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bob maginnis - 12/13/01

December 27, 2001

Explaining Islam in the wake of Sept. 11



Serving as chaplain at the Maryland Correctional Training Center is Imam Ismael Ibraheen's latest assignment in a five-year career with the Maryland Division of Corrections. But since Sept. 11 he's taken on another role, explaining the Muslim faith to a community that probably didn't have much interest in it up until then.

Ibraheen, who explains that the "imam" means leader, said that since the terrorist attacks, he's had numerous invitations to address schools and community groups in the region.

He said the most frequently asked question is: What is it in the Koran, the Muslims' holy scripture, that causes them to hate America?

The questioners seem to believe, said Ibraheen, that "for these hijackers to commit these horrible acts, there must have been something in their faith that prompted it."

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Not so, said Ibraheen. Nothing in the Koran tells believers to do such acts of violence, he said.

"They were twisting the message of a noble religion for their own cause," Ibraheen said.

One puzzling aspect of the terrorist attacks, he said, is that it's been widely reported that on the night before they died, some of those involved were drinking alcohol, chasing women and going to nightclubs - all of which Islam forbids.

"It's one thing to try to blend in with the society that you're living in. But I don't think that blending in calls for things like that, like drinking alcohol."

Drinking alcohol is strictly forbidden in Islam, Ibraheen said, because the Koran says it is the root of all evil, and that many of the ills that affect society take place after people become intoxicated.

Living in a way that avoids temptation is a hallmark of the Islamic society, Ibraheen said.

"In Islamic society, there's generally a separation between the sexes. Men socialize with men, for the most part," Ibraheen said, and not with women who aren't in their immediate family.

The result of this and the Muslim belief that women should dress modestly, Ibraheen said, can be seen around the world.

"In Islamic societies, they have the lowest rates of teen pregnancy and of AIDS, and have been by and large been spared many of the ills of other societies," Ibraheen said.

Ibraheen was not born a Muslim, he said. His own family was not church-going, he said, though they did believe in God. It was his search for meaning and his fear of death that pushed him toward spiritual things.

The possibility that hellfire awaited him in the next world was troubling, but so was the idea that he might "dissolve into nothingness," he said.

"The void was more fearful to me," he said.

As he began to look for a spiritual answer, Ibraheen said he found he was "always coming across Muslims who were clean and wholesome people who seemed to have tranquility in their lives."

Most of the inmates he works with have converted since entering prison.

"Incarceration gives you time to stop and think about where you're going in life," he said.

Many inmates come from families where fathers and others relatives have also been incarcerated, families where there's little education and where they may never have read a book, he said.

"They find in Islam some guidance, some principles and that's what many of them are searching for - some structure and a code to live by," Ibraheen said.

That code includes praying five times a day, with head bowed toward the holy city of Mecca, avoiding alcohol and other intoxicants, not eating pork and confining sex to marriage.

Ibraheen said that Islam is a continuation of the other religions that came before, and that Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad came to the world because the message of earlier prophets, like Abraham and Jesus, has been forgotten by many.

The idea of a holy trinity is one doctrine Islam rejects, Ibraheen said, adding that Muslims believe that there is only one God. Muslim beliefs are found in the Koran, which Ibraheen said Muslims believe is God's word revealed to Muhammad and in the Sunnah, a collection of the prophet's statements.

"Oftentimes I think Islam in American society as regarded as something very strange and primitive," Ibraheen said.

That's so, he said, because "as an American society, we've gotten so far away from the things regarded as Judeo-Christian traditions."

"Many observant Christians and Jews might say they are regarded in their country as a bit strange, because they live a lifestyle where their faith is not merely a name, but something they support in their lives."

Since Sept. 11, a number of members of the Muslim community have talked to Herald-Mail editors, in hopes that their faith would not be seen a threat to a community that until then probably didn't know they existed. It's time to pay attention now, and remember that this nation was founded on the idea that when it comes to spiritual matters, everyone is free to believe whatever they choose.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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