L.A. Now

Muslim leaders focus on contemporary problems

The title of the evening event at a mosque in Corona was intended to provoke discussion, even as it raised an eyebrow or two: "The Islamization of Weed?"

The unusual lecture at the Islamic Society of Corona-Norco in February drew about 150 people, most of them younger than 30. The idea, Imam Mustafa Umar said, was to encourage a dialogue and attract people who might be put off by a more traditionally religious theme.

Not that the speaker, Sheikh Yassir Fazaga from Mission Viejo, was there to advocate marijuana use or say it was permissible in Islam. The goal of the lecture, and a small but growing number of similar events addressing issues of depression, promiscuity, alcohol use or homosexuality, is not to change the religion's views on them, but to recognize they are issues that affect the Muslim community, along with others.

Pretending that Muslims don't smoke marijuana is naive and counterproductive, Fazaga said.

As Muslims in this country grapple with the fact that social issues they thought didn't exist within their communities are there and growing, some leaders of the faith are saying these relevant topics should be addressed at the mosque. No longer, they say, can sermons focus only on such topics as the importance of praying five times a day or fasting in the holy month of Ramadan, without seeming out of touch.

"Generally speaking, religious communities think that by being religious it makes them inherently immune to these problems," said Fazaga, of the nonprofit Orange County Islamic Foundation. "It's wishful thinking."

In February, he gave a sermon about pornography and was approached afterward by several people, including a 12-year-old boy, who acknowledged having a porn problem. "When I give a sermon about depression, I know the minute I step down from the pulpit, I will have a line of people, 'Sheikh, my mother is depressed,' 'Sheikh, my niece tried to commit suicide.' "

Asim Khan, a junior at Cal Poly Pomona who attended the marijuana discussion, praised the mosque leaders for holding it. "I think it's great…. If you're ignoring something for the longest time it's just going to build up and build up," Khan said. The youth know that marijuana is an issue, he said. "They're not stupid, they go to high school and they go to college."

But he said other mosques he knows of, especially those run by older clergy or with less youth involvement, aren't willing to talk about societal issues in such an open way.

For many in the older generation, the forbidden status of drugs, premarital sex and homosexuality in Islam is clear and thus doesn't need to be discussed, said Aslam Abdullah, director of the Islamic Society of Nevada. But now that more Muslims are dealing with these issues directly and not just on a theological and abstract level, some see it as an opportunity to expand their understanding of their faith, Abdullah said. He is scheduled to give a lecture titled "Islamic Perspective of Homosexuality" at a mosque in Chino Valley this month.

"People are now willing to go back to the original source and to understand what was said originally and what was meant originally," Abdullah said. "They are saying, yes this topic is settled but we want to understand why."

For many, though, talking about these issues isn't just about connecting with young people or learning more about the faith. It's also about changing the image some may have of the mosque and its role in the American Muslim community.

Khan, the college student, said the marijuana lecture gave some people he knows a new impression of the mosque.

"It showed that things that are taboo or were considered taboo … are starting to be addressed at the mosque," he said. "It did provide a change of perspective that, yeah, 'Someone is at the mosque that I could talk to about my problems and not everyone here at the mosque is pretending to be the perfect Muslim.' "

But most mosques are still catching up and many are not yet ready because they lack the resources or the willingness to have such open conversations, Abdullah said. Large events that are well publicized, such as the talk he will give on homosexuality, can help to encourage others.

"I believe that the houses of God are where people come to seek guidance," he said. "I think they are the best places to seek the guidance and seek clarity on these issues."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World