Islamic Dialogues: 1–College in America
Written by Lewis D. Eigen
Al-Hakim Islamic Center, Detroit Michigan, December 2004. Mark Mansur, a college junior at the University of Michigan has just arrived home to Detroit for the Christmas holidays. His father, Abdullah Mansur, an immigrant from Syria, who owns and operates a Middle Eastern food market in the midst of Detroit’s extensive Islamic community—the largest in the United States, had driven to Ann Arbor to pick him up. Concerned that Mark was isolated from Islam at the University and engaging in some un-Moslem conduct, he has persuaded his son to visit the Islamic Center where Mark had attended prayers with his father as a young boy and attended after school classes in Islamic education. Abdullah Mansur had previously called Wakil Rachid the Senior Imam of the Center to share his concerns about his son., Wakil Rachid had been one of Mark’s teachers a few years back. The imam has not only agreed to meet with them but has asked a younger imam, Mahfuz ibn Ubaid, a specialist in youth, recently arrived from Egypt, to join them. The four were seated in Middle Eastern style sofas with Mark and his father on one side and the two clerics on the other.
“It is good to see you, Mark. It’s been … I think three years since you have been here,” Wakil Rachid welcomed the young man. “And Abdullah Mansur, old friend, although I see you several times each day, it is always a pleasure that, Insha’Allah, I will continue to have for many years to come.”
“If anything, you look younger each time I see you, Imam,” Abdullah Mansur told the older man who was actually only in his 70’s but looked closer to 90—the result of a hard early life in Palestine. His white beard was relatively short and neatly trimmed. Mark thought he looked very distinguished in his grey suit. His colleague, Imam Mahfuz ibn Ubaid, however was in a white desert robe wearing a classic Arab headdress. He was clean shaven, but although it was the early afternoon, his heavy beard was beginning to darken his face. Mark had changed from his jeans to slacks and an open dress shirt as he had always since he could remember. He and his father always changed clothes to go to the Mosque. It would not do to appear in jeans. His father kept a clothes change in his food market a few blocks away, as their home was in the opposite direction.
“The Prophet, peace be unto Him, commands us not to gamble, but if I were an unbeliever I might wager that you are a little embarrassed to be here at the moment.”
“That is so Imam.”
“Well you always were and still are a good son, and you humored and honored your father in a day where many young men do not always do so. He has shared with me only that he is concerned about you—apparently the result of his trip to Ann Arbor to pick you up.”
“Yes, I am beginning to think that it may not have been such a good idea,” the good-looking, 18 year old young man said. He looked the part of a good son—just under 6 feet, well built with soft features. He was well groomed, with a slight wave in the front of his head that was clearly blow-dried frequently.
“Why is that? The cleric asked
“I didn’t realize that Papa would worry about so many things. I guess I should have talked to him more about college life before he arrived. I’m sorry Papa. I just didn’t think. You never had the opportunity to go to college, so all this is new to you.”
“Had I gone to the university in Syria, I’m sure it would not have prepared me for the experience here. Schools have changed much since I was your age, and there is no experience at an Arab school that would prepare one for the University of Michigan today. But I am glad that I came and got to meet your friends and see how you live there, even though I am not at all sure that it is particularly—well I don’t know how to put it—shocking perhaps.”
“Your father is not sure that the environment is good for a young, impressionable young man of your age,” Wakil Rachid interpreted.
“I gathered that. I have told Papa that I am fine, and I am not involved in any activity that most of the other students are not also engaged in.”
“I think that is exactly what your father is afraid of—not you per se—but the influences that you are under there. He wanted to discuss it with you, but feels that he may not be experienced or educated enough to interpret what he saw and experienced. So that is why he asked me if I would help. He just worries about you. You are his first child, the first son, and you are no longer at home most of the time.”
“I know that. And I really appreciate what a wonderful father I have. I really don’t want to worry him. So I too thought that you might be able to relieve some of his anxiety—at least I hope you can.”
“Imam Mahfuz ibn Ubaid and I will try. I have asked him to join us as he is a younger man and has been a teaching assistant at the University in Cairo. He may be closer to today’s university reality than either your father or I, who after all, are of a different generation.”
Mahfuz ibn Ubaid nodded as Mark thanked Imam Wakil Rachid.
The Imam continued, “Well Abdullah Mansur, why don’t you begin by telling us what bothered you at the campus.”
“I think the first thing was the size. My image of college is what I have seen on TV and in the films. I had no idea that Mark was in such a huge place. I thought it was personal and everyone would know everyone else, like the neighborhood here. There was building after building, thousands of people—no tens of thousands. And mostly no one knows anyone else. There is a building for everything. One building—a huge one bigger than any building in this neighborhood had a sign: University of Michigan, Department of Music, Percussion Building.” Imagine, an entire huge building just for banging drums.”
“Other percussion instruments too Papa, but it is a big place.” Then turning to the imams, “Papa assumed that we students all knew each other and wanted me to introduce him to everyone we saw, most of whom I didn’t know at all.”
“I would guess that he felt badly because you were amongst so many strangers and had no relatives with you. In the old days, when we sent a son off to a strange land, we would always try to find a distant relative, or clan member or family member of a friend, who could serve as an anchor, someone to turn to amidst all the strangers. Is that not so, Abdullah Mansur?”
The father acknowledged by shaking his head.
“So do you feel alone on that large campus, Mark?”
“I did two years ago when I first came to the campus. But that only lasted a few days. That is the way they have designed it. All the freshmen students are in the same boat. You meet people and you make friends, and sometimes change friends. After a few weeks, almost everyone has what the sociologists call a support group. Papa is distressed because there are strangers in the support group and no family members. Papa, it’s really easy—strangers become friends. I was assigned to help some of the freshmen at the beginning of the year—some are shy and have a little trouble at first, but as the resident advisor explained, one of the important skills we are to learn in college is to get to know and make friends with new people—strange and different people.”
