By Stephen Magagnini
July 1, 2001
A Sense of Peace and Connectedness
Todd Wilson, a third-generation Italian American, swore off
his beloved prosciutto. Thy Loun, a refugee from Cambodia now
attending UC Davis, had to give up her twice-weekly staple of
Wilson, 31, and Loun, 21, say they've sacrificed their favorite
foods (both made from pork) for something more fulfilling: their
belief in Islam. They are among an increasing number of converts
who have made Islam the fastest-growing religion in America.
There are now as many as 7 million Muslims in the United States
-- half of them American-born. In recent years, Americans of
African, European, Southeast Asian, Latin American and American
Indian descent have left their parents' spiritual paths to follow
Islam, a religion that includes more than 1 billion believers
from nearly every country.
At 10 p.m. on a recent Thursday, Wilson joined several dozen
worshippers of different races and ethnic backgrounds at SALAM
Mosque in North Sacramento for the last of the day's five prayers.
Wilson, who teaches sixth grade in Elk Grove, observes his midday
prayer between classes.
A one-time Marxist who still has posters of the late revolutionary
Che Guevara, Wilson says Islam gives him a sense of peace and
connectedness he never found in Catholicism, the religion of
his parents. He and other made-in-America Muslims often combine
the American values of democracy and gender equality with Islamic
ideals, such as devotion to family, charity, modesty (women often
cover their heads, arms and legs) and bans on alcohol, pork,
smoking and premarital sex.
The growth of Islam in America has led to a growing acceptance
of the hijab (the head cover worn by many Muslim women) and daily
Muslim prayers during breaks at schools and workplaces.
Sacramento, home to the oldest mosque west of the Mississippi,
at 411 V St., now has nine mosques, several Islamic schools and
a Muslim cemetery. Community leaders estimate 35,000 Muslims
live in the Sacramento area.
Wilson, Loun and dozens of others interviewed say they were
drawn to Islam because it places emphasis on prayer rather than
on place of worship - no idols or icons are found in mosques,
which tend to be relatively spare - and because it attracts a
diverse group of followers across the economic and ethnic spectrum.
While many people associate Muslims with Arabs, most Muslims
aren't Arabs, and millions of Arabs aren't Muslim. At a Muslim
picnic in Sacramento's Haggin Oaks Park last summer, believers
from 20 nations prayed and ate barbecue together.
Women's Rights in Islam
Islam, like other religions, is interpreted differently in
different cultures. In Afghanistan, for example, the ruling Taliban
Muslims recently destroyed ancient Buddhist statues, citing Allah's
ban on idol worship. They forbid television, listening to music
or playing cards, and women often are prohibited from working
outside the home or traveling.
But many American Muslims, including immigrants from Afghanistan,
denounce the Taliban's hard-line approach. They say they honor
their wives as equals and insist that Islam was the first major
belief system to advocate women's rights.
From the time of the prophet Muhammad, who Muslims believe
received the word of God (the Qur'an) in the seventh century,
Muslim women were allowed to choose their husbands, divorce,
own property and do battle -- rights afforded few Western women
at the time, said Kathleen O'Connor, who teaches Islam and the
Qur'an at the University of California, Davis.
"This Western notion that Muslim women are all tied up
in a closet somewhere, bound and gagged, is utterly ridiculous,"
Islamic militants have targeted Israel and its allies -- including
the U.S. -- for acts of terrorism. But only a small minority
of Muslims advocate violence in the name of religion, O'Connor
said. "They're just like (U.S.) paramilitary groups -- you
wouldn't judge Americans by Oklahoma City."
African Americans account for 30 percent of America's Muslims,
according to O'Connor. She said the figure isn't surprising given
that as many as 20 percent of the Africans brought to the United
States as slaves were Muslim.
African Amerians Coming to Islam
"African Americans who have converted to Islam believe
it represents a return to cultural roots pre-slavery, a culture
of self-respect and independence," O'Connor said. "And
Islam is a religion of social justice. This speaks to blacks,
whose experience has (often) been marked by injustice. They don't
want to turn the other cheek -- they've been turning it for 200
Like many African American Muslims, Askia Muhammad Abdulmajeed
came to Islam after experimenting with the Nation of Islam, an
African American group led by Louis Farrakhan that is not part
of orthodox Islam.
Abdulmajeed, 56, joined the Nation of Islam under the late
Elijah Muhammad in the early 1970s. He said he admired the Nation's
self-help approach to inner-city problems but said he was repulsed
by its anti-Semitic, anti-white doctrine.
He says Allah saved him from himself: "I was into drugs,
I ran with a fast crowd, didn't hold down a job very long. My
perception of women was decidedly chauvinistic."
He ultimately became an Imam, or prayer leader, and now serves
as a sort of Muslim circuit preacher who travels from mosque
to mosque, explaining the Qur'an in modern American terms.
Abdulmajeed, like many American Muslims, is trying to strike
a balance between American notions of equality and democracy
and much-older Islamic laws that preach absolute adherence to
His wife "can be a CEO as long as she doesn't walk away
from her responsibility as a wife and mother," he said.
"If my wife is uneducated, unsophisticated, what kind of
children is she going to raise?"
Wilson, Abdulmajeed and other American converts appreciate
Islam's rigorous, direct relationship with God. Muslims are expected
to pray, in a kneeling position with their foreheads touching
the floor, five times a day. Where they pray is immaterial as
long as they're facing Mecca. They also are required to fast
during Ramadan -- one month out of each year during which Muslims
are to abstain from food, water, sex and arguing from sun-up
In April, California State University, Sacramento, hosted
a forum on the "Islamic Presence in Latin America"
before and after Columbus.
