Who Are the American Muslims?

A Saturday night in late summer and downtown Rochester was completely dark except for an exceedingly lively block of First Avenue Northwest. At one end, a tall Somali man leaned into the window of a black Chevy Cavalier and spoke with a woman wearing a red silk hijab, or headscarf. Behind the Cavalier, three Somali teenagers, one in a UNC basketball jersey, clustered around a Jeep Cherokee, inadvertently blocking cars trying to emerge from a parking lot. Meanwhile, men in their twenties chattered loudly in the lot while older men conversed on the corner of Broadway.

Around nine o’clock, the street-side conversations began moving toward the entrance of the Rochester Islamic Center, a nondescript former VFW hall distinguished now only by the sweep of Arabic across a sign over the door. In the tiled entryway, the thin face of a Somali woman in a purple hijab peeked down from over the rail on the second floor. Inside are cubbyholes filled with footwear, and then a long, open space defined by a large window, several support columns, and strips of red carpeting angled in the direction of Mecca.

A Somali man sat up front, a copy of the Koran propped between two worn blue velvet cushions in front of him. A dozen other Somalis in various states of repose listened intently to his lecture. Other men arrived and arranged themselves in line with the carpet strips. Some stood and prayed, hands clasped over their stomachs; others sat silently or chatted. Shortly after 9:30, a young Somali in a Fubu basketball jersey stepped to a microphone at the front of the room and turned toward Mecca. “Allahu akbar,” he began, chanting the call to prayer.

When the call was finished, Sheikh Elsayed Mahmoud, a thickly bearded, light-skinned thirty-six-year-old in an emerald green thobe (an ankle-length cotton garment), entered. He took a seat on a rolling office chair and looked out at the congregation. Three older Somali men approached him, and they chatted amiably. Around 9:50 they drifted away, and Mahmoud rose and turned toward Mecca.

Approximately a hundred and fifty men rose with him, standing in straight lines along the carpet. Young boys stood next to their fathers; teenagers stood with their friends. At the front, older Somalis in skirts and turbans held dark wooden prayer beads, next to robed, stately Arab men whose faces were weathered in ways mostly unknown in Minnesota.

Islam is America’s fastest growing religion, and it seems especially apparent in Rochester. In the early 1990s there were fewer than fifty observant Muslims living in the city, most of whom were South Asian; organized prayers were held only on Fridays, in makeshift accommodations. Today approximately five thousand Muslims live in the city, the vast majority of whom are Somali; they have the option of praying five times daily in a mosque owned by their community, presided over by an esteemed imam trained in Islam’s most distinguished university.

Yet aside from the now-commonplace sight of Muslim women in hijabs and other coverings in Rochester’s public spaces, Islamic practice and tradition has largely been invisible to non-Muslims in Rochester, hidden behind converted spaces with distinctly American contexts such as the old VFW hall.

That will soon change. Next year, the Rochester Islamic Center will be demolished to make way for a four-million-dollar mosque designed to hold eighteen hundred worshippers. Funded by a Saudi Arabian visitor to the Mayo Clinic and designed by a Syrian architect, the three-story building will be topped by a large dome and flanked by minarets that, at 180 feet tall, will rise prominently on Rochester’s skyline. Inside, ample and desperately needed classrooms, a library, and meeting areas are planned, along with a two-story prayer hall. When complete, it will be the first new mosque ever constructed in Minnesota.

The Rochester Islamic Center is already unique due to the international community of Muslims who worship there. “Other Islamic communities will have national mosques,” explained Zaid Khalid, the president of the Rochester Islamic Center’s board. “In the Twin Cities, for example, there are Somali mosques.” That is largely a result of demographics: The Twin Cities are home to more than a hundred thousand Muslims. “But we only have enough Muslims for one mosque in Rochester,” said Khalid. An equally important factor is that the Somali population of Rochester fluctuates on the basis of job opportunities; as a result, educated professionals from South Asia and the Middle East, like the Pakistani-born Khalid, have largely assumed the leadership of the center. “But even with so many different cultures, we are quite unified,” Khalid concluded.

Since 1994 the Rochester Islamic Center has been a religious institution concerned exclusively with spiritual matters. Though it has been asked, on occasion, to help assimilate immigrants, its leaders have neither the desire nor the means to do so. “That is something for the social services,” Khalid said. “And one-on-one contact.” Yet immigrant Muslims have quickly become an important and permanent part of Rochester’s cultural and civic life. And while many Americans question whether Muslims can ever truly assimilate, Rochester’s Muslims have spent the last ten years developing specifically Islamic approaches to being Americans.

