Worship begins quietly and informally.
A few early comers sit or kneel on the carpet on the men’s side of the building. There are no benches or pews in this space.
Some read, while others silently contemplate. One softly chants prayers in Arabic.
Gradually, more men of all ages — a few with young sons in tow — enter to pray and prepare for the main service.
After a while, one stands to sing the Muslim call to prayer before the main speaker begins. Men and boys continue to arrive even as Marwan Hafez, in his first time as the main speaker, starts talking.
Switching seamlessly between Arabic and English as he relates his lesson for the day and recites passages from the Qur’an, he admonishes listeners to put their love of God before all things. Men and boys sit facing Hafez in a semi-circle. Women and girls, in a separate space, listen through a PA system.
After the talk, the group performs a formal prayer together; standing, kneeling or bowing in unison. Then they break into small groups to chat or take their leave — some go to find their wives and daughters.
‘A mini United Nations’
The Laramie Islamic Center, 612 Garfield St., is Wyoming’s only formal Muslim house of worship. There are some smaller gathering places scattered across the state, including one in Cheyenne, said Ahmed Yousif, past president of the Islamic Center’s board of directors. There’s been some sort of gathering place for Muslims in Laramie since at least 1980, he said. The current Islamic Center, formerly a church, opened in 2003.
Originally from Sudan, Yousif came to Laramie several years ago to work for the city of Laramie. He recently moved to Saudi Arabia after accepting a job offer there. Because Muslims here are primarily tied to the University of Wyoming, they tend to come from all over the world, Yousif said during an interview shortly before leaving.
“(The Laramie Islamic Center) often felt like a mini United Nations,” he said.
Current board president Mohamed Ahmed said the Islamic Center gives Muslims a sense of fellowship in a place where there are few of them.
Ahmed’s wife, Mona Zahra, said her experience has been positive since the family moved from Egypt to the United States several years ago and to Laramie in 2013.
“This is a democracy where we can have our Islamic center in any state,” she said. “We can have our mosques and worship easily. I think there is a lot of freedom here.”
Faith and misconceptions
The newest of the three major Abrahamic faiths — after Judaism and Christianity — Islam emerged in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century. Its founder, the Prophet Muhammad, is regarded by Muslims as the “Seal of the prophets,” or the last messenger God will send to humanity before the Day of Judgment. They regard Christ, Moses and other Abrahamic figures to be earlier messengers of God.
Islam is strictly monotheistic. Translated from Arabic, “Allah” means “God” or “The God.” The Qur’an is Islam’s holy book, which Muslims believe was revealed to Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel. The Qur’an is considered to be pure and wholly accurate only in the original Arabic. A volume published in another language is called “a translation of the Qur’an;” and Muslims from all cultures are encouraged to learn Arabic. Islam is often associated with Arabs or Persians, but most Muslims actually live outside the Middle East — with Indonesia and South Asia having some of the largest Muslim populations.
There has long been at least a small percentage of American Muslims, but many Americans knew or thought little about Islam until recent decades, as the Middle East became embroiled in conflict and violence spilled over into Western countries, including the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Some began to view Islam in terms of fanaticism, violence and the oppression of women.
Women and men
Many Muslim women wear the Hijab, or head scarf. In some Muslim cultures, women cover up virtually everything except their eyes.
Non-Muslims might see that as oppressive, but Zahra said that isn’t the case.
Instead, she regards wearing the Hijab as a religious obligation she chose for herself and a way to protect her modesty.
Muslim women who wear the Hijab do so only in public, and take it off at home, Ahmed said.
“In some Muslim countries, some Muslim women chose not to wear the Hijab, even in public,” he said. “I cannot force my wife to wear it or not, nor can her brother or father. The decision has to come from her.”
The Hijab is also an identifier, Zahra said.
“It’s a way of saying ‘this is a Muslim’ without speaking.”
It’s also been a source of curiosity, sometimes with humorous results, she said.
“One woman told me, ‘Muslim women don’t have hair, that’s why their wear the scarfs,’” she said.
“Children are often the ones who stare,” she said. “One time in a store, I heard a little girl ask her mother, ‘Is she a princess?’”
Ahmed is an assistant professor in civil and architectural engineering at UW, and Zahra has a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science. The couple has two young daughters. Islam teaches education is compulsory for both sexes, Ahmed said. But when it comes to breadwinning, obligation falls squarely on men, he said.
“Women actually have the greater privilege,” he said. “It’s compulsory for the man to provide for his family. If (the wife) wants to work, that is her decision, but the money she makes is hers. She can use it to help support the family or she can keep it for herself.”
The Islamic tradition of inheritance, which designates twice the share for male survivors as female relatives, is seen by some non-Muslims as sexist, Zahra said. But it’s that way because men are expected to be providers, she said.
War and violence
Islam has been associated with violent conquest, but Muslims contend that — like Christianity and Judaism — Islam teaches peace, though not pacifism. There are allowances for warfare in all three religions, they say.
That has been one of the most misunderstood aspects of Islam, Ahmed said, most recently because of inaccuracy and oversimplification by the Western media. The Qur’an states war is allowable only as a last resort when Muslims are attacked, he said. War must also be waged according to strict rules of engagement, some of which include no deliberate targeting of non-combatants and no destruction of crops, libraries or houses of worship, he said.
