Shadia: My kind of Islam

Unlike Muslims who were born and raised in America, I thankfully didn't have to go to Sunday school to learn about my religion.

Born in the '80s, I grew up in a place where my religion was part of the society and the community in which I lived in. I didn't have to go to Sunday school to learn about my religion; my Uncle Beautiful, whom regular readers may recall as the man who helped raise me, taught me.

In fact, my community as a whole indirectly taught me.

There were many Cairo summer nights where Uncle Beautiful and I would sit on the floor of our big patio and he would tell me about God and the Prophet Muhammad.

I vividly remember the first time he introduced to me this divine concept called God. I was overcome with fascination and curiosity.

My first question was what God looked like. I looked up to a sky full of stars and felt hopeful for some reason. And the questions I had from that point on didn't stop. Uncle Beautiful supported what he taught me with children's books he bought to teach me about Islam, its prophets and its history.

And while I went to the mosque to learn how to read and memorize the Koran, I had the advantage of interacting with teachers who studied Islam, spoke my language and were part of my culture.

According to Mohammed Ibn Faqih, imam and religious director of the Islamic Institute of Orange County, that wasn't the case for Muslims who grew up in America around the same time.

Not only did they dread having to go to Sunday school, but they generally interacted with imams or volunteers who didn't naturally speak English, had heavy accents, weren't teaching them in a fun way and lacked familiarity with American culture. For those students, Islam was foreign and difficult.

The result is lack of understanding and sometimes total abandonment of Islam. Take Mohammed Memon, a volunteer at the Islamic Institute of Orange County, who at one point in his life shied away from identifying himself as a Muslim.

The 23-year-old was born to Pakistani parents who sent him to school at the mosque one day a week to learn about Islam.

"We never grasped what Islam really was about," he said. "We never knew why exactly we have to fast, why we have to pray and why we have to do some of the things we do."

After the 9/11 attacks, where Islam was hijacked by a bunch of criminals who used it to commit their horrific acts, Memon felt ashamed to say he was a Muslim.

"You have people on TV misrepresenting who you are, and we know we are not part of that," he said.

That perception has changed for Memon and thousands more, thanks to AlMaghrib Institute, a unique concept that began in North America to teach Islamic sciences in a fun, energized and easy way while also remaining academic.

AlMaghrib puts on seminars that go on for a weekend and move from one city to another based on demand. Since its inception in 2002, the institute has had more than 40,000 students. Some are even non-Muslims, said Faqih, who is also one of AlMaghrib's instructors.

Islam is a religion of knowledge. One of the Koran's early verses commands Muslims to seek knowledge, and AlMaghrib provides in that respect.

"The seminars are taught by instructors who speak English and have the credentials to give you knowledge," Memon said. "You're surrounded by Muslims and Islam. It makes you feel good."

AlMaghrib's concept didn't replace Sunday school, but often trains those who teach there, Faqih said.

He added that the organization's seminars go beyond what is permissible and what is not in Islam, and more into the why and the how of Islam.

I plan on attending AlMaghrib's next seminar, which is coming up this month in Los Angeles. It's a brand-new course called "Complicated?" The seminar will be dedicated to the Muslim woman, answering questions that revolve around Muslim women living in the modern world.

Did you know that Aisha, the Prophet Muhammad's wife, held classes to teach Islamic sciences to the prophet's companions? Did you know that some of the most renowned Islamic scholars were taught by women?

I know. It's shocking.

I can't wait to attend and share with you some of the amazing rights Islam gives me because I'm a woman. I can't wait to begin to refute the stereotypes about women, dispel some of the horrific misconceptions and challenge the so-called Muslim countries who unjustly use Islam to oppress women.

AlMaghrib's Ilmfest, or Knowledge Festival, which is held a few times a year in different cities around the country, was at the Hilton in Anaheim on Christmas Day. I attended for only less than two hours and couldn't help but be inspired by what I heard and saw.

Farhan Azeez, one of the speakers at Ilmfest, told the more than 2,000 attendees that a Muslim's public relations is his or her morals. It's true. I was taught at a young age that my morals and my religion are intertwined. If I misbehave in any way, shape or form, it's a reflection on who I am, and because I'm a Muslim, it hurts the image of my religion. And I dare not hurt the image of my religion.

Imam Abdulbary Yahya spoke about the third of the five pillars of Islam: almsgiving, or "zakat." He said the Koran teaches that giving isn't about donating money from the comfort of your own couch, but about getting out and actually physically giving to those in need in order to experience for yourself what they're going through.

During the Ilmfest, more than $100,000 was raised to provide a shelter for women who are victims of domestic abuse. It wasn't the first time AlMaghrib's seminars or events resulted in volunteerism, donations, in giving knowledge according to Islam's teachings, and in inspiring its attendees to spread goodness in their communities.

This is my Islam. It is the only kind of Islam I know.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

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