I had a privilege to be part of Academic Fellowship at the University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO) for the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) under the Institute of Civic Engagement. The UNO YSEALI Academic Director, Prof. Patrick McNamara introduced me to one of the local Imams in Omaha, Mohamad Jamal Daoudi, a Syrian by birth and an American by citizenship.  He is a graduate of English Literature from Damascus University in 1998, then continued his Islamic education at the Islamic Call College/Damascus and graduated with Islamic Sciences and Arabic Language in 1991. He came to the USA in late 1995 and started his position as an Imam at the Islamic Center of North Valley, Lancaster-CA in 1997.  In 2005, he moved to Charleston-WV where he served the Islamic Association of West Virginia and achieved his “Doctor of Ministry” degree from the United Theological Seminary, Dayton-OH. It was then the same year he became a US citizen. His specialization is in the area of Tafsir (Quranic interpretation), Hadith, counseling and interfaith dialogues and activities. He now serves as a full time Imam in the American Muslim Institute (AMI).

In front of the American Muslim Institute (AMI), Omaha where their values are: Acceptance, Compassion, Equality, Justice and Peace. (Source: https://americanmusliminstitute.org/)

DAMASCUS, SYRIA

Talking about his personal background prior to becoming a US citizen, he told me that the environment in Damascus is more progressive in comparison to other parts of Syria. Apart from the fact that he studied English literature and being a full-time student, he would seek to study Islamic knowledge according to the old Islamic methodology (Talaqqi) (Islamic lesson conducted in a small group). It is led by qualified teacher and guided by certain book in order to attain certain spiritual status. It covers all aspects of Islamic knowledge in particular aqidah (creed – tauhid), Syari’ah (jurisprudence – fiqh), and akhlaq (manners – tasawwuf)] with any Syeikh available during his free time. His Syeikh was the Grand Mufti of Syria for about 50 years, a very open minded Sufist. Imam Jamal said that the methodology is not an issue, as Islam accommodates progressive advancement in its societies. At least, the spirit of Talaqqi can be incorporated in the modern day of Islamic teachings to preserve the core values and praiseworthy tradition.

With a humble Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi

MUSLIMS IN THE UNITED STATES

I asked him about the challenges and difficulties of Muslim population in the United States, where they are one of minority groups. He responded that it is basically the same with other Muslim communities in the world. This includes the way of thinking of Muslim community. In Syria, cultural sensitivities with certain restrictions play a big part on how religion shapes Muslims there and similar to what Muslims in other Muslim-majority countries are practising.  But in America, Muslims are free to practice different kinds of Islam and blend in with any culture. It is much more open and the freedom of expression motivates people to think and challenge themselves as a professing Muslim in America. Questions like why some Islamic practices are different in Syria than America, like the practice of grand celebration of Mawlid (Prophet’s Birthday) or the practice of reciting Qasida. Is it because of the cultural or universal reasons? Is it dependant on the context of time or place? He said: “Being a Muslim in America demands you to be knowledgeable and to adapt, and in between you will dwell in your own struggles and eventually you will learn to walk free as a proud Muslim”.

Imam Jamal took a lot of pride serving as a religious leader at AMI. It is part of the Tri-Faith Initiative, the three Abrahamic faith groups who have chosen to exist together as neighbours in one campus. The three members are  from Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths: Temple Israel, Countryside Community Church (UCC) and the American Muslim Institute (AMI) itself. The initiative aims to foster empathy, respects, invites mutual understanding and friendship as well as advances common action between the people of diverse faiths through shared efforts of the three congregations. Imam Jamal stressed over and over again that the initiative never brought the meaning that the three Abrahamic faith are the same or on one level. Rather it means that despite myriad differences, the three can coexist peacefully in the name of common good of humanity and interfaith relationship. 

There are roughly 6 mosques in Omaha and AMI is the most recent and inclusive one. This means that the congregation tries to accommodate all Muslims coming from different backgrounds. It is not exclusive for certain race or nationality. They believe that to be inclusive house of worship, the exclusivity of their own cultures and Islam need to be ‘neutralized’ or ‘universalized’ to certain extent since both of them are so much integrated which might create divisiveness among the community. For instance, the Islamic Centre of Omaha receives a lot of congregation member from Pakistan and India. Thus, Islam as practiced within that centre is very much influenced by Indian and Pakistani culture which put other Muslims in isolation. But in some sense this is to unite and celebrate all cultures at one place using one medium of language and platform to communicate and interact.  He further mentioned that, “AMI serves more than just the basic idea of what Islam is, it is more than just a place of worship for Muslims”. 