“I am sure that your father is concerned with this. How do you know what kinds of people you are making friends with?” the older imam observed. “It is a father’s responsibility to see to it that his children associate with fine trustworthy people. It is not our way to become friends with strangers. Hospitality yes, but not friendship. It is a throwback to the desert Mark. If you ran into a group of people who were not friends or relatives they would doubtless rob you and might just as soon slit your throat. The family, clan, and tribe are all that protected one. There is no government in the desert. No other institutions but your own will be of assistance to you. It’s so ingrained that I believe that your psychologists believe we developed a response generalization to strangers if there is not family or clan to provide protection.”
Mark was seeing a new side of Imam Wakil Rachid. This was probably the first serious conversation he had had with the older man, and he never realized that he had that kind of a depth of understanding. “I think I understand. You explain it very well. But we are not in the desert any more.”
“Our bodies are not, but if you have been brought up in the desert, your head and heart are always partially there. Our ancestors were there and the stories and maxims that form our culture come from the desert.” His father nodded in agreement.
The imam continued. “Abdullah Mansur, you told me on the telephone that you met many of Mark’s friends. Do you not think that all these young people from different tribes coming together form their own—Mark called it support groups?—but they are tribes in a way. They can be counted on to help and protect if needed. Isn’t that so Mark?”
“And you in turn would help and protect them if they needed such, would you not?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Then we have what here in the American college functions as temporary tribes, and Mark is well ensconced in one. The proof, Abdullah Mansur, is that he seems to be fine with no problems from others that were not handled. I do not think that you need to feel badly about not arranging kin or clan when Mark went there. Don’t you agree Mahfuz ibn Ubaid?”
The younger imam was a little caught off guard. “Yes Imam, in this case I do, but I hesitate to add that, in general, one can not count on other people in as well as you can count on family, clan members and fellow believers.”
The older man simply nodded. And asked the father what else was disturbing him. Abdullah Mansur looked slightly pained, and Mark spoke for him as he knew the overriding subject.
“When Father arrived it was late in the afternoon. I gave him a tour of the dorm. I had forgotten about our people’s sensitivity to anything sexual, and as we entered the bathroom, a number of the other guys were getting ready for their dates that evening and came in to shower. Papa had never seen a communal shower setting before and the sight of five naked guys showering together was not exactly a joyful one for him.”
“He was right to be concerned, said Mahfuz ibn Ubaid. Men should not look upon each other’s nakedness. They should not even look upon their own between the navel and the knee except when absolutely necessary for bathing or toilet.”
“Well the guys were showering, and besides they are not Muslims. They do not have such prohibitions?”
“Actually, Mark,” the older imam explained, “some of them do. The Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox in particular have strong traditions of modesty.”
“Well no one from those backgrounds seems to be in our dorm, because that’s the way everyone showers,” Mark shared.
“Why are not there individual showers, each with their own doors? Mahfuz ibn Ubaid asked.
“I don’t know, the young man responded. I guess it’s because it would be much more costly. Eight sets of partitions; eight doors. This way they have just one big shower with eight shower heads so eight people can shower at a time. At the gym there are bigger showers for 24 people at a time.”
“They really should have individual showers.” Mahfuz ibn Ubaid insisted.
“One would think that if they have the money to spend on an entire building for drums, they would have the money to put doors and compartments on the showers,” the father said. “Thanks be to Allah that they at least did that for the toilets. I understand that these are our ways and not those of the rest of America, but I personally had never seen such a thing and was a little taken aback. The most disconcerting thing however is that there are young ladies allowed in the rooms.”
“While the males are showering?” Imam Mahfuz ibn Ubaid asked an accusatory tone.
“No, the are just visiting. If they want to use the bathroom or take a shower, they go upstairs,” Mark explained. The girls are on every other floor.”
“Do they have the same kind of indecent showers?” Mahfuz ibn Ubaid asked. If so, it is more of a disgrace as the woman has much more obligation to cover her nakedness.”
“There are two Moslem girls on the second floor, and they don’t seem to have a problem. I introduced them to Dad. Remember Aisha and Mena?”
“Yes, they seemed like very nice young ladies. I just was a bit surprised when you invited them to your room to meet me, when they came down, there were still some of the naked boys moving through the halls from the showers.”
“They were wearing towels Papa. No one could see anything.”
“I understand Mark, but first the showers, then running in front of the girls with nothing but towels, and then the girls dressed as they were.”
“Papa they were dressed for a big dance that they are going to at one of the fraternity houses. Those were classy dresses.”
“I know that. We see it on the television. It’s just that when I was young man, it was unheard of for a woman to appear before men with her back exposed like one of them did. It’s one thing to see it on television…another in person, and I must confess, I had never seen a Muslim young lady exposing herself like that on front of men. When I was young, she would not even dare to appear before her father with her back exposed.”
“Her father should have been informed so that he can discipline her and regain his honor,” said Mahfuz ibn Ubaid. “Have you done so?” he asked Mark.
Mark was puzzled, “I don’t get it. I can understand that you believe that women should be all covered up, but why do you refer to the father’s honor? If anything, it’s the girl’s honor that is at stake. I’m not going to call her father—it’s none of my business in the first place, and second, I don’t think that it affects him at all. Aiesha is over 19 years old.”
Mahfuz ibn Ubaid responded immediately. “You were right, Abdullah Mansur, to bring Mark to us. He either has forgotten or has been among the idolaters too long. You, Mark, had a serious obligation to inform the girl’s father or brothers so they could take appropriate action. The girl would not be decent appearing in front of Mahram men much less the pack of males in the dormitory.”
