All mankind is from Adam and Eve: an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab … over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black … over a white, except by piety and good action.
~ from The Last Sermon of the Prophet Muhammad.
Coastal Virginia is remarkably diverse, especially when it comes to religion. Our region is home to a host of religious communities: a sizable Jewish population, Buddhists and Hindus, Muslims representing every nationality, Christians of every stripe, and many others, including those who characterize themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
In this six-part series, Searching for God in the 7 Cities, we’ll explore six different religious communities in Coastal Virginia through interviews with religious leaders and followers, visits to houses of worship and historical background. We’ll also discuss some intriguing truths and misconceptions associated with each denomination, how religions have evolved, and the role of religion for the next generations. Through the series, we won’t be promoting any particular belief or exploring every single religion. The scope is far too wide. However, we have faith that the series will be a fascinating, eye-opening read, no matter your beliefs.
Part One: Muslims
When I was 17 and beginning to question the teachings of the church, my mother gave me a book that had belonged to her grandmother: The Portable World Bible, which contained selections from the sacred texts of what the editor called the world’s “good-will” religions. The purpose of the volume, published in the wake of World War II, was to highlight the similarities between religions that so often seem to be at odds with one another, and in doing so to encourage “a better understanding between the peoples of the world.”
Having been raised in the Episcopal Church, I was thoroughly familiar with the excerpts from the Christian Gospels and the Old Testament. But the book offered me my first introduction to Hinduism, Buddhism and, among other faith traditions, Islam.
I’ve thought a lot about that book recently, as anti-Muslim rhetoric has grown more heated. The hostility is reflected in polls. One of them, conducted last year by the Brookings Institute, revealed that only 44 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Islam. Interestingly, the numbers were significantly different when people were asked whether they had a favorable view of “Muslim people.” In that case, 62 percent said yes.
Given that Muslims make up only about 1 percent of the U.S. population, it’s safe to assume that the widespread disapproval of the religion among non-Muslims is based on impressions gleaned from the mass media rather than first-hand encounters. Moreover, while the Internet affords unprecedented opportunities for education, it can also spread misunderstanding. That’s especially true when it comes to Islam, since anti-Muslim organizations and individuals have a tendency to quote the Koran out of context. But as I’ve studied various religions over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that merely reading sacred texts, even in a more serious manner, can often lead to misunderstanding. Religion, after all, is not simply about what the texts say but about how adherents interpret those texts.
With this in mind, I set out to talk with Muslims in Coastal Virginia, in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the religion’s nuances and the ways in which it is practiced.
Photo by Jim Pile
I start with a former student of mine at Old Dominion University—a 24-year-old woman named Salma Hussein.
Hussein was born in Egypt but came to the U.S. with her family at the age of 5 and settled in Norfolk. As a young child she fit in with her peers fairly well, she recalls. But on September 11, 2001—when she was in the fourth grade—her life changed dramatically.
“I encountered a lot of hostility because my last name is Hussein,” she recalls. “I remember one kid, in particular, whose parents were in the military, saying that we ‘need to nuke the entire Middle East.’ I didn’t even know what a nuke was, and I don’t think he fully understood either. But I knew it wasn’t good.”
The following year, she switched schools and things got worse. “The kids were really mean,” she says. “They called me a terrorist and asked if my dad was a terrorist. It bothered me a lot. I ended up having serious stomach problems because of how stressed out I was.”
As she got older, she says, she developed a stronger sense of herself and learned to stand up to harassment. These days, though, she remains troubled by all of the anti-Muslim sentiments she hears.
“I’m not a very fearful person when it comes to myself,” she says. “But I am fearful when it comes to my family. My parents go and pray every Friday, so every Friday I worry about them—which is terrible. It’s a weird time. I never felt like I had to watch what I say here, but now I do.”
Like a lot of young people, Hussein is not as observant as her parents. She doesn’t attend services all that often and doesn’t wear a head scarf—or hijab, as it’s called—except as a sign of respect when she does go to a mosque. Nevertheless, her faith remains very important to her.
“I had a boss ask me, ‘Where are the Gandhis of Islam?’ In reality,” she says, “if you look at the true Muslim believer, they’re all kind of Gandhis because Islam is a very peaceful religion.”
