The Islamic Community Center in Tempe is the home of the second-largest mosque in Maricopa County. (Photo by Keerthi Vedantam.)
by Keerthi Vendantam
April 22, 2016
The Islamic Community Center of Tempe has the second-largest mosque in Maricopa County. It has been the target of anti-Islam protests, and it hosts mosque tours and classes for non-Muslims who want to expand their worldview.
One of those classes is called “Fundamentals of Islam,” and it explores the various religious implications of the Quran. It’s taught by Ahmed al-Akoum, the director of the community center and a Latino Muslim. Every Sunday before the noon prayer, his students sit at a circular table and ask questions as he explains the stories in the Quran.
On this particular day, a Latino man wearing a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt brought up a very personal concern:
“My sister died a few months ago as a Christian,” he said. “I’m worried God will not accept her in Heaven.”
These kind of questions are unique to converts, al-Akoum said.
“The majority of the class ends up not teaching Islam,” said al-Akoum. “We end up talking about making changes in lifestyle and views.”
Latinos make up more than half the converts who attend mosque prayers and classes at the center, according to al-Akoum. The new wave of diversity isn’t an issue for al-Akoum; he says the mosque is very welcoming of people from other cultures. Since it is a place of worship for people from Lebanon, Pakistan, Egypt and other countries with Muslim majorities, leaders at the mosque have learned to be very inclusive regarding different cultural practices and perspectives.
“Lebanese people don’t normally wear the hijab, but people from Afghanistan do,” al-Akoum said. “So instead of forcing one to wear the hijab or forcing someone to take theirs off, we just use the mosque to focus on religion and not customs.”
Islam is a religion with over 1.6 billion people from different countries who have different interpretations of the Quran. When the community center was built over 10 years ago, the board members took care to accommodate everyone’s cultural differences.
Imam Ahmed Shqeirat works with the board of directors to make sure it does not favor one country’s traditions over another’s. The mosque only supports what is based in the Quran.
“Whenever the board wants to host an event or start a new program, I decide if it is written in the scriptures,” said Shqeirat.
Latinos are the largest growing demographic in the U.S. According to the Pew Research Center, one in five American Muslims did not grow up as a Muslim.
Nahela Morales is the former Hispanic Outreach Coordinator of WhyIslam, an international organization that provides information on the religion.
“When young Latinos grow up with so much negative media surrounding them, they do not feel American,” she said.
Al-Akoum hopes having a diverse mosque will help people understand that Islam is not a monolith.
“I think America will come to realize Islam is for everyone,” he said.
Keerthi is a sophomore pursuing a career in radio journalism during her time at the Cronkite School. She interned with KJZZ and KTAR, getting hands-on experience in both public and commercial radio. Keerthi also freelances as a graphic designer and has worked with companies such as Theranos, EmpowHER and Kangu.