Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Muslims

Surveys Show That A Majority Of Americans Have An Unfavorable View Of Islam. With This In Mind, Our Writer Set Out To Explore The Religion As It’s Lived In Our Own Community.

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All mankind is from Adam and Eve: an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab … over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black … over a white, except by piety and good action.
from The Last Sermon of the Prophet Muhammad.


Coastal Virginia is remarkably diverse, especially when it comes to religion. Our region is home to a host of religious communities: a sizable Jewish population, Buddhists and Hindus, Muslims representing every nationality, Christians of every stripe, and many others, including those who characterize themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

In this six-part series, Searching for God in the 7 Cities, we’ll explore six different religious communities in Coastal Virginia through interviews with religious leaders and followers, visits to houses of worship and historical background. We’ll also discuss some intriguing truths and misconceptions associated with each denomination, how religions have evolved, and the role of religion for the next generations. Through the series, we won’t be promoting any particular belief or exploring every single religion. The scope is far too wide. However, we have faith that the series will be a fascinating, eye-opening read, no matter your beliefs.


Part One: Muslims

When I was 17 and beginning to question the teachings of the church, my mother gave me a book that had belonged to her grandmother: The Portable World Bible, which contained selections from the sacred texts of what the editor called the world’s “good-will” religions. The purpose of the volume, published in the wake of World War II, was to highlight the similarities between religions that so often seem to be at odds with one another, and in doing so to encourage “a better understanding between the peoples of the world.”

Having been raised in the Episcopal Church, I was thoroughly familiar with the excerpts from the Christian Gospels and the Old Testament. But the book offered me my first introduction to Hinduism, Buddhism and, among other faith traditions, Islam.

I’ve thought a lot about that book recently, as anti-Muslim rhetoric has grown more heated. The hostility is reflected in polls. One of them, conducted last year by the Brookings Institute, revealed that only 44 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Islam. Interestingly, the numbers were significantly different when people were asked whether they had a favorable view of “Muslim people.” In that case, 62 percent said yes.

Given that Muslims make up only about 1 percent of the U.S. population, it’s safe to assume that the widespread disapproval of the religion among non-Muslims is based on impressions gleaned from the mass media rather than first-hand encounters. Moreover, while the Internet affords unprecedented opportunities for education, it can also spread misunderstanding. That’s especially true when it comes to Islam, since anti-Muslim organizations and individuals have a tendency to quote the Koran out of context. But as I’ve studied various religions over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that merely reading sacred texts, even in a more serious manner, can often lead to misunderstanding. Religion, after all, is not simply about what the texts say but about how adherents interpret those texts.

With this in mind, I set out to talk with Muslims in Coastal Virginia, in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the religion’s nuances and the ways in which it is practiced.

Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Muslims Islam Religion Coastal Virginia Salma Hussein
Salma Hussein
Photo by Jim Pile

I start with a former student of mine at Old Dominion University—a 24-year-old woman named Salma Hussein.

Hussein was born in Egypt but came to the U.S. with her family at the age of 5 and settled in Norfolk. As a young child she fit in with her peers fairly well, she recalls. But on September 11, 2001—when she was in the fourth grade—her life changed dramatically.

“I encountered a lot of hostility because my last name is Hussein,” she recalls. “I remember one kid, in particular, whose parents were in the military, saying that we ‘need to nuke the entire Middle East.’ I didn’t even know what a nuke was, and I don’t think he fully understood either. But I knew it wasn’t good.”

The following year, she switched schools and things got worse. “The kids were really mean,” she says. “They called me a terrorist and asked if my dad was a terrorist. It bothered me a lot. I ended up having serious stomach problems because of how stressed out I was.”

As she got older, she says, she developed a stronger sense of herself and learned to stand up to harassment. These days, though, she remains troubled by all of the anti-Muslim sentiments she hears.

“I’m not a very fearful person when it comes to myself,” she says. “But I am fearful when it comes to my family. My parents go and pray every Friday, so every Friday I worry about them—which is terrible. It’s a weird time. I never felt like I had to watch what I say here, but now I do.”

Like a lot of young people, Hussein is not as observant as her parents. She doesn’t attend services all that often and doesn’t wear a head scarf—or hijab, as it’s called—except as a sign of respect when she does go to a mosque. Nevertheless, her faith remains very important to her.

“I had a boss ask me, ‘Where are the Gandhis of Islam?’ In reality,” she says, “if you look at the true Muslim believer, they’re all kind of Gandhis because Islam is a very peaceful religion.”

By way of example, she points to verses in the Koran having to do with killing—verses that, as noted earlier, are often quoted out of context.

“They have to do with war,” she says. “But the Koran is very clear in stating that you should not fight unless you are attacked. You’re not even supposed to kill an insect if it won’t harm you.”

In response, I ask her how she reconciles the nonviolence with the fact that so many terrorist attacks have been committed in the name of Islam.

“Those people [so-called ‘Islamic terrorists’] are not Muslim,” she states firmly. “They know nothing about Islam. When I was at ODU, I took a class about Islam and learned of a study looking at how many terrorists had read the Koran and pray. A majority never read it, never pray, never fast. They do all of the things you’re not supposed to do. But at the end of the day these are people who leave an imprint of what Islam is. Anyone with a little common sense should be able to see that these people want to turn the world against Islam—and to some degree they’ve succeeded.”

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