“I’m sorry, Imam.” Mark apologized. “My Arabic was never very good. What kind of men? I don’t understand.”
Wakil Rachid explained. “Mahram means the very close male relatives. Technically, it is those males for whom it is forbidden for the woman to marry—the father, the father’s brothers, her own brothers—as opposed to the non-Mahram men like cousins as well as unrelated males. A female may allow Mahram men to view her hair or her bare arms and legs, as they would not be stimulated as they could not marry her. But she would have to cover her limbs if appearing before non-Mahram men. Of course no man may view the area between the navel and the knees and depending on which fatwa is controlling, the stomach and back are included in that category. Of course as you know the area between the navel and the knees we are not allowed to look at ourselves—male or female—except when bathing or at toilet.” Now the stomach and the back, while not able to be viewed by any men may be viewed by other women.”
Mahfuz ibn Ubaid corrected him slightly. “Unless of course, the woman is not a Moslem, in which case much more modesty must be observed.”
Mark was amazed at the arcane detail of what men could see what parts of what women’s bodies, but he did not understand the reason that non-Moslem women were different in terms of these detailed modesty rules. “Why is that sir?”
‘Moslem women have been taught to be modest and one woman would not be stimulated by another, but among the unbelievers, lesbian homosexuals have been proliferating. Therefore the stimulation factor might operate.”
“With respect Imam, in my studies I learned that we Muslims have a slightly lower prevalence of homosexuality than Christians, but we are by no means immune from the problem. There are many gay Moslems. And I don’t follow the reasoning behind the Mahram and non-Mahram men. That would assume that there is no incest among our people and unfortunately we have that problem as well …”
“Young man,” Mahfuz ibn Ubaid interrupted him defensively. He could not bear the thought of discussing Moslem incest with a mere boy. “These are very complex matters only to be determined by the muftis and the imams. It is not proper for you ….”
The older imam interrupted his younger colleague. “Mark, what Imam ibn Ubaid is explaining is that the reason that all this is so complex and somewhat inconsistent is because it does not come directly from the Prophet, peace be upon Him. The Koran, his statements to the faithful, tells us that a woman should be modestly attired presumably so as not to stimulate or tempt any of the men, but exactly what that means has been subject to debate ever since. In Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan it is felt that women should be totally covered and they require a chador or burka. But there is no statement in the Koran or in any commandment of God that requires that particular form of modesty. In Tunisia some women dress that way and others wear Western dress with skirts that show arms, their legs and ankles, and even more. In much of the Islamic world a headscarf and modest dress is considered sufficient to meet the requirement. Female arms and legs are often exposed. There is little unanimity amongst our clerics. The dress rules and seem to be more cultural than religious”
“Thank you Imam for explaining that, I never could find the material about women’s dress in the Koran, and wondered why it was so different in various contries. But I still don’t understand why Imam ibn Ubaid wants me to talk to Aiesha’s father or brothers.”
Mahfuz ibn Ubaid explained. “Mark, you father is always concerned about your behavior. The same is true of Aiesha’s father. It’s his duty. So he, as the head of his family, is responsible for the guidance of the rest of the family, just as your father guides your family,”
“I understand that.”
“Well, if you did not heed your father, you would not be a very dutiful son. And if people observed that, they would come to one of two conclusions. First, that he was not a very pious and responsible man as he was not trying to do his duty as a responsible Moslem father.”
“Not necessarily, what if I wouldn’t pay attention or was estranged from my father. Several of the students at school never even talk to their fathers.”
“That’s when they would reach the second conclusion: That the father was weak or witless if his own son has no respect for him. Therefore he is without honor and why would anyone else have any respect for him. That’s why in our older tradition, the father has the power of life and death over the son. If the father could not control the son and the son was flaunting the will of Allah, it was the responsibility of the father to execute the son to whiten the family’s face—regain the family honor.”
Mark responded. “The Christians and Jews had that crazy notion also…years ago. But I can’t believe that in today’s day and age anyone expects or accepts such barbaric behavior.”
Wakil Rachid elaborated. “In the modern world, there are few who would resort to the Koranic—and Biblical I might add—prescription of death for the incorrigible son. But there are a few fundamentalists who do, and others who would if civil laws were not what they were. However, there is always a type of dishonor or disapproval which is cast upon the father, and in the Christian world, both parents. I believe the evolutionary sociologists would say that this cultural mechanism developed because it supported and produced group and tribal cohesion which was needed for a people to survive.”
Mahfuz ibn Ubaid continued. “Few expect the father to kill the son today, but in the event of an unruly son, there is much dishonor and disgrace that falls upon the father and the family. It happens often enough that most people accept the fact that some sons are so headstrong that while the father probably erred in the boy’s early upbringing, he is now beyond control. The father becomes the object of pity which compounds his disgrace and loss of honor. But in the case of the Muslim girl and her naked back, there is no such escape for the father.”
“Why, he may have an unruly and unmanageable daughter,” Mark asked.
“Women are not constituted to be headstrong. They are obedient by nature. If a father cannot control the females of his family, he is truly feeble.”
“That, imam, I would submit is what people these days would call rampant sexism.”
“Call it what you will, that is the way of the Prophet, blessings upon him,” Mahfuz ibn Ubaid said. “And that is why you should give the girl’s father a chance to not only fulfill his obligation but to whiten his face that has been blackened by his daughter’s behavior.”
Mark tried to explain. “Imam, and please don’t take this as a sign of disrespect, but that would be a horrible thing to do. It would be unfair to Aiesha. For all we know, her father bought the dress for her. This is her affair and her family’s. Only she can determine if she wants them involved. I have no right to invade that privacy. Even the university does not inform on the students to their parents if the students do not so wish it. There are even lawsuits about such things. And then if the other students found out that I had done that, no one would speak to me. I would be seen as a nut and a jerk. The other student’s would think that I was some kind of a fundamentalist kook. I wouldn’t be able to live there. It’s bad enough now but if I were to ….
Mark’s father picked up on his son’s language. “Mark, what do you mean that its bad enough.”
“You know, the business about the fundamentalist Moslems. Every time some terrorist nut cuts the head off an innocent victim, we Muslims all take a lot of crap. Every Islamic bomb that goes off somewhere in the world produces a concussion on our campus and I guess most other places.”
Wakil Rachid showed concern. “Are you subjected to attack for that? After all, you had nothing to do with it.”
“It’s not that people physically assault me or the other Moslem students—although some have been cursed at. Thanks be to Allah that none of the Muslim students have been attacked or even shot the way that guy in the South was—and he wasn’t even a Moslem but because he was a Sikh with a turban he was assumed to be one.”
“Well what then?” Imam Wakil Rachid asked.
“The biggest problem is that if the other students know that you are a Moslem, they assume that somehow you understand this and ask you to explain it. I can’t explain it. What is going on in Israel and Iraq is beyond me. And the genocide in the Sudan is so far from any rational and humane understanding that there can be no explanation. Yet I am called upon to explain—over and over again. It gets so I hate to turn on the television set or look at a newspaper. Every day there’s another atrocity. I know that I have nothing to do with it, but I feel the guilt and pressure anyway.”
Mahfuz ibn Ubaid had seen this before. “I think that I can help you with that. You need to be better armed with the historical facts and understanding so that you will be able to explain and better defend Islam.”
“I don’t want to defend Islam,” Mark said angrily. “At least not if it involves justifying those atrocities and justifying attacking our country, There is no justification. And I am ashamed that those butchers are Moslems, and for them to say they act in the name of Islam seems crazy to me. There is nothing they do that is Islamic to me, at lease not in the way Imam Wakil Rachid and my father has taught me.”
The two older men nodded in agreement.
“These are very complex matters.” Mahfuz ibn Ubaid insisted. “There are forces that have been driving these people. I do not condone the extremes of violence, but there are reasons. These Islamic brothers have been driven to the extremes of human endurance.”
“Imam, that is just a crock. When two countries are fighting each other over land, I can understand hostility, even a war. I could even try to understand peacetime raids on military targets or personnel in fear of attack. But when some terrorist sends some stupid kid my age to blow himself and a bunch of other kids up at a wedding, there is no possible justification or understanding—no reasons that should even be offered. To try and justify and explain it is more obscene even than the act of doing it.”
Mahfuz ibn Ubaid explained. “All those young people who were blown up at the Israeli wedding were either in the army or going to be in the army, the army of occupation, the army that attacks Islam …”
Mark was angry. “Imam, that is bull. It so happens that I wasn’t even referring to that particular bombing at the Israeli wedding. I was thinking about the Moslem family in Iraq that was blown apart in January as they were celebrating a wedding. They were not soldiers. They were not political. They were not working for the Americans. They were just good Moslems trying to get married.”
“Remember,” Mahfuz ibn Ubaid said, “that they were Shiites. They …”
“What difference does that make?” Mark responded vehemently. “They were human beings. That is enough to entitle them to live in peace. All this stuff of Christians, Jews and Moslems is irrelevant to their right to exist. But when we start to make distinctions between types of Moslems as to who should live and who should die, we are dealing with just plain evil. Any attempt to justify it is equally evil.” The young man felt so strongly that he was almost accusing the younger Imam. Wakil Rachid tried to reduce the tension.
“I don’t think that Imam Mahfuz ibn Ubaid was attempting to justify the behavior.”
Actually he was. The two imams had privately argued about that before. Both were Sunni Moslems and Mahfuz ibn Ubaid had an enmity towards Shiites that was as old as the dispute between Moslems as to who should succeed Muhammed as the Caliph of Islam. The older imam said, “The greatest tragedy that has befallen the faithful has been this dispute over succession to the Caliphate, and here we are still fighting over it and there is no Caliphate any more.”
Mahfuz ibn Ubaid didn’t quite see it that way. “I was trying to examine the reality that the Sunni Iraqis, who have been in control of the civil Iraqi government are about to be supplanted by a deviant, minority sect of Islam. You cannot expect them to be enthusiastic about the prospect.”
Mark’s father had been passive as the Imams were doing most of the talking. But as he heard his son take on Imam Mahfuz ibn Ubaid, he was proud to recognize some of his own values which he had not realized had become so infused in Mark’s own viewpoint. He stepped in. “Imam, while the Shiites may be in the small minority within Islam, they are the majority within Iraq. Why should they not be the majority of the government?”
“I do not argue that they have no right to be the majority party of the government, though I do not see how Shiites could possibly govern properly given some of their beliefs and practices. I think that the Sunni are naturally worried about the future and that anxiety drives some to extremes.”
“I can tell you why they are worried about the Shiites controlling the government,” said Abdullah Mansur. “They are afraid that the Shiites will do to the Sunnis what the Sunnis had done to the Shiites over the last decades when they controlled the government. It was the Sunnis who supported Sadaam Hussein.”
“And many still do,” added the son.
Wakil Rachid tried to change the direction of the conversation. “With all of the problems that the faithful, have in this world, the one that I ask Allah daily to resolve is this historical dispute among our people.”
“I used to think,” Mark said “that we Sunni were uniquely guilty among Moslems of bias and discrimination. Then in my Islamic History class I learned that the Shiites were no better. Look at what they have done, and still do, to the Bhai. They jail and murder them in Iran—even today. They are a bunch of primitive butchers.”
