Beliefnet
CAMBRIDGE, Oct. 14, 2001,-- What they hear is that men and women were createdfrom a single pear.

They are 60 visitors - awkward but well-meaning - worrying theunfamiliar carpet of the mosque's basement room with their socks. Mostarrived this evening with their arms and legs covered, some have scarvesor sweaters draped on their heads. They're grinning politely; they'retrying to be open-minded; they know they have everything to learn, andplenty to unlearn, about Islam.

But they're strangers, expecting strangeness. So when Justin Hvitfeldtstands up to explain the creation story, more than a few of them hear:"In Islam we believe, as in Christianity, that man was created from apear. Men and women from a single pear, so that we share the same soul."

Visitors look around uneasily. Finally, a woman in the third rowventures, "How are you spelling pear?"

"P-A-I-R?" Mr. Hvitfeldt says, puzzled.

"Oh!" somebody says, and little "oh's" echo from around the crowdedroom. After a beat, the visitors start to giggle nervously. Afteranother, so do their teachers, Hvitfeldt and his wife, Andrea Useem.

"No," Hvitfeldt says, "we don't believe we were created from afruit...."

But speaking of fruit: "We also don't believe woman was responsible forthe downfall of man."

The Islamic Society of Boston in Cambridge, Mass., has opened its doorsto groups of visitors like these every week since Sept. 11. Thecommunity outreach began with an ISB open house the week of the attacks;700 locals attended, many of them searching for ways to show support forMuslims and to learn about Islam. After this flood of interest, thesociety decided to offer this "Introduction to Islam" class, adiscussion series, and a display at the Boston Public Library. Numeroussuch efforts have sprung up nationwide in the past six weeks.

For a Muslim community, hosting these events invariably raises questionsabout who can best communicate the tenets of Islam to a US audience. At the ISB, Ms. Useem and Hvitfeldt volunteered. Both were born in theUnited States and have recently converted to Islam. Hvitfeldt grew up inWisconsin with little religious instruction, and embraced Islam threeyears ago after a difficult battle with depression. Useem was raisedEpiscopalian in a suburb of Boston. She became a Muslim two years ago,while working as a journalist covering North African Muslim communitiesafter the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

So, for tonight's crowd - many of them 20-somethings - they'rerelatively easy emissaries of Islam to embrace. They can joke inAmerican idioms, they use American slang. "One thing about the Muslimcommunity in the US," says Hvitfeldt, "is that a lot of people arerecent immigrants, still learning the language. Part of the reason wevolunteered to teach the class was that we could communicate moreeasily, and maybe have more in common with the people who'd beattending."

The topic under discussion this week: gender relations in Islam. It'sone about which many visitors are skeptical. A handful of attendees areMuslim, a few others have studied Islam, but the great majority havenever been to a mosque, and many are hearing about Islamic culture andbeliefs from Muslim teachers for the first time.

The couple begins by addressing some common questions about women inIslam: from marriage to divorce to polygamy.

As Useem explains the traditional Muslim marriage contract, a legaldocument in which a couple agrees on underlying assumptions for theirmarried life - such as whether the wife will work and whether therelationship will be monogamous - a visitor comments: "Oh! Like aprenup."

Divorce is allowed, Useem explains, but as a last resort, after manytrial separations. Polygamy is an option for men, if their marriagecontracts allow, but not for women.

"That doesn't seem fair," remarks an older man in the back row. "I wasmarried to a feminist for years, and I can tell you, she wouldn't havegone for that."

Throughout their presentation, Hvitfeldt and Useem invite visitors torespond or ask questions. Often, even when they've answered these withexamples from their own lives and marriage, the crowd, though polite,seems less than satisfied. Questions hang in the room: "If women areequal to men in their relationship to God, why do they have to praybehind a screen, or against a wall?"

Sometimes Muslim audience members also respond to visitors' questions.Over the course of the evening, as the class becomes moreconversational, its value emerges not so much from the questions itanswers, but from the interaction between Muslim and non-Muslimcommunity members that it facilitates.

That, Lisa Schneier says, is the reason she came. "I was disturbed bythe things I'd been hearing about how Muslims were being treated afterSept. 11th. So I wanted to learn about the religion, and also, in asupportive sense, to make contact with some Muslims locally."

Hvitfeldt says another of the ISB's intentions in sponsoring the classwas to open its space to visitors: "A lot of people who came to our openhouse seemed like they needed an invitation to come here, like theynever felt they had the opportunity before. They would have been welcomeanytime, but not knowing what to do during the prayer, it can beawkward."

It also can be awkward for a community of faith to open its doors tononmembers. "That's why we try to let people know about things likeacceptable dress," he adds. "But a lot of it is also just being patientwith people who don't know what our rules are. They're obviously here tolearn, and that's what we were hoping for."

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus