At 79 years old, Marian Thomas of Leawood, Kansas, still shares much in common with the girl who wore out her Sunday school teachers with questions.
Religion has been a common thread throughout her life, whether it was serving as president of the Young Women’s Christian Association while attending Oberlin College and Conservatory, or while working with Christian organizations in South Korea for nearly two years after college.
Thomas was raised a Presbyterian, but working in South Korea exposed her to other faiths, such as shamanism, Confucianism and Buddhism.
Thomas is now a Sunday school teacher herself, having retired from a career in music education in schools and churches. Yet even now, she said, her faith “continues to evolve” and her thirst for theological understanding remains unquenched.
So, she turned to curiousKC for help and asked: “What is the range of beliefs/practices within Kansas City’s Muslim community from ‘conservative’ to more progressive or ‘liberal’?”
Flatland then queried area Muslims in a way to enlighten Marian and you, our readers. We also introduced Thomas to Imam Sulaiman Salaam, who leads the Al Haqq Islamic Center in Kansas City, Missouri.
The meeting took place as part of a video shoot at Flatland’s offices, a smiling Thomas popped in under a studio light, clasped Salaam’s hands, hopped on a stool beside him, and got the conversation rolling.
Thomas noted the many denominations within Christianity, such as Baptist, Presbyterian and Episcopalian, and she wondered whether the same pattern exists in Islam and if so, what were the historical roots of those differences.
She learned that Muslims consider their faith way too diverse to be grouped into a monolithic “community.” The practices of Kansas City-area Muslims are as varied as the ways they drape or style the hijab – a veil or headscarf that covers the hair or face.
Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is one of the three Abrahamic religions. And each is guided by a revealed scripture, which for Muslims, is the Quran.
“(It) gives – in my opinion – formulas. Like in math, if you understand the formula you can always get to the answer,” Salaam said. “You may take different paths, but you will get to the answer.”
A fundamental schism within the religion in 632 A.D., known as the Sunni-Shiite split, departed from the Quran’s initial message of unity. Since then, other movements, branches or schools have emerged.
There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, comprising about a quarter of the global population. Muslims comprise about 1.1 percent of the U.S. population. There are around 35,000 Muslims in the Kansas City area and nearly 20 mosques.
An example of varying practices can be illustrated with two Kansas City-area women: Mahnaz Shabbir and Aisha Sharif.
Shabbir is a strategic management consultant and faculty member at Avila University. She participates in various panel discussions around the city on religion and Islam.
As Indian immigrants to the U.S., her parents focused more on assimilation than on faith. But when she was 8 years old, her grandmother came to live with them and taught her the tenets of Islam, when to fast and how to pray.
But it was only when she had her own children that she began putting those lessons into practice, including wearing the hijab. She wears hers wrapped around her head and pinned under her chin.
“The symbolism of the hijab is not a sign of oppression,” she added. “No one’s making me wear it. I’m choosing to do it on my own, and I feel really good.”
Sharif, on the other hand, is an African-American who was born and raised in the U.S. She is an English faculty member at Metropolitan Community College.
Her mosque allows men and women to worship together. That’s pretty laid back, Sharif said, but it’s normal for her.
Given her work schedule, Sharif can’t always follow the Muslim prayer requirements to a T. But, she prays daily.
“I do wear the hijab; however, some people might say that this is very casual or liberal,” she said. Hers is wrapped only around her hair and pinned back, and she waved her hand around her neck to indicate that her fashion left it bare.
While modesty is prescribed by the Quran for both men and women, there is no specific instruction to wear a scarf or hijab. Just as faith is a personal choice, so is wearing a hijab.
Thomas also asked Salaam about the hierarchical structure in Islam. “Is it top-down or is there some role for the believers?” she asked.
It varies, he said. For some mosques, the imam is the chief decision-maker, while at other mosques, decisions include the body of believers, also known as the ummah. But one thing remains true: the imam leads the mosque and delivers teachings during weekly services.
What about Islamic interpretations of scripture? Do they vary, as in other faiths, between literal and metaphorical?
“I believe that certainly happens in Islam, that they read word for word exactly as it’s written on the page. They take it completely literal,” Salaam said.
“Just like in the Protestant church,” she replied with a chuckle.
And then there are others, Salaam said, who interpret scripture as more of a guiding principle, such as the parables taught by Jesus.
After the interview, Salaam and Thomas snapped a few selfies, with Thomas peppering in a few more questions and a lot of “thank you’s.”
The whole process was enlightening, she said. She cares about debunking false perceptions and stereotypes.
She was surprised that the imam is elected by the congregants. And, some things took her back to childhood: “The description of the mosque as a community center reminded me of churches in America in the ‘40s and ‘50s, which was when I was a kid growing up.”
Then, she remarked, surely there were no mosques around in Kansas City back in those days. As it turns out, the first mosque in Kansas City, Muhammad’s Temple Number 30 on Swope Parkway, was built in the 1950s.
Just one last tidbit of information for a woman who never stops learning.