“Jihad” — an Arabic word that roughly translates to “struggle” or “effort” — is often associated with Muslim holy war, particularly in media reports, Ahmed said, but it has broader meaning for Muslims.
“The media will tell you ‘Jihad’ means ‘killing’ or ‘destruction,’” he said. “In Arabic, ‘Jihad’ means ‘effort.’ The greatest effort you can exert is in yourself; it is resisting sinful actions.”
Yousif said there are three factors that sometimes get confused — the political situation in some Muslim countries, the words or actions of some Muslims and what Islam actually is.
In Sudan, he said some Muslims had “strong belief but a lack of knowledge.”
“That can lead to dangerous extremes,” he said. “The more you study, the better your knowledge of your own religion and of others outside your religion. And that protects you from becoming the tool of ideology.”
Ibrahim Dashin, a Saudi national who has been in Laramie four years, said it’s vital to focus on God and oneself.
“Islam is submission to God,” he said. “Submission means you don’t fight, you just give whatever it takes to worship ... Don’t get your nose in others’ business, make violence of it or try to force it.”
Laramie is a good place to live and worship, Ahmed and other Muslims said.
“It begins with our neighbors,” Ahmed said. “We’ve got very good neighbors.”
Yousif said he met many people in Laramie who were curious about Islam, but only one who seemed hostile.
“I understand some people might have misunderstandings or misconceptions,” he said. “Compared to others — people who come to visit and enjoy our events, this is nothing. … I can’t think of anything to indicate the community is reacting to the Islamic Center in a negative way.”
Ahmad Jan, from Pakistan, has lived in Laramie five years and said he has encountered mostly friendly curiosity about Islam.
“Most of my neighbors, they would ask questions,” he said. “Once you open up, they would keep asking.”
Zahra said the only things family had trouble adjusting to here were the weather and relative lack of shopping opportunities.
“We wait for the snow now, so we can go skiing,” she said.
Convert, traveler: New to Islam, Nebraska man finds faith community in Laramie
On June 24, 1981, when Jeff Guest was 14, he and some buddies came back from fishing to his house in rural Nebraska.
“I had been in the water, so I was wet from the waist down,” he said.
His room was in the basement, near the water heater.
“I was maybe 10 feet away from the water heater when it exploded,” he said.
His lower half was mostly spared, but the rest of his body suffered second and third-degree burns. His father and some of his friends and siblings were also injured. His father, 33, died soon after.
Guest spent several months at a burn center in Texas. There, he met people from all over the world, both medical staff and fellow patients.
“I think that was the beginning of my journey to Islam,” he said, because of his exposure to many different races and cultures. “You can’t be a Muslim and be a racist.”
Guest said he always had a strong belief in God. He was a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for years, and also studied several other Christian faiths. Still, he struggled with some of the teachings, particularly the doctrines of the Trinity and original sin.
So, he kept on with his spiritual journey.
“I never really gave Islam much of a thought,” he said. “When (Sept. 11, 2001) happened, I was angry, but I didn’t hate Islam, because I knew you couldn’t blame the whole religion. That’s what made me want to study Islam.”
“I wanted to understand my enemy,” he said.
But the more he delved into Islamic teachings, the more he was intrigued.
Guest has a small farm near Crawford, Nebraska, a town of roughly 1,100 about 75 miles north of Scotts Bluff. With no Muslims anywhere near him, he used the Internet to reach out, eventually contacting Ahmed Yousif at the Laramie Islamic Center and other Muslims in Fort Collins, Colorado, which has an active mosque.
After months of conversations, questions and study, Guest and his son Tyler, 14, decided to convert to Islam. Yousif attended their formal conversion ceremony at the Fort Collins mosque.
Through Islam, Guest said he feels closer to God.
“I don’t have these blank spots anymore,” he said. “I revere all the prophets, because they’re all great. (Islam) took away my doubts.”
Guest already regularly visited Laramie, usually to attend University of Wyoming Cowboy football games.
Now, he and Tyler come even more often, to worship at the Islamic Center.
“Laramie and Fort Collins are about the same distance from me, about 3½ hours, so they are the closest places that have a mosque,” he said.
He prefers coming to Laramie.
“Compared to Fort Collins, Laramie’s a cakewalk to get through,” he said. “And the people — not just the Muslims, but the people in general — are a lot like people in western Nebraska.”
Even if others don’t convert to Islam, Guest said he hopes more people study the religion, to clear up misconceptions.
“Don’t always watch what all Muslims are doing,” he said. “Because not every Muslim is a good Muslim.”
Though his faith is unusual in his surroundings, Guest said friends and neighbors have been mostly accepting of his conversion.
“Obviously, I had some friends who stay away from me now,” he said. “But for most of them, they know who I am, so they don’t judge the religion ... My son has had a couple of kids want to pick on him, but he’s got a friend who is pretty big, who has kept people from picking on him.”
Because of the attitude of most people in western Nebraska and Wyoming, Guest said he doesn’t expect to be hated or harassed.
“I think we have more common sense here, because everybody here is tied to the earth in one way or another,” he said. “That’s the great thing about living in this part of America, we appreciate the country and we appreciate each other.”
He hopes for a time when the great Abrahamic faiths will be reconciled.
“There was a time when Christians, Jews and Muslims all prayed side-by-side in the same building,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to us. …The similarities between the three religions are amazing. I hope we get back to that.”