The allure of spiritual life draws more Minnesotans to Islam


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CATHY WURZER: In the program we’ve been talking about– we’ve been talking with faith leaders about the 40 million Americans who’ve left religion behind in the 20th century. But that has not affected all religions equally. We’ll talk about that in about five minutes from now. Right now, we’re going to get a news update from Emily Reese. Emily.

EMILY REESE: Hello, Cathy. The UN Food Agency says famine is imminent in northern Gaza, where 70% of the remaining population is experiencing catastrophic hunger. The UN says a further escalation of the war could push half of Gaza’s total population to the brink of starvation. Israel faces mounting pressure from even its closest allies to streamline the entry of aid into the Gaza Strip and open more crossings. The European Union’s top diplomat said the impending famine was entirely manmade, as starvation is used as a weapon of war. Meanwhile, Israeli forces launched another raid on the Gaza Strip’s largest hospital, al-Shifa, saying it killed a Hamas commander who was hiding there.

Donald Trump’s lawyers told a New York appellate court today that it’s impossible for him to post a bond covering the full amount of his $454 million civil fraud judgment while he appeals. A state appeals court judge ruled last month that Trump must post a bond covering the full amount to pause enforcement of the judgment, which is set to begin on March 25. Judge Arthur Engoron ruled in February that Trump, his company, and top executives, including his sons, Eric and Donald Trump Jr., schemed for years to deceive banks and insurers by inflating his wealth on financial statements used to secure loans and make deals.

The EPA has announced a comprehensive ban on asbestos, a deadly carcinogen still used in some chlorine bleach, brake pads, and other products. The new rule would ban chrysotile asbestos, the only ongoing use of asbestos in the US. It’s found in things like brake linings and gaskets used to manufacture chlorine bleach and sodium hydroxide. Asbestos exposure is linked to 40,000 US deaths each year.

And there’s a new Banksy mural in London, making use of an existing cherry tree that had its limbs severely cropped. The artwork covers the wall of a four-story building. It shows a person holding a pressure hose with green paint sprayed across the wall, replicating the absent leaves of the trees. So if you stand back, it kind of looks like tree leaves. But it’s definitely the wrong color green. Banksy took credit for the mural on Instagram. The new painting appeared yesterday. Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Thank you very much. It’s 12:31 here on Minnesota Now. We’ve been talking to religious leaders across the state about how more than 40 million Americans have left religious life behind in the past 25 years and what people are turning to instead. But that hemorrhage has not been spread evenly across all faiths. The most recent data from the Pew Research Center show that the number of Muslims in this country are growing. And that’s because the number of converts to Islam is roughly equal to the number of people leaving the religion.

Some Muslim leaders here in Minnesota have noted that they’ve seen a spike in interest in Islam in recent years. Two of those leaders are here with us right now. Tamara Gray is founder of the nonprofit Rabata, where she teaches women about Islam in Arden Hills. And Imam Makram El-Amin is based at Majid– Masjid An-Nur– excuse me– a mosque in North Minneapolis. Tamara and Imam Makram are with us. Thank you for taking the time. Welcome to the program.

TAMARA GRAY: Thank you so much.

MAKRAM EL-AMIN: Thank you for having me.

TAMARA GRAY: I’m so happy to be here.

CATHY WURZER: It’s really a pleasure. Thank you.

MAKRAM EL-AMIN: Likewise. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Thank you. Tamara, I would like to start with you. I know you work with women who are connecting with Islam for the first time or maybe even coming back to it after taking a break. Tell me more about the folks who come to you looking to learn more.

TAMARA GRAY: Well, I think that secular society leaves a vacuum of spirituality. And so a lot of women who come here to visit at the center or come looking for classes or just community, they are really looking to fulfill that inner personal loneliness. And look, Islam for many years had a stereotype of being just a political, extremist sort of– I almost don’t even want to say religion. People are really disconnected from the idea that it was a religion.

But now, that seems to be changing. And people are recognizing that there is a strong tradition of deep spirituality within Islam. And so a lot of women are coming here, asking for books, or asking for classes, or just asking questions about how they can address that spiritual need that they have with the resources that we have.

CATHY WURZER: And are these people prior– could you call these folks unmosqued prior? Have they have they been at a mosque prior to this?

TAMARA GRAY: Yeah, I mean, that’s a great word, unmosqued. I think especially for Muslim women, they often have an experience– not at Imam Makram’s mosque, mashallah– but in other mosques, they often have an experience where they don’t feel fully welcomed. And that’s maybe a different show to talk about that. But they come here looking for that feeling of connection, wanting to reconnect to their faith and reconnect to other Muslim women without feeling like they’re a second thought.

