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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Hussein’s parents attend regular Friday services (Friday is the Sabbath) at the Islamic Center of Tidewater on the campus of ODU. I know one other person who attends—a woman named Lisa Suhay, who began exploring the religion from the inside out last November. (See her story on page 4).

The day after Hussein and I talk, I go to observe a service for myself.

When I arrive a little before 1 p.m., there are about 40 men seated on the carpet of the large circular prayer room. (There are women in the mosque as well, but they gather in a separate room—a subject to which I shall return.)

Some of the men are sitting cross-legged in the center of the room and appear to be deep in prayer. Others sit more casually against the wall, and I’m surprised to see a few looking at their phones, until I notice that one man is reading something in Arabic. The Koran, perhaps, or a daily prayer.

Minute-by-minute more men arrive, and soon the room is packed. Then, at 1 p.m. sharp, a man at the front begins to recite a prayer in Arabic. Immediately thereafter, another man in a white robe—who would later be introduced to me as M’Hammed Abdous—begins to deliver a khutbah, or sermon.

The khutbah on this particular day revolves around a prophetic hadith—a story or particular expression of wisdom, not unlike a parable of Jesus in the New Testament. In this hadith, it is recalled that a man came to the Prophet and noted that “the laws of Islam are many.” He asked for something simple on which he could focus.

“Keep your tongue moist with the remembrance of Allah (God),” the Prophet replied.

Abdous repeats this story to suggest that as Muslims go about their day, remembering Allah—keeping their “tongue moist” with his name—can deepen their mindfulness and gratitude to the point where any act can be an act of worship: preparing food, sweeping the floor or what have you. To my mind, it’s reminiscent of an attitude central to all spiritual traditions—the importance of living every moment with singleness of heart and good intentions.

This is especially true of active worship, Abdous notes. “You could read the Koran all the time,” he says, “but if it never crosses your heart, it is like reading a newspaper.”

It also extends, he adds, to our encounters with other people. “If you see a homeless man on the street, what do you do?” Abdous asks. “If you don’t have compassion in your heart, you would never even ask yourself that question.”

Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Muslims Islam Religion M'Hammed Abdous
M'Hammed Abdous
Photo by Jim Pile

Abdous, 52, was born and raised in Morocco, where he completed his bachelor’s in Arabic literature, then moved to Quebec to complete his master’s and Ph.D. In 2000 he moved to Norfolk for the climate and took a job as director for the Center for Learning and Teaching at ODU. At the same time, he became active in the Islamic Center.

The center, and the mosque within, does not have an official imam, the equivalent of a priest or rabbi, but Abdous performs many of those functions, along with a few other volunteers who have the depth of knowledge and gift of speaking to do so.

While growing up, he says, he never questioned his faith. In college, he recalls, he had a philosophy teacher who was “a hard-core Marxist. He didn’t believe in God. I respected him, but I thought his argument was weak.”

When he arrived at ODU he was pleased to find such an active Islamic center, something that is rare, he said, even on bigger college campuses. In addition to serving as a mosque, the center has become a multipurpose community center—a function that all mosques served in the early days of Islam, he notes. “It’s one of the reasons that ODU attracts so many international students,” he says. “When they’re thousands of miles from home, they need some place to go for guidance, whether it’s finding a place to live or setting up a bank account.”

Leading services, he says, is a bit more challenging, since the mosque attracts Muslims of all different backgrounds. Some don’t speak a word of English; others don’t speak Arabic. And because education levels vary widely, he has to try to make his talks accessible to as many people as possible. The khutbahs that I hear him deliver are primarily in English but sprinkled with Arabic.

In one-on-one conversation, Abdous is warm, open and engaging—and as I quickly grow comfortable with him, I begin to ask him about some of the less than favorable perceptions of Islam.

Much of the problem, he says, lies in the tendency of non-Muslim westerners to confuse cultural practices with the religion itself.

“Culture is definitely one of the key components in how the religion is practiced,” he says. “It also leads to misconceptions. Take the stories you’ve heard about genital mutilation of women, for example. It’s a problem that’s centered in certain areas of Africa. These are Christian countries, and the majority of women there have been exposed to that practice, but it’s presented (in the Western world) as something associated with Islam.” Citing another example, he notes that women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive. But again, that’s cultural. In most other Muslim countries, they are.

“Islam as a religion is not a monolithic block,” he adds, anymore than other religions are. “People associate Islam with terrorism. When people think of Buddhist monks, on the other hand, they think of peace and devotion. But consider that in Myanmar (Burma), Buddhist monks are slaughtering Muslims. Does that mean that Buddhism is a violent religion?” 

“Unfortunately, when an act of terrorism is committed by someone who’s Muslim, suddenly everyone is painted with the same broad brush. It’s all a false narrative created by the media.”

Abdous says Muslims in this country often find themselves on the defensive as a result. But he feels fortunate that the Islamic Center has not suffered any significant attacks, nor have its members.

“We are really lucky here to be on a diverse campus in a great neighborhood (the Larchmont section of Norfolk.) After 9/11 we had some broken windows in the back and received some nasty messages, but that was about it.”

Nevertheless, Abdous admits that he is sometimes fearful—especially these days.

“I think things are worse today than after 9/11,” he says. “Back then, at least in the highest office, there was some common sense from George W. Bush.” Now, he notes, there are a lot of numbers that show a spike in anti-Muslim acts—and women are often the targets because their hijabs make them stand out.”

“It’s ironic,” he points out, “since people so often accuse Islam of being anti-woman.” 

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