By way of example, she points to verses in the Koran having to do with killing—verses that, as noted earlier, are often quoted out of context.
“They have to do with war,” she says. “But the Koran is very clear in stating that you should not fight unless you are attacked. You’re not even supposed to kill an insect if it won’t harm you.”
In response, I ask her how she reconciles the nonviolence with the fact that so many terrorist attacks have been committed in the name of Islam.
“Those people [so-called ‘Islamic terrorists’] are not Muslim,” she states firmly. “They know nothing about Islam. When I was at ODU, I took a class about Islam and learned of a study looking at how many terrorists had read the Koran and pray. A majority never read it, never pray, never fast. They do all of the things you’re not supposed to do. But at the end of the day these are people who leave an imprint of what Islam is. Anyone with a little common sense should be able to see that these people want to turn the world against Islam—and to some degree they’ve succeeded.”
Hussein’s parents attend regular Friday services (Friday is the Sabbath) at the Islamic Center of Tidewater on the campus of ODU. I know one other person who attends—a woman named Lisa Suhay, who began exploring the religion from the inside out last November. (See her story on page 4).
The day after Hussein and I talk, I go to observe a service for myself.
When I arrive a little before 1 p.m., there are about 40 men seated on the carpet of the large circular prayer room. (There are women in the mosque as well, but they gather in a separate room—a subject to which I shall return.)
Some of the men are sitting cross-legged in the center of the room and appear to be deep in prayer. Others sit more casually against the wall, and I’m surprised to see a few looking at their phones, until I notice that one man is reading something in Arabic. The Koran, perhaps, or a daily prayer.
Minute-by-minute more men arrive, and soon the room is packed. Then, at 1 p.m. sharp, a man at the front begins to recite a prayer in Arabic. Immediately thereafter, another man in a white robe—who would later be introduced to me as M’Hammed Abdous—begins to deliver a khutbah, or sermon.
The khutbah on this particular day revolves around a prophetic hadith—a story or particular expression of wisdom, not unlike a parable of Jesus in the New Testament. In this hadith, it is recalled that a man came to the Prophet and noted that “the laws of Islam are many.” He asked for something simple on which he could focus.
“Keep your tongue moist with the remembrance of Allah (God),” the Prophet replied.
Abdous repeats this story to suggest that as Muslims go about their day, remembering Allah—keeping their “tongue moist” with his name—can deepen their mindfulness and gratitude to the point where any act can be an act of worship: preparing food, sweeping the floor or what have you. To my mind, it’s reminiscent of an attitude central to all spiritual traditions—the importance of living every moment with singleness of heart and good intentions.
This is especially true of active worship, Abdous notes. “You could read the Koran all the time,” he says, “but if it never crosses your heart, it is like reading a newspaper.”
It also extends, he adds, to our encounters with other people. “If you see a homeless man on the street, what do you do?” Abdous asks. “If you don’t have compassion in your heart, you would never even ask yourself that question.”
Photo by Jim Pile
Abdous, 52, was born and raised in Morocco, where he completed his bachelor’s in Arabic literature, then moved to Quebec to complete his master’s and Ph.D. In 2000 he moved to Norfolk for the climate and took a job as director for the Center for Learning and Teaching at ODU. At the same time, he became active in the Islamic Center.
The center, and the mosque within, does not have an official imam, the equivalent of a priest or rabbi, but Abdous performs many of those functions, along with a few other volunteers who have the depth of knowledge and gift of speaking to do so.
While growing up, he says, he never questioned his faith. In college, he recalls, he had a philosophy teacher who was “a hard-core Marxist. He didn’t believe in God. I respected him, but I thought his argument was weak.”
When he arrived at ODU he was pleased to find such an active Islamic center, something that is rare, he said, even on bigger college campuses. In addition to serving as a mosque, the center has become a multipurpose community center—a function that all mosques served in the early days of Islam, he notes. “It’s one of the reasons that ODU attracts so many international students,” he says. “When they’re thousands of miles from home, they need some place to go for guidance, whether it’s finding a place to live or setting up a bank account.”