One of the speakers, Salvadoran-born AbdulHadi Bazurto (President
of Latin American Muslim Unity), said the more he examined his
roots, the more he questioned the validity of Catholicism in
"Since the day the Spanish arrived, we as people have
suffered a lot," he said. "Christianity's 'white God'
concept was harmful to our people, who were definitely not white."
Another speaker, Daniel Denton, a Stockton elementary school
teacher who was born in Mexico, said he was a hard-drinking veteran
of the Gulf War when he began to explore Islam in 1994. At the
invitation of Muslims at Delta College, he went to a mosque.
"There was a carpet on the floor, and the walls were
bare. I wondered, 'Where is everything?' and then I realized
that was everything. If you go to a Catholic church, every few
feet they have an image or a statue, but in Islam, there is no
association between God and any image."
Denton also was impressed by the Islamic belief that each
individual will be judged by their deeds on Judgment Day. That
night, he took the shahada, the Muslim vow that says "There
is only one God, Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."
When he started fasting for Ramadan, "I heard my relatives
in Stockton were calling my mom in San Diego and telling her
I had become a terrorist and was doing drugs," Denton said.
"When I went down to San Diego toward the end of Ramadan,
I had lost 15 pounds and was starting to grow my beard. My mom
was just in tears for days."
But, Denton said, his mother soon realized that instead of
partying, he was staying home and talking to her as he had never
"As she began to see the change, she came to accept it,
and now she's happy. There's a saying in Islam that goes, 'Heaven
lies at the feet of the mother. You have to treat her well at
all times, take care of her.' "
Denton, 29, sees similarities between Islamic and Latino culture.
"I've noticed that if you take away the crosses, the alcohol
and the pork, the smells in my house are similar to Muslim homes.
So is the behavior -- the respect for family."
Viewed as a Traitor
Those similarities also ring true for Italian Americans such
as Wilson and Nicole Ianieri, who teaches Italian language classes
in Davis and Woodland.
"After the birth of my children (Miles in 1996 and Darius
in 1998), I began to feel a very spiritual need," said Wilson,
who converted in 1998. "If I don't pray five times a day,
I get a little antsy. It's as if my whole day is out of whack."
Wilson's wife and mother accept his change of faith. But Ianieri,
24, initially was viewed as a traitor.
Ianieri, whose father is an Italian immigrant, said she was
raised "a very strong Catholic." Then, as a teenager,
she befriended a Muslim youth from Egypt and became curious about
Islam. A few years later, a college friend invited her to a mosque.
"As soon as I walked in, I felt a sense of belonging, a
sense of community that in all my years of going to church, I'd
never felt. There were people from all over the world sharing
the same goals, and it touched me."
Finally, during Ramadan, she broke the news to her parents.
"They were really shocked initially, and who can blame them?
They met me for lunch, which was kind of a bad choice, because
I couldn't eat or drink anything, and I was wearing a scarf and,
unfortunately, the cheapest material was black, and I'm all pale
from not eating.
"My dad's words were, 'You're Italian. Italians are Catholic.
You were born a Catholic, and you're going to die a Catholic.'
... My mom was crying."
Ianieri said she no longer was welcome to serve as vice president
of her Italian cultural group. One association member, a relative,
telephoned to say "I no longer represented the cultural
values they wished to represent. Fifty years ago, in the village,
what were women wearing? They were wearing long skirts and scarves,
like me. They were moral."
Ianieri eventually married a Moroccan immigrant who has been
embraced by her parents.
"Their biggest problem wasn't about the religion, but
about the way I dress," she said.
The hijab -- worn by some Muslim women, but not others --
can make life for young Muslims difficult in America.
Pressure to Date
Asma Ghori, 20, a UC Davis student from India, says high school
dances and college nights out have been exercises in misery.
"I can't eat the food. I can't dance, because I don't
dance in front of men. I can't dress the way other women dress.
I don't drink, and I don't go with a date -- what's the point?"
Ghori's friend Roohina Diwan, a pre-med student who emigrated
from Afghanistan as young girl, said that in high school she
was called a "scarf head," "turbanator" and
other slurs. After the Oklahoma City bombing, she said, schoolmates
asked her if she knew how to make bombs.
But it's not just bigoted attitudes toward Muslims that bother
"Every time you turn on the TV, the word sex comes up
about a million times," she said. "In high school,
I felt a lot of pressure to date and have a boyfriend."
At Davis, she has struggled with the drinking and mating habits
of her non-Muslim friends and roommates. Because Muslim values
so often clash with mainstream American behavior, Diwan identifies
as Muslim -- not American.
Diwan has served as a spiritual guide for her friend, Thy
Loun, who was born in Cambodia a Buddhist, then became a Christian
before converting to Islam last April. Loun said she's traded
nights of clubbing in mini-skirts for a hijab and the calmness
that comes with daily prayer.
"When I have on the hijab, it makes me aware of what
I do, and that I'm accountable for all my actions," she
said. "I have an identity."
Loun and her husband, a Mexican American Catholic, are among
many American Muslims struggling with the Quran's ban against
usury, which holds that Muslims can't make a profit lending money.
"Maybe we'll get an interest-free checking account,"
Jameela Houda Salem said her Egyptian husband refuses to buy
life insurance because the Qur'an says it's sinful to profit
off someone's death.
"That's one of my issues, because I'm a licensed insurance
agent," said Salem, who was raised Jewish and Catholic by
divorced parents in Brooklyn. "I have faith that God will
provide for me, but I also want the $250,000 (in the event of
her husband's sudden death) to pay off the house.
"I'm working on the faith issue."
Salem, who said she studied 11 religions before converting
to Islam last year, said it's been a little tough getting used
to her husband's belief that "the man is the head of the
household and he does have the last say."
"As an American woman who's been on her own for a number
of years, I'm used to having my own say."