Islam in Chicago

Jan 11 - Islam in Chicago

When I moved to Chicago just three weeks after I got married, I really didn’t know what to expect. Having always lived in such predominantly Muslim cities as Dubai and Karachi, I was looking forward to beginning a new chapter in my life but wasn’t quite sure how to start from scratch.

I wasn’t sure about a lot of things at first. I had never filled petrol in a car, never cleaned a bathroom and never made Khatti Daal (lentils). However, I was sure of one thing – I was not going to be just one more ingredient in a melting pot of nationalities that simmered together to become one sauce. I didn’t want to be called Karen, even though that was so much more convenient than having to spell out (sometimes twice) K-I-R-A-N. I was going to be a productive part of American society; however, instead of mixing into a melting pot, I wanted to be a part of a salad bowl of sorts – where each ingredient’s own flavour, colour and texture has its own place.

I was lucky to have arrived in a metropolitan city like Chicago, where there are Masajid and Halal meat stores in practically every town. It is not hard to find good Islamic schools and great chicken Tikkas, too. There are close to 400,000 Muslims in the greater Chicago area alone. Approximately a quarter of them are indigenous African-American Muslims. The next two of the largest ethnic groups include 20% Arab and 20% from South Asia. The remaining is a beautiful blend of Bosnian, Turkish, West African and increasingly white reverts to Islam. The result is that women may wear differently-styled Hijabs, and men may speak different languages, but when the Adhan is called, Allahu Akbar, each person sheds their ethnic differences and stands shoulder to shoulder in front of the One God.

Chicago has made a name for itself in the American Muslim landscape. The architect of the world-famous Sears Tower (now called Willis Tower) was a Muslim. Seven of the five hundred most influential Muslims in the world call Chicago home. The Chicago Muslim community is highly educated, affluent, civically engaged and socially responsible. Loosely translated, there are always at least four community events taking place every weekend. There is an array of volunteer opportunities. Youth paint Masjid classrooms, have Qiyam around a bonfire in Ramadan and pick up trash in the park. Women attend Quran circles, befriend newly-arrived refugees, attend girl scouts meetings and participate in breast cancer awareness marathons. Men volunteer to direct traffic in Masajid parking lots when they are jam-packed for Jumuah, even though they have to rush back to work. Chicago Muslims do not hesitate to let their elected representatives know how they feel about such national issues as the New York Islamic Centre or international ones as the crisis in Gaza.

There are more than two hundred places to pray Jumuah in Chicagoland. From multi-million dollar mega Masajid to small storefront prayer spaces, where people overflow on to the sidewalk due to space constraints, you can perform Salah in a different Masjid every day of the month and still not be done.

I believe I have become a stronger Muslim, since I moved to the United States. I bake cookies for my neighbours on Eid, and I read stories about Ramadan in my children’s classrooms. Like many other Muslim-Americans, I feel I am on an auto-Dawah mode. Every action of mine can be taken as representative of my Ummah. If I am rude to the cab driver, he may feel all women in Hijab are condescending. If the cashier forgets to charge me for milk, I remind her, so that she knows Muslims will not be comfortable to go home with something they haven’t paid for. Yes, it is hard work, but I feel this is one way of dispelling myths about our Deen.

My husband and I became American citizens early this year and while I know some readers may disagree, I am at peace being a Muslim and a Pakistani-American. I don’t think this tri-fold identity is at odds with one other. I can dress how I choose, pray where I please and eat what I like. I can file a lawsuit, if I believe I am discriminated against.

Looking back, I didn’t know Chicago would provide me with so many opportunities to give back to the community. I have definitely learned a lot – and I’m not just referring to the Khatti Daal.

Kiran Ansari is the editor of the “Chicago Crescent” ( ), a monthly Muslim newspaper.

Of Sins and Forgiveness

Herbaceous border in full bloom at Priorwood Garden, Melrose, Bo

K. Ali narrates a story based on personal experience.

“They said: Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If You forgive us not, and bestow not upon us Your Mercy, we shall certainly be of the losers.” (Al-Araf 7:23)

I met her in front of a tiny, two-roomed house. Somewhere on the outskirts of God-knows-where, somewhere where there were piles of spoiled fodder and plastic bottles heaped one over the other. She had a strong, pink face, and she smelled of soap. Soap and, for some reason I did not know, musk.

