To be the leader of the Mosque is an immense responsibility. This is a role that is not easily attainable. For Imam Ismael of the Mosque on Connecticut Street, he got his start as a teenager in high school. He read and memorized the entire Qur’an. Afterward, he went to college for Islamic Studies in Jordan for four years. He came to Buffalo to be an Imam. Karibu had the chance to talk to Imam Ismael about Ramadan, Islam, and some of his roles as a community leader.
What is your role as the Imam?
I need the people to pray. As a Muslim we pray five times a day. I lead those prayers. We do some lectures, such as a series about the Islamic rules, how to pray, how to be a good citizen, how to be a good Muslim, and how to work with other people. We just finished a series where we talked about how to raise your kids in America, and the rights of the wife and the rights of the husband. During Ramadan, we have more prayers. After that last prayer, we pray for two hours. We try to finish the whole Qur’an. This is a big responsibility. I also do marriage ceremonies and counseling. If a husband and wife have problems, I sit down with them for consultation. I also give people advice for raising their kids. I try to solve the problem in the Islamic way. We try to do services for the whole community. I feel my responsibility is to do community outreach to non-Muslims to teach them about Islam, what it is, and who the Muslims are. This is part of our job and we should take it seriously.
Why is Ramadan so important to the Muslim community?
If you are a Muslim, there are five pillars of Islam. You cannot do four and miss one, you cannot ignore any of them. The first one is to say there is no God but Allah and Prophet Muhammad Peace Be Upon Him is the messenger of Allah. The second thing is to pray five times a day. The third one is to fast during the Holy Month of Ramadan. The fourth is to give charity and the fifth is to visit Mecca once in your life. Ramadan is here because it is the third pillar. It is one month in the year, and the ninth month of the lunar calendar. We must fast this month and it begins when we see the full moon. We break our fast when the next month starts. It is obligatory for each Muslim.
How can people make Ramadan easier?
Usually in the Islamic rules, we should follow Prophet Muhammad Peace Be Upon Him. He said the month before Ramadan is a good month to prepare yourself and practice. You can’t go the year without fasting and then try to fast during Ramadan. There is a guide from Prophet Muhammad Peace Be Upon Him to practice and prepare your body for Ramadan.
What are some challenges for Muslims during Ramadan?
Because of the hot weather and long days, not like how it is in Arab countries. The day is shorter, here it is longer. If you cannot fast because you are sick or your body cannot handle the fasting, you have permission to break your fast and make it up after Ramadan. For the older people, some who have diabetes, Islam gives them permission to break their fast. Ramadan is good for the health. It doesn’t force people to stop eating and drinking, it is good for mental health.
With everything going on in the Middle East, some folks think Muslims need to come out and defend their religion. Do you feel the need to defend Islam because of the actions of terrorist groups?
No. We shouldn’t have to defend ourselves as Muslims because we didn’t do anything wrong. Anyone who does something wrong should be the one defending themselves. But the media tries to target Islam. The terrorist they come from Islam, they say. As an Imam, we should try to teach the people about Islam. We feel the responsibility to help the misguided people who don’t understand Islam because of the media. Our responsibility is to teach them, and we have open houses all the time and many activities for the people who want to know. If you want to know about Islam, just come and ask us who we are. We will tell you who we are. This is very important for people to understand. We shouldn’t go and defend ourselves, because we did nothing wrong. If one Christian does something bad, I can’t say all the Christians are bad. We give responsibility to the media because they work so hard to destroy the true picture of Islam. We feel bad about it but we feel it is our responsibility to educate the people.
Do you experience Islamophobia in Buffalo?
We have some of it, especially with the ladies when they wear the hijab. Some of the brothers tell me they feel people look at them in a bad way. Some of the sisters get verbally abused by people. At the same time, we sit down with law enforcement, the FBI and the local government to discuss with them what should a Muslim do when they face Islamophobia or a hate crime. We try to make programs for the community and invite law enforcement to talk to the people about their rights and what they should if someone does something bad to them. We try to work on it and try to educate our community also. We know that most people misunderstand our religion. When this happens, you should be patient and look at how you a can deal with it. We cannot fix it, we are a small community but we try out best to educate the community.