Above: Dr. Maliha Shaikh, left, Dr. Sarosh Anwar, right
[Click on thumbnail photo to start slide show.]
By Jenny Blair

This Saturday, the Islamic Center of Saginaw will hold a free open house to celebrate the completion of its new mosque. Designed and built by mid-Michigan professionals, the mosque is on Center Road in Saginaw, just down the road from Hopevale Church. The evening before, a prominent Muslim American author, Michael Wolfe, will give a free lecture at Saginaw Valley State University. (For more information, see end of article.) The Muslim community hopes that its non-Muslim neighbors will stop by and say hello.

“Many of us [Muslims] went to Hopevale’s open house,” said Dr. Sarosh Anwar, a Covenant cardiologist and mosque member who teaches Islamic Sunday school classes to the mosque’s teenagers. “I’m hopeful we can have pastors and rabbis from local churches and synagogues come by and chat, [and] realize on all sides that we [Muslims] are just simple human beings, with the same small joys.”

Muslims in Saginaw?

The new mosque on Center isn’t Saginaw’s first. The original Islamic Center is located on 4th Avenue on the East Side. It began as a house of worship for the African American religious movement Nation of Islam, which emphasizes black pride alongside principles of Islam. By the late 1970s, most of that movement’s members had converted to mainstream Islam, including the Saginaw congregation.

Not long after that, Dr. Waheed Akbar, an orthopedic surgeon, and his late wife, Dr. Raana Akbar, an allergist, both originally from Pakistan, moved to Saginaw. They were part of a trend of immigration to the city. When they first arrived, said Akbar, the local mosque had about 15 to 25 families, most of them African American. Now he estimates that, including African American and Caucasian members, the Islamic Center has 150 families hailing from “literally all over the world,” most of them physicians but many holding a variety of other jobs. The immigrants in the congregation come from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria. And, Akbar said, they have outgrown the East Side mosque—there isn’t enough parking or room for Sunday school classes. To accommodate some holidays like Eid, as important as Christmas or Easter are to Christians, the community has had to rent Horizons Conference Center.

The new mosque will have plenty of space for worship, Sunday school, and events, and its Saginaw Township location will make it easier for members who wish to perform some of their daily prayers at the mosque to stop by.

The congregation chose the present design, Akbar said, for its mix of Islamic and contemporary architecture. “If we are going to make a new mosque,” he said, “we should make it as something not only the Muslims but the people of Saginaw should be proud of. We just don’t want to make it into a cookie-cutter kind of a building.”

Designed by Saginaw architects Wigen Tincknell Meyer & Associates, the mosque was constructed by William Bronner & Son, which has built many mid-Michigan Catholic and Protestant churches as well.

Building understanding

The new Islamic Center has been several years in the making, and at first, some non-Muslim community members were wary of the plans. During re-zoning hearings in July 2009, for example, several people expressed concerns about the call to prayer. Islamic Center representatives explained that it will not be broadcast throughout the neighborhood. (Notifications may be sent via text message to members who want them.)

The plan had plenty of defenders. “We have so many [non-Muslim] supporters who spoke in favor of building the mosque, in favor of the Muslims, that we were really truly overwhelmed,” said Akbar. And at the final planning meeting in August 2009, chairman Tim Braun reminded attendees that federal civil rights law provides constitutional protection to religious institutions. By then, there wasn’t a single question from the audience. In the end, the Saginaw Township Planning Commission unanimously recommended in July 2009 that the Township Board of Trustees approve the mosque’s construction.

Some of the understanding at that meeting may be due to the efforts of Akbar’s late wife, Dr. Raana Akbar, who was passionately committed to building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims, including holding interfaith activities. (This Friday’s lecture will be held in her honor—see end of article.) After 9/11, said Akbar, the two of them visited churches in Midland, Gladwin, and Grayling to hold question-and-answer sessions with congregants.