It was quite an accident, our meeting. I was nineteen and driving without an instructor for the first time. My car broke down in the middle of nowhere, and I had to place a call home. My brother was to arrive in about an hour to pick me up; but, meanwhile, the heat was unbearable. I was thirsty, too, and my face showed it. I kicked open the door of the car, clambering outside. The smell and the flies all around nauseated me instantaneously, and I pulled my cap low over my forehead, wishing it could drive them away.

That was when I met her.

She was in the garden, the pretty garden outside her tiny, two-roomed house to my right. I saw her, she saw me, and I instantly looked away. Half a minute later, she came up to me. In her hands was a tray, and in the tray – a glass of water.

“Have a sip, daughter,” she said, holding out the glass.

“No thanks,” I said, a little distastefully. I certainly felt thirsty but not thirsty enough to stoop this low: to accept a drink of water from a ragged woman, when with all the cash in my pocket I could buy a dozen cans of Pepsi. It indeed was a level of degradation I could never even dream of falling to.

“I saw a war when I was younger,” she replied quietly.

“That’s nice,” I replied, turning away. The distaste in my tones had grown stronger now, and I did not attempt to hide it. With temperatures shooting up and a sweltering summer sun beating down on me, the last thing I wanted was to end up listening to the fanatical tales of an old, white-haired woman, who smelled of soap.

Soap and, for a reason I did not know, musk.

She paid no attention to my distaste. Calmly, she continued. “There were lots of people there,” I heard her say. “People pierced by machine guns, people with broken bones, twisted necks, cracked skulls. Those were better days for me, I could serve better things. But you know what, daughter? They wouldn’t have them. They wouldn’t have my alcoholic drinks. They wanted water.”

I looked up, startled. She seemed in a trance now.

“Remember when Allah (swt) created Adam (as)?” she asked. Asked whom? I still wonder, I can’t help wondering – I am sure she did not ask me. “He created him as a superior creature. Then, He asked the angels to bow down before him. All of them did, didn’t they?”

The words rose automatically to my lips: “Satan didn’t.”

“Yes, he didn’t,” she agreed. She walked to her garden and sat down in the middle of it. It was a pretty garden, the only pretty spot for miles around, perhaps. She drank the water she had brought for me, slowly, taking steady sips, before looking at me again. “He didn’t, and he was sinning,” she continued. Her voice was stronger now. “Do you know the story? Do you know, how Adam (as) and Eve (as) were asked to leave Paradise?”

I nodded, throat dry.

She smiled. “Yes, I read about it too, once. Twice, maybe. Maybe more. He lured Adam (as) and Eve (as), that Iblis. He tempted them, and they ate the forbidden fruit. Do you know what this shows? Do you?”

I shook my head. She smiled again. “Yes, you do,” she told me. “We all do. It shows who we are; it shows who he is – who Iblis is. It shows that we are humans – that it is human to err. Part of man’s instinct is an inherent weakness – a weakness that leads him to wither in the face of temptation to sin. And part of Iblis’s instinct is evil – an evil that led him to defiance and pride, an evil that made him mark, in Paradise, the beginnings of his mission to commit misdeeds. And do you know what else it shows? Do you?”

Once more I shook my head, and once more she smiled. “Yes, you do,” she repeated. “We all do. It shows that Allah (swt) is love, and that in His nature, in His light is forgiveness, pure, beautiful and powerful. For when Adam (as) and Eve (as) cried, when they begged, He forgave both His creations. In fact, He taught them how to seek forgiveness from their Lord (swt).”

I was quiet now. She did not notice this, or perhaps she did and ignored it. “We commit so many sins in our lives,” she was saying. I heard her, as if from a distance, a very far-off distance. “And when we are offered God’s blessings in places we least expect to be offered them, we reject them, because we want something better, something larger. We do not want small, we want big – big tempts us, because it is so much more glamorous. Small seems weaker, so much weaker. And He forgives us.”

