Meeting Minnesota Muslims: Da’wah Islamic Center in St. Paul

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Mukhtar Osman heard the familiar tone informing him that a new text message had come in on his phone. He smiled, then chuckled before reading the message out loud: “friend is looking for a good Muslim husband. She is a good Muslim woman, hijab. 35yrs”

A series of text messages between the sender and Osman determined that the woman wants a man who works in the community, and does not spend too much time away from the home. “Doesn’t work too much. Not 16hrs a day.” Osman immediately had a few people in mind, but when he contacted them they were hesitant: her age it seemed, was an obstacle. Osman, however, remained confident that he would eventually find someone for her. Matchmaking is one of a variety of services offered at the Da’wah Islamic Center in St. Paul, a mosque that largely serves East African immigrants.

Najma Ahmed, a Somali-American divorced mother of two, has considered using the matchmaker. She said, “The match system in the mosques has been taking place for a long time and is many times more successful than conventional ways.” It works best, perhaps, because the matchmakers investigate the individuals to make sure that they are a proper match.

Osman, the education director at the Da’wah, is more than a matchmaker. A graduate of the University of Minnesota, the twenty-five-year-old Somali native is a civil engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. He tutors math at the Da’wah Center twice a week. His students are ten- to eighteen-year-olds. He said they have little or no foundation in basic math skills.

“The system is failing these young people, ” he lamented, speaking of the state of public schools in Minnesota. He feels an urgency to reach out to the youth.

“I became active in the community during the summer of 2008, when there was a spurt of violence,” he said, referring to gang-related violence that resulted in the deaths of almost a dozen young Somali men. He admitted that his is a community divided, but said that there are people within the community working towards solutions.

The two-year-old center is run by Imam Mohamud Hassan, a lawyer and Islamic scholar. Imam Hassan described the center as an institution that serves the “religious needs” of its constituents and a “bridge between Islam and other communities.” For the latter, every month, the imam hosts a knowledge seminar where non-Muslims get to learn about Islam as they interact with Muslim men and women. He explained, “God created human beings to know each other and their skills.”

Throughout the week, the center offers free classes in Islam, math, English, sciences, and leadership to about 180 young Muslims. Parents, Osman said, are grateful that their children have something to do and are not on the streets, in gangs.

Abdikadir Mohamed, aka Shiino, is one such young man, rehabilitated by Imam Hassan from the streets of Minneapolis. When, about seven months ago, Imam Hassan heard that a young man was fighting for his life from knife wounds, he went the young man’s hospital bed to pray for him. As he made a slow recovery, the Imam asked Abdikadir to give up his life on the street and devote it to serving God at the Dawah Center.

Abdikadir was thirteen when his family fled from Somalia and settled in Minnesota as refugees. Soon he joined a gang, he says, to get protection from bullies in school. Before long, he was buying and selling drugs and weapons on the south side of Minneapolis. As the Somali population in the cities grew, Abdikadir decided to “protect the Riverside/Cedar area” where he was making money selling weapons and drugs. He wanted to claim it as his turf, so he recruited young Somali boys from high schools, armed them and sent them out his “foot soldiers” to make money. Danger was however always a step away, and one day someone crept up and slashed his throat leaving him for dead.

Abdikadir had a choice to make. He could go back and reclaim his position as a gang leader making fast money on the streets, but live in permanent fear or opt for a peaceful and simple life.

During his 30-day hospital stay, Abdikadir had nightmares that made him reflect on his life, and with the guidance of Imam Hassan, made up his mind to give up life on the street for piety and service at the center.

“I have since learned discipline,” he said. “I know that if my life is to change, I have to change.”

Imam Hassan would like his center to reach the young and change the lives of young Muslim men like Abdikadir. As part of his rehabilitation Abdikadir speaks to other young men urging them to keep off the streets. He travels to other states and speaks at youth seminars against street violence, and drugs.

“It is not easy to convince them,” he said, “but I tell them my story… how I almost lost my life.”

The imam also works closely with couples in struggling marriages. A few months ago, a woman who felt that her husband was stifling her movement sought counseling. Imam Hassan said, “In Islam, divorce is always a last resort, so I worked hard to reconcile them.” However, it became obvious that the man wanted his wife to stay home, while she was interested in working in the community, and divorce was the last resort.

Approximately 400 people come for Friday prayers at the Da’wah Islamic Center, while 200 students attend their daily classes. While the mosque is open to the larger Muslim community, most of its attendants are Somalis, Oromos and African Americans. All classes are taught in English, and translators are available for Oromo and Somalis who need it. To meet its monthly $10,000 mortgage and other expenses the center relies on donations. All the teachers like Osman are volunteers.

According to CAIR-MN, the Dawah Islamic Center is one of about thirty mosques in Minnesota that cater to the 100,000 to 150,000 Muslims in the state.

Nekessa Opoti (nekessa@kenyaimagine.com) is a freelance writer and the publisher of kenyaimagine.com, a Kenyan online magazine and newspaper and editor of Mshale, a Minnesota-based African community newspaper..

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