Leading services, he says, is a bit more challenging, since the mosque attracts Muslims of all different backgrounds. Some don’t speak a word of English; others don’t speak Arabic. And because education levels vary widely, he has to try to make his talks accessible to as many people as possible. The khutbahs that I hear him deliver are primarily in English but sprinkled with Arabic.
In one-on-one conversation, Abdous is warm, open and engaging—and as I quickly grow comfortable with him, I begin to ask him about some of the less than favorable perceptions of Islam.
Much of the problem, he says, lies in the tendency of non-Muslim westerners to confuse cultural practices with the religion itself.
“Culture is definitely one of the key components in how the religion is practiced,” he says. “It also leads to misconceptions. Take the stories you’ve heard about genital mutilation of women, for example. It’s a problem that’s centered in certain areas of Africa. These are Christian countries, and the majority of women there have been exposed to that practice, but it’s presented (in the Western world) as something associated with Islam.” Citing another example, he notes that women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive. But again, that’s cultural. In most other Muslim countries, they are.
“Islam as a religion is not a monolithic block,” he adds, anymore than other religions are. “People associate Islam with terrorism. When people think of Buddhist monks, on the other hand, they think of peace and devotion. But consider that in Myanmar (Burma), Buddhist monks are slaughtering Muslims. Does that mean that Buddhism is a violent religion?”
“Unfortunately, when an act of terrorism is committed by someone who’s Muslim, suddenly everyone is painted with the same broad brush. It’s all a false narrative created by the media.”
Abdous says Muslims in this country often find themselves on the defensive as a result. But he feels fortunate that the Islamic Center has not suffered any significant attacks, nor have its members.
“We are really lucky here to be on a diverse campus in a great neighborhood (the Larchmont section of Norfolk.) After 9/11 we had some broken windows in the back and received some nasty messages, but that was about it.”
Nevertheless, Abdous admits that he is sometimes fearful—especially these days.
“I think things are worse today than after 9/11,” he says. “Back then, at least in the highest office, there was some common sense from George W. Bush.” Now, he notes, there are a lot of numbers that show a spike in anti-Muslim acts—and women are often the targets because their hijabs make them stand out.”
“It’s ironic,” he points out, “since people so often accuse Islam of being anti-woman.”
It’s not hard to understand why many non-Muslims have the perception that Muslim women are subordinate to men. As noted earlier, for example, women worship in a separate room at the Islamic Center of Tidewater. In other mosques, depending on the design, they sometimes sit in a balcony. The practice of women wearing a hajib—and covering the rest of their bodies with long dresses and long sleeves, even in the summer—further reinforces the impression.
And yet, every Muslim woman with whom I talk says that women in Islam are accorded great respect.
One of them is Eman Radwan, a 35-year-old Egyptian who has been living in Norfolk for the last two years while studying cardiovascular medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School on a scholarship.
When I meet Radwan and her husband, Hosam Elshanawany, at a local coffeehouse, I shake Elshanawany’s hand, then extend my hand to her. They politely tell me that it is not considered appropriate for a woman to shake a man’s hand unless he is a member of the family.
This is certainly not the case with all Muslims, particularly in the United States. But it is an Islamic tradition to which many women adhere.
“Whether we’re talking about shaking hands or the hijab, it’s simply about preserving modesty and minimizing physical attraction,” Radwan says. She adds that it is in no way forced upon women by men.
Abdous makes the same point about the practice of men and women worshipping separately—a practice that is due in part to the manner of praying: sitting on one’s haunches, then bending over until your face touches the floor. He said it’s about minimizing distraction.
But none of this, I’m repeatedly told, means that women are in any way considered subordinate.
“I feel that the Muslim woman is the luckiest woman in the whole world,” Radwan says. “In this country, for example, women had to fight for the right to vote. Muslim women have had those rights since the beginning of Islam.” She points out, for instance, that if a Muslim woman works outside the home, she is entitled to keep her own money. There is no expectation that her husband is entitled to it.
On this subject, Elshanawany goes further than pinning it to particular cultural practices in certain countries.
“The oppression of women,” he says, “is ultimately personal. There are some men who beat their wives, for example. But that’s the man, not the religion, whether it’s a Muslim man or Christian man who does so.”