Thus, as the new Middle Eastern-style mosque rises over Rochester’s staid downtown, the city’s Muslims hope that the structure—like them—will not be viewed as something to be feared or avoided, but approached as a resource. “We hope that it will attract people to learn more about us,” said Shareef Alshinnawi, a spokesman for the Rochester Islamic Center. “We hope it means guests, speeches, classes, and understanding. We’re part of this community, and this new building in the middle of downtown will be one symbol of that fact.”

Sheikh Elsayed Mahmoud swept into the library of the Rochester Islamic Center in his green thobe and handed me a Diet Pepsi. “Please,” he said, and gestured for me to sit. At first we spoke a bit of English, which he is studying, but while being interviewed he preferred his native Arabic, and a translator soon arrived. “From the beginning, there is one thing that I would like to explain a little deeper,” he said. “The word ‘imam’ can fit anybody who memorizes the Koran and can lead the prayers. But that person doesn’t need to understand the Koran.” As Mahmoud explained it, an imam differs from a scholar. “The scholar is the person to be asked if you have something to know about Islam, its texts and laws.” He paused and chuckled, his dark eyes offset by a high brow and a wry, cocked smile. “Actually, the first time that I was called an imam was in America.”

Mahmoud was born in Cairo, the oldest of six children, and grew up in a religiously observant family. “It was one of my father’s wishes that I become a scholar,” he recalled. “He used to invite scholars to the house, befriend my teachers, buy books for me. But in the end it was God’s will.” Mahmoud received an intensive religious education, in addition to a secular one, before entering Al-Azhar, the world’s oldest university and still the most distinguished source of scholarship in Islam. There he excelled in studying fiqh, or Islamic law. He graduated with a degree in High Islamic Studies and began serving at a Cairo mosque. “I wanted to continue with my studies at some point,” he recalled. “But circumstances prevented it.”

Soon after, Mahmoud met an Egyptian physician who was then in the midst of a Mayo Clinic fellowship. At the time, the Rochester Islamic Center was looking for an imam to lead its prayers and serve as a scholar to guide the mostly Somali congregation. And so, upon returning to Rochester, the physician apprised the board of the young scholar’s qualifications. An invitation was soon extended. “At first, I decided not to come,” Mahmoud admitted. But then he was praying with one of his teachers and mentioned it. “Do you think that they can profit from me? That I can give them something?” His teacher, a renowned scholar, answered: “Definitely, with all assurance.” Mahmoud smiled bashfully as he recounted this. “So that made the decision.” He arrived in Rochester in January 2001.

Fortuitously for his followers in Rochester, one of Mahmoud’s scholarly interests is a branch of fiqh concerned with applying Islam to the particular place and circumstances in which a Muslim lives. “The main point is not to have rigidity in religion, to remain flexible enough to be practical for everyone,” he explained. “So long as it doesn’t distort or alter or suggest improper interpretations of the Arabic text.” The caveat is a sensitive one, particularly in light of the extreme political interpretations to which Koranic verses have been subjected in recent years. But Mahmoud, as a graduate of Islam’s greatest university, has the standing and credential to make those judgments. In his modesty, Mahmoud waves off the suggestion that he has achieved the status of scholar, but the reality is that his congregants in Rochester treat him as one, bringing him questions of religious importance. “To an extent, I also serve as what would be called an Islamic judge back home,” he explained. “Performing marriages and also resolving conflicts and disputes.”

Unlike an Islamic leader in the Middle East, Mahmoud has the added responsibility of teaching his followers how to reconcile their religion with aspects of American culture with which it is incompatible. In general, Mahmoud tends to discuss assimilation more in terms of cultural assimilation—for example, the incompatibility of certain Somali social mores with American ones. And on the particulars of how American culture interacts with Islam, he tends to emphasize the commonalities: “If something is prohibited in Christianity, then it is prohibited in Islam, too, with only a few exceptions of law.” Mahmoud’s ecumenicism has its limits, though, particularly when Islam disagrees with what is allowed in Christianity, or in American culture. “For example, yesterday an Egyptian asked to me to authenticate his wedding to an American woman,” Mahmoud recalled. “It was a new situation for me, because most of the marriages that occur in the mosque are Somali.” He attended the wedding, “but the moment I saw the champagne bottle, I immediately said, ‘Thank you’ and left.” He sighed with exasperation at the overt transgression of Islam’s prohibition of alcohol. “It is their tradition, it is a free society, and it is up to them. But by Islamic law I had to leave the moment I saw the champagne.”