Did they meet with misperceptions about Islam from their fellow Michiganders?

Yes, he said, starting with the concept of jihad.

“That’s the number one misperception,” he said, “that somehow the religious teaching, including the teachings of Koran, are militant, that they are very aggressive, that killing is okay. ...We are really not taught that at all. We are taught to be loving to our neighbors, to be peaceful and try to solve problems rather than be confrontational.”

An Arabic word, “jihad” can be translated as “struggle.” While it can carry a military meaning, it also connotes an individual struggle for self-improvement or action to improve society, such as protecting the vulnerable. Moderate Muslims and other authors argue that that peaceful meaning is the more accurate one.

What about terrorist acts committed by Muslims?

“These acts of desperation are terrorism, more terrorism than anything else,” said Akbar, “and these are people who definitely have a different philosophy than the vast, vast majority of Muslims. They also justify their act on some of the quotations from Koran, but [these quotations] are taken totally out of context. ...Koran very clearly teaches, ‘Love your neighbor as you would love yourself.’”

Another question Akbar often gets is about Islam’s treatment of women. “I’m not going to defend that at all,” he said. “These [rules governing Muslim women] are basically very country-oriented. There are countries in this world which have such strange laws, [such as Saudi Arabia’s] not allowing people to drive.

“You see people here covering their heads, and that’s their own personal decision, but it should not be enforced on them.”

A third misperception is the idea that all Muslims think alike. “Like any other religion, [Islam has] lots of sub-sects,” said Akbar. “Just by looking at somebody, you cannot tell if they are Muslim or non-Muslim.”

“Percentagewise, there are very few Muslims” in the United States, said Dr. Anwar, the cardiologist. “Most people don’t have personal experience or interactions with Muslims. If a negative piece of news come out about a Jew or Christian committing an heinous act, this doesn’t reflect their beliefs.”

Indeed, the way that news coverage influences people’s opinions about Islam has long frustrated Akbar.

“When that gentleman ran his plane into an IRS building in Texas, [people] said, when they found out what his religion was, ‘This is not terrorism.’”

But why, he asked, do we only call atrocious acts “terrorism” when a Muslim is behind them? He pointed to the recent case of a gunman opening fire at an IHOP in Carson City, Nev. “As soon as his religion was not [found to be] Islam, it was not [considered] terrorism.”

“Raana used to laugh when I would say—if somebody who has done an atrocious act of killing, pulling a machine gun, blowing up a building or whatever—the only time the religion of the perpetrator is mentioned is when he’s a Muslim. If the religion is not mentioned, we all know they are not a Muslim.”

Akbar said that moderate Muslims are often criticized for not condemning acts of Islamic terrorism. “We do! We do [condemn] it tremendously! ...We hate what is sometimes done in the name of religion, any religion, when people are killed, and we condemn them. But the media will never publish it.”

Dr. Anwar said that when he teaches Sunday school he tries to emphasize to his students that a person’s religion, whether it be Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism, makes no difference in how beloved a person is in God’s eyes. “A Christian may be cherished more [by God] because he is a kind person,” he said.

“People don’t know that we, too, believe in Moses and Jesus,” said Anwar’s wife, kidney specialist Dr. Maliha Shaikh. “In the Koran there is a chapter about Mary. There are a lot of similarities in other religions, but all teach the same thing: peace.”

The 9/11 attacks, Dr. Akbar said, were a wake-up call to the Muslim community “that people really don’t know us well enough. [Non-Muslims’ perceptions of Islam] were highlighted after the 9/11 atrocious attacks, which Muslims very clearly, clearly condemn.”

Yet, as with the zoning hearings, there have been pleasant surprises. The response of many non-Muslim Saginaw residents after the attacks, Akbar recalls, was not quite what he’d expected.

