from Journey into America: the challenge of Islam (excerpt pgs. 238-241)
By Akbar S. Ahmed, Brookings Institution
…Some Muslims have moved away from their own identity perhaps because of the controversy surrounding Islam. We came upon an example in Honolulu, that most pluralist of American cities. Hawaii has a small Muslim community of between 3,000 and 4,000, which I was asked to address after Friday prayers at the main mosque. Hakim Ouansafi, the Arab head of the mosque committee, and the president of the Muslim Association of Hawaii, welcomed us but warned us not to be in touch with Saleem Ahmed, someone we were anxious to meet. Hakim said irately that Saleem reputedly gave interviews in the media and talked to interfaith communities claiming to represent Islam, which he did not. Indeed, according to Hakim, Saleem was not even a true Muslim.
Hakim, who was from Morocco, kept a tight control over the affairs of the mosque. His protégé, Imam Ismail El-Sheikh, who gave the khutba at Friday prayers, was fresh from Al-Azhar in Cairo. The imam wore long black robes and delivered the khutba in painfully halting English, offering generalities about loving one another before switching to Arabic, which he spoke beautifully.
Hakim’s number one role model was the Prophet. Khadijah, the Prophet’s wife, was another of his role models. He thought “America was the best country in the world to live in,” although its reputation has been dented by some “bad people.” He could not resist bringing up the perfidy of Honolulu’s Saleem Ahmed again, whom he blamed for “diluting our religion.”
When we finally met Saleem, we saw a jovial and energetic man who was well liked in Honolulu. Like others encountered on our travels, Saleem seemed to have erased the “Muslim” from his identity, replacing it with what he understood to be an American one. Saleem’s Thanksgiving dinner, which he generously hosted at his home on November 27, 2008, was American pluralism, Hawaii style. Saleem said a prayer before dinner, asking all of the guests to hold hands , and referred to Allah, Bhagwan, God, the Hawaiian wind and sea gods, and some other deities I did not recognize. He also mentioned a “Supreme Being.” The variety of dishes for dinner that night was as colorful and eclectic as his theological reference to diving beings. His guests hailed from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the United States mainland, and included Sikhs, Christians and Hindus. All seemed to be doing well professionally and were grateful for what America had done for their lives, while recalling their homes in South Asia with despair. For all their joy about being American, most did not know the origins of Thanksgiving or the meaning of the Mayflower. One woman thought it was a spring festival. Since 9/11, suspicion and distrust have crept into the island’s various communities, we were told. The Sikh doctor, who wore the traditional turban and had a beard, complained that he was now subjected to extra scrutiny every time he flew on an airline.
During an interview over breakfast, Saleem referred to “Muhammad” several times before I realized he was talking about the Prophet of Islam, who Muslims usually mention with a blessing, especially if they are talking to other Muslims. It was ironic that a non-Muslim like Sheriff Lee Baca added the words “peace be with him” every time he mentioned the Prophet as a gesture of respect to the Muslim community, whereas a Muslim leader seemed to show him disrespect.
Sporting a colorful Hawaiian shirt usually seen on tourists, Saleem described himself as a Muslim who practices Islam in the broadest and loosest of ways. Although he comes from a Muslim family, his attitude toward the Muslim community and its Moroccan leader was unambiguously critical. He believed the community is responsible for its current problems, finding its members “too locked in ritual” and unconcerned about being “better human beings.” He objected when his wife, a fifth generation Japanese American who converted to Islam and took the name Yasmin, was not allowed to pray in the main hall of Hawaii’s only mosque unless she covered her hair. More controversially, he showed us the manuscript of Islam: A Religion of Peace? in which he points to the “negative” verses in the Quran and argues for their removal. “We should reject the earlier part of the Quran and use only the end part,” he told us, noting the community calls him a kafir (non-believer).
Saleem’s number one role model was Mahatma Gandhi. The Prophet of Islam was second, but only in his teachings toward the later part of his life. His other role models included Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, and Martin Luther King Jr. Saleem declared that he would “want racial profiling” that involved Muslims because “the next attack is going to come from people like me.” Furthermore, he “supported the war on terror wholeheartedly.”
When Saleem invited us to attend an interfaith gathering at the Jewish Temple Emanu-El, we found him sitting forlorn in the last row of the meeting hall. No other Muslims were present. Either he had not invited them, or they had refused to join him. I was not entirely surprised that Muslims were not responding to someone who advocated editing of the holy text they believe is divine. Saleem has effectively cut himself off from the community. He no longer goes to mosque even for Friday prayer.
Granted that Saleem’s role model is Gandhi and Hakim’s the Prophet of Islam, other factors may account for the differences. As Saleem is South Asian and Hakim an Arab, their communities throughout the United States are engaged in a similar, if not always so explicit, rivalry for leadership. Saleem is an academic, a PhD, working in a university environment and dealing with ideas. Hakim is a businessman concerned with practical problems as he goes about his daily routine of constructing hotels and hiring and firing people. I tried to persuade them to talk to each other in the spirit of civility and dialogue, and they appeared to be listening, but I suspect the rift was too wide to bridge.
Chris Lovelace, the young African American imam mentioned in chapter 4 who talked of Islam’s early contributions to America with such animation, would have been pleased to hear Hakim’s remarks about Arab sailors reaching the Hawaiian Islands before any Americans. By way of proof, Hakim said the names Hawaii and Honolulu came from Arabic. Hawaii derives from hawa, or the trade winds that brought the Arabs, Honolulu from huni, which means “here,” and lulu, which means “pearls,” or “here are the pearls,” a phrase associated with the islands because of the abundance of pearls there. A wise leader in the native language is called hakim, the Arabic word for a ruler or leader….
Question: If Arabs discovered Hawaii and named both Hawaii and Honolulu how does Ouansafi explain all the … uh ... Hawaiians? And what are all those delicious Polynesian pigs doing up mauka? The mind wobbles…. BTW We checked our giant hardback copy of Pukui and Elbert’s Hawaiian Dictionary and there is no word “hakim” nor any variation on it.
LINK: Islam: A religion of Peace? by Saleem Ahmed
LINK: Beyond Veil and Holy War by Saleem Ahmed
LINK: All Believers Network