Imam Leads Faith Journeys Far and Wide
By Maurice Gandy
Mobilian takes cultural exchange groups to the Middle East.
Yusef Maisonet's adult life has been a journey, literally and spiritually, around the world.
He was born Jose Maisonet in New York City in the early 1950s, the son of Puerto Rican parents who had moved there from their native island (his six siblings were born there). The family returned to Puerto Rico, then moved once again to New York City in 1965 because of financial hardships on the island.
As a young teen, Maisonet grew up in a "grounded Catholic household," and attended Catholic schools in New York. Occasionally he got in a little trouble, but nothing involving the law, he added.
"I had a pretty good life and wasn't sad, but I have always been a spiritual type person and something was missing in my life," Maisonet said.
In his daily travels around of the city of New York he met a man who was a performer by trade and a Muslim by religion. "He introduced me to Islam," said Maisonet.
'I had always had some confusion about the Trinity in the Christian faith. I was exposed to the wonders of God with a clarity I could relate to," he recalled.
The teen bought a Quran, started reading the Muslim scriptures and within a few short weeks was "spiritually elevated and bore witness to the wonders of God as a convert to the Muslim faith" at age 16, he said.
The Muslim faith he adopted was Sunni, the largest Islamic sect worldwide, not the American Black Muslim sect, although he made many friends in that group, he said. There are about 800 million Sunni Muslims worldwide who comprise about 80 percent of Islamic adherents, according to the Wikipedia Web site http://wiki.answers.com/.
"I still have love in my heart for my Catholic brothers and sisters. My parochial school teachers did a lot for me and taught me well," he said. "Exposure to Islam brought me a clearer understanding of my Catholic friends, my Jewish friends and of the love we are supposed to have for each other as human beings."
After graduation from high school in Brooklyn and attendance at a community college, Maisonet said he was anxious in his early 20s to do something with his life. An uncle, a merchant seaman who recognized his ambitions, helped him join the American merchant marine.
In the next few years, the young seaman sailed around the globe — Europe, Asia, South America. "My travel all over the world was a beautiful experience because I got acquainted with different people, different cultures, different frames of mind," said Yusef (who adopted the Arabic translation of Jose and Joseph as his first name).
In 1979 the merchant seaman sailed into Mobile on a ship that needed six months of shipyard repairs. While in the Port City, Maisonet met a young Mobile woman who was not a Muslim by faith. She had him over for Southern hospitality and home cooking. Soon, they were married. His wife, Amina, later converted to Islam and has been a Muslim for about 19 years, he said.
The seaman looked for a land job in Mobile, but the economy was slow so he went back to the merchant marine, with Mobile now his final port of call. "Amina and I didn't have any problems with the separation," he explained. "The love we had for each other was pretty well cemented."
The couple has a married daughter, Dana Cooks of Mobile; a son, Rob Maisonet, who is married and lives in Portland, Ore.; and five grandchildren.
Maisonet retired for good from the sea about a year ago, but that didn't stop his traveling. He has traveled across America speaking to Muslim groups and other audiences interested in knowledge of the Muslim faith. A couple of years before retirement he had started leading cultural exchange groups to the Middle East.
He has made pilgrimages to the holy cities of Islam in Saudi Arabia: Mecca, the holiest city of the faith (three trips) and Medina, where the prophet Mohammed is buried (three trips). He has also led tours to Bahrain, Dubai, Egypt and Israel, he said.
In the Middle East, even if a traveler professes the Muslim faith, once he reveals he is American, the attitude is " 'Watch this guy,' " laughed the imam. "The visitor must understand the tight-knit tribal cultures over much of the Middle East. Anyone who doesn't belong to a certain tribe will be treated well but looked on as an outsider."
In 2007, Maisonet took part in the first cooperative imam training program at the Zayed House of Islamic Culture in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, sponsored by the government of the United Arab Emirates and General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
The six-week program was designed for citizens of the U.S. and France, according to the certificate of successful completion/achievement awarded to Maisonet. Now a certified imam as a result of the training, Maisonet can give sermons, lead a Muslim community, perform weddings and conduct funeral services.
"I consider myself a citizen of the world, but also a citizen of the U.S. I love my country and would die fighting to defend religion freedom of other faiths," Maisonet said.
As to Islamic terrorists, the imam remarked, "There are extremists in everything, but the Islam I was taught is passive and believes that all human beings are brothers and sisters; I don't separate that brotherhood by religions. I'm human, of course, but I don't have room for hate in my heart."
Here at home, Maisonet does clergy visits to inmates of Mobile Metro jail. His work there "is not so much about propagating Islam as propagating humanity and love, helping out young adults who have been deprived," he said. He also does interfaith work with churches and synagogues in the Mobile area.
The traveler recently returned from leading a group of American female pilgrims, teachers and professionals of different ethnic backgrounds from different parts of America, to the United Arab Emirates. The December 2008 tour was sponsored by the American Muslim Leadership Program for Females and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
The purpose of the trip, said Maisonet, was to expose the women to the views of moderate Islam, including the court system. The 21 American Muslim adherents were encouraged by their leader to be the same as they are in America, even in a culture where women are not allowed to travel alone. Some of the women wore pants and did not cover their faces while in the Middle East, if they didn't feel comfortable, he added.
"The women and I went to the Middle East, not so much to learn from their culture, as to have them learn from females in our culture," said Maisonet. "The sisters from America were well-received and were a very good representation of Americans, period."
Maisonet's home mosque is Masjid of Al-Islam on Duval Street in Mobile.
"This very humble, very private man is loyal to his convictions and has religious devotion for all of humanity," said Ronald Ali, resident imam of the mosque who has known Maisonet for 25 years. "Yusef's travels have allowed him to see true humanity. He truly extends the banner of friendship to those he befriends."
"As a spiritual person, he is a great motivator who has grown in his religion and his knowledge of Islam through his travels to the Middle East," said Gloria Mahdi, a Masjid of Al-Islam member who has known Maisonet for 21 years. "He is a man of action. All you have to do is call him and his wonderful wife, Amina, if you need something."
"Being a Muslim is an active way of life. You use it or lose it. The prophet Mohammed taught us to seek knowledge wherever we have to go in the world," said Maisonet. "We honor all the prophets from Adam and Moses, through Jesus and Mohammed. God loves us all."