to hear will be different from those given in Pakistan.
For one thing, the imam is not a full-time religious leader but rather a member of the congregation.
The Shia mosque, like many mosques formed by recent immigrants, cannot afford to hire a full-time imam to lead prayers and worship services. Instead, members at mosques such as the Islamic Center of the Lehigh Valley and Shia Ithna Asheri Jammat of Pennsylvania take turns delivering sermons at services, usually held on Thursday nights or Fridays.
And although services are traditionally held in Arabic in many Middle-Eastern countries, in America they usually also incorporate English. Thats because congregations often include people from a wide range of nationalities. While most Muslims know enough Arabic to understand the Quran many do not speak it well enough to deliver a sermon and some members do not understand others native languages.
On a recent Friday, Muslims, alternately kneeling, bowing and prostrating themselves as they perform prayer rituals inside the Islamic Center of the Lehigh Valley, are a patchwork of nationalities. In the womens section at the rear of the mosque men and women are separated for services a group of Asian women prays on the left-hand side, a handful of African-Americans kneel to their right and on the far right-hand side, women from a multitude of Middle Eastern countries greet one another with hugs and kisses.
We are a heterogenous group, says Mohamed Bugaighis, president of the Islamic Center of the Lehigh Valley.
Similarly, services at the Shiite mosque where members are from India, Pakistan and Uganda, are offered in English or Urdu. Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, the native country of most members. Prayers are always in Arabic.
Rajmohamed, who often serves as imam, says he delivers sermons in English because his native language is Gujrati and he is not comfortable speaking Urdu.
The mosque isnt the only place where Arabic, the language of the Islamic faith, is eroding. Its changing within the home as well.
Ismail Kashkoush and his wife, Soheir Kandil, who came to the United States from Egypt in 1988 and 1990 respectively, know that their children will not be able to speak the language of their faith as well as they do.
In spite of Arabic classes, their three children are far more proficient in English than Arabic. The childrens friends and their television shows are all in English.
English comes first, Kashkoush says. We try as hard as we possibly can but Arabic is not their first language, lets face it.
Sometimes Kandil will tell the children to try to speak in Arabic. Then shell ask them a question in Arabic and they, out of habit, will respond in English. Without thinking, she too will say something in English and then the family will be several minutes into the conversation before it strikes anyone theyve switched languages.
Prayer practice has also changed in America for some Muslims who hold jobs where it is impossible to take time out of their work for the scheduled prayers. Instead, they make up the prayers later. And the mosques themselves have come to serve a different role in the United States than in Middle East countries.
There is a need for cultural identity developing, says Maboud Ansari, a professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey who specializes in Islamic-American communities. Many mosques are filling that need by offering educational classes teaching not only Arabic and the history of Islam, but cultural beliefs as well.
Both the Islamic Center of the Lehigh Valley and Shia Ithna Asheri Jammat of Pennsylvania offer Arabic and Islamic classes on Sundays where children learn about Islamic history and culture. Similar classes are held at the Islamic Society of Schuylkill County on weekday afternoons.
Mosques in America have many functions
Unlike mosques in Middle East countries, mosques here often have discussions about Islamic art, music and so on, Ansari says. What cannot be found in public schools or outside mosques, now tends to be formed and created in mosques.
Those cultural traditions are important to Kashkoush and Kandil who send their three children to the Islamic Centers Sunday classes.
Yes, were all American, says Kashkoush, a wiry man with a quick smile. But to be American doesnt mean you forget your heritage.
Kashkoush and Kandil say they hope their own daughter will be able to maintain some aspects of the Islamic faith, including wearing the hijab.
But thats something many teen girls are opting out of.
They wear it in here, Jamal Ahmed, a Bangladesh immigrant and father to two daughters says, motioning to the mosque inside the Islamic Center of the Lehigh Valley. But unfortunately, because of social pressures, they take it off as soon as they leave. Sometimes, theyre not even out of the parking lot.
Thats particularly typical of Muslims who are born here, Ansari says.
The norm is that the majority of second- and third-generation
females do not really observe hijab, Ansari says.
It is not an easy practice in America where 31 percent of discrimination incidents are triggered by hijabs or, in the case of men, beards, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
Thats something 17-year-old Zainab Soonasra, who wears the hijab, knows well.
Every now and again, a classmate at Parkland High School will taunt the 12th-grader.
Why dont you go back to your own country? shes asked.
This is my own country, she responds. I was born here.
Although the hijab is seen as a sign of oppression by some women, Pakistani-American Dr. Tayyaba Jan says she sees it differently.
With the hijab, she says, People see you for your intelligence.
Jan worked as a doctor in Pakistan and is now a pediatrician in Fogelsville.
However, in the Middle East, the majority of males go to college and females stay home or go to work, Ansari says. But in the United States, parents finance the education for both. It is considered their obligation.
In America, other cultural traditions regarding dating and marriage for both men and women vary among Muslims. Some Islamic families still forbid dating before marriage and insist upon arranged marriages; others are relaxing the rules.
Samim and Yaki Soonasra Samim is Mahera Soonasras first cousin and Yaki is Mohamed Rajmohameds first cousin say they wont arrange their childrens marriages.
Yaki Soonasra, a Uganda immigrant, says he has an aunt whose marriage was arranged when she was just six months old in his home country.
With every generation it changes a little, says Soonasra, who met his wife through family contacts before marrying her.
Twenty-year-old Sadiq Soonasra shakes his head as he listens to his parents.
No, way, he says, adding he plans to pick his own wife. His parents just laugh.
The Soonasras and many Islamic immigrant parents have become accustomed to the fact that their childrens lives and Islamic identity will be very different from their own.
And although some Muslims struggle with issues of modernity, many say they realize that it is a reality in America.
Kandil and Kashkoush are an example. The two underwent a cultural shock when they arrived in the United States.
Kashkoush, who came here as a graduate student, moved in with other college students, whose dormitory lifestyles caught him by surprise.
I just assumed all Americans were like that
I couldnt believe it, says Kashkoush, who now works as a chemical engineer.
Thats a common sentiment among immigrants from the Middle East who often assume the Americans they know are representative of all Americans, Ansari says. He says many people come here with ideas about the United States that have been formed by movies theyve seen.
What they know about Americans, they know from Hollywood, and that is very different than the American society as we know it here, Ansari says.
The adjustment is a two-way street, Kandil says.
When I went to the store, I would feel them staring at me and I was staring at them too, to tell you the truth, Kandil says, laughing.
Kandil, who wears the hijab, attracted attention for her garb. Similarly, she says she was caught off guard by bared midriffs, pierced body parts and men wearing necklaces.
I was married and in a foreign country and everything was different from the life I had, she says.
Adapting to western culture while holding on to the Islamic faith and traditions is a process of give and take, says Dr. Gazi Abdulhay, a member of the Islamic Center of the Lehigh Valley.
People always describe America as a melting pot but perhaps that is the wrong expression. Perhaps the word mosaic is better. In a mosaic, there are pieces of all different shapes and colors and they all get to maintain their shapes and colors, Abdulhay says.
But the pieces must fit together.