Twice a week, Mahmoud is tutored in English by an elderly Franciscan nun at the Assisi Heights convent. “We don’t speak much about religion,” he said. “Mostly we study English.” His four-year-old son, meanwhile, has entered Rochester’s public schools “so that he can learn English better and become assimilated.” Mahmoud has reservations about the American public school system—“there is no religious teaching, and a lot of times there is no moral or even ethical teaching”—but he is adamant that the best way to teach Islam to his children is by example. “If you tell them to do things, maybe they’ll do it,” he says with a father’s knowing smile. “But if they see you doing it, they’ll follow your example.”

The call to prayer was suddenly audible through the wall that separates the library from the prayer hall. “Of course, we cannot really live Islam completely or to the fullest except in a Muslim society. And we will never be able to fully enjoy the mercy and the fruits of Islam except in a Muslim society.” There is a long pause and he smiles broadly before continuing. “Although that’s the case, we can also live in a non-Muslim society and by the will and grace of God still remain on the straight path and practice our religion to the fullest extent possible.” He paused to check his watch. “I do not believe that there is a perfect society in this world,” he concluded. “You always have good and bad people in every society. And you must always try to get the good part.”

Rana Mikati answered the door of her split-level home on the north side of Rochester in a flowing black abaya. Her eyes were nearly as dark as its silk, contrasting with her red lipstick. She is forty-one years old, the mother of three children, but her fine skin and charm suggested a much younger woman. “Come in, come in,” she said, gesturing into her living room.

Mikati served Turkish coffee spiked with cardamom. “I was born in Tripoli to an Islamic family,” she recounted in lightly accented English. “We were conservative, but not fanatic. We respected the rules of the religion.” They were also distinctly modern. Like other women in her family, Mikati wore the hijab primarily when she entered the mosque.

Yet today, in America, Mikati welcomes strangers to her home wearing a garment that covers everything but her face, hands, and the exquisite jewelry on her wrists and fingers. “It is true,” she said with a nod. “I came to America and became more Islamic. It is how I remained connected to my culture.” Then a young girl strode into the family room in her pajamas. She glanced at her mother, yawned, and left. Mikati laughed, shook her head, and continued. “When I took the oath of citizenship the judge told me, and everyone at the ceremony, something very important,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Assimilate, but never forget your heritage. Because that is what makes this country rich.’ ” She sipped her coffee. “This is what we call jihad,” she said, her accent softly melodic as it glided over the Arabic word. “The real jihad. To find your identity. And to fight for that identity.”

Mikati’s experience as an American and a Muslim is not uncommon. In many ways, in fact, it is distinctly American: Generations of immigrants to America have strengthened their faith as a means of maintaining a connection with their native culture. “When people ask me how I accommodate my life to America …” Mikati shrugged with a bewildered smile. “I don’t know how to answer. Islam is just a way of life. And I don’t see it as incompatible.”

Mikati left Lebanon in 1993 when her husband, Amer, a pharmacist educated in the United States, was offered a job in Ohio. Like others before them, the Mikatis formed some of their first social bonds around an immigrant religious community. “We attended a mosque that had a very international following,” Mikati recalled. “And that was interesting because I always thought of Islam as being Middle Eastern.” The mosque was not just faith, but also social connections and, for Mikati, a place to maintain her “native Arabic tongue.” It was a catalyst for her evolving sense of her ethnic and religious identity, and she began to consider wearing the hijab. “The most important thing is to have the courage,” she explained. “Especially in a culture where it is not common.” Her husband encouraged her, but with two caveats: “He said, ‘Don’t change the way we live, and don’t cocoon yourself.’ ”

On the first day of Ramadan in 1998, Mikati dressed in an abaya and went to the mall. “I felt more exposed than if I was naked,” she said. But whatever defensiveness she felt soon gave way to a distinctly Islamic female identity. “I avoid fashion entirely—how much more liberated and feminist can I be?” Indeed, for Mikati, the hijab is hardly a symbol of separateness or isolation. “Look, there is much more to being American than wearing cowboy boots,” she said archly. “And Hawaiian shirts.” She retrieved an issue of Rochester Women magazine that featured her on the cover in a black abaya, and Arij, her sixteen-year-old daughter, dressed as an American teenager. “When I was sixteen, I was not covered, so the choice is hers,” Mikati said. “And I pray for her.”

