ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
No one knows how many Muslims there are in the United States. Estimates range from around two million to as many as six million; many of them are immigrants. But a sizeable number were born in this country, people who converted to Islam. These converts often need guidance about what it means to be a Muslim, so many mosques help out with a sort of how-to course.
NPR's Jamie Tarabay attended one in Northern Virginia.
JAMIE TARABAY: When you're a new Muslim in a country where Islam is a minority religion, it's not easy knowing what's okay and what's not. The questions you have can be as big as the meaning of life, or as simple as…
Imam JOHARI ABDUL MALIK (Outreach Director, Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center, Falls Church): Can I have a dog?
TARABAY: This is a country where dogs are part of the family. But some Muslims regard them as unclean. But what if you've converted and no one else in your family has? What then? There are other niggling questions.
Imam ABDUL MALIK: Can I have pictures? You know, no Muslim, some of them from the (unintelligible), what's up brother, you know, your dog?
TARABAY: That's Imam Johari Abdul Malik. He's outreach director for a mosque in Falls Church, Virginia. And the answer to that question, well, it depends on whether the pictures have any spiritual meaning. The imam heads this meeting at Howard University for the half-dozen Muslim men who come here every week looking for answers Muslims in other countries would get from their sheikh or spiritual adviser.
Imam ABDUL MALIK: Do you have a problem with that? Take it up with the sheikh. Don't take it up with me. I'm not a sheikh; I just read the book. All right? And I'm keeping my dog.
(Soundbite of men talking)
TARABAY: As they bring out tonight's dinner of chicken, rice and vegetable curry, one of the new converts, Lakye Franklin, asks how he can be sure the takeaway food they've bought — some of it from a nearby wannabe KFC — is halal, ritually fit for Muslims to eat.
Mr. LAKYE FRANKLIN (Islam Convert; Army Reserve): How can they make sure that the chicken is — how can I be sure that this chicken is…
(Soundbite of rustling paper)
Imam ABDUL MALIK: How (unintelligible)? Do you have a lot (unintelligible)?
TARABAY: There are lots of questions on all sorts of subjects, basic and complicated. Many mosques in this country have classes, a sort of Islam 101, to help new Muslims figure things out. To find some of the answers, these men turn to a slim book on Islam and monotheism. And one of the men reads out a hadith, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.
Unidentified Man #1: Fear Allah wherever you are. And follow up a bad deed with a good one, and it will wipe it out. And behave well towards people.
Imam ABDUL MALIK: Take-home message: Good deed wipes away bad deed. Hmm?
Unidentified Man #1: Right.
TARABAY: They 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.
Imam ABDUL MALIK: You're a man. You're walking down the street, back in the day, right? A lady walks down the street and her dress blows up, right? Right? No, no, the lady's dress blow up and the other dudes look at you, man, what's wrong with you?
Unidentified Man #2: That's true.
Unidentified Man #3: (Unintelligible).
Imam ABDUL MALIK: What happened to you?
TARABAY: There's more: Prayer five times a day no matter what, trying to disregard the splatter and smell of bacon and eggs sizzling at a diner, and casual sex and alcohol banned under Islam, but so freely available in this society along with so much more. Some of the men chafe at their restrictions, but others find it comforting.
Mr. FRANKLIN: I mean simple things like not looking at someone who is attractive more than once, like, you have one glance and that's it, but not ogling some - a woman. It's just that clear that you shouldn't do it and it's right there.
TARABAY: Lakye Franklin is a 6-foot-3 Army Reserve who converted while serving in Kuwait four years ago. He says he was attracted to Islam because of the challenges.
Mr. FRANKLIN: To me, there's no such thing as a perfect Muslim, but I strive to become better and to learn more and just try to apply their principles that are taught in Islam to my life. That's very difficult in a Western society. It's very difficult.
TARABAY: 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?
Imam ABDUL MALIK: I'm surrendering myself. So I'm not really the slave as the person you think of who is under the control of somebody else forcibly, who doesn't want to do it. The Abd is relinquish the idea that I won't do anything else.
TARABAY: Most of these men have been coming to this weekly class for the past four years or so. And they say they'll keep coming back while they still have so much to learn.
Imam ABDUL MALIK: Go ahead, brother, we're talking about tawheed and ebada.
TARABAY: Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.