I saw myself stoop, saw myself reach for the now half empty glass of water. The liquid was clear, cool and sweet – like no other drink of water I have ever tasted – and I drank deeply. I looked up at the woman again, the old, white-haired woman, and she smiled at me. She smelled of soap and, for a reason I now knew, she smelled of musk.

Suddenly, the level of degradation I had never dreamed of falling to was an ascent. The sky was me, and I was the sky.

Achieving a Peaceful Smile

Vol 7 - Issue 1 Achieving a peaceful adviceBy Aisha Siddiqua

I looked up at the mirror staring at the glowing face, recently pampered and serviced by the best parlour in town in exchange of a hefty bundle of notes. A wave of pride and excitement ran down my spinal cord, causing my lips to curve in a delicate smile, as I imagined the expression on everyone’s faces when they will see me in my new HSY dress at the party tonight.

The bubble of full-of-myself thoughts suddenly burst with a knock on the door. It opened to welcome not just my maid but my mom too, scolding her over anything and everything. As she silently proceeded to place the coffee mug on my side table, I could not help but notice the way she smiled. So calm and so content. Suddenly my smile seemed too shallow and my glowing face too dull in front of her dark, worn-out features.

“What’s so funny?” I snapped at her.

“Nothing,” she replied, still wearing that peaceful smile on her tired face.

“Amma is scolding you like crazy out there! Are you deaf? Or too stubborn to ignore the mistakes you make to bug her day and night?”

“Why were you smiling when I entered the room?” She suddenly challenged me. “If you could skip your Salah for your parlor appointment and go out in front of all those men without covering your head, knowing how much it will enrage Allah (swt), and still sit here peacefully and smile, why couldn’t I? Yes, the constant scolding I have to undergo everyday pains me, yet I smile. I know that if I forgive your mother today, He (swt) will forgive me on the Last Day.”

As she left the room, I quickly gathered my thoughts. There had to be something about what that 16-year-old uneducated, under-nourished and underprivileged girl felt. How could she be so content, when she did not even know whether she would even be able to feed her paralyzed and widowed mother for the day or when all her life was about this mundane routine of cleaning people’s houses and being mercilessly reprimanded?

It had to be something beyond this world. My Islamic Studies teacher had once told me that the Sahabah (rta) loved Allah (swt) so much that they could taste the sweetness on their tongues when they took His name. Did she feel the same way? Is it even possible?

I had once heard a story about Fatimah (rta). One winter night, after offering her Isha prayers, she made the Niyyah to offer two Rakahs of Nafal. The Tilawat, the Ruku and the Sujood gave her so much pleasure that when she finished, the time of Sahoor was at its peak. She started to cry thinking that Allah (swt) had decreased the length of the night so much that she could just say two Rakahs of Nafal the whole night! What did she ever feel in those Sajood?

Yes, she is the same Fatimah (rta) who settled happily on reciting the Tasbeehs, when her beloved father turned down her request to provide her with a slave who could take care of some of her chores. What made her work the whole day and worship the whole night?

It was all too disturbing. Suddenly I felt even more degraded than Abu Talib and Abu Jahl. The reason they did not accept Islam was because they actually knew what it was about. They knew what it took to be a Muslim and they weren’t ready to submit to Islam. Am I not worse? I am a Muslim, yet I live in ignorance about my identity.

I got up to take out the brand new untouched Quran from the shelf and witnessed in the reflection of the mirror the same glowing face but with a completely different smile this time. A few steps from the bed to the shelf – that’s all it took!

Marriage – A Spiritual Boon

By Ruhie Jamshaid

“And those who say: ‘Our Lord! Bestow on us from our wives and our offspring the comfort of our eyes, and make us leaders of the Muttaqun.’ Those will be rewarded with the highest place (in Paradise) because of their patience. Therein they shall be met with greetings and the word of peace and respect.” (Al-Furqan 25:74-75)

When I got married almost seven years ago, I did not quite truly comprehend the importance of the act. Many of us look at marriage as a natural transition in life; something inevitable and socially necessary. I was no different.

