September 03, 1993|By Stephen Franklin, Tribune Staff Writer.
They pour into the large meeting room, filling almost every inch, and silently take their places three floors above the midday roar of downtown Chicago.
They are businessmen on a fast lunch break, and they are casually dressed students and store clerks. They are Arab, Indian, Pakistani, Malaysian, Indonesian, African and African-American.
They are Muslims gathered for traditional Friday prayers, and the recent sermon in Chicago’s Downtown Mosque involved an issue troubling many of the metropolitan area’s 300,000 Muslims: their fears of being under siege.
“These are tough times for Muslims. False propaganda is everywhere,” warned Irfan Ahmet Khan, an elderly Indian-born religious educator, shaking his head as he delivers the sermon.
Indeed, many Muslims say they have been stereotyped and wrongly linked to those arrested in the New York World Trade Center bombing on Feb. 26 and to alleged conspiracies tied to Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Egyptian cleric charged with sedition for “commanding a war of urban terrorism” in the U.S.
“When the newspapers talk about Islam, we don’t see ourselves,” complained Dr. Talat Sunbulli, a physician in Chicago’s south suburbs.
No Chicago mosque publicly espouses the militance urged by the blind cleric. Nor is there any known gathering here of young immigrants like those who found solace in the sheik’s rage toward the “decadent” West and “corrupt” Middle East Muslim leaders.
But Abdel-Rahman’s call for an Islamic revival-a theme that ripples through mainstream as well as radical Islam-floats heavily in the air. So does sympathy for him as a religious man.
Yet while the sheik’s militant ideas are accepted by some of America’s estimated 3 million to 6 million Muslims, they almost always add their disavowal of violence. Likewise there are Muslims who strongly reject the sheik’s hard-line preaching. The reaction is quite diverse because so, too, are Chicago’s Muslims.
Chicago’s Islamic community, the nation’s third-largest behind New York and Los Angeles, is composed of immigrants living in the city, second-generation suburbanites, native-born Americans and some whose roots go back to the Syrian immigrants who brought Islam to Chicago a century ago.
Due to a change in the pattern of immigration from European to Asian, the community’s largest ethnic component is Indian and Pakistani. Chicago, in fact, has one of the nation’s largest gathering of Indian Muslims.
The city also has the oldest and largest community of Yugoslav Muslims, at least 35,000 believers who have led much of the U.S. relief effort for victims of the bloodshed in Bosnia.
Similarly, Chicago is home to several thousand followers of Imam Warith Deen Muhammed, the son of the late Elijah Muhammed. The Imam broke with his father’s black separatism nearly 20 years ago and has since led his estimated 100,000 U.S. followers into mainstream Islam.
The Muslim Community Center on Chicago’s Northwest Side, which has mostly Indian and Pakistani members, boasts one of the nation’s largest prayer sessions on Fridays, the Muslim sabbath, with more than 1,500 believers.
What sets Chicago’s Muslim community apart is the level of its organization, according to national Islamic leaders.
While Los Angeles has more Muslims, Chicago has about 42 Islamic centers and mosques, the same number as the California city. It leads the nation with seven Islamic schools, ranging from elementary to high-school levels, said Muslim officials.
Chicago also has the nation’s only accredited Islamic institution of higher education, the 9-year-old American Islamic College on the North Side.
These insitutions reflect the community’s age and its development over the years by middle-class professionals, says Zahid Bukhari, secretary general of the Islamic Circle of North America, one of several groups that promote Islam in the U.S.
Chicago area Muslims also reflect the worlds they came from.
“All those things you find in the Muslim world, they have brought here,” says Dr. Asad Husain, an Indian-born political science professor at Northeastern Illinois University and president of the Islamic College.
Clearly the winds of conservatism and fundamentalism that blow across the Muslim world are felt here.
Rafeeq Jaber, 43, a Palestinian-born financial planner living in southwest suburban Oak Lawn, is among those who have drawn closer to Islam. He is an immigrant who has found a deeper meaning in Islam in the U.S., and who wants to make sure his children stay within the faith.
His wife, Aida, began covering her head eight years ago with the scarf worn by more conservative Muslim women, and his 18-year-old daughter, Rula, recently began to do the same. His family’s actions, he said, reflect their acceptance of a more devout way of life.
When he came to the Chicago area 20 years ago there were not as many mosques, nor many observant Muslims, he said. “Now you find more and more people at the mosques and more are going back to religion.”

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