“I’m a Muslim. Ask me anything.”
That’s not a phrase one would typically hear going about errands in Harrisburg. But, outside of Midtown Scholar Bookstore this past weekend, a group of men stood holding signs with just that statement written on them.
“I’m a Muslim. Ask me anything #meetamuslim.”
These men belong to Hadee Mosque, which sits on Division Street.
“We want to come out into the community with our friends and neighbors to have a conversation,” said Mohammed Safiullah. “To get to know each other better.”
Next to Safiullah, Saif Raza added that most Americans have never met a Muslim—more than 60 percent—and said that this was “an opportunity where everyday Americans could meet a Muslim.”
These men are Ahmadiyya Muslims, like Sunnis and Shi’ites, a sect of Islam. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community began having “Meet a Muslim” days in January. Saturday was “National Meet a Muslim Day,” with Ahmadiyya Muslims making connections in 100 cities across the United States.
The response from the community thus far has been overwhelmingly positive, said Sarfraz Ahmad. People often beep as they pass or stop and say “hi,” he said.
Amy Kelton, with her two sons, dropped by and gave Ahmad Bhatti, donning a #meetamuslim shirt, a snack.
“I’m raising these young guys, and I want them to see what makes America great is all the differences,” she said, when asked why she stopped.
Kali and Gary Tennis paused for a chat on their way to the Broad Street Market and asked about the possibility of visiting a mosque. The two were spending the year visiting different churches every week.
The group of men explained that people don’t have to be Muslim to visit, that a mosque is the house of God, and that many folks come to the mosque out of curiosity.
As Harrisburg resident Veronica Rowland bounded by, she yelled, “Muslims are welcome. Veronica Rowland says so!”
One wiseacre quipped, “What did you have for breakfast today?” To which Safiullah earnestly replied, “Cereal.”
Another woman added that she hoped Muslims felt comfortable here.
The group was eager to address some of the most common misperceptions about Islam— ISIS and jihad.
“Jihad is the most misunderstood concept in the West,” said Safiullah.
He said that the Arabic word “jihad” means to struggle, but people think it means to fight with the sword.
“To struggle against self is a jihad of the highest order,” he said.
On ISIS, Bhatti said, “ISIS is not who we are. It’s political.”
They didn’t just take softball questions.
One man asked the group if they would throw gay men off of buildings like he had seen done on the Internet. Safiullah said he was not familiar with these types of incidents. Incredulous, the man assured him it was happening and would show him videos. Safiullah said that the Quran does not say to do that and, if that is happening, “It’s wrong.”
Another woman, who said she was formerly Amish, asked about burqas, a type of dress that covers the entire female body, including the face. Safiullah explained that the Quran promotes modest dress, but isn’t specific about exactly how to achieve that. Women are covered in certain ways, he said, “depending on where they live,” because culture and politics affect the interpretation and implementation of modesty and other Islamic principles. The woman acknowledged that the Amish promote modest dress, as well.
Safiullah noted that a female bystander, dressed in a coat and slacks but no head covering, would be considered modestly dressed.
The man concerned about the treatment of gay people interjected, “Could a man wear a bikini on the beach?” Safiullah said, “No, men are to be modest too. “
A common theme in the discussion was how politics and culture affect how one lived out Islam.
When asked about the treatment of women in places like Saudi Arabia, where they are not permitted to drive or be out in public without a male relative, the mosque members explained that nowhere does the Quran say these things. These rules are based on culture where one lives and how religion and politics relate there, they said.
If you have a question for the men, the mosque sponsors “Coffee, Cake and True Islam,” a program held Tuesdays from 5 p.m. to closing at the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg.
Folks can come, order a drink and snack on the mosque’s tab, and ask anything they wish.
“Choose to have the discussion, choose to meet your neighbor,” said Christopher Khalid-Janner, director for public outreach for the mosque. “We’re not so scary if you meet us.”
The men on the corner didn’t look scary at all. As they stood, they sipped on something hot to keep warm on one of the colder days this winter, speaking to folks as they passed, encouraging questions. Raza summed up why they stood in the cold.
“Education helps to end bias,” he said.
For more information about the Hadee Mosque in Harrisburg, visit www.ahmadiyya.us/chapters/york-harrisburg/1354-hadee-mosque.