Indeed, the relationship between Radwan and Elshanawany seems to be a model of independence and mutual respect. During the time that Radwan has been living here with her two young daughters, Elshanawany has remained in Egypt. A former police officer, he now works for a Ukranian gas and oil company. He visits Norfolk as often as possible, but Radwan is on her own, pursuing her studies, for much of the time.
Elshanawany has nevertheless spent a lot of time here over the past two years, and both he and Radwan say their experiences have been unconditionally positive.
This surprises me to some degree, since, at the very moment that I am initially meeting them, a young woman sitting at the coffeehouse glances at Radwan in her hijab and frowns in disgust. Radwan simply smiles at the young woman.
“There was one time someone called me ISIS, or something, but that’s the only negative thing I can recall,” she says. “The experience has been very good.”
Hosam Elshanawany, Eman Radwan and their two daughters at Disney.
Both of them have been impressed with their time in the United States, not only because of the kindness with which they’ve been treated but because of their impression that Americans are afforded rights that many people in Egypt are not.
Elshanawany says he is not bothered by Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric or efforts to impose travel bans that target Muslims.
“Politicians will say whatever they feel they need to say to appeal to certain people,” he observes. “But there are limitations on what he can do. That’s the beauty of this country. In many other countries, the president has far more power.” He points, for instance, to the fact that courts ended up overturning the travel ban.
In light of their positive impressions of the United States, I ask why they are returning to Egypt
“Because it’s home,” Radwan says. “You don’t choose your home. That’s where our family is. That’s where our roots are.”
Wherever they happen to be living, however, it is their faith that keeps them grounded. Like all observant Muslims, they pray five times a day at prescribed times: sunrise, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and nighttime.
“It’s a way of organizing the day. When I planned to meet you, I thought, OK, we’ll meet after Dhuhr (midday prayer).” The prayer cycle, in other words, is the top priority for the day, and everything else is scheduled around that. Not that they must always be in a sacred space to do so. “You pray on an airplane, or wherever you happen to be,” Elshanawany tells me, adding as an aside that prayer, for him, is the best antidote to jet lag.
Before we part, I feel compelled to ask Elshanawany and Radwan as well about the tendency of many people in this country to associate Islam with terrorism.
They echo Hussein’s remarks about terrorists going directly against the teachings of the Koran itself—and add that people like the members of ISIS would not consider Elshanawany and Radwan to be true Muslims.
“In their minds,” Radwan says, “everyone is an infidel except for themselves.” The tragedy, she adds, is that the ground soldiers in terrorist groups tend to be troubled young men who are recruited and manipulated by leaders to serve a political agenda. It reminds me of stories I’ve heard about cults, from Jonestown to Charles Manson’s “family,” which have preyed upon people who are troubled and searching for meaning and belonging.
As we say goodbye, Radwan remembers, “Oh wait—we brought you something.” It’s a copy of the Koran, with scholarly interpretations. She also tells me that they would like to have me over during Ramadan. I am deeply touched.
In turn, I have one other question. I want to know how they sum up the teachings of Islam in a single sentence.
“Don’t judge anyone before you know him,” Elshanawany says simply.
This brings me back to my conversation with Abdous.
“At the end of the day,” he tells me, “there is one creator who has the ability to judge. If I know that, then I have no authority to judge. Let Him do the judging, and let us do the living.
“When you see the situation of humankind, it’s sad,” he adds. “But still, there are beacons of hope. I see a lot of people doing good things. One day, maybe we’ll be able to deal with each other without killing each other. After all, what we have in common is far greater than what makes us different.”
As a journalist, Lisa Suhay understands the importance of trying to keep an open mind in unfamiliar situations. But she freely admits that this wasn’t always easy for her—especially when it came to Islam.
“I was not Muslim-friendly for a lot of years,” she tells me during a recent conversation. The experience of covering 9/11 for The New York Times accentuated those feelings. “I’ve also been to Saudi Arabia [on assignment], but even when I was there, I never set foot in a mosque.”
The opportunity was always closer at hand: The 52-year-old Norfolk resident lives less than a mile from the Islamic Center of Tidewater. But for a long time, she’d regarded it with skepticism.
That all changed in November after the election of Donald Trump. Alarmed by the anti-Muslim statements she’d seen and heard during the campaign, she decided it was time to rethink her attitudes. When she saw a Facebook post about an open house at the Islamic Center, she decided to go see for herself what it was all about.
