Saturday, April 26, 2003

Imam Ismail El Shikh, the new spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of Hawaii, stands in the Manoa mosque with the Quran in front of him. "I was on my first year of medical study in college, but I decided I loved Islamic study. I'd rather fix the soul more than the body," he said.

Fixing the Soul

A new cleric will lead isle Muslims
while teaching others about Islam

The teacher described a belief that everyone within a radius of seven houses from yours is considered your neighbor.

The teaching is that neighbors have rights, just a notch down from obligations to family and faith. "For example, if you are cooking a barbecue and the smell goes to your neighbor, you must share," said the cleric.

It may sound as familiar as the "aloha spirit" or plantation village dynamics or a basic concept of giving found in many a belief.

It's a tenet of his faith described by a new clergyman in town, Imam Ismail El Shikh, who arrived last month to serve as spiritual leader of the island Muslim community. El Shikh and his wife, Dana, are from Egypt.

The 30-year-old cleric was selected by leaders of the Muslim Association of Hawaii for his credentials, which include a degree from Al Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, a center of Islamic study for more than 1,000 years. He said he was 6 when his father undertook his religious education, and by age 10 he had memorized the Quran. He was in the Al Azhar educational system from primary grades through university.

"I was on my first year of medical study in college, but I decided I loved Islamic study," he said. "I'd rather fix the soul more than the body."

Ismail El Shikh, 30, has taken his post as the new imam at the Islamic Center of Hawaii.

The young scholar was recruited to be imam at the Muslim Unity Center in Detroit in 2000 after being sent for three years by the Egyptian government to lead Ramadan observances in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Michigan. Familiarity with American life was another attribute local Muslims sought in a spiritual leader for a diverse community that includes immigrants from many countries as well as American-born converts, students and military members, blue-collar workers and professionals.

"Our culture is Islam, not a home country," said the imam. "The Quran collects all of us at one point." He translated a Quranic passage in Arabic script over the Manoa mosque entrance: "All mankind ... we created you from male and female, and we made you tribes and nations to know each other."

El Shikh assumes a formal look to lead prayers at the Manoa mosque five times a day. The floor-length linen robe --jebbah -- and stiff headgear --amamh -- are "Al Azhar style, the uniform of a religious scholar in Egypt," he said.

But his informal, anecdotal teaching style would be recognized by preachers in any other religion. There is no end to folksy stories from the Haddith, a body of writings about the prophet Muhammad, his lessons and experiences, that enhance the Quran, which is considered God's word recorded by the prophet. With stories, El Shikh aims to make a scriptural lesson more personal to a Muslim and put the Quran in context for non-Muslims.

"I give the people the basics, to have the keys to understand any book in Islam," said El Shikh. "I like to give the message; it is a message of mercy and peace. Do you know that's not only true for human beings, but for animals and plants?" he asked, launching into stories that would endear him to environmentalists and animal lovers.

"There was a woman who locked her cat in a room without food or water. The prophet said, you will go to hellfire for such a deed. Another woman had lived a life of bad deeds. Traveling, she found a dog that was dying and brought water to it from the well. The prophet said God forgave her all her sins," he said. "He taught that if you plant a tree, and birds eat from the tree, you will be rewarded."

The new arrival answered as a teacher even to questions seeking comment on events in the Middle East or terrorists or religious fanatics. "People ask Muslims about what they see in the media. I believe if you are nice, if you have a good manner, people will respect you." He said he has not encountered hostile or rude treatment in the United States or while traveling during a recent trip to Egypt.

"If some American does wrong, does it mean America is bad? No, they represent themselves, not America. If I do something wrong, I represent myself. Our model is our prophet," El Shikh said. "He didn't say, 'Go push them to be Muslim.' He liked to attract the heart, not force the body. Islam doesn't need to force, because it has logical ways. Force is not logical.

"Islam recognizes that problems happen between people. It tells us how to live with our wife, with our family, with our neighbor, with our leaders."

His first initiative at the Manoa mosque, led by lay members for the past two years, was to start Quranic classes in Arabic to enable everyone to recite the prayers in the original language. "There are translations, which the non-Arab can read. To feel the soul of the Quran, you must read it in Arabic, in the language God sent it."

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