‘They are harsh,” Mahfuz ibn Ubaid conceded, “but we must not forget that the Bhai are guilty of blasphemy and those Moslems guilty of blasphemy should be lawfully executed. That is Iranian law and Sharia.”
Abdullah Mansur had different experience with the Bahai. “I have Bahai customers. I have never heard them say anything that was blasphemous. They are very nice people. They just have chosen a different religion.
“They are just like everyone else. Why is it that the Iranian mullahs will allow a Jew to live in Iran but they jail and kill Bahai?” Mark asked.
Mahfuz ibn Ubaid was now a little defensive. “The Shiite Iranians, whom I have little sympathy with in general, are in this case just following the word of Allah and the Prophet, peace and blessings to be on Him forever. The Jew or the Christian is one of the ‘People of the Book’, and our Prophet, peace unto him, specifically allowed them to worship their way. When they commit blasphemy, they are not to be executed if they will apologize and stop, for they not being Moslems, are not knowledgeable about what is or is not blasphemy. The Bhai are an offshoot of Islam and they are held to a higher standard—one that is commanded by Allah. Not be me, not by the Iranians but by Allah himself.”
Mark’s recalled history. “That is the exact same argument that the Catholic Church gave for burning Protestants at the stake. Blasphemy and God commands the execution of the blasphemer. It made no humane or religious sense then, and it does not now. Allah has given man the ability to grow beyond that kind of bigotry. Imam Wakil Rachid, you asked about how being a Moslem becomes difficult at school. Well this is the essence of it. Most of the educated people realize that this kind of brutal, intolerant, thinking and action has been characteristic of all peoples at one time or another in their development. The Christians butchered each other, the Jews and the Moslems. The Bible tells us that the Jews killed and cut the foreskins off the penis’s of their enemies who would not convert to Judaism—it was King David’s men who did that I believe. But the Jews have moved beyond that. The Christians have moved beyond that. Why have we not moved beyond that? Why are we, among all peoples, so backward?”
“I honestly don’t know the answer to that question, Mark,” Wakil Rachid replied. “I ponder it constantly. We were not always so intolerant. When the great Saladin captured Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher continued to have regular masses. Many Christians chose to stay even though Saladin allowed them to leave with all their wealth. We welcomed scholars, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and Jew. Then we went backward. The Christians, I believe, were fortunate to have had their reformation—the early Protestants were as bad as the Catholics, but arguably, the competition seems to have strengthened both. Perhaps there is capitalism in religion also. Opportunity also has a lot to do with it. The Jews of Eastern Europe were amongst the most primitive, backward people of the world. They had no scientists, no great businessmen, few professionals. They were under the control of the Czar nationally and their insular rabbis, locally—and those rabbis were no more knowledgeable about anything except religion than our mullahs are in Sidi Bouzid or the remote parts of the deserts. The Jews left by the millions—mostly to come here to America. In our country here, two new factors were added to the human equation: Freedom and public education. And the Jewish state in Palestine gave those same things to the Jews of the Moslem Middle East and the anti-Semitic European nations, and look what Israel has become—made largely that way by the Jews we expelled from the Islamic counties because they were perceived to be more ignorant than us as well as political troublemakers. Today, the Jews are amongst the most sophisticated peoples of the world, and Israel dominates the Middle East—and I don’t only mean militarily. They are the leading economy, the medical leaders, the scientists, the philosophers, even the experts in Islamic history are often Jews. That is why I came to America—for those opportunities which did not exist in the Middle East. We now have about as many Moslems as there are Jews in America. With the freedom and education here, I believe that Insha’Allah we too will unleash our creative and humanistic potential.”
“But when, Imam? When? You know the Blacks have a Black Studies Center at school, and they make sure that the university community—especially the Blacks—are aware of the great contributions that Blacks have and are making for the betterment of mankind. The Blacks have been responsible for lots of important things from understanding human blood transfusion to inventing and developing jazz. Their contributions have been absorbed into our vocabulary. I found out that the expression, ‘The real McCoy’ referred to the railroad car lubrication system that was invented by Elijah McCoy, a Black who became so successful that everyone was trying to imitate his products and he came up with the slogan of ‘the Real McCoy.’ The Blacks have great world political leaders like Nelson Mandella. We had the greatest scientists of the world when the Christians were in their Dark Ages, But who do we have today? We had Anwar Sadat and we killed him. Who are the ones left alive? Thugs and potentates, sons of thugs and kings and sheiks who dare not allow any criticism of their incompetency. Where are our musicians who have achieved world acclaim, our scientists of today? We have almost a billion people on this planet and don’t seem to be able to produce more than a handful of nuclear physicists. And when we finally get one in Pakistan, what does he do but sell out his own country and the world by helping terrorists try to get nuclear weapons. There is not a single Islamic university in the world that gets much respect or attracts first class scholars outside of theology, because there is not a single Islamic university that is not politicized and where people are free to think, learn and inquire without religious dogma imposed on them. I and the other Moslem students at The University of Michigan have to go back almost a thousand years to talk about anything in which we can intellectually take pride. That was the last time that people from all over the world wanted to be at Moslem centers of learning. We not only don’t seem to create anything, we destroy so much that others have created. Every one knows what we did at the Alexandria library—then the greatest repository of knowledge in the world. Almost every book that had ever been written was in there.”
Abdullah Mansur told them, “I have not known about that. Was that in Alexandria, Egypt.”
“Yes,” his son told him “we Moslems had in Egypt, the greatest library known to man.”
“What happened to it?” the father asked.
