Saturday, April 26, 2003

Mona Darwich, a Muslim student at UH-Manoa, wrote her undergraduate thesis on the oral history of Hawaii's Muslims.

UH student traces history
of Muslims in Hawaii

As a crossroads of the Pacific for trade and travel, Hawaii has undoubtedly hosted visitors and residents of the Islamic faith for more than a century. But there was no organized Muslim group or gathering place until the mid-1960s, when many Asian students and professors were drawn to the new East-West Center.

The first imam, or spiritual leader, on record here was born in China and came to Hawaii after a diplomatic career in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Hajj Saad Abdul Rahim Shih Ming Wang had something in common with the new imam at the Islamic Center of Hawaii: an education at the prestigious Al Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt.

The Manoa mosque, a large clapboard house with no distinguishing Islamic features, was bought in 1979 with $500,000 donated by a member of the Saudi Arabian royal family.

Those mileposts in Muslim history in Hawaii are described in a thesis to be presented today at an undergraduate honors symposium at the East-West Center's Jefferson Hall.

University of Hawaii senior Mona Darwich is combining her sociology major and her religion to prepare a study, "Inside and Outside the Mosque: Oral Histories of Hawaii's Muslims."

"I don't need this to graduate, but I am so motivated," Darwich said. Besides searching in the state archives, business registration files, library and the Internet, she is interviewing members of the Muslim Association of Hawaii.

Darwich is of Egyptian ancestry, but her family lived in Brazil until she was 17. She is married to Marine Sgt. Michael Gatto. They expect their first child in July. Darwich and her husband are active in the military Muslim community, which meets at a Schofield chapel.

They came to Hawaii in 2001 when he was assigned to Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe. With experience in Muslim communities in Brazil, Egypt and California, she launched the project after discovering there is no recorded history of local Muslims and not much historical memory shared between older and newer members.

"My timing was not so good," she says. She said the response from many she sought to interview in the tense post-Sept. 11, 2001, days was, "Are you a spy?"

But Darwich has become recognized, in part thanks to articles she writes for the UH campus newspaper, which are carried on the Muslim Association Web page. She has completed 33 interviews and gotten 70 surveys returned. She has also interviewed young people at the mosque for a documentary, filmed by Achmed Djunaid, about being a Muslim teenager in Hawaii.

Her research has led to Internet interviews with two of the founding members of the Muslim Student Association -- "I was ecstatic when they got in touch!" -- and a surprise nearby resource: The first imam's son, Farouk Wang, is a UH administrator.

Pramudita Anggraita, now a professor in Indonesia, told Darwich of his student days when the East-West Center provided a room in Hale Manoa on campus for the weekly Friday prayers.

Makhdoom Shah, of Kuwait, said that by the time they incorporated as the Muslim Students Association of Hawaii, 90 percent were nonstudents. In 1979 the group bought the mosque with donated money.

"A handful of Hawaii's Muslims know who is the anonymous benefactor, a Saudi businessman," Darwich wrote in the thesis. "The benefactor's wish is to remain anonymous, and there are reports that he still visits Manoa mosque on trips to Hawaii." She also quoted a 1979 Star-Bulletin story identifying Prince Abdulaziz Bin Fahad Al-Faisal as the benefactor.

She continues to seek people who are part of Muslim history in Hawaii. One such was Abdul Shakur Ali, who as a Schofield soldier in 1983 was first liaison with military members. Now a New Jersey resident, he was the Muslim chaplain at Ground Zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she said.

"This is definitely a work in progress," Darwich said. She intends to develop themes including the role of Muslim women, and a comparison of civilian and military Muslim communities here. A conclusion she has drawn is that "too few people are involved," which limits what can be offered. "I hope it will be used for self-introspection, for Muslims to look into our own community. I hope to become a bridge between Muslims and non-Muslims in Hawaii, to promote dialogue and to better the community."

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