When Arij Mikati enters a room she walks with a smooth confidence, even if she is stepping on the cuffs of her extra-long jeans. Her hennaed hair falls to her shoulders; in bearing and features, she is her mother’s twin. For her, the decision to cover herself is a matter of timing and courage. “You know, there’s already so much drama in high school,” she said, rolling her eyes. “And I don’t know that I’m really ready to add this drama, too.” Yet Arij hopes to cover herself before she begins college. She will do so mainly because it is a requirement of her religion; yet, in a uniquely American way, Arij also says that it is partly a matter of principle. “I really like being respected for who I am, not for how I look,” she said, sounding like any other irritated, individualistic American teenager. “So if I’m covered I know people will judge me for who I am.” Nonetheless, Arij is keenly aware that the hijab alters how a Muslim woman is perceived in her adopted culture. “It won’t make a difference for the people who knew me before,” she said. “But others are probably different.”

The Mikatis moved to Rochester in 1998, when Amer accepted a job at the Mayo Clinic. Rana soon took a part-time job as a translator at the clinic and also became deeply involved in Rochester’s public schools. “Muslims in Rochester will tell you that raising their children in the way that they want is their number one concern,” she explained. “It is a constant challenge.” In meeting that challenge, she has what she calls “my red lines”—rules restricting her daughters’ participation in certain rites of American adolescence. Though Arij’s friendships with both females and males are not restricted, the teenager is prohibited from having a boyfriend or dating. “It is not our way,” Rana Mikati said. “And it must be very hard upon her.” The conflicts between her daughter’s faith and events like prom can be especially trying. “This year she was invited by three different boys,” Mikati said with just a trace of pride. “But she was not allowed to go.” She took a deep breath. “And it was just heartbreaking.”

There are approximately a thousand Muslim children in Rochester, and by force of their numbers they have transformed aspects of the city’s public school system. According to Mikati, most of teachers are at least aware of the cultural needs associated with Muslim students, including dietary restrictions, space and time for prayer, and staying home on Muslim holidays. In those instances where understanding does not exist, Mikati has become adept at finding solutions. “There are Muslim families who don’t want anything to do with America because they think the American kids are ‘too loose,’ ” she explained. “But if you think that they are too loose, I say, ‘Don’t isolate yourself. Go to the school board.’ ”

At six o’clock on a weekday evening, the second floor of the Rochester Islamic Center rang with the voices of fifty Somali children dashing around the room. Boys occupied the far end, clustered in small, loud groups mostly unconcerned with study; at the opposite end, girls dressed in a rich palette of abayas sat in study circles with a few older, willowy Somali women.

Siyad Lohos sat in his beige thobe at an old card table in the middle of the room, where the students formed two lines—one for boys, one for girls. As they waited, some chatted and played, while others practiced reciting whatever they were asked to memorize for the day. When they reached Lohos, they handed over their notebooks and recited for him, often two at a time. Even though Lohos seemed focused on a group of roughhousing boys, he corrected the errors of the students as they recited, almost automatically.

“I had memorized the Koran by the time I was fourteen or fifteen,” he recalled as he reclined on the floor after class. “I started when I was six.” A native of Somalia, the wiry twenty-nine-year-old received his high school education and two years of college in Egypt and then joined his family in Rochester in 2000. Since then, Lohos has taught Koran to the children of Rochester’s Somali immigrants. When I asked him the difference between teaching in Somalia and Rochester, he shrugged and looked around the room. “They are different.” When pressed him, he smiled broadly, stretching the goatee on his chin. “Look, in Somalia they are more serious because there are not so many distractions. They will learn Koran nearly full-time.” In Rochester, however, Lohos might see the students twice per week for a couple of hours during the school year. He is well aware that their public school education is a priority. “In Somalia, they might memorize a page per day,” he explained. “But here, if I teach them one aya [verse] today, they’ll maybe forget it tomorrow.” He shrugged. “When they grow up, maybe they will lose the Koran.”

