Imam of Grand Rapids’ oldest mosque seeks interfaith understanding

As you enter the Islamic Center of West Michigan, a paper sign instructs you to remove your shoes and silence your cell phones. After hours, the building is quiet and solemn.

The imam, or religious leader, of the center, Dr. Sharif Sahibzada, works in a small office closed off from the open, carpeted room where congregants meet for prayers on Fridays.

The books on the bookshelf behind him are fine-bound and iridescently colored, with elegant looping Arabic on the spines. Another bookshelf is nearly full of dozens of thick paperback copies of the Quran, which he gives away to anyone who asks.

Sahibzada is from the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan, and he is a third-generation imam. His long white beard and glasses add to the scholar’s air he may have picked up while earning any of his three masters degrees in Pakistan or his Ph.D. in Arabic from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

On his desk, knickknacks and souvenirs speak to his presence in the Grand Rapids community: mugs from Cornerstone and Grand Valley State Universities hold pens and pencils.

Sahibzada immigrated to the United Kingdom in the 1970s to pursue an advanced degree and stayed there for almost 30 years working in Islamic education and interfaith dialogue.

When a friend submitted Sahibzada’s resume to the Islamic Center of West Michigan, he was invited to move to the United States to be imam and director, a call that he accepted.

“That was July first, 2001,” he said. Only two months after he assumed his duties, September 11 happened and, Sahibzada said, “Everything changed.”

At the time, the Islamic Center was the only mosque in West Michigan, which he said put them under “a lot of pressure.” But he also remembers the aftermath as a time of acceptance and support.

“The local community looked after us,” he said. “I heard ladies celebrated a ‘scarf day’ to show solidarity with Muslims. They even offered to go out and do their shopping for them if they were under too much pressure.” There were threats of violence, he said, but “with God’s mercy, nothing happened.”

Hundreds of Grand Rapids residents worship in the Islamic Center, which was founded in 1985 after a handful of families purchased and renovated an old Jehovah’s Witness church.

Grand Rapids Muslims are a small minority — the 6,980 in Kent County are only 2.3 percent of the county’s total population — but they contribute to the county in many ways through their business or their presence in immigrant communities.

Most Muslims in Grand Rapids are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Bosnian immigrants began to build mosques in the 1980s and 1990s, and they were soon joined by Asian Muslims from Pakistan and Indonesia, by Iraqi and other Arab Muslims and more recently by African Muslims from Sudan and Somalia.

With all of this diversity, the Islamic Center is intentionally kept non-ethnic, non-political and non-denominational.

Sahibzada, for example, is a Sunni Muslim, but he has prayed over and taught many Shia Muslims as well. “In our countries, this never happens,” he said. “Shia will go to a Shia mosque. Sunni will go to a Sunni mosque.” In the United States, however, “there is no problem because we are in such a culture of liberty.”

Sahibzada keeps a busy schedule. Besides ministering to his own congregation, he frequently speaks at interfaith conferences and lectures such as the Salaam conference put on by Calvin Seminary last January.

One of the biggest barriers to overcome, he says, is simply ignorance: “American folks don’t have the knowledge of Islam,” he said. “They pay attention to how the media is presenting [Muslims].”

And the media, Sahibzada says, get “everything” wrong about Islam.

“One time I spoke to a high school and a boy spoke up and said, ‘We thought all Muslims were terrorists,’” Sahibzada said. “I said, ‘Look at me, I am standing here. You heard me speak. Do you think I am a terrorist?’”

But he is optimistic about these learning experiences. “When you see and when you deal with people, your perception of them changes,” he said.

He finds himself speaking out against the violence that many have come to associate with Islam. “Islam is not a violent religion,” he said. “God did not create us to kill each other. The Quran teaches that if you kill one soul you have killed all of humanity.”

“Religion is not violent,” he added. “It is we people who make it violent.”

He also says that Christianity and Islam have more in common than many people realize: “We worship God. We are created by God. We are guided by prophets. We abide by the word of God,” he listed off.

Muslims accept the Torah, the Psalms and the Gospels as the word of God, but believe that they are incomplete without the Quran, which they believe to be the “final testament” and most perfect depiction of God’s will.

“We believe in all the prophets,” Sahibzada said. “We believe in all the books.” The Muslim term for Jews and Christians, “people of the book,” implies respect for their texts.

The difference, Sahibzada says, is that Jews stopped at an incomplete stage of God’s revelation of his will and Christians stopped at another incomplete stage.

“‘Islam’ is not a religion; it is a word that means ‘submission to the will of God,’” said Sahibzada. “Islam is what was practiced by Adam, by David and by Jesus Christ, peace be upon them.”

Muslims believe in a series of revelations. Jesus, then, was not only a Jew; he was a practitioner of an Islam that would not be fully revealed until the prophet Muhammad.

This belief runs contrary to the central beliefs of Judaism and Christianity, but Sahibzada believes there is still room for a respectful dialogue. He is committed to interfaith understanding and acceptance, and offers an open invitation for visitors to visit and observe prayers at the Islamic Center.

“I hope people will understand more about each other and that there will be harmony and peace,” he said. “It only happens through education and through effort.”

In the end, he believes the effort will be worth it.

“It is our obligation to understand each other. Our culture, language or color may be different, but we have to understand each other,” Sahibzada said, leaning forward in his chair. “We are all human beings. We are all children of Adam.”