Deeply touched by the warm reception she received there, she quickly took the next step and began attending Friday services.
“I went from being concerned and edgy about what was in the mosque to being concerned and uncomfortable about what’s outside the mosque,” she says. “I’ll be in the middle of prayers and hear a noise outside and feel an immediate spark of fear that someone might try to do harm to all of the women and all of the children whom I’ve come to know as sisters and friends. And I think—wow—all of the things to fear are outside the mosque; there’s nothing in here to be afraid of.”
When we meet for coffee and conversation, Suhay wears a headscarf, and I ask whether she has actually converted.
“I’ve thought about it,” she says, although she adds that she continues to attend Sunday services at Larchmont United Methodist Church.
“I guess you could say that, religiously, I’m double dipping,” she says.
Her reservations about actually converting were fueled in part by remarks people would make about her headscarf.
“I’ve always loved wearing scarves on my head, wound around in different ways,” she notes. “My family is from Russia, Poland and Romania, so early on, I was enamored with the whole gypsy vibe. I also went through my Stevie Nicks phase and had a drawer full of scarves. But one trip to the mosque, and I started getting religiously stereotyped. It hit me hard. People would say, ‘Oh, you’re a Muslim now.’ I’ve had intelligent, college-educated women in my neighborhood just go at me in such a venomous way, saying thinks like, ‘Are you going to start walking behind your husband?’”
She feared that if she did convert, the remarks would only grow worse and more frequent. The struggle deepened her conviction, however, that her personal exploration of Islam was a kind of calling.
“Maybe God, or Allah, or whatever name you want to use, had this game plan all along for me—as a kind of bridge.”
Increasingly, she talked with people who said they would never set foot in a mosque for fear that the people there would try to convert them. Some women, moreover, feel that to do so would be a betrayal of feminism.
It cuts both ways. The Islamic Center has become more open to the community as it has undertaken efforts to aid refugees, but she’s encountered some Muslims who have reservations about inviting people from churches to volunteer for fear that they’re going proselytize.
“When I tell them that I’ve heard Christians express the same fear, that gets their attention.”
The effort to integrate the Islamic Center more fully into the community has continued, and the women there have been especially instrumental.
“They’re breaking down their own barriers,” Suhay says, because they’ve come to realize that “in order to be safe, they need to normalize Islam in the community.”
As for life inside the mosque, Suhay says that she actually likes that women pray in a separate room from men.
“I love that there’s tons of hugging on the women’s side,” she says. “In a way it’s much more feminist than in any church. The women are all supporting each other.” Many of them, she adds, are accomplished professionals—among them, a doctor at EVMS.
Still, when we talk, Suhay fears that she might not be “strong enough” to actually convert.
“These people are living in terror,” she says. “People who have lived here their whole lives and are American citizens. I know a woman who is petrified to drive her car for fear that she might get pulled over for some minor infraction by a policeman with the wrong mindset. I’ve also heard stories of people being followed by trucks with Confederate flags, honking because the driver of the car is wearing a scarf on her head. Sometimes I wonder whether I’m going to be the first Methodist shot outside a mosque because I’m wearing a scarf that nobody differentiates.”
A few weeks after our conversation, I send Lisa a Facebook message to let her know I’ll be attending another service and ask if she’ll be there.
“Yes,” she responds. “In fact I’ll be doing Shahada.”
At the time I didn’t know what that meant. After I arrive, I learn that it is a conversion ceremony. The growing sense of family that she’s found at the mosque, and the appeal of worshipping there, has caused her to set aside her fears and take the leap.
“It was very emotional on the women’s side,” she says. “There were lots of tears. Strangers were coming up to me and saying, ‘Welcome home.’”
Muslims don’t actually use the word “convert,” she adds. They say, “revert.” “Everyone is brown Muslim,” she writes in a message, “but some people are born into different cultural circumstances and must find their way ‘home.’”
As part of the process, she even chooses a Muslim name: Safeera.
“It means ‘ambassador,” she says. “A human bridge.”
Read more about religion in Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Christianity, Part 1 and Part 2, Judaism, Buddhism and Transcending Religion.