Islam in the Ozarks: Diversity Within the Mosque

Oct 4, 2009

This week, we’re continuing our series looking into the landscape of religious communities in the Ozarks, in which we explore lesser known faith groups. Today, KSMU’s Jennifer Moore speaks with members of the Islamic community of southwest Missouri, and looks at the diversity within local mosques.

On the outskirts of Joplin, a one story brick building with an American flag is protected by a privacy fence and a gate. A metal frame is all that remains of what used to be a sign.

"We had the sign. It read: Islamic Society of Joplin. In 2008, it was vandalized. It was burned," says Dr. Lahmuddin—he’s the imam, or leader, of the mosque in Joplin. He doesn’t have a first and last name—it’s just “Lahmuddin.”

His smile is constant, and his bright eyes are careful not to meet mine, as is the Muslim tradition between unrelated men and women.

[SOUND: “This is the main prayer hall…” ]

He says this building used to be a church, but now it serves as the place of worship for about 40 Muslim families in and around Joplin.

And those families come from several different continents. Lahmuddin and his wife are from small villages in Indonesia.

About a decade ago, the family moved to Arkansas so that Lahmuddin could pursue his Ph.D. in Islamic studies.

Initially, he says, he was in culture shock. But the Muslim community in Arkansas soon became his new family, despite the fact that they neither shared his nationality nor his language. The mosque in Joplin, he says, is just as diverse.

"Some of them come from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, or Middle Eastern countries, like Egypt, Syria and Palestine, and I’m from Indonesia, and one sister is from Singapore," he says.

There is also a family from Afghanistan, and others come from sub-Saharan Africa. Lahmuddin says everyone speaks in English to communicate, and most importantly, that faith unites them.

"We have different cultures, of course. But since we worship [the] same God, we don’t have a problem with worshipping," he says.

He uses the English word “God” and the Arabic word “Allah” interchangeably.

Lahmuddin: The one God, his name in Arabic is "Allah." He has 98 other names.

Moore: What are some of the names?

Lahmuddin: Al-Rahman, Al-Raheem, Al-Quddus, and Al-Ghafoor....

Moore: And what do they mean?

Lahmuddin: Al-Rahman, means "The Most Merciful." Al-Raheem means "The Most Beneficient." Al-Ghafoor means "The One Who Forgives." So the Arabic people, whether they are Christian, or whatever their religion, when they mention about God, the word "God" in Arabic is "Allah."

The Arabic word for referring to the one God, “Allah,” is a close cousin to the Hebrew word “Eloh,” and the Aramaic word “Elah,” which Jesus would have used.

And while we’re on languages, local Muslims say the correct way to pronounce the word “Muslim” is with a soft “s,” instead of a “z” sound as in “muzz-lim.” It might not sound like a big difference, but in Arabic, “Muslim” means “someone who submits to God,” whereas “Muzlim” actually means “mischief-maker.”

Another factor uniting many local Muslims is the so-called “American experience.” Some of the members of this community are Americans who have converted to the faith. But most are immigrants.

Lahmuddin says the American flag is flying in front of the mosque because the majority of Muslims here are now American citizens...and they’re proud of that.

One person who attends the mosque regularly is Dr. Iftikhar Ali, who practices internal medicine in Joplin.

"I have more freedom to practice my religion here, and teach my kids here than back home in Pakistan," he says.

One local hospital has even set aside a special room for Muslim staff members to perform their daily prayers. Ali says he wouldn’t feel completely safe practicing Islam in his home country of Pakistan.

Ali: You hear every day something happens back home.

Moore: Something meaning...like an attack?

Ali: Attacks, yes, or Muslims killing Muslims, or Muslims are getting killed by somebody, you know, going to the mosque..and I never had a problem here in America.

That American experience is also felt by others in the Ozarks, including Dr. Wafaa Kaf, who attends the Islamic Center in Springfield.

"I thought it would be to some extent limited for me to practice my religion here," she says.

Kaf teaches in the audiology department at Missouri State University. She’s originally from Egypt, and as a devout Muslim, she wears a headscarf and prays five times a day.

"So far, you know, it's free for me, I haven't seen, or I haven’t faced any restrictions," she says.

However, she says even in America, there’s a limit to that freedom. As an example, she points to her son at his school, saying he might not be given the time and space to perform his daily prayers. In this case, she said, he has to miss the prayer time.

Join us tomorrow as we ask local Muslims about their views on American politics.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.

[Arabic Music: Excerpt from "Asma Allah" (The Names of God): Al-Aleem, Al-Haleem, Al-Hakeem, Al-Mateen, Al-Mani', Al-Rahman, Al-Fattah, Al-Ghaffar...

Translation:

The All-Knowing, The Forebearing, The Wise, The Steadfast, The Bestower of Blessings, The Most Merciful, The Opener, The Ever-Forgiving...]