On Being Muslim in Delaware

In this post-9/11 world, things could be much different for local Muslims, but most say the First State has been good to them.

They dropped their book bags beside the door, quickly took off their shoes, then made their way to the ornate prayer rugs in the center of the room. When they reached the sajajid, they immediately took to preparing themselves for Jummah, a prayer service held each Friday.

“O you who believe!” reads the Quran. “When the call is made for prayer on Friday, then hasten to the remembrance of Allah…”

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As the prayers were recited, students regularly filed in until there were almost 100 on the floor of the gallery room in University of Delaware’s Perkins Student Center. Because Jummah is not obligatory for women, as it is for men, there were only three. They prayed discreetly in a back corner of the room, behind the men, since some Muslims think it would be inappropriate for men to watch women from behind.

Ismail Uluer, a graduate student in electrical engineering and president of UD’s Muslim Student Association, delivered the khutbah, a sermon that incorporated a passage from the Quran: “Every soul shall taste death, and you will only be given your compensation on the Day of Resurrection.” As he spoke, other students buzzed around the student center, occasionally peeking in at those gathered for prayer.

“Allah alone is the master of time, and Allah measures our punishments and rewards in relation to how we use our time,” said Uluer. When he finished his sermon, prayers resumed. 

When Jummah was finished, the worshippers put back on their shoes, then quickly broke into boxes of hot pizza that were laid on tables in the back. One of the men got the attention of one of the women and handed her a box. The women enjoyed their pizza in the corner where they had prayed. 

Friday prayers have been held on UD’s campus since at least 2008, says Uluer. Students and administrators there have welcomed Muslims, Uluer says. Ahmed Shavkawy, a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department who also attended Jummah, estimates that there are 200 to 300 Muslim students at UD at any time. The reason for the wide variance yearly, he explains, is because enrollment in UD’s English Language Institute can vary greatly from one year to the next. Not all Muslim students attend Friday prayer, but Uluer is grateful that the university has given them a space to worship in.

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One particular difficulty Uluer has is finding a place to say his personal prayers during the week. When he’s in the library—and much of his time is spent there—he has to pray between stacks, “which is very difficult to do,” he says. Nevertheless, when fellow students see him praying, “they don’t stop and stare. They don’t judge me,” says Uluer. “But it would be better if we had a private place.”

Privacy aside, the gallery room is barely large enough to accommodate the worshippers in attendance. Friday prayers are often filled. After all, this is, Shavkawy notes, the second largest Jummah in New Castle County. So Uluer hopes the administration will grant Muslim students a bigger space in the future—a space, he suggests, that could be used by students of all faiths.

The growing population of Muslims on UD’s campus reflects the increase in Muslims across the state. According to Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science at UD, the Muslim population of Delaware has grown exponentially in the past three to four years. Though he cautions that an exact number is difficult to determine given the fluidity of the population—many Muslims, for example, might commute to Delaware for work—Khan says Delaware’s Muslim population is probably comparable to the national average. 

In 2015, there were about 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States, or 1 percent of the total population, according to estimates from Pew Research Center. There are fewer Muslims in the country than Jews (5.7 million), but more than Hindus (2.1 million) and Sikhs.

The nationwide Muslim average is comparable to that of many states, though some, like New Jersey, have more than 3 percent. Pew projects that the country’s Muslim population will double by 2050, and that it could become the second largest religious group in the United States by 2040. Some forecasts estimate the world’s population of Muslims and Christians as roughly equal by 2050.

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The U.S. Muslim population has been growing steadily since Pew conducted its first study in 2007, and the uptick can be explained mainly by immigration. From 2010 through 2015, Muslims accounted for 10 percent of legal immigrants, and a much smaller percentage of unauthorized immigrants. Muslims here tend to be younger than non-Muslims, according to a Pew study from 2011. Forty percent of the general population is between 18 and 39. Sixty percent of Muslims occupy the same demographic. 

In Delaware, New Castle County is home to the largest number of Muslims: 6,800, or 1.27 percent of the county’s population. The same census estimated about 300 Muslims in Kent County. (It didn’t report data for Sussex County.) 

New Castle County also boasts the state’s largest mosque, Masjid Ibrahim. Accented in dark green, the building, on Salem Church Road, is easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. The mosque is run by the Islamic Society of Delaware, which was founded in the early 1970s by a handful of Muslim families in the area. Back then, Muslims would meet in each other’s homes or public venues like UD to pray. Because there was no imam, prayers were led by community members.

But things began to change as the Muslim population increased. When the Islamic society received its 501(c)(3) tax exempt status from the IRS in 1977, ISD realized it needed a brick-and-mortar presence in Newark. So in 1986 ISD, which had grown to include more than 800 families, purchased several acres along Salem Church Road, then started planning a mosque. Builders broke ground in 1990, and Masjid Ibrahim opened for prayer a year later. The mosque began expanding in 2000 to create a prayer hall for women, a kitchen and, later, a school. 