But with the advent of my life in this new direction of matrimony, I realized the weight of the Hadeeth I had so often heard – according to Anas Ibn Malik (rta), Allah’s Messenger (sa) said: “When a man marries, he has fulfilled half of the Deen; so let him fear Allah regarding the remaining half.” (At-Tirmidhi and Bayhaqi)

Indeed, I realized why half of my faith was being fulfilled now, as opposed to my days of single-hood. If earlier I had lived mostly for myself under the safe shade of my father’s roof, then with marriage, I had suddenly become doubly responsible … for myself and for my spouse, and sometimes even for his family and he for mine. From ‘me’ the life transformed to ‘us.’ My husband and I both had to find a balance on the see-saw of life to keep afloat a marital home based on the principles of our faith.

The compromises had to be two-fold from both of us to varying degrees. Things that my husband had taken for granted during his pre-marriage days, such as his weekly three-hour tennis sessions, had to come to an end or get shortened drastically. My repulsion to enter the kitchen had to be defaced, and I had to learn to love cooking, because a good meal meant a lot to my husband. We both also had to delve deep within ourselves and modify certain personality traits, in order to ensure peace in the home and, hence, earn the pleasure of Allah (swt). It was suddenly about self-improvement and reflection, instead of a mindless existence.

With our family growing and children coming into the picture, there had to be a greater Jihad within. The ‘us’ carried much more weight now. My husband and I both had to extinguish certain facets of ourselves for the greater benefit of our children and family. We had to guard our prayers twice as hard, watch our words zealously and even eat far more healthily than we previously did, because we wanted to impact our flesh and blood correctly and seek the pleasure of Allah (swt) in the process. We had to be careful to uplift our body, mind and soul, because we had to lead by example now – young, eager eyes were watching us and absorbing all information that was to mould their lives.

Seven years from that fateful day of my marriage, I see that many changes have taken place in both my husband and I. Although life isn’t as free and frolicking as it used to be, it certainly is a lot more meaningful. There is this sense of purpose, a Jihad if you will, in living each day as a Muslim family. And I certainly feel closer to Allah (swt). When we have an argument, it isn’t about who’s right, but more so about if this is what Allah (swt) says is right. We try to research Islamic literature to find answers to our conflicts, thereby inevitably learning more about Islam. When I feel drained under the weight of my duties as a mother and wife, I recharge my soul by reminding myself that it isn’t about me but about doing what is required and right for the sake of Allah (swt). There is that constant reaffirmation of faith. Each single day is a Jihad in Allah’s (swt) way.

As a modern Muslimah, though I am clear about my family being a priority in the scheme of things in my life, I also remind myself that I have to be of service to society. My children are growing up, and there will come a time, when they will be far less dependent on me and will ‘fly’ out into the world from my loving nest. Hence, I also reserve a part of me to prepare for that day of having my nest somewhat empty. I try to do extra courses and also have a home-based communications business. I write for personal and professional reasons to stay connected with the world beyond my home. I make sure I exercise and keep healthy. I read to have intelligent things to talk about to my husband and children. I try to learn about Islam as much as I can.

I remind myself constantly not to drown completely and overwhelmingly in my role as a wife and a mother but also to develop more wholly by keeping in mind that I am also a daughter, a friend, a writer… a person in my own right. After all, isn’t making the best of one’s existence for the eventual pleasure of Allah (swt) what life is about?

In trying to be a well-rounded Muslimah, I seek to add value to my role as a mother and a wife. Being a good mother and wife isn’t about just the practical demands of the job. I have to be a source of knowledge and example for my children. I have to be able to walk beside my husband and support him in his role as the head of the family. It is only when I myself grow in worldly matters and in those concerning the path of Imaan that I will be a source of guidance and support to my children and husband and in the process build a strong Muslim family for the pleasure of Allah (swt). As a Muslimah, I have this great role of preparing my children to be capable members of the Muslim Ummah, and I have to be proactive in order to achieve it.

Marriage, overall, is a great spiritual boon. Having a God-fearing spouse as my ‘worldly’ guardian to remind me to thread the right path is a great gift. Having the responsibility of molding my children to become capable members of the Ummah is a blessing. Having an aim, a purpose every single day is enlightening. Indeed, marriage completes a major part of our faith and makes living a lot more meaningful.

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