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Living Muslim

Out of one religion, a bridge forms

While some Muslims prefer life uninterrupted, others reach out to non-Muslims
By: Lien Hoang, The Press Tribune
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Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part, biweekly series, centered on the following themes:

Part one: Voices from a quiet minority
Part two: Who are Roseville’s Muslims?
Part three: The War on Terror, and other tests of tolerance
Part four: A day in the life

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Every Friday, approximately 50 Muslims congregate in a pair of small rooms at the Gathering Inn.

In musical murmurs, Roseville resident Mohi Alvi leads an afternoon call to prayer as men and women trickle in.

Some have come during lunch breaks, still wearing slacks and blazers suitable for office jobs, while others sport jeans and T-shirts.

Cornrow braids mingle with fully-grown beards among men who line up along blue-and-white strips that direct them toward Mecca. Women worship from an adjacent chamber with a large opening into the main room.

Each entrance involves several bows and self-prostration before the service is well under way.

Congregants sit with legs crossed, propped up or tucked beneath them on the carpet, until requested to stand at different points.

Switching from rapid Arabic to English, Alvi stands before the crowd with nothing but a small sound system and worn, folded papers. He explains heaven versus hell, and the need for patience, forgiveness and charity. Giving, he says, is like investing in the hereafter.

Then, as quietly as they came, the Muslims leave, and Alvi locks up the rented rooms.

They return to their jobs, to their families, to their subtle lives as a quiet minority in the region. Indeed, Roseville’s Islamic community attracts about as much notice as the makeshift mosque on Berkeley Avenue.

Some wish to change that and extend a hand of friendship to the non-Muslim population. But others prefer to carry on with their undisturbed existence.

“I’m just a Muslim, not a complicated Muslim,” Muhammad Ajaz says. He runs Tandoori Nights, the only restaurant in Roseville to serve halal, or food permissible under Islamic law.

Sitting at Tandoori one weekend, Alvi opens an interview stressing that most of the Muslims he knows share Ajaz’s inclination toward simplicity. They don’t want any part of the politics that have erupted – particularly following 9/11 – and sullied their religion.

In other words, some, recalling the Twin Towers, long for the lives they knew before the fall. It was a time when they could be Muslim without defending their Muslimness.

“The common people you talk to just want to live their life,” Alvi says.

But the spotlight of 9/11 brought questions welcome and unwelcome. It forced believers to explain themselves – both to those who feared Islam, as well as to those who now wished to convert.

There are also those in the middle, who merely want to understand the religion, and perhaps no Roseville resident has done more to answer them than Durriya Syed.

Days after 9/11, she compiled a red, white and blue quilt of condolences from students in a local Koran reading class, which was displayed at Ground Zero.

She taught a class about Islam at Sierra College and represented her religion in the Interfaith Service Bureau, which brings together two dozen liaisons from religious groups in the Sacramento region.

In addition to lecturing on Islam at schools and gatherings, Syed encourages her children to spread awareness. For her daughter, it was a post-9/11 social studies project soliciting peer opinions about Muslims – the responses were unflattering. For her son, it was motivational rapping about religion, Syed says, throwing in an occasional rhyme from his performances.

One of his lines: “Media put us in a cage/Won’t set us free/But we live our life peacefully.”

The overtures, Syed hopes, will help dissolve misunderstandings fomented by sensationalism in the press.

“There’s so much goodness in Roseville, but it’s not explored,” she says. Of those who misinterpret Islam, she adds, “I can’t blame them, if we don’t tell our stories.”

Do the misunderstandings crop up because Muslims haven’t made advances to non-Muslims, or vice versa?

Nighat Iqbal says: both. She and her family moved to Roseville from the Bay Area seven years ago and found her new neighbors weren’t as welcoming as she’d wished. Their indifference ranged from a remark about the smell of curry to brushing off a free tutoring offer.

“We should reach out,” Iqbal says of herself and fellow Muslims. “And they should reach out. They should ask, ‘Who are you guys?’”

On Feb. 2: Who are Roseville’s Muslims?

Lien Hoang can be reached at lienh@goldcountrymedia.com.