Ismail Uluer is a graduate student in electrical engineering and president
of the University of Delaware’s Muslim Student Association. 

Qamar Ahmad is president of the Islamic Society of Delaware,
which runs Masjid Ibrahim, the state’s largest mosque.

ISD is of great significance to many. Though there are about 250 registered members of the congregation, Friday prayers see more than 1,000 worshippers, says Qamar Ahmad, president of the Islamic Society of Delaware. To accommodate them, Masjid Ibrahim holds two services. 

“I used to pray regularly at ISD, and I remember until maybe 2013, after Friday prayers, I used to hang around there for half an hour, and I’d see 100 people or so [who I knew],” says Khan. “Now when I attend the mosque, I recognize less than 30, 40 people.” 

Some of those unfamiliar faces might belong to people who are moving to the area for school or work, just as Khan moved for his teaching post at UD in 2005. And plenty of them are discovering that Delaware is a great place to live, he says, noting the low cost of living and the state’s proximity to major urban centers such as New York and Washington, D.C.

Another draw, says Khan, are Newark’s two Islamic schools. Islamic Academy of Delaware is a K-8 school that opened in 2008. IAD is the official school of ISD, says Ahmad. It enrolls about 130 students. The other school is Tarbiyah, from an Arabic word meaning “to nurture,” and its history shows how resourceful Delaware’s Muslim community is.

In 2010, two Muslim families began homeschooling their children. Their educational philosophy, says Tarbiyah director Amna Latif, “stemmed from the vision of inculcating a whole Muslim child who has a strong connection to Allah and who excels in the affairs of this world.” 

News of the school spread quickly, and other families soon began sending their children to learn with the original families. Before they knew it, almost three dozen children were meeting in Latif’s home. Like the ISD, Tarbiyah quickly outgrew its space, so the community moved into its current building on Old Baltimore Pike. In its first year, Tarbiyah had 32 children and six teachers. A year later, those numbers almost doubled. Tarbiyah currently enrolls 180 students and employs a faculty of 29. According to Latif, student performance on standardized tests ranks consistently in the 80-99 percentile.

Sajid Majid is glad there is an Islamic school in the area for his first-grader and kindergartner, and he hopes to send them back next year. Two and a half years ago, Majid moved here from Chicago for an IT job. Illinois has one of the highest Muslim populations in the country. The Muslim culture in Chicago and Delaware “is about the same,” says Majid, though he notes that there is a rich diversity within Delaware’s Muslim community. 

That fact usually surprises many, says Zehra Wamiq, director of Delaware Valley Speakers Bureau, an affiliate of Islamic Network Group. Wamiq lives just over the Pennsylvania line, but her work for ING takes her to Philadelphia, South Jersey and Delaware to give presentations about Islam. Her most requested lecture is on the demographics of Muslim populations in the United States and across the world. “Most people think most Muslims are Arabs,” Wamiq says, “but only 20 percent are Arabs”—noting that 77 percent of Arabs in the United States are not Muslims, but Christians.

Wamiq has given these lectures for more than 20 years, and her reception is usually warm. She does, however, recall one instance, in 2009, when Delaware families were not as welcoming as they often are.

“The teacher called me a couple of weeks before the presentation and said she was getting heavy push back from parents over talking about Islam in school,” Wamiq says. “She said, ‘I just want you to know to think about your safety. I told parents they’re welcome to come, or they’re welcome to keep their kids out of school.’”

Wamiq knew she would by recognized immediately “because I am visibly Muslim,” so she took precautions to protect herself. At the beginning of her lecture, parents challenged her, but toward the end, students seemed interested. 

Beyond that incident, Wamiq says, Delaware has been kind. She has been associated with Wilmington Montessori School since 2000, and all three of her children have been students there. “It’s the kind of school which made us part of the school,” she says. “They acknowledge diversity and celebrate it.” 

One way to gauge the diversity of the Muslim community is to observe mosques throughout the state, each one of which caters to a slightly different group. 

ISD’s Masjid Ibrahim is a multicultural congregation. Members come from all over the world, and some sermons are delivered in English. Its regular congregants are suburban professionals and their families. Masjid Isa Ib-e-Miryam, housed in Tarbiyah and supported by First State Islamic Foundation, has a similar feel. There are also two Turkish mosques and an emerging Bangladeshi mosque.

And there are two African-American mosques in Wilmington. The difference between his African-American congregation at Masjid al Kauthar and that of the suburban mosques is that leadership at ISD comes “strictly from the religious perspective,” says Imam Rudolph Ali. “We have a lot of problems among African-American people, so our attention is directed at those.”

Ali says many of his congregants suffer from a legacy of disenfranchisement, so his objective is to empower African-American Muslims to move beyond.

“We have a whole other set of problems to solve first before we can be religious,” he says. “Our objective first is saving ourselves, then our families. Then we reach out to other people.”

