As Oklahoma's Muslim community observes the fast of Ramadan this month, they are also taking time to reflect on the growth of their community statewide.
There are currently five mosques in the Oklahoma City metro area, including one in Norman and one in Edmond. Some of the growth has come from immigrants from south and central Asia as well as the Middle East, but there has been a surprising surge in converts from two other demographics: white females and Hispanic families.
White women are the most numerous converts this past year, followed closely by Hispanic families, said Saad Mohammad, a spokesman for the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City (ISGOC).
"Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world," he said, "and we've had a rush of new converts this year."
Mohammad said the converts are typically families or, in the case of the white women, spouses of Muslim men. He said they've had some growth among young people, the youngest being a 19-year-old female student.
"According to the stories I hear, women are converting because they love the message of peace in Islam, as well as the emphasis on family, the tight-knit community and the treatment of Muslim women and wives."
Technically, the term in Islam is reverting, not converting. Julie Sharif, a white woman, is married to a man from Bangladesh. She said she reverted to Islam seven years ago.
"It's called reversion in Islam," Sharif said, "because at birth we promise to worship one God. Over our life, society and culture change our thoughts, so that when we become Muslims, we revert to that first faith."
Sharif said she was raised Christian. Her father was Catholic; her mother was Seventh-Day Adventist. She met her husband online, and in the midst of a personal spiritual quest, she began to ask questions about Islam.
"I studied Islam on my own for about a year and a half," Sharif said. "My husband did not force me to revert. He simply asked that our children be raised with the belief that there is one God, and he (God) has no other partner. The more I studied Islam, the more I thought, 'This is what I believe.' Before that, I felt lost, as if I didn't know where I was supposed to be."
Kenza Lahmamsi was a student at OU Health Sciences Center when she met her husband, a computer technician from Morocco.
"A friend at school introduced us," Lahmamsi said. "He also gave me some literature about Islam. I moved here from Memphis, and I left my Southern Baptist community behind. I went through a period where I explored other denominations."
One of the resources her friend gave her was a book about Islam and science. "The book looked at science using verses from the Quran," she said. "My curiosity was piqued because I was reading verses that, at the time they were written, there was no way these things could be known by man."
She visited the ISGOC's mosque and met with some of the women who were members. She still meets with that group. She reverted before she was married, and now works as the vice principal of Mercy School, a private school for Muslim children in Oklahoma City.
Lahmamsi and Sharif said they lost friends in their conversions to Islam, but both said their families were very understanding.
"My dad went through a questioning phase, like, 'What are you doing?'" Lahmamsi said. "But my friends, overall, had a pretty neutral response."
Both women seem aware of the misunderstandings associated with Muslim women in terms of their rights and privileges.
"I don't get a lot of people making those women comments to me," Lahmamsi said. "If questioned, I say that Islam above all others is the religion that gave women their rights. In the pre-Islam days, women could not own property, could not vote and could be owned as property. The Quran forbids owning women as property and clearly spells out the inheritance rights for women."
Mercy School, where Sharif also works, is affiliated with the ISGOC. The school's enrollment went from 120 last year to 160 this year, according to Sharif. She also believes the surge in enrollment may be partly due to the school's upcoming relocation.
Just off Memorial and Harvey, the ISGOC is building a 16-acre complex that will include the new Mercy School, a new mosque and a community center. Sharif said plans are to tentatively move into the school in January.
The complex is just one more indication of Islam's health in Oklahoma. Currently, there are about a dozen mosques statewide, and several congregations that do not yet have mosques, including a Shia congregation that meets at N.W. 30th and Portland.
Razi Hashmi, the Oklahoma director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said several of Oklahoma's mosques are undergoing expansion. All of the mosques in Oklahoma are affiliated with the Sunni sect of Islam, but Hashmi said that all Islamic societies are open to all sects.
"We are Muslim first and Sunni second," he said.
It is difficult to accurately report the number of Muslims in Oklahoma, but Hashmi said the most recent numbers estimate between 30,000 and 50,000. "I think the number is closer to 30,000," he said.
In order for Oklahomans to get to know Muslims in their community, the Institute of Interfaith Dialogue is inviting non-Muslim families to share dinner in the home of Muslim families as they break their daily fasts this Ramadan.
Additionally, Mohammad said non-Muslims are welcome to attend the celebration of Eid al-Fitr on Sept. 20. Eid al-Fitr is the end of Ramadan and is traditionally celebrated with gift exchanges and a community prayer. Mohammad said the event will feature food from Egypt, Pakistan and many other countries from around the world. "Greg Horton