The Muslim community of Utah

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The cashier at Shaharazad Market in West Valley, can find the falafel in a minute. He is happy to help the mostly Muslim and Arab patrons — and anyone else — at this combined grocery store, restaurant and travel office, although he is new here himself, having traveled from his home in Jerusalem just five months ago.

He is one of roughly 25,000 Muslims from all over the world who have made their home in Utah and established centers to shop, learn, eat and pray together and with their Latter-day Saint neighbors.

Utah community

Muslims from the Middle East have adapted to Utah culture in some ways. The Islamic Center of Sandy and Khadija Mosque in West Valley both hold Sunday School classes on Sunday mornings, although the holy “day of gathering” for Muslims is Friday. Ali Khamis, a Muslim from Jordan, takes his daughter Banah, 11, and son Omar, 7, to the Sunday School in Sandy.

“It’s a different dynamic there on Sundays, because there is a Sunday School in addition to the prayers, with more families and children,” said James Toronto, a BYU professor of Middle Eastern Studies who has had friends in the Utah Muslim community for many years. He added that non-Muslim visitors are generally welcome at the Muslim prayer services in Utah, especially to the large Khadija Mosque.

Iqbal Hussein, a University of Utah professor and leader in the Muslim community for three decades, agreed. “Every Friday it seems like we have a group of BYU students visiting for class.”

Salt Lake Muslim Taj Muhammad explains the importance of the Arabic Quran to several BYU student visitors at the Salt Lake Khadija Mosque. Photo by Lucy Schouten.
Salt Lake Muslim Taj Muhammad explains the importance of the Arabic Quran to several BYU student visitors at the Salt Lake Khadija Mosque. Photo by Lucy Schouten.

Taj Muhammad, a Muslim who immigrated from Pakistan years earlier, was happy to welcome a group of female BYU students to the mosque one Friday. He thanked them for their respectful and modest dress.

“That is perfect — you have long sleeves, and your head is covered,” he said, indicating scarves they had wrapped over their heads.

Muhammad acted as the group’s tour guide for the prayer service, turning the lights on so they could get better pictures. He showed them a copy of the Quran written in Arabic calligraphy, although he asked them not to touch it because they had not completed “wudu,” a ritual washing.

Noor, an immigrant from Africa whose name means “light” in Arabic, led the prayers that evening, as the usual imam, Muhammad, was spending the Eid Al-Adha holiday week with his family. Learning that his visitors were not Muslim, but Mormon, he smiled.

“Mormons and Muslims are like this.” He placed his two index fingers side by side. “Close.”

Part of the BYU community

A small group of Muslims gather to worship in the Wilkinson Student Center every Friday as part of adapting their faith to their lives as BYU students.

BYU chaplain Jim Slater said the university has provided the 50 or so Muslims at BYU with a room in the Wilkinson Student Center for the last decade to help accommodate their unique worship needs.

Ali Khamis has been grateful for the chance to gather with fellow Muslims on Fridays, the Muslim holy day, while at BYU. Khamis is originally from Jordan, but he has spent the last two years in Utah because his wife is a student at the BYU Law School.

Abdul Rahman, a Muslim from Oman who is studying for a PhD at the University of Utah, has also found prayer to be a difficulty in Utah. “It’s hard because we’re used to having many places to pray in the Middle East,” he said. “Here at BYU I usually find a quiet corner.”

His wife, Adhari Abdullah, reminded him, “You can pray anywhere.”

She had her own concerns about living Islam in Utah, however. She is a doctor by profession and practiced pediatrics and obstetrics in Oman, but she is now studying for a PhD at BYU. Her second child was born while the couple lived in Utah, and she felt strongly the need to have a female doctor.

“I was serious about it,” she said.

She added that Islam allowed for exceptions, and in an emergency case in Oman, a male doctor could step in to save a woman’s life. She smiled as she admitted that she understood why an American man might want to study obstetrics, as she had done, “to hear the first cry of the baby!”

Abdullah and her husband said that gender separation is important in Islam, although not more important than saving a life.

“I don’t feel like it’s a restriction in my religion,” she said. “It’s a protection for me.”

Her husband agreed, and he pointed out that the LDS faith has similar ideas about morality for men and women.

“Before marriage a lady is considered a pearl in her father’s hand, and after marriage her husband takes care of her,” Abdullah said. She looked at her husband and said, “So you have two pearls now — your daughter and me.”

These concepts, both cultural and religious, affected the couple’s courtship. Theirs was unique in that they did not meet in person until after Rahman proposed and was accepted. Their sisters were close friends, and both heard about each other through their sisters.

“So when I graduated I proposed,” he said. “All of this happened through brokers.”

After she accepted him, Rahman began visiting Abdullah’s home, which was easy since their families were already so close. Their engagement, which in Middle Eastern culture is less formal than in America, was followed by a betrothal, where they were legally bound to each other but before the wedding celebration had not yet occurred.

Before this betrothal, they explained, they did not go out together.

“So no mistakes happen,” Abdullah said. “It’s part of Islam.”

Another Muslim couple at BYU, this one from Jordan, had similar help in their courtship. Samir, a student in the international exchange program at the BYU Law School, also met his wife, Filistine, through her sister. Filistine’s sister had a position in the court where he was working as a judge, and Samir mentioned that he was looking for a wife. She invited Samir to her home to meet Filistine.

“I was very nervous,” Filistine said.

Samir said he had not been nervous, but his favorite part had been the “day of engagement.” After they had gotten to know one another in her parents’ home, he took Filistine to a restaurant for a nice dinner.

Filistine has just finished her teaching degree before the couple moved to the U.S. They have been happy with everything about Utah — their neighbors, the shopping, the weather and the friendly attitude of the BYU community. To help maintain a proper level of Islamic observance in their home, Samir set his computer to play the “call to prayer” five times a day.

Their neighbors in Wymount Terrace may listen to hymns rather than Quran recitation, but the couple emphasized that these are all paths to the same God.

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