View from the Pew
A look inside Hawaii's houses of worship
By Mary AdamskiSaturday, November 2, 2002
The first Muslim chaplain in Hawaii
tends to the needs of his congregation
"God's got your back."
Any soldier who has encountered the new battalion chaplain for 1-27 Infantry Battalion at Schofield Barracks has probably received that assurance.
"Whatever their spiritual need, we will nourish it. That's what's so wonderful about America," said Capt. Abdullah Hulwe on a morning this week when one man's emergency took him to Tripler Army Medical Center and led to "linking him up with a Catholic priest."
Accommodating the religious needs of the troops is ordinary procedure for all the chaplains serving at Hawaii military bases. What's extraordinary here is Hulwe and his congregation, which extends beyond the Wolfhounds battalion. He is the first Muslim assigned as a chaplain here.
Members of the Air Force, Navy and Marines, as well as the Army, join the Friday services and Saturday Arabic lessons at the Schofield classroom converted into a small mosque. The Muslim center is in a complex surrounding the main base chapel, which looks like a New England Protestant church. Next door to the Islamic center on the second-floor lanai corridor is the Jewish prayer room.
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Inside the "mosque" chapel at Schofield Barracks, U.S. Army Capt. Abdullah Hulwe, a Muslim imam, at right, prayed with soldier Chad Jones.
The Syria-born Hulwe's education qualifies him as an imam or teacher, but it's his background as an enlisted man -- and his down-to-earth way of expressing himself -- that draws his constituents.
"The reason I'm a chaplain is because I was enlisted. I saw there wasn't an effort to meet the Muslim soldier's needs, and there wasn't an understanding of what a Muslim is."
Outreach to non-Muslims, too, has been a major role for Hulwe since he arrived here in August from Fort Hood, Texas. He and his wife are holding an open house at their quarters today as a way to introduce others to the phenomenon of Ramadan, the monthlong fast, which Muslims will begin Wednesday.
"It's time to hear from us, not about us," said Hulwe, who staged a similar home session for an open discussion around the Sept. 11 anniversary of the terrorist attacks. His effort is in step with a heightened awareness among Islamic organizations throughout the country who seek to educate people about their beliefs and distinguish Islam from the fanaticism behind the terrorism.
The Hulwe family's hospitality today follows briefings to command officers and training for other chaplains to help them understand that "it's not just being knuckle-headed" when Muslim troops refrain from food or water from sunup to sundown. He has also served as a resource for other branches of the service on the subject.
"There will be a memo from the commander to let all the commands know that your Muslim soldier is not eating or drinking for 14 hours," said the cleric. "There is a genuine concern about the health of a soldier who is not drinking water all day," he said, and some practical measures, such as reassigning Muslims to evening shifts or rescheduling physical training, are taken to allow their exercise of religion.
All year long, there is an accommodation made for Muslims to eat outside Army mess halls because food preparation does not meet Islamic dietary restrictions. The United States also provides "halal" field rations, similar to kosher food, with the meat slaughtered according to the religion's mandate.
The Ramadan fast from food, drink and other sensual pleasures is one of the five basic observances of the faith.
"It's not just about the food or drink, but about being in control of your desires," the chaplain said, a way of affirming "I am not subservient to my food, my lust, my car, my material stuff, but to God Almighty. Fasting is something Moses did, Jesus did. It purifies your soul from the greed, the wants, and your body from all the french fries!"
Hulwe and Sgt. Chad Jones, a public-affairs staffer assigned to guide a newspaper crew on base, paused for midday prayer Monday, kneeling with forehead to the carpet and facing toward Mecca, Islam's spiritual center, which is north-northwest from Hawaii.
Like about 70 percent of the local military Muslims, Michigan-born Jones is a convert to Islam.
"When I first went to Kuwait, I thought, 'Why would you not drink water? You're in the desert!'"
On a second deployment to Kuwait two years ago, Jones converted "because it made sense to me. Now I see that if I can do the fast, as long as I keep Allah in perspective, I carry that through my whole life."
Jones met his wife, a Canadian journalist and a Muslim, while both were on the same assignment covering a general's tour in Kuwait.
Prayer five times a day is another basic practice, and the times are posted for the month ahead: sometime between 12:31 and 15:34 today, time must be found for midday prayer. Islamic Web sites contain intricate spreadsheets of prayer times, which change each day as winter's approach shortens daylight hours and the moon progresses through its phases. It was complying with the Quran -- calculating the movements of Earth and moon, latitude and longitude, direction to Mecca -- that led Arabs to develop mathematics and astronomy, Hulwe pointed out.
"What prayer is all about is, you do your best and God does the rest. You trust him 24-7 and God Almighty got you covered," he said.
Hulwe teaches Arabic to the English-speaking converts, as well as "Islam for Kids" and Quran study. Among his students are his eight children. He came to the United States in 1983 as a college student, starting in engineering at his father's wish but shifting to get a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Maryland. He later got a master's degree from the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Leesburg, Va.
He has been in the Army since 1991 and an imam for four years. With a slight Southern accent and an exuberant preacher style of speaking, he sounds more like his Christian colleagues than he may realize. He rattles off references, chapter and verse, to Quran passages, exactly as many Christian preachers cite Bible texts.
Group recitation of memorized prayers is a feature that his religion has in common with the folks who worship in the steepled chapel across the way and those who gather in the prayer room down the hall.
By the time the month of Ramadan is over, the Hulwe family will have read their way through the entire Quran. He asks the older children each day, "Have you done your R's?" -- the recitation, rehearsal and review of that day's chapter.
The chaplain talks about God rather than Allah during an interview, just as he did in offering a prayer at the public 9/11 memorial service at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Punchbowl. Is this a way to blend in, to duck stereotyping?
"Whatever name you call him, it is well, for to him belongs the most beautiful names," he answers with a quote from the book. "It's not because it's politically correct. When I say God, I have no doubt who I'm talking about."
To be realistic, in a time when the warfront is likely to be Muslim territory, isn't a Muslim in the U.S. military bound to face rejection if not hostility? How does he combat that?
"The negative stuff is part of the facts of life. I would not look at it as a bad experience, but as an opportunity to educate them," he tells his flock. "God uses good people, but it's bad people who use God."
Mary Adamski covers religion for the Star-Bulletin.
Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.