Amid violence and politics, local Muslims focus on faith

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SHAFAQNA – Show love to those who show hostility.

Aamir Sheikh stood in front of hundreds of Muslim congregants Friday afternoon with that message.

“Be an ummah (or community) of patience, of generosity,” he said. “We will change the views and perceptions of those around us.”

Sheikh, an imam, or prayer leader, of the Islamic Society of Annapolis, led the Jumma prayer, the weekly service at the Makkah Learning Center in Gambrills. He told a story about the prophet Muhammad, which demonstrated grace in the face of hatred.

As news circulates about terrorist attacks, many voices across the country have reacted with disdain against the religion. Presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a ban on all Muslim travel to the United States. Over 30 governors, including Larry Hogan, voiced opposition to accepting Syrian refugees, many of whom are Muslim. In Virginia this week, a county shut down schools after a geography teacher assigned calligraphy of the Shahada, the Islamic statement of faith.

“In Anne Arundel County, we don’t feel this bigotry, but we still feel that pain,” said Sarah Ahmed, a Makkah congregant. “I’m seeing this happen to my brothers and sisters.”

As Sheikh sang on Friday, the men in the congregation, of many ages and races, bowed their heads to the floor.

What they believe

There are thousands of Muslims in the county.

There is a congregation of about 500 in Gambrills and about 175 in Annapolis. Others go to services in Baltimore or Prince George’s County.

Muslims worship one god: Allah. They pray five times a day and have a weekly noon service at the masjid, or mosque.

“Islam is peace,” said Abu-rumman, who is from Jordan.

Islam also promotes the pursuit of education, respect of neighbors of any faith and taking care of the needy, he said.

Sheikh said he has worked to connect with the surrounding businesses since the Annapolis center opened in January.

“Especially in these times, we want to benefit the community,” he said.

Sheikh, who grew up in North Carolina but is of Pakistani descent, said prayers “remind you of God and put things in perspective.”

Chad Jones, a public affairs officer at Fort George G. Meade, converted to Islam while deployed in Kuwait in 2000. The Michigan native grew up Catholic, but it never felt quite right to him. As a Muslim, he said he appreciates customs such as fasting during Ramadan and Iftar, the breaking of the fast.

“It helps you build empathy and gratitude,” he said. “That hopefully drives your actions to help people.”

What they want others to understand

Abu-rumman equates extremist groups such as ISIS to the Ku Klux Klan in that they have “abused holy books.”

“They hijacked our religion,” he said. “Everyone assumes as Muslims we don’t have mentally-challenged people. We have our own Hitlers.”

Abu-rumman said the word “jihad” is commonly misunderstood to mean holy war. But it translates to “struggle,” he said.

For Jones, jihad was overcoming smoking and drinking.

“Jihad is not in any means fighting for Allah, killing people,” Jones said. “It’s finding your struggle and conquering it for Allah.”

Jones said Muslims who carry out violent attacks in the name of the religion are misguided.

“I’m sure their intention is to serve Allah. But they’re just wrong,” he said. “There’s nothing anywhere (in the holy texts) that would permit that.”

Jones said some Muslims reject the idea violent extremists are indeed Muslims, but this eliminates an opportunity to hold them accountable.

“I want Muslims to be equally upset with our fellow Muslims who are doing this,” he said. “It’s tarnishing us.”

Sheikh said extremism and intolerance stems from a lack of education and opportunity, and frustration and alienation.

The Rev. William L. Hathaway of First Presbyterian Church in Annapolis works with the Muslim community in the Chesapeake Interfaith Environmental Group. He said interactions in which Christians, Jews and Muslims work toward a common goal are essential.

“At this point, with so much hate language in the world, it’s particularly helpful to have settings of interfaith communication and dialogue.”

How they’re coping

When Sheikh was younger, classmates encouraged him to run for president one day. He didn’t rule it out.

“I felt there was inclusiveness,” he said.

After Sept. 11, 2001, that changed. He said he’s been questioned by police because of his appearance.

“There was some suspicion and different treatment,” he said. “It’s embarrassing … to be singled out.”

But Sheikh tells his congregants not to focus on the negative.

“The beauty of faith is that individual transformation, and I’d like to keep it that way,” he said.

Abu-rumman hears stories — like a kindergartner who recently told a Muslim classmate “You don’t belong here” — but mostly, he feels support from neighbors, elected officials and law enforcement.

“Our area is better than other areas (because we have) more educated people,” he said. “I have trust in my community.”

Muslim women may wear a hijab, or head scarf, for modesty. Ahmed, who wears a niqab, a cloth to cover her face in public, said her style of dress can be off-putting to non-Muslims, but she tries to shatter perceptions.

“I’m going to make people smile with small actions of character,” she said. “One action can change the heart of one person. I think that’s what our job is: to show what a Muslim really is.”

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