CHALLENGES

If there is a specific reason on why he is the only serving Imam at AMI is because that the number of congregation is not big. They usually receive only about 140 men for Friday prayer. Moreover, to sustain daily expenses of AMI like the utility bills and salary of the staffs. Since there is no allocation from the government or any other non-profit Muslim organizations, they only receive donation from the congregation on daily basis and rely solely on that source of income. Islamophobia only makes things worse, he said, people aren’t that open anymore to help them sustain.

There are some Muslims who are not receptive to the idea of AMI being part of the Tri-faith campus initiative, according to them this is very dangerous to the extent that it could compromise one’s own faith towards Islam and that generally promotes the wrong idea about what Islam advocates, especially towards the Muslim children. In addition, perceived hostilities between Muslims and Christians as well as between Muslims and Jews only add up to the issue at hand.  This of course has no effect to the initiative, those people according to Imam Jamal are ignorant, relying on false idea per se and assuming the worst about the initiative.

During Eid last year for example, the congregation from the UCC and Temple Israel waited outside AMI until the Muslims finished praying and greeted them with dates and sweets. “What we are doing is basically an effort to encourage mutual understanding, foster tolerance and friendship between the believers of the three Abrahamic Faith”, said Imam Jamal.

The number of assaults against Muslims in the United States rose significantly between 2015 and 2016, easily surpassing the modern peak reached in 2001, the year of the September 11 terrorist attacks. (Source: Pew Research)

U.S. Muslims are religiously observant, but open to multiple interpretations of Islam. (Source: Pew Research)

HOW TO RELATE THIS TO INTERFAITH RELATIONS IN MALAYSIA?

This is somewhat different and similar in some way in the context of Malaysia. In reality, inter-faith dialogue and interaction have informally taken place among Malaysians through the act of meetings and socializing in the context of community, employment, neighbourhood and education. This of course triggers dialogues in an organic way. However there are also some Muslims who are closed-minded and not receptive to the idea of inter-religious dialogues compared to non-Muslims, this is due to the conservative attitude and uncomfortable feelings. When it comes to matters pertaining to religion, the attitude of indifference arose, if not silence. Some of us are  used to be the type of Malaysians who are not keen to discuss religious matters publicly due to the sensitive nature of such discussion, in a way it might trigger racial unrest. This has resulted in a paradox where we remain a sophisticated society yet constrained when it comes to deeply understanding our multi-religious society. But this attitude is changing in line with the advancement of technology, exponential development of global communication and vast improvement in mobility. One of the many examples is the fact that people can easily access or be exposed to organic information on social media whether in their favor or not. On the positive note, it exposes information on racial or religious diversity, coexistence, humanity and freedom in many parts of the world that is not impossible to be practiced in their own world.  

Few recommendations on improving interfaith relations in Malaysia. The society should increase their religious literacy coupled with the complexity of other faiths. It is hard as society tend to have superficial and simplistic understanding of other faiths. Religious literacy emphasizes not only understanding on how religions shape people, also how are they shaped by ever-changing political, social and cultural variables. This can be practically done by experiencing interfaith dialogue. In addition, enriching our knowledge by reading books regarding theologies, engaging in empathic and honest discussions, hosting culture or faith-related festivals or events or organizing a football match. The list could go on depending on our willingness and capacity to understand and learn.

My personal favourite would be an idea to have a House of Prayer and Learning. A safe space for people from different faiths to hold services, to teach and learn from one another. The building should provide each religious community its own, separate space for prayer and worship as well as shared central area for dialogue. Discussions shall deal with relevant questions regarding education, neighborhood welfare, crime watch, etc. At the same time the best practice could be disseminated in forms of online or offline publications for teachers and other constituencies to follow suit. Most importantly, the house shall be open to public and follow strict guidelines including not to promote hate speech. Its wider aim is to foster coexistence and cooperation between people of faiths that are becoming more segmented in the modern days.

 

Komuniti Muslim Universal (KMU) with the Bahai’ Community in Malaysia for ‘Twin Holy Days Celebration’

Komuniti Muslim Universal (KMU) with the Christian community for Christmas Celebration at Luther Center, PJ with the attendance of Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia and Deputy Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.