Across the street in a Somali cafe, Mahmoud Hamud, a board member of the Islamic Center, nodded when I mentioned the less intensive Islamic educations received in Rochester. “Back home, kindergarten was Koranic,” he acknowledged with crossed arms. “But here you want the kids to be ready for school because this is where they will live.” According to Hamud, it’s necessary to find a balance. “If your kid becomes too American, you might say, ‘What happens to me when I’m old?’ ” His eyes widened and the fifty-one-year-old shook a finger at me. “In Somalia we don’t put people in nursing homes. So the older people worry what will happen to them if the kids walk away from their culture.” From Hamud’s perspective, this is not necessarily an issue of religion so much as culture. He acknowledges that many Somali Muslims feel uncomfortable with aspects of American culture that they perceive as incompatible with Islam and Somali standards of social modesty—but then again, according to Hamud, they also keep in mind who provided them with refuge during and after their Civil War. “What is closer to Somalia: America or the Middle East?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, the Somalis remember that it was the United States who helped them, and not the Middle East.”

Hamud’s story is not that of a typical Somali immigrant. After moving to the United States in 1974 to attend Cornell University, he spent most of his early career running relief and development operations in Somalia. In the early 1990s, however, the civil war that drove refugees to the United States resulted in Hamud suspending his work in Africa and focusing his efforts on social services in Rochester. In that capacity, he was deeply involved in nearly every aspect of assimilating Somalis, including efforts to find them homes and jobs and reduce tensions in the public schools. “Things are much better than they used to be,” he said. “But still there are language issues and cultural issues, and the school district isn’t addressing them.” In September, 120 Somali youths in Rochester began to attend a Somali charter school. “Isolation is a concern,” he acknowledged. “But the alternative is worse. The reason these families moved to the United States is for a better life, and if the children are dropouts they won’t get a chance for that better life.”

Significantly, Hamud and other Somali leaders in Rochester do not view religion as a serious impediment to assimilation. “Islam covers a lot of cultures,” Hamud explained. “Each has its own baggage, and often the baggage is the issue.” He stares across the room at a dozen mostly elderly men drinking tea and having animated conversations in Somali. “It’s really no different than if they were sitting in Mogadishu. Nine guys, and only one, the one who works for the clinic, knows English.” In a corner, a pretty Sudanese teenager with a bright red kerchief around her head rose from a prayer mat. Hamud turned and spoke to her in Somali. “I don’t speak Somali,” she answered in perfect English spoken with long, Minnesotan vowels.

For Sheikh Elsayed Mahmoud, the new mosque is not a momentous religious event. “From a spiritual point of view it has no significance,” he said, smiling, seated in the Rochester Islamic Center’s library. “The importance is that it will last longer than the current building.” He laughed loudly and glanced around the cramped library before continuing in a more serious mode. “The new building will draw more attention to the Muslims than it will to the structure itself,” he added. “So it will be more important to exemplify the proper teachings for our children, and to exhibit the correct attitudes to other people.” As the spiritual leader of the mosque, Mahmoud appeared perfectly comfortable with his role in shaping that more public face of Islam in Rochester.

“Whether we like it or not, accept it or not, we are a part of American society,” said Mahmoud. “We work in American society. We pay taxes in American society. All of the American laws apply to us.” A Somali man walked in unannounced, but when he saw the sheikh was engaged, he quickly backed out. “But the Somalis—and all of the Muslims—they are trying to keep the cultural background that they came with.” He became animated. “So they have these groups of Somalis, or Southeast Asians, just as you—if you are a fourth- or fifth-generation Minnesotans—might have a German or Scandinavian group.” He raised his brow. “The difference is that a Scandinavian does not have all the restrictions that a Muslim has in the way that we get to know, and get close to, people.”

Mahmoud is explicit that those restrictions are primarily related to interpersonal contact, and do not extend to civic engagement. When asked whether he believes that members of his community should be active in Rochester’s civic life, including serving as elected officials, he answers immediately: “We live here, so we should be involved and integrated,” he said. “It is important for us.”

In January, Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede asked the City Council to consider beginning its sessions with a prayer offered by rotating members of Rochester area religious communities. The proposal was not adopted, but Brede plans to introduce it again, and if and when it is adopted, he intends to invite Sheikh Elsayed Mahmoud.

When asked whether he would accept, Mahmoud tilted his head skeptically: “There is a big cultural and religious difference in what we consider to be prayer,” he explained. “In general, we Muslims we start our prayers with ‘Bismillaahir Rahmaanir Raheem’ [“in the name of Allah the most merciful, the most gracious”]. That is how we are ordered to commence everything, every event. What we do is formal, and a heavily religious prayer.” There is a long pause and then he continues with renewed enthusiasm: “I’m ready to make any prayer that would be of benefit to Muslims, Christians, whoever! Humanity in general!” He opened his hands wide and smiled. “We are members of this community.”