Wakil Rachid explained. “The Moslems of the day conquered Alexandria from the Byzantine Christians. They reached the library and found all these books. The soldiers sent word to the Commander asking what they should do. He was a very thoughtless man who Allah had not blessed with sufficient intelligence to make a subtle decision like that, but he asked if all the books were in agreement with the Koran. When he was told that some were and some were not, he told the soldiers to burn them all. The ones that were contrary to the Koran were blasphemous and hence had to be burned, and the ones which agreed with the Koran added nothing new so they would not be missed. So all the books were burned.”
“It was like burning all the books at the Library of Congress,” Mark explained. But books are not the only things destroyed. Tens of thousands of frescoes, mosaics, statues were destroyed indiscriminately over the ages.”
“It must have been an unfortunate decision. Any people can make an error,” the father said.
“Papa, it was no accident or error of judgment. That’s what we did all over the world. We burned the great library of Nalanda in Bihar, India as well. It probably held just as many books. Instead of being run by the Christians, Nalana was the library of the great Buddhist university. The library was destroyed, the university—probably the largest in the world at the time—destroyed. People visit the ruins to this day. You can still see the destroyed remnants of the statues.”
Mahfuz ibn Ubaid explained, “There was a definite prohibition against allowing idols to be worshipped. The only way they had to obey the Koranic injunction was to destroy them.”
“Then why Imam, did they not just demolish all the idols that were worshipped? They obliterated the great art of the Nalanda university. In Alexandria they smashed the statues of great philosophers, writers, politicians, women, ordinary men, just beautiful statues.. No they went after everything that was beautiful except that which they had created. You are Egyptian Imam. How do you feel about their defacing the face of the Sphinx?—before Napoleon’s soldiers used it for target practice.”
“They were making it less attractive so that it would not be worshipped.”
Mark countered. “There is no evidence that it had ever been worshipped, but if it had been, it certainly had not been for two thousand years.”
“There was no way that they could know and be sure of in those days,” Imam Mahfuz ibn Ubaid explained.
“So what’s the excuse today Imam. The great Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, the largest statues the world has ever produced. The same story—defacing and destruction. The only thing that changed is the tools. This time the Taliban Moslems used dynamite. And in the past few years the destruction is going on all over the Middle East. A very old synagogue was recently found by the archeologists with a great mosaic of King David. As soon as our brothers found out, a mob stormed the site and gauged out the face of King David on the mosaic. Nothing has changed, Imam. We are still destroying—and annihilating that which can never be replaced. The killing and the brutality is the worst of it. Heads of live innocent people sawed off in public or on television, women shot in the back of the head. The genocide in Sudan is the worst of it. One could call it a civil war but the deliberate killing of women and children who just happen to be animists or Christians is unforgivable.”
Mahfuz ibn Ubaid explained. Both sides use children as soldiers in that part of the world, and it is the women who will produce the children who will fight the Moslems tomorrow. I do not condone it, but I understand it.”
“I never though that I would say this to an imam, but that is just bullshit. If they really felt that way, why do the Sudanese Arabs gang rape all the women most of whom are left pregnant. By the time those fetuses grow up, are they not going to avenge their mothers and provide a fighting force? No Imam, there is no reason but lust. They do it because there are always such perverts in every society who will do such things. But they are normally not allowed to by the society as a whole. Early Moslems did the same evil thing in India. The mullahs of the time even turned rape into a virtue. By killing the Buddhist priests and impregnating the nuns there would be more Moslems to replace the Buddhists. That’s one of the reasons Islam spread so fast in India. But the Koran did not allow rape, so they came up with a perverse concept of temporary, ‘marriage of war’. They married the women so it would not be rape because a Moslem woman could not refuse her husband without being beaten. After the rape, the marriage ended. Not even having to say the words of divorce. Sometimes a man married dozens of women in the same week. Today the Sudan Islamic government supports these butchers by giving them money, arms and the green light to rape. And frankly, the Imams like you are making excuses and not condemning it in unequivocal terms. That, Imam Rachid” he looked at the old imam, “is what is so hard: The lack of positive examples for us to talk about and the constant repetition of Moslem perverse, inhuman violence, brutality and destruction. That doesn’t leave a young Moslem with much to work.”
“Mark,” his father said apologetically realizing his son’s pain, “I did not realize. I had no idea that this burden was upon you. Perhaps going to a Christian school so far from home was a mistake.”
“That is why we have to strengthen and build Islamic institutions,” Mahfuz ibn Ubaid said. “The boy should not have to bear this burden.”
“Yes he should!” Wakil Rachid’s voice boomed as if he were giving a sermon. It was so emphatic that all their heads turned towards him. “I too do not like to see Mark or any other Moslem young person carry this burden. But it is necessary. Mark is right. Our Muftis and Imams have been too silent for too long when they should speak and speak loudly. But they too are afraid. It is the modern day witch hunt. Anyone can accuse any imam who speaks out of being a heretic, a backslider, an Israeli spy, in the pay of the Christian missionaries. The Islamic governments are all too weak to even protect their own clerics because they need the mob—what they call the ‘Arab street’. So they support those clerics who have the ability to whip the mob up for or against them. These are totally corrupt governments. There will be no reform from within. Moslem reform must come from Moslems developing and operating in freedom. This is where the counter examples will come from, Mark. You and the other Moslem students at the University of Michigan and the other Universities in America, in Europe, in Japan, in Russia, in China, in India—you will be the counter examples. You will be the scientists, the musicians, the leaders. There are many Muslims in the Arab world who feel just as you and I do, but they are afraid. The lack confidence and they know how brutal religious orthodoxy can become. However, one of you will win the Nobel prize in Physics and Chemistry, you Moslems living in freedom shall become the great artists of the future, and archeologists who will protect the greatness of the past against the ignorant fools who know nothing of the world but Islam. One of you will be the leader who denounces the corruption, rampant in our lands. Perhaps one of you will be the Moslem Nelson Mandella of the future. Each one of you is daily a living example to the non-believers of an Islam that is not filled with aggression, threats and violence. Every minute of every day when you interact at the university with other future leaders. Their eyes are always on you. It is hard my boy, but you seem to have done very well. I would pray that Allah will lift this burden from you and the other Muslim students, but I suspect that he has chosen you for the mission of protecting the future of the Prophet’s people. Will you be able to handle it, Mark?