At the same time, says Ali, Masjid al Kauthar doesn’t regularly engage with sociopolitical causes in the African-American community like Black Lives Matter. The reason, he says, is “because when you paint yourself into a corner, you get sympathy but not much help. You can’t expect other people to respect you if you don’t respect yourself, if you’re not industrious.

“Our masjid is based on openness. We’re not involved in the war on this, the war on that,” he says. Ali sees such movements as distractions from getting people to ask how they can help themselves and others. “When you start calling yourself black this and black that—we’re all human beings, we’re all creatures of God. That’s the basic fundamental essence of all of us. We’re all the same. We’re a country of diversity, not of race.” 

To Ali, “race is all that is good.” In other words, the group boundary should be drawn between those who work toward the betterment of humanity and those who don’t. 

About 200 people pray on Fridays at Masjid al Kauthar. About 120 of them are foreign-born Muslims. Ali is proud to show off that diversity to non-Muslim visitors. In the spring, 80 students visited al Kauthar from St. Andrew’s School. Every summer, children visit from Northern Ireland, says Ali, “to see how Muslims live in peace.”

Peace is a theme that comes up often when talking with Muslims from different backgrounds—which certainly makes sense, given the dark shadow cast over Muslim-American relations in the wake of 9/11. Immediately after the terror attacks, President Bush, quoting from the Quran, spoke in defense of the religion: “The face of terror is not the true face of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.” 

In 2014, Pew Research Center asked Americans to rate Muslims on a “feeling thermometer,” with 0 reflecting the most negative feelings and 100 the warmest. More than four in 10 Americans rated Muslims almost as low as they rated atheists—though Shibley Telhami, senior fellow at Brookings Institution, points out that Americans tend to view the religion of Islam more negatively than they view Muslim people. Still, on average, only about half of the American public (53 percent) expresses a favorable view of Muslims, according to a 2015 Brookings poll. 

Obviously, the rise of ISIS may have contributed to the negativity. To that end, there have been efforts by Muslims around the world to disavow radical extremism and to educate the public on what many believe to be a peaceful, compassionate religion. 

The Delaware Council on Global and Muslim Affairs, founded in response to the Iran nuclear deal made last winter, is a local advocacy group that represents Muslim interests by “pursuing interfaith relations and dialogue,” says Khan. “We hope that a culture of ecumenical interactions and shared pursuit of service will emerge.” The council therefore organizes events and talks such as “Rising Islamophobia: What It’s Like to Be a Muslim in America Today” in January.

Another Delaware group trying to build bridges is the American Turkish Friendship Association, in Newark, founded in 2009. Ergin Sarikaya, its unofficial director, says the group aims to foster a community of respect and inclusion by hosting cross-cultural activities. In the past, ATFA has hosted picnics, iftars (the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset after fasting all day during the holy month of Ramadan), and field trips to Washington, D.C., and New Jersey. 

Rana and Ergin Sarikaya are trying to build bridges with the Newark community
through the American Turkish Friendship Association. 

Ergin’s wife, Rana, also volunteers with ATFA, helping to plan events for community women. On weekends, Rana teaches at the school housed in ATFA’s building on Possum Park Road. 

The couple, both students, are new to Delaware, but have enjoyed their time here. They haven’t encountered Islamophobia, they say, though there are times, Rana says, she is given funny looks because, she assumes, she is wearing a hijab.

Over the past five years, ATFA, with Delaware American Turkish Cultural Educational Foundation, has organized several receptions at Legislative Hall. Gov. Jack Markell, a friend of the Muslim community, hosted the state’s first iftar at Woodburn mansion. 

“The diversity of Delawareans has always been a source of great pride and strength,” Markell said in a statement. “This iftar dinner celebrates that diversity while recognizing the Muslim community in Delaware, which has given so much to the state and the region through a spirit of kindness and compassion, as well as through a commitment to serving all of those in need.”

Khan commends New Castle County Chief of Police Elmer M. Setting for his strong relationship with local Muslims. 

“There’s a large part of our community that is Muslim,” says Setting. “They’re our citizens, and I have an obligation to protect them just like everyone else.” 

Setting says that because some Americans think ‘Muslim’ means ‘extremist,’ some local Muslims have expressed fears of being misunderstood. “They want to know they have a relationship with the police. OK, so let’s meet and talk.”

In October 2013, ISD was vandalized by three teenage boys. They tore down a fence and used the debris to make a cross. It was an isolated incident. Most of the complaints Setting hears are less severe. 

“All too often what we see is a lot of folks who don’t understand the religion itself,” he says. “I don’t even understand it totally, but I know all Muslims can’t be lumped into one group.”

Khan credits the lack of Islamophobia in the state to leadership like Setting’s. “When leaders speak like that, the fringe hide,” he says. On the other hand, he adds, when leaders evoke hatred and fear among their constituents, the fringe feels emboldened.

Whether these relationships are the cause or only one reflection of Delaware’s openness to Islam is hard to say. But what is clear is that Muslims in Delaware continue to find a lot of support and kindness. 

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