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Surrendering stereotypes
Visiting theology professor discusses the surprising connections between Islam and Christianity.

By ANNIE NELSON of the Tribuneís staff

Published Saturday, June 23, 2007

Correction appended

Columbian Meraj Mohammed has never heard someone compare the religious differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims to the differences between Catholics and Protestants, but he found it apt.

Amir Hussain, an associate professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University, made the comparison Wednesday night during a lecture on contemporary Muslims in North America. The lecture was hosted by the Center on Religion, the Professions & the Public at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Hussain published a book in 2006 titled "Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God," which looks at the differences and similarities of Christianity and Islam.

Shades of Christian values can be seen even in the English translation of the words Islam and Muslim. "Islam" means "surrender to God," Hussain said, and "Muslim" means "one who surrenders to God."

"What is Christian life but surrendering to God?" Hussain asked the audience.

Jesus is mentioned 90 times in the Quran, he said, while Muhammad is only mentioned four times. Jesusí mother Mary is mentioned 34 times, while sheís only mentioned 19 times in the New Testament, Hussain said.

Hussain traced Muslim North American history back to the slave trade. Muslims are registered in an 1871 Canadian census. The first mosques founded in North America were in Iowa in 1934, North Dakota in 1937 and Alberta, Canada, in 1938.

Hussain, a Muslim, said Islam doesnít consider Jesus the messiah but will always consider him a very important prophet, and that connection gives Muslims and Christians a starting place for breaking down the violent stereotypes that have plagued his religion since Sept. 11, 2001.

Hussain used the pilot show of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.ís new sitcom, "Little Mosque on the Prairie," to highlight how Muslims are rarely seen on American television in an ordinary light. The Canadian show premiered Jan. 9 with more than 2 million viewers in Canada.

Its characters represent a range in beliefs and nationalities, every one from a traditional Nigerian woman to the Canadian convert has a place in the tiny congregation in Mercy, Saskatchewan.

The show focuses on the problematic stereotypes Muslims face in North America today. In the pilot episode, the mosqueís new imam is detained at the Toronto airport for using the words "bomb" and "suicide" during a cell phone call with his mother in which he defends his decision to give up law and become a religious leader.

"What is the charge" he asks the fictional security guards that detain him, "flying while Muslim?"

They donít get the joke.

The sitcom resonated with Columbia Muslims. The Islamic Center of Mid-Missouri provides a worship space for people from about 70 countries, Mohammed said.

Omar Waheed, 22, the president of the Muslim Student Organization at MU and a member of the mosque said there arenít as many culture clashes as you would think. The cultural differences are more noticeable in the way people dress or where they place their hands when they pray, Waheed said.

While everyone blends in to the cultural melting pot at the mosque, Waheed was not so lucky when he was in high school in Mexico, Mo.

Wednesday night when he was dressed in a black polo shirt, faded jeans and a black baseball cap tilted at a jaunty angle, Waheed looked like any other MU senior, but during high school in Mexico, he and his brother were the only Muslims in their school. "It was one of the toughest times of my life," he said.

Another Muslim Student Organization member, Furqaan Sadiq, 19, takes solace from history that the prejudices Muslims now face will be defeated in time.

Sadiq said he was amazed to learn from Hussain that when John F. Kennedy ran for president, he was questioned about whether he could lead because he was Catholic. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney faces the same prejudice for being Mormon, he said.

The first question put to Hussain by the audience was why there is so much hatred between the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. Hussain said although the religious difference plays a part in the violence, the true cause of the sectarian violence in Iraq is because of extreme political and economic conflicts between the two groups.

Oil is at the center of the conflict, he said. While Sunnis occupy the middle section of the country, it is the minority Shiites who occupy the southern portion, which is also where the countryís oil reserves are.

Another audience member asked how the role of women is changing in Muslim communities in America. "Tremendously," Hussain said.

Muslim women are starting to fight for women-friendly areas in mosques, he said. Muslim women are political leaders in Bangladesh, Turkey and Pakistan. The leader of the Islamic Society of North America is not only a woman but also a Canadian-born convert to Islam, Ingrid Mattson.

The views on the womanís role in Islam are as diverse as the countries Muslim immigrants come from, he said.

Most Muslim women in America do not wear the hijab, the head scarf worn by many women as part of the Quranís instruction to be modest. Mohammedís wife, Aneesa Afroze, 32, is an infectious disease physician with MU Health Care. Afroze wears the hijab. Afroze is often asked about her religion by her patients, she said. She tries to explain her beliefs as best she can, and her decision to wear the hijab. "Itís religiously mandated," she said. "Itís an act of modesty, too."

Mohammed and Afroze are from India, but their two young girls were born in the United States. They will wear the hijab when they reach puberty, their parents said.

About 145 people attended the lecture, according to estimates by the centerís employees, which was double the turnout the center had anticipated. "My experience has been there is an incredible thirst for knowledge about Islam," said Debra Mason, director of the center.

Sadiq and Waheed both found Hussainís presentation rang true for them, and they said they hope Americans will come to understand American Muslims better.

"Itís important to show weíre just as American as apple pie," Sadiq said.


Reach Annie Nelson at (573) 815-1731 or


SECOND THOUGHTS: Monday, June 25, 2007

Saturdayís Spiritual Life story about a presentation by Professor Amir Hussain on the similarities between Islam and Christianity misreported that Muslims donít believe Jesus Christ was a messiah. Muslims donít believe Jesus was the son of God, but they do believe he was a messiah, a prophet and a messenger.




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