“I think so. I do feel the pressure every day. I am embarrassed to admit that some days I wish for terrible things—like when the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center or the Iraqis actually bombed a Shiite Mosque and killed many of the faithful while they were at prayer. But sometimes I wish—Allah forgive me—that the peace process in Ireland breaks down and the IRA starts bombing again so the world can see that it is not only Moslems who behave this way…. I don’t really want more people killed and maimed, but sometimes I would do almost anything to take the pressure off. I get enough of it that is self imposed because I know in my gut that Imam Wakil Rachid is right. They are always looking at us Moslems. In my mathematical symbolic logic class they used as an example, last week, ‘All the terrorists are Moslems does not imply that all the Moslems are terrorists.’ In the past, the example used to be with athletes and basketball players. But I guess I have survived so far and I think I will be able to in the future.”
“Insha’Allah,” his father said and the others repeated.
Then Wakil Rachid asked, “Tell us Mark, do you pray every day?”
Mark was a little taken aback for a moment. He knew his father was worried that he did not say his obligatory 5 prayers a day. He saw his father’s face when he walked into Mark’s dormitory room and saw the prayer rug his parents had given him to take to college. On the rug was a small table, with a DVD player and amplifier on it. It was obviously not convenient for praying. Mark however was not going to lie to his father or to the imam either. “Only sometimes, Imam.”
“Well, sometimes is better than no times. What about your roommate? Does he pray sometimes also?”
“Less than I do.”
“Do you ever discuss it, I mean the obligation to pray 5 times each day.”
“As a matter of fact we do. We have many times compared our religious differences.”
“Differences? Do I gather that he is not a Moslem?”
‘Yes, Imam. He is Armenian. They are orthodox Christians.”
Abdullah Mansur broke in. “When Mark left for the University we were assured that he would be assigned to room with another Muslim. I would certainly have not let him go if I knew that …”
The older imam assured the father, “It’s all right my friend. You did nothing wrong. Perhaps nothing is wrong. Let us not jump to conclusions. Tell us about this Mark.”
“Well, in my Freshman year when I arrived on campus I was assigned a Moslem roommate just as Papa said. But at the end of the first semester, they let you switch if you want. He preferred another roommate, and so did I. Haig and I had become good friends. He didn’t care for his roommate, and when mine wanted to move out, Haig and I just decided to move in together. We’ve roomed together ever since.”
“But you never told your patents, Mahfuz ibn Ubaid said. It was almost like an accusation.”
“Yes I did, I told them I had changed roommates and even sent them a picture of Haig.”
“He looked like one of us in the picture. It never occurred to me that he might not be a believer. I didn’t realize the university would allow such a thing.”
“Papa, this is America. The university can’t tell you that you can’t room with someone because of their religion.”
“I’m not saying it is bad, it just surprised me.”
‘It can’t be good,” Mahfuz ibn Ubaid observed. “Don’t his parents object? Armenians are not usually very fond of us.”
“I found that out when Haig told me. But when his parents visited and met me, it turned out all right.”
“Didn’t they say anything about it?” Mahfuz ibn Ubaid asked.
“They did. Haig’s father is a really terrific guy. You would like him Papa. He has a terrific sense of humor. He said that as long as I was not a Turk, he was OK with it. He said that Armenians and Syrians had much in common.”
“What was that” Mahfuz ibn Ubaid asked.
“That we both resented the Turks because they had occupied our lands and dominated our people for hundreds of years. I hadn’t known that. That’s what got me interested in Islamic History—the course I took last year.”
Mahfuz ibn Ubaid clearly wasn’t happy with the idea. “Doesn’t your Christian roommate try and convert you all the time?”
“No, never. We discuss religion a lot. Most of the students do. I never knew that there were so many ways of worshipping God. We compare notes on the different religions a lot. I end up doing a lot of the talking however.”
“Why is that? Mahfuz ibn Ubaid asked.
“I am the only Moslem in the dorm. Many of the students have never talked to a Moslem before. They are really curious and I spend a lot of time telling them about Islam. With the terrorism going on and the fight over Israel and this year the Iraq war I am constantly in demand.”
Mahfuz ibn Ubaid saw the situation clearly. “Well I think Mr. Mansur that the first thing Mark should do is to move to a dorm with more Moslem students and preferably take a Muslim roommate. It is not right for a young man to be among the unbelievers alone. He should be where he can be influenced by other members of the faith. That way the group pressure will induce them to pray every day and use the prayer rug for what it was intended.”
The father didn’t accept that so quickly. “I didn’t know if what Mark was doing was forbidden; that is one of the reasons we wanted to see you. He doesn’t want to do anything that is haraam—forbidden—I’m sure.”
Wakil Rachid quickly intervened. “Yes, we must certainly analyze this situation. Mahfuz ibn Ubaid is certainly right that it is the duty of the father to see that the son, especially the eldest son, is in an atmosphere which would be conducive to his following the ways of the Prophet, peace be unto Him. And a dormitory where he is the only Muslim, I would have to say, was a risk. However, Mark, when you talk to your friends about Islam, do they attack you?”
“No they are mostly curious and want to know more. They ask all kinds of questions that are hard to answer. Just last week when I was discussing the fact that pork and some kinds of fish and shellfish are forbidden to Moslems. They said that the same thing was true of Jews. Since there were so many similarities between Moslems and Jews why is it that we were at each others throat? Fortunately, there is a terrific guy at the Ann Arbor Islamic Education Center who teaches Islamic history at the university. He was my professor last year. So I bring some of my friends over there and Professor Haddad answers many of the questions that I can’t.”