CATHY WURZER: Imam Makram, have you noticed any more people coming to your mosque thinking about converting or getting involved?

MAKRAM EL-AMIN: Yes. I would say– in fact, we have talked about this internally with our team. Since last Ramadan, there have been an excess of 50-plus individuals who have came to Islam, taking their shahada, as we would say, to become part of the Muslim community.

So we’re definitely seeing a steady stream, as many as four and five even in one day, that happens just very frequently. And since the month of Ramadan has begun, we’ve had a number of people to come and join the Muslim community. So yes, a steady stream, a consistent stream of individuals from all backgrounds and different experiences, are coming and embracing Islam.

CATHY WURZER: I was going to say, because Minnesota is a state of newcomers, are these folks coming from different parts of the world, they already are familiar with Islam? Or are these individuals, do you think, who are finding something in Islam specifically that’s calling to them?

MAKRAM EL-AMIN: So I’ll segment them a little bit. So the ones that I’m speaking about specifically are folks who previously didn’t have a formal religious tradition, or perhaps they were a part of a Christian tradition through their family or family lineage and had come into contact with Islam and have decided for themselves that Islam is the lifestyle, the way of life, the religious tradition that they would like to adopt.

And so I think that that’s the steady stream that I was thinking. These are people that are primarily– and some of them had strong ties to the church, for example. But many of them, probably the majority of them, were, I would say, kind of bystander participants in religious life, if any at all, and at this point in their lives, really wanting to embrace Islam as a tradition.

There is another segment. Just quickly, there are folks who had, I would say, maybe had fallen away, if you will, or maybe had stepped back from religious life and looking to reengage. We have seen also an uptick in that as well. So I think it’s a both and conversation for sure.

CATHY WURZER: Interesting. Tamara, you were probably a member of that group. You converted to Islam a number of years ago, right? What led you down to that path?

TAMARA GRAY: Yes. I converted in 1985, so a very long time ago. What led me down that path was a mixture of a feminist background from 1985 and a Christian background. I was struggling with the gendered God that I was facing in church.

And I found in the Islamic tradition that because of the really very serious discussion in Islamic theology that God is above all human qualities, there is no gender to God. And that’s very, very clear. So that was really important to me in my early days. And then, yeah, it’s been a long journey of study. And I traveled and continued to follow the path of growing. And I became a religious leader because of all those years of study.

CATHY WURZER: What are the barriers to converting to Islam?

TAMARA GRAY: I think they’re mostly social. The converts will ask themselves the question, will my family accept me? Will my friends remain my friends? And then how will I connect to a community that seems very culturally different? And those are serious questions. And they are things that become difficult. That’s something that we try to help with. Here at our cultural center, we try to help new converts stay connected with their family, make new friends if they are feeling lonely, and also bring forth their culture while learning about other cultures.

So I host a Minnesota food iftaar every year. Iftaar means the dinner where we break our fast. And so all of the Muslims from all the different countries, including the converts, the Minnesota converts, come together to eat hot dish, snicker salad, pistachio fluff, and all that good, fun, weird food that comes from the state of Minnesota.

CATHY WURZER: It sounds like those gatherings are really very interesting. Imam, I’m curious here that at the beginning of our conversation I mentioned that so many people have fallen away from religious life. What do you think– what is driving some people– what’s the hunger, perhaps, for some kind of spirituality right now? Where do you think that’s coming from?

MAKRAM EL-AMIN: I don’t think it’s one thing. I think it’s multiple things. One, as Tamara was just mentioning too, I think this society we live in that has a big void in spirituality leaves people wanting. It leaves people hungry for a spiritual connection and also a connection to community. People want to belong. That’s still a human a strong human need and human drive, to belong to a group that is accepting of you, that respects your humanity and affirms you in many ways.

So I think that that’s just from a human perspective. I also think honestly that all that’s taking place in the world, I think there are people who are looking at Islam through many lenses and finding Islam to be, I would say, more than just a thought, but really an integral way of life that is fulfilling on so many areas and so many layers.

So where they might come into contact with Islam might be through media or some huge conflict that’s happening in the world. Upon further review and investigation, I think people are finding a home and finding a place. So we’ve seen a spike, even in that regard. And this is the feedback that we’re getting from individuals and families who are joining the Muslim community.

CATHY WURZER: Interesting conversation with you both. I appreciate your time Ramadan Mubarak to both of you. Thank you.

MAKRAM EL-AMIN: Ramadan Mubarak.

TAMARA GRAY: Thank you.

MAKRAM EL-AMIN: Thank you so much. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: We’ve been talking to Tamara Gray. Tamara is the founder of the nonprofit Rabata. And Imam Makram El-Amin is with the Masjid An-Nur Mosque in North Minneapolis.

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