Qasim Hatem leading 'Being Muslim' lecture for the gathering crowd. • Photo by Danish Mehboob
Qasim Hatem leading ‘Being Muslim’ lecture for the gathering crowd. • Photo by Danish Mehboob

It’s hard asking questions within a community that has long felt vilified and misrepresented in America. I was researching a story about halaqas and this took me to a mosque in Redmond. But when I told a Redmond Muslim community member, who has requested to remain anonymous, that I was a journalist, he replied: “I hope you learn to present the community better.” The comment showed me I needed experience, so on October 14, I found myself in Hillman City Collaboratory for a “Being Muslim” seminar.

According to Arsalan Bukhari, the executive-director at the Center for American Islamic Relations, halaqa means circle in Arabic and accordingly is named because participants sit together in a circle to discuss topics.

“[Halaqa is] usually to do with something religious or important going on in society,” Hatem said.

Organized by Wasat, a Muslim community organization, and led by Qasim Hatem, a prominent Muslim speaker, “Being Muslim” is a public event introducing basics on Islamic religion, traditions, and culture weekly on Wednesday evenings. “It’s an opportunity to facilitate communication about the basics of Islam,” Hatem said.

Sitting down at the first lecture in a circle with 23 other attendees, it was intriguing to hear “As-Salam-u-Alaikum,” a greeting common among Muslims, from non-Muslims, too.

The crowd included Spaniards, Romanians, Ghanaians, and Americans. During the lecture, Samuel Chesneau, a non-Muslim member of Wasat, tried to encourage questions from the crowd: “It’s an open space. Pretty much no question is off limits.”

An audience member asked how to balance American culture with Islamic culture. “As long as the culture doesn’t conflict with Islam it is encouraged to protect it,” said Hatem. He used the example of a samurai Muslim who is allowed to carry a sword and wear Hakama, traditional Japanese garment, since it doesn’t conflict with Islam at the fundamental level.

He explained how Native Americans are allowed to protect their identity by believing in a great spirit, respecting the land, along with following their other traditions and cultures because those don’t conflict either.

Another member followed up questioning the allowance to believe in a Great Spirit when the only higher power in Islam is Allah, or God. “The belief requires tweaking,” said Hatem, with a smile. He added that some could consider Allah as the Great Spirit or the angel Gabriel, who has also been referenced as the Great Spirit in holy text.

Abdul Rashid (first from left), Hatem (second from left), Chesneau (third from left), and Motiwala (fourth from left) gathering together after seminar. • Photo by Danish Mehboob
Abdul Rashid (first from left), Hatem (second from left), Chesneau (third from left), and Motiwala (fourth from left) gathering together after seminar. • Photo by Danish Mehboob

After the seminar, many stayed to talk and bond with one another. It gave me a chance to see what inspired people to come and whether any planned to keep coming.

“I really enjoyed it. I’ll intend to [come again], since I live so close,” said Ian Morgan, one of the attendees. Morgan, who is friends with some of Wasat’s members, told me a little history behind the organization and introduced me to some of the others from the seminar.

Nick Sorosky, another attendee from New York found it a valuable experience, since some of his friends are Muslims. “How do you learn anything? You have to interact with it [Muslims and Islam],” he said. “The barriers and walls we have are shaped by personal experience and breakdown with knowledge that we didn’t have before.”

What I found that day were people looking to connect with Muslims and care about learning to facilitate understanding about Islam in society.

Zubayr Motiwala, a Muslim attendee, mentioned: “I know how difficult it can be being new and getting used to the community.”

Natasha Humayun, who had an Islamic upbringing said: “In this day and age where Islamophobia runs rampant, it is as important as ever for people to understand and relate to Muslims on a personal level.”

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