“Do you not pray at the appropriate times when you are in the center in Ann Arbor? Mahfuz ibn Ubaid asked. When I am there yes, when the call to prayer is given I go too. As a matter of fact, last week Haig and the two other friends that I had taken over there were curious and came to the prayers also—to see what it was like.”
“It is still dangerous,” Mahfuz ibn Ubaid repeated “for you to be so far from other believers and amongst the Christians. I think that a move should be arranged swiftly.”
Mark was much distressed. Now he was in the soup he thought. The imams are telling him and his father that what he was doing is forbidden. If he didn’t move, his father would be wracked with anxiety. He had never known his father to defy the imam. And Mark didn’t want to move and didn’t want to start lying to his father and stay with Haig.
Abdullah Mansur sensed his son’s pain at the prospect of having to move. “Perhaps Mark could just spend more time at the Islamic Center.
Mahfuz ibn Ubaid saw the father vacillate, “No, the required action is clear …”
Just then the older imam interrupted his younger colleague. “The appropriate action is clear, and moving seems to be required. However, we must also be certain to do the right thing for Islam to which we have all surrendered. We are not in an Islamic country. We …”
The younger Imam thought that the older man may be losing his memory in his old age as so many people do. He interrupted his colleague before he had would make a serious theological mistake. “Wakil Rachid, I believe you are about to confuse the obligation to obey the local laws of a non-Islamic country with the obligation to follow the customs of that country. There is no obligation for the faithful to adhere to the customs of an unbeliever nation. Even though in America it was customary to make decisions of this kind without regard to religion, that would not be obligatory or even desirable as in this case for a Moslem to do so.”
“I thank my brother for the theological assistance, but I was about to make an entirely different point.”
“The issue seems clear.” The young imam insisted.
“That which seems clear to all is occasionally misleading as we all have a tendency to follow each other as ducks do. I too thought the issue clear, but Allah has seen fit to open my eyes and realize something that I think we have all forgotten.” He paused slightly for effect. “What is the primary obligation of a believer living in the land of the unbeliever?”
The younger imam jumped right on that. “To do everything possible to change the nation to one of believers…to bring Islam to the infidels …to bring about an Islamic state.”
“Right, and we live in a democracy here, so the only way to change things and get righteous laws passed is to persuade the populace. Mark at the age of only 18 is bringing the words and ways of the Prophet to the unbelievers. He has even brought some into the Mosque at prayer. When was the last time you did that my brother? I have not had the wit and guile to do this in years. It must be written that Mark was destined to serve Allah in this way. The duty for all of us is to facilitate such processes—certainly not to impede them. And having him move would impede his efforts and great mission with the unbelievers. And these are not just any unbelievers—these are the flower of American youth, the leaders of tomorrow. Who better to understand the way and words of the Prophet and his people. The older I get, the more I marvel at the wisdom of Allah. This has been his will.”
“But he is but a boy. He is not an imam. He has not been trained for such work,” Mahfuz ibn Ubaid protested.
“Quite so, which is why we who are trained must be ready to play our role when the time comes.”
“What role?” The younger man was puzzled.
“When and if Mark is successful in preparing the heart and mind of one of these potential American leaders, and he or she wants to adopt the ways of Islam, Mark is not qualified to do all the education and training necessary for conversion to Islam. I am getting too old to travel so Mark, you must take down Imam Mahfuz ibn Ubaid’s cell phone number, and when and if you have a prospect who desires conversion you will call Mahfuz ibn Ubaid, and he will come to Ann Arbor to either do the instruction or conversion or see to it that one of the qualified imams of that University community will do it properly. Can you do that, Mark?”
“Im not sure that anyone wants to convert, but if they do, Yes, Imam.”
“In the meanwhile, you must stay where you are in your dormitory where Allah has seen fit to place you for this important work. And Abdullah Mansur, Allah has placed upon you a heavy burden because he knows who can carry it. You and your wife must redouble your efforts to talk to Mark by telephone regularly and provide him with the Moslem point of view that he will not be getting from his roommate. Abdullah Mansur, you and your wife should be very proud. Your son brings honor to your family and to Islam.”
Mark and Haig stayed as roommates. Mark never did develop any converts to Islam at the University of Michigan, and Imam Mahfuz ibn Ubaid didn’t have to supervise any conversions. However, Mark continued to provide a living example of modern Islam to the students and faculty at the university. Unfortunately, he spent the remainder of his college years, never being quite free from the embarrassment of extreme Islamic behavior somewhere in the world.
Imam Mahfuz ibn Ubaid returned to Egypt, with the urging of the older Imam. Ibn Upaid was convinced that Islam in America was doomed to be absorbed by the secular state, and too many concessions were being made to the Christians and Jews.
Abdullah Mansur and Mark’s mother made it a point to talk with Mark three times a week—at first by phone and later they used a Skype video connection over the Internet. However, they became comfortable with Mark at the Univeristy and Abdullah and his friend, the Imam, were very proud of the boy’s accomplishments.
Imam Wakil Rachid replaced Mahfuz ibn Ubaid with a young imam who had lived his whole life in America. He finally found the man to whom he could have confidence would carry on when he could no longer do so.
For the Preface to the Islamic Dialogues Series and an index to all the dialogues, CLICK HERE.
Entry filed under: History, Politics. Tags: attitudes, Detroit, discrimination, face, History, imams, Islam, Islamophobia, Moslems, Politics, religion, sexism, Sharia, terrorism, Univeristy of Michigan, universities.