Published in the October 7, 2016 edition.
By GAIL LOWE
WAKEFIELD — Relations between the Muslim population and some people of other religious faiths in the United States have been strained recently to the point of breaking.
But Imam (pronounced ee-mahm) Basheer Bilaal, religious director of the Islamic Society of Greater Lowell, hoped to clear up some of the misunderstandings surrounding his faith, at least at the local level, by speaking at the Beebe Library on Wednesday night, Oct. 5.
In essence, he is hoping to build a bridge that people of all faiths in the Greater Boston religious community can safely walk across.
About 50 people from Wakefield and surrounding communities attended the event to learn more about the Muslim faith and culture. The timing of his visit is important.
In an online article published by The
Guardian, one Muslim woman was quoted as saying, “This is particularly concerning in a moment when we are seeing a spike in hate crimes against American Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim. These crimes include vandalism against mosques and assaults on women who wear the hijab (head scarf).”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump wants to enforce immigration laws at the border and at the workplace. He also wants to build a border wall and end sanctuary cities, send criminal aliens home and welcome those who embrace the American way of life but keep out, through serious vetting, immigrants and refugees.
Considering how tight the race is between Trump and his opponent Hillary Clinton, this could become a reality not long into the future.
Imam Bilaal, a Brooklyn, N.Y. native, said the solution boils down to communication.
“A lot of problems in the world would disappear if we talk to each other instead of about each other,” he said during his Power Point presentation.
For more than an hour, Imam Bilaal taught his audience about Islam and shared his thoughts on how to improve relations among the various religious groups.
His own purpose, he said, is to “build understanding, respect and peace in the community.”
“Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hate and hate leads to violence,” he said, quoting Ibn Rushd, a philosopher and theologian who lived during the 12th century.
“A lot of what happens in our world today is from ignorance. The goal is to eliminate ignorance and violence,” he said, referring to Sept. 11, 2001; the Boston Marathon bombing and recent events committed by supporters of ISIS in Orlando, Minneapolis and San Bernardino as well as other locations.
Before continuing, he asked for the audience’s permission to sing a few verses from an Arabic chant. He then closed his eyes and sang to Allah (accent on the second syllable).
Imam Bilaal’s presentation ranged from sharing the history of Islam (Abraham was the first Muslim) to statistics involving the number of Muslims in various parts of the world. In 2010, the highest counts were 204.8 million Muslims in Indonesia, 178.1 million in Pakistan, 177.3 million in India and 148.6 million in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, according to Imam Bilaal, only 20 percent of the West is Muslim. He said that only 80,000 to 100,000 Muslims are ISIS supporters from a population of 1.6 billion people.
So, what are the core beliefs of the Muslim faith? There are six: Belief in God (Allah); the prophets, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad; angels; writings in the Book of Psalms, Torah and Gospel; the day of judgment and pre-destination or fate.
Like Christians and Jews, Muslims believe that the God of their understanding created the universe. But unlike Christians who believe in the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), Muslims believe there is only one deity — Allah.
“He is the most high, the most great,” said Imam Bilaal, adding that Allah has 99 names and other attributes, including most benevolent and most gracious and powerful.
Muslims also believe in the existence of four archangels: Gabriel (deliverer of important messages), Michael (controller of the elements), Rafael (trumpeter on the day of judgment) and Azrael (angel of death).
“When I was learning their names, I used the Ninja turtles to remember them,” the Imam joked.
Another article of faith is the belief in what is written in sacred books. According to Muslim belief, the Quran is God’s final revelation to Muhammad and has been fully preserved. “Muslims have to believe in all books,” he said.
Imam Bilaal also mentioned the 25 prophets, including Jonah Ishmael and Idris, and said that a total of between 124,000 and 224,000 prophets have been sent to mankind since Adam. Muhammed, he said, was the final prophet to appear on Earth.
“He was the last messenger sent by God to guide us to the right path. He was sent to continue the monotheistic tradition. He prayed for people and for their salvation.”
Though Muslims do not recognize Jesus Christ as the Son of God, they do have a love for Him that Imam Bilaal said even exceeds that of most Christians.
“We do believe He was the Messiah and we believe in the second coming,” he said. Muslims also believe that Jesus was never crucified but instead was lifted to the heavens. Members of the Islamic faith also believe in their own resurrections.
“We get eternal bliss or eternal damnation,” he said.
Imam Bilaal also shared his beliefs concerning pre-destination. “We all have a destiny. Nothing can happen in the world without the power, knowledge and will of God,” he said.
There also are five pillars of the Islamic faith, including a declaration of faith, obligatory prayer, compulsory giving, fasting during Ramadan and at least one pilgrimage to Mecca during a believer’s lifetime.
Imam Bilaal also touched on the hijab (head scarf worn by Muslim women); the rights of women (pointing out that Fatima al-Fihri was the first university founded for Muslim women in 859 CE, hundreds of years before the first university for women was established in the U.S.) and terrorism.
He compared the hijab with head coverings worn by female members of the Roman Catholic church during Mass, the hood the Virgin Mary wore and head coverings worn by members of a royal family.
He also talked about terrorism and said that “terror is the opposite of peace.” (The word “Islam” means “peace.”)
“Joining these two words — terrorism and peace — is not only a grammatical crime in the realm of literature, it is a heinous attempt to pervert the true teachings of Islam,” he said. “It’s the same message of peace Jesus brought.”
Bilaal said that according to the FBI, 94 percent of all attacks in America are committed by non-Muslims.
“There is little to no connection between Islam and terrorism,” he maintained. “The media controls the minds of the masses.”
Radical behavior, he explained, is born of ignorance, mental illness, poverty, alienation, injustice, media reports, religious perversion, influential persuasion and injustice.
Imam Bilaal shared with his audience a story about the day he and his mother entered a store in New York after the Sept. 11 attack. They were accused of being Arabs and terrorists and were told to get out because he was dressed in traditional imam attire, including hat and robe.
During a question and answer period, Bilaal explained the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, touched upon Sharia law and prayer in schools.
“If Sharia law were to be introduced into the American legal system, the law would apply only to the Muslim population, not people of other faiths,” he said, adding that there would be no allowance for violence, which is contrary to what is written in the Quran, 5:33:
“The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement.”
The Quran also states that if you kill one person, you have killed all of mankind.
In the case of a divorce in a Muslim marriage, all principles of Islam would be applied to punishment.
Where prayer in schools is concerned, though some public school systems in Arizona, California, Michigan and Minnesota make allowances for Muslim students who are required to pray five times each day, Imam Bilaal bypassed mentioning these and focused only on New York, stating that he is aware that some school districts in his home state recognize several Muslim holidays.
One person in the audience said that Muslims have been granted special status. “If a black man wearing a hood walked into The Savings Bank, he’d be told to take it off,” the person commented. “But Muslim women can wear hijabs. They are given special status.”
A woman in the audience recalled her younger days in the Roman Catholic church when females wore mantillas. “Hijabs aren’t that much different,” she said.
Locally, there are mosques in Burlington, Malden, Chelmsford, Everett, Lynn and Revere. Everyone is welcome to attend worship services.
According to the Pew Research Center, Islam is the second fastest growing religion in the world and by the year 2050 it is estimated that the number of Muslims will be equal to the number of Christians worldwide.
Copies of the Quran and other reading materials about Islam were placed at the rear of the Beebe conference room for reference.
Imam Basheer Bilaal graduated as an Imam and khatib (preacher of sermons) from the Presidency of Religious Affairs in Turkey, the country of his origin.