Imam talks to Rotary club members about Islam
By SUSAN THURSTON
© St. Petersburg Times,
TAMPA PALMS -- The connection between Christians, Jews and Muslims runs deep.
Just look at the Koran, the holy book of Islam. Mary is the only woman mentioned by name; Mohammed and the other prophets consider John the Baptist a distant relative.
That was the message that Ziaul Haque Sheikh, an imam with the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area, brought to the New Tampa Rotary Club on Friday.
The 32-year-old Muslim leader said Islam has more in common with America's mainstream religions than many people think. Its roots are referred to in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament.
"A lot of people don't know much about Islam. They think it's an exotic cult from Saudi Arabia," he told the audience of about 50 Rotarians.
Guests included Tampa police Cpl. Gary Bradford, who received attention when he used the nickname "Mohammad" at a gathering Oct. 25 to describe a hypothetical terrorist. Bradford, who has since said he regretted the statement, did not speak publicly, but sat at Sheikh's table.
Sheikh was born in Pakistan and studied in the United Kingdom. He has lived in the United States for several years, the last two in Tampa.
His comments focused on Ramadan, the Muslims' holy month of fasting and prayer, which starts in mid November. Not surprisingly, several members had questions related to the recent terrorist attacks.
What is an infidel? Are Muslims ever justified in attacking non-Muslims? How are women treated in Afghanistan?
Sheikh answered mostly in broad terms and cautioned against reaching conclusions based on half-truths and stereotypes.
"One thing is believing what the media tells you and taking it as gospel, and another thing is to go over there and see for yourself," he said.
Sheikh said Muslim women have gained rights over the years, contrary to many reports. They can own property and are encouraged to seek an education, even though the poor economies in many countries make it impossible.
Some Rotarians said his remarks were informative and timely.
"We all need to understand Islam better," Ron Hurst said. "It's the fastest growing religion in the world."
Others said they had hoped for more information relating to current events and Muslim leaders in Afghanistan.
"I would have liked to hear about his feelings and attitudes about women and how the Taliban interprets the religion," Lacy Ann Haller said.
Member David Lanigan said his questions about Muslims' attitudes toward non-Muslims were not fully addressed.
"He said what he wanted to say," he said. "None of his answers were related to what's happening in the world today."
Sheikh stressed that in various times in history, Muslims have lived peacefully with Christians and Jews, and generally fight back only in self-defense. Islam opposes raising arms against the innocent, women, even fruit-bearing trees, he said.
But he acknowledged that it is difficult to make sense of the events of Sept. 11. Muslims recognize that free will and destiny shape history.
"We believe in predestination," he said. "Whatever happens and whatever has happened is in the hands of God."
- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3463 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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