The Story of the Muslim Community in the Central Valley

213
Photo courtesy of Wasan Abu-Baker, seated in the second row, second from the right.

By Wasan Abu-Baker

Muslims are well known for their warm hospitality. Our prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said that whoever believes in God and the Day of Judgment, let him honor his neighbor, whoever believes in God and the Last Day, let him honor his guest as he is entitled. A guest enjoys a special place in Islam. Honoring the guest is tied to the faith of a true believer. Across the world you will find Muslims doing their best to offer hospitality to guests in their home and community. Entertaining a guest is important; it signifies the respect and concern of a host toward his guest and toward God. Hospitality in Islam is a triangle that links God, the guest and the host.

The Central Valley is home to more than 30,000 Muslim Americans. According to some scholars, Muslim Americans began arriving to the United States as immigrants during the period of exploration when the Spanish and Portuguese started their journeys to discover America. The most recent wave of Muslim immigration was during the 1900s when Muslims from Asia and Africa arrived as a result of war, political persecution, poverty and lack of access to education. They came from Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Kenya and Pakistan. The Muslim community in the Central Valley speaks different languages such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu, English, Spanish, Armenian, French, Bosnian, Turkish and Russian.

There are some disparities between those who came to the States as pre-adolescents and those born in the United States. Although many generations have grown up as part of American culture, Muslims often experience cultural conflicts assimilating into mainstream culture because of the traditional Muslim standards and lifestyles they must adhere to in their household and tight-knit community. Muslim immigrant and refugee communities include people who come from various socioeconomic backgrounds, education levels, regional cultures and living conditions.

These differences contribute to how the youth identify themselves and other Muslim Americans. Besides the challenge of integration, Muslim Americans feel a responsibility to educate their neighbors about the real meaning of Islam. We can do this through words, but even more effectively through actions. We need to show that Islam is based on honesty, serving others, caring, being responsible members of society, respecting all people, respecting human dignity and human rights.

As an American Muslim, I focus on my ability to practice Islam, being a productive member of society and raising my children in the United States in a way that preserves their Islamic identity and keeps their native language.

There are various annual conferences, community events and annual bazaars organized to keep the Muslim society united and to provide safe spaces for immigrants and refugees to share and express their challenges and accomplishments.

The Muslim community also maintains close connections to their faith and culture by celebrating major holidays such as Ramadan, Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha in the United States. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and the month in which the Quran was revealed. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. The month is spent fasting during the daylight hours from dawn to sunset. Fasting, which is recognized for its health, spiritual and psychological benefits, is considered by Muslims as a means to improve their moral character and provides an opportunity for spiritual renewal.

Author Wasan Abu-Baker (in the red head scarf and blue sweater) with women from the Muslim community in the Central Valley

Eid Al Fitr, on the first day of Shawwal in the Islamic calendar, marks the end of the month of Ramadan and lasts three days. It is an important Islamic holiday that involves Muslims waking up early and praying together either in an outdoor prayer ground or a mosque. Eid Al-Adha, also known as the Feast of Sacrifice, commemorates Prophet Ibrahim’s (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice his son to God (Allah). This festival also marks the end of the Hajj Pilgrimage to Mecca.

Muslims in various places gather for special morning prayers, wearing traditional clothes, sharing their national dishes, and handing out gifts and wishing one another well. Other celebrations for Muslims include the birth of the newborn, weddings and the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). These are social gatherings that also bring people together, wearing their traditional clothes, speaking their native languages and sharing their personal stories.

The power of the Muslim community comes from a strong belief in Allah (God), trust in his will and plan by following the example of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), belief in all the prophets, the example of the prophet’s companions, the five pillars of Islam and the pillars of Iman. The religious leader, called an imam, is responsible for teaching Muslims and sharing knowledge about Islam and the manners and practices of being a good Muslim in the United States. Although the imam is an important resource, it is the responsibility of each individual Muslim to seek knowledge about his or her faith and improve him or herself. Friday prayer is the most religious time of the week for Muslims where they pray at the mosque and listen to the speech given by an Imam.

Like all people, Muslims need to feel respected at school, at work, in medical institutions, at community events and anywhere else they participate in society. To accomplish this, we need to engage entire communities.

One must first get to know someone before having an in-depth conversation about community-wide issues. It is important to speak to community leaders who have respect and support from the Muslim community. Also, because the Muslim community is diverse and Muslims come from many different cultural backgrounds, one must learn what an individual’s country of origin or background is before having a discussion. The entire Muslim community is concerned about the world’s perception of Islam and the issue of Islamophobia in this country and hate crimes against Muslims.

There are many community leaders willing to help the community change and overcome these obstacles. The biggest challenge is creating a similar vision and method to address them; they need to unify a diverse community, which is difficult. There are many people who uphold cultural values, mostly community elders. They hold the key to many traditions and customs so that the next generation can access them. Religious leaders also help the development of young Muslims in becoming good members of the community. The younger generation can also maintain communication and culture using technology (e.g., social media).

In the Central Valley, there is a lot of cultural diffusion and mixing of Muslim culture within itself. Simply putting these diverse groups together teaches people about the importance of communication. This means more cultural awareness among the Muslim community. This unity of the Muslim community will allow people to interact with other cultures and religions openly. The value of diversity and respect for others brings us a long way toward resolving community problems.

*****

Abu-Baker was born and raised in Palestine and was brought up in a highly educated household. She moved to the United States after she married her husband and has three kids. She earned her master’s degree in special education and is a community leader; an advocate for refugees, especially Syrian refugees; and is doing a fellowship at the American Friends Service Committee of Pan Valley Institute. She recently became a staff member at Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM) to serve Syrian refugees and is a member of the Central Valley Islamic Valley Council (CIVIC), a large council that includes all the Islamic centers in the Central Valley.