“People came to the Islamic center with flowers and bouquets to give us,” he said. He remembers visitors telling congregants, “‘We know you are under pressure; people are focusing on you. We know you’re good guys.’” The well-wishers told the congregants they’d gotten to know a Muslim at work or elsewhere, or they had a Muslim physician or neighbor.

Community involvement

That’s not surprising, as the Muslims of Saginaw have a history of community service. In some Muslim countries, for example, it is traditional to provide food for the poor on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. On those occasions, members of the congregation often fund a day’s meals at the East Side Soup Kitchen, or serve there themselves. The children of the congregation hold an annual food drive at Thanksgiving, and the Islamic Center also holds clothing drives in concert with local charities. Members are active in Township schools, with one parent, Dr. Shaiza Khan, serving as PTA president at the Saginaw Arts & Sciences Academy. Dr. Raana Akbar, in addition to her outreach work, also served on the boards of the Saginaw Community Foundation and Saginaw Valley State University.

But it may be at local hospitals that Saginaw’s Muslims give the most time. Akbar and many of his Muslim colleagues have donated many hours as committee members, section chiefs, and department chairs at Covenant and St. Mary’s. These administrative positions are unpaid, yet crucial to running the hospitals. “I encourage the other docs [to do this] community service,” said Akbar. “I tell them ‘Don’t only worry about your practice; you have to go over and above. This is something you have to do as a [member of the] community.’” Physicians’ spouses and children are often seen volunteering their time at the hospitals as well.

The Akbars’ community activism won them a 2004 Spirit of Saint Vincent Award from the St. Mary’s of Michigan Foundation, as well as a 2004 Michigan State Medical Society Community Service Award. After Dr. Raana Akbar passed away, her family established a scholarship fund through the St. Mary’s Foundation for women studying health care.

The way in which the Muslims of Saginaw are integrated into the community may reflect the American Muslim population at large. A recent Pew Survey found that, of an estimated 1.5 million adult Muslim Americans, 72% rate their communities as excellent or good places to live, and most see no conflict between being good Muslims and living in modern society. Many believe in adopting American customs rather than trying to remain distinct from society. A spokesman for a Muslim American civil rights group told the AP that although the community sometimes feels besieged by anti-Muslim sentiment, Muslim Americans are still “well-integrated and happy.”

“At every level, we try to get involved--what all Americans do,” Akbar said. “Saginaw is as good a microcosm as you can see all over the US. All the Muslims are working hard. They are not only good citizens, they are excellent citizens. They go out of their way to make sure they serve whatever they may be doing.”

This week’s events

Acclaimed Muslim author Michael Wolfe will give a lecture and book-signing at SVSU’s Field Theatre at 5 p.m. on Friday, September 30. The next day, October 1, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the public is invited to visit the mosque, where they can see the prayer areas and other parts of the building; there will be ethnic food, a blood-pressure clinic, henna skin decoration, and information about Islam. They want to keep it fun, said Akbar.

Can’t make it on Saturday?

“Anyone is welcome to come on Fridays at 1:30 p.m.,” said Anwar, adding that visitors are also welcome to visit the East Side mosque as well as the new one. “They can hear the sermon we listen to and look at us pray. If they have questions, we can chat and interact. [That is the] best way to judge.”

“If people have misperceptions about Islam,” said Akbar, “I think it’s as much the fault of the Muslims not reaching out to their friends and neighbors and explaining. So we have to do something to tell our friends and neighbors what Islam is all about.”

* * *

Friday, Sept. 30, 5 p.m.: First Annual Raana Akbar Memorial Lecture on Islam and Culture. Speaker: author, publisher, and filmmaker Michael Wolfe. Malcolm Field Theatre for Performing Arts, Performing Arts Center, Saginaw Valley State University. Click here for a map (PDF). Book-signing to follow. Free.

Saturday, Oct. 1, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Open house, Islamic Center of Saginaw, 4300 N. Center Road (north of McCarty). Michael Wolfe will be at the open house to answer questions. Free.

© Jenny Blair, 2011