It may be one of the fastest growing religions in the world, but in the U.S., it's a challenge for converts to Islam to learn about their new faith. Muslims are a minority here, with estimates of the population ranging from 2 million to 6 million, and they often come together in small groups to learn what they can and cannot do as practicing Muslims.
Some of the questions new Muslims have can be as complex as the "meaning of life" or as simple as owning a dog or hanging a photo in their home. Many Muslims regard dogs as unclean, and there are rules about whether you can own one. Whether Muslims can hang a picture depends on if it has any spiritual meaning.
Imam Johari Abdul Malik is the outreach director for a mosque in Falls Church, Va. He heads a meeting at Howard University for a half-dozen men who come every week looking for answers Muslims in other countries would normally get from their sheik or spiritual adviser.
It's raining outside but inside it's warm. The men have brought their dinner with them. There's chicken, rice, vegetable curry, all bought from places where the food served is known to be "halal" – ritually fit for Muslims to eat. One of the converts, Lakye Franklin, asks how he can be sure takeaway food from a nearby wannabe KFC, is halal. The imam tells him it's run by Muslims, so that makes it OK.
Most of these men have been coming to this weekly class for the past four years or so. Still, they are full of questions on all sorts of subjects, basic and complicated. Many mosques in the United States have classes like this, a sort of Islam 101, to help new Muslims figure things out. During this meeting the men look for more answers in a slim book on Islam and monotheism. One of them reads out a hadith, a saying of the Prophet Mohammed and his companions.
"Fear Allah wherever you are and follow a bad deed with a good one, and it will wipe it out. And behave well toward other people," he reads.
Imam Johari discusses the passage, drawing on anecdotes and other stories that are relevant to the reading, but also relevant to today. The men deliberate on the words in between mouthfuls of bread and chicken. They listen and chuckle. They've adapted to many aspects of living as a Muslim — giving up pork, fasting — but there's one issue that keeps coming up: women.
Most of these men aren't married, and to be Muslim is to be celibate until marriage. Islam also tells men not to give attractive women more than one fleeting glance. And here, in this society, that's hard, as Imam Johari well knows.
"You're a man. You walk down the street, back in the day, right? A lady walks down the street and her dress blows up, right? Now, the lady's dress blows up and the other dudes look at you and say, 'Man, what's wrong with you?'" he says.
And there's more required from new Muslims: prayer five times a day no matter what, disregarding the splatter and smell of bacon and eggs sizzling at a diner. Casual sex and alcohol are banned under Islamic law, but both are so freely available in this society. Some of the men chafe at the restrictions, but others find it comforting.
"You have one glance and that's it, not ogling somebody. It's just that clear you shouldn't do it and it's right there [in the book]," says Franklin, a 6-foot-3-inch Army reservist who converted to Islam four years ago while serving in Kuwait.
Franklin says he was attracted to the Muslim faith because of the challenges.
"There's no such thing as a perfect Muslim, but I strive to become better and to learn more and to try and apply the principles that are taught in Islam to my life," he says. "That's very difficult in a western society, it's very difficult."
Surrendering to Islam
It's just as difficult adapting Islamic teachings from centuries ago against today's background. This group of African-American men must grapple with terms that may be hard to confront. Words like servitude and slavery. One of the night's readings centers on Muslim men who willingly go into servitude for God. They change their names to include the word "Abd." In Arabic, that means "slave." How does Imam Johari interpret this?
He says the person is actually surrendering themselves to Islam by choice.
"The slave is a person you think of who is under the control of somebody else forcibly, who doesn't want to do it. The 'Abd' ... doesn't want to do anything else."