Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
July 14, 1996 | Rackl, Lorilyn
Byline: Lorilyn Rackl Daily Herald Staff Writer
As Fatima Ahmed sat in Naperville North High School’s cafeteria eating lunch, the 15-year-old Muslim caught the attention of a girl at a nearby table.
‘”No hats in school,’ she yelled,” Ahmed recalled, giggling at what has all the makings of a mortifying situation for most high school freshmen. “I just yelled back: ‘It’s not a hat.’
“I don’t mind when they ask me questions,” she said. “I kind of like it.”
It wasn’t the first time Ahmed had to explain to her classmates why she wore a hijab, the traditional head garb Muslim women wear to cover their hair.
And it isn’t likely to be the last.
To many Americans, the Islamic religion is one veiled in mysterious practices and seemingly unorthodox behavior.
An estimated 400,000 Muslims live in the Chicago metropolitan area, but many people know relatively little about this rapidly growing religion.
What Muslims believe, how they worship and how they live is the source of much confusion – and misunderstanding.
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions people have is that we don’t worship God,” said Asma Akhras, a light-skinned, blue-eyed 21-year-old from Naperville.
Akhras looks more like someone you’d see at church on Sunday than at the mosque on Friday, the Muslims’ Sabbath.
“We call God ‘Allah,’ which means one God,” Akhras said. “But people think, ‘Who’s this Allah?’ ”
Not only do Muslims subscribe to the same monotheistic principles found in Christianity and Judaism, but they believe in Jesus, Noah and Moses, too, as well as the concept of heaven and hell.
But Muslims don’t share the Christian belief that Jesus is the son of God, for example.
Instead, Jesus is viewed as a prophet along with Mohammed, the last of the prophets, who founded the Islamic religion in 622 AD.
In general, the Islamic equivalent of the Christian Bible is the Koran, a collection of more than 6,000 Arabic verses. Thousands of Muslims have memorized the Koran word for word.
Much more than a religious text, the Koran also serves as a practical guide to everyday life.
For instance, it explains divorce rules and the correct way to split inheritance money, as well as the economic formulas used to determine how much money should be given to the less fortunate each year.
“Islam is more than a religion; it’s a way of life,” said Fisal Hammouda, president of the Islamic Center of Naperville. “It conducts how you go to the bathroom, how you elect your representatives – everything.”
Hammouda recently won a fight to expand his mosque in Naperville, a move neighboring residents staunchly opposed for fear of more traffic and parking problems in the area.
Hammouda had accused his neighbors of being prejudiced.
But residents staunchly denied the charge, saying the Muslims were playing the equivalent of the “race card” to get the city council’s approval of their expansion plans.
Throughout the debate, Hammouda repeatedly said people don’t understand the Islamic religion or its unique needs when it comes to worshipping.
For one thing, Muslims need more room to pray than their Christian counterparts, Hammouda said.
During prayer there is a good deal of movement, with worshippers getting down on their knees, bowing to the floor and touching their forehead to the ground.
They also wash extensively before prayer.
Some residents had urged the Islamic Center to buy a vacant lot next to its property for more parking.
Not only was the price too high, the Muslims said, but they wouldn’t be able to take out a loan to buy the property because it is against their religion to pay or charge interest.
Much like other religions, Islam is full of its own taboos and customs.
Muslims are not supposed to drink alcohol or eat pork.
When women are around men who are not in their immediate family, they must wear loose-fitting clothes that do not show their arms or legs, and they must cover their hair.
Makeup is strongly discouraged, unless a woman uses it to make herself more beautiful for her husband, Hammouda said.
Women pray in a separate area behind men, and females are not allowed to pray during their menstrual cycle.
A frequent criticism of Islam by some Westerners is that women are treated as second-class citizens in a religion dominated by men.
But Muslims say that’s yet another misconception.
“Many people don’t understand the status of women in our religion,” said Naim Baig of the Islamic Circle of North America in Chicago. “In the Koran, it’s mentioned in several places that men and women are equal.”
Some of the differences between the way men and women are treated in Islam are similar to the practices of Christian religions, he said.
Women are not allowed to lead the prayer in Islam, but women cannot become Catholic priests, either.
And the “dress code” applied to Muslim women isn’t much different than a nun’s habit.
“We are protective of our women,” said Imam Mohammed Abdul Hai, director of the Islamic Center of Chicago. “God has created women with a lot of beauties.”
Hai doesn’t deny that Muslim men and women have different, if not equally important, roles.
“In Islam there’s a clear distinction between men and women,” he said. “Women are the builders of the community. Women are the trainers of the younger generation. Her role is more important in the house than in society.”
That’s not to say Muslim women haven’t gone on to become valuable members of a professional work force.
But many Westerners confuse religious and cultural beliefs, Baig said, which adds to the conception that women aren’t treated fairly.
For example, women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, so many mistake that as a religious doctrine rather than a social norm in that country.
Akhras, for one, dismisses the theory that women have subservient roles in Islam.
“It doesn’t subjugate women at all,” she said. “We’re supposed to behave certain ways, to respect one another, and that applies to men and women.”
She said people often overlook that men have dress codes and wear loose-fitting garments, too.
“I like wearing these clothes,” she said. “You feel like you can move any way you want, without guys staring at you.”
Of course, Muslims still will get stared at on occasion.
But that’s OK with Ahmed, who’s going to be a high school sophomore this fall.
“I like being different – I like the attention,” she said. “And I’m proud to be Muslim.”