For many West African immigrants, the New York City lifestyle hinders the practice of their Islamic faith.
“With any activity in Senegal, when you want to do it, you have the time,” reflects Ibrahim Cisse in his African inflected French. Cisse, who has lived in the city for more than ten years, says the fast pace lifestyle can be a real culture shock for new African immigrants.
“Here, people think about paying rent. It’s the first thing in their head. It’s for that reason they kill themselves with work.” Cisse, age 40, works as a deliveryman for the New York Times.
African immigrants in the city work hard not only to save for rent but also are expected to send money back to their families and villages back home, where they are known as “the Big Men.” African Muslims told us that the busyness leaves little time for religious duties like learning the Quran.
Yet, knowing the Quran is crucial, not only for religious leaders, but for all Muslims. Iman Bashir, a Quran teacher, told A Journey, “If they are going to pray, they are going to recite some verses from the holy Quran, and if they don’t memorize it, then they can’t pray.”
Memorization is a moral duty. In one sacred saying Muhammed advises, “The likeness of the one who reads the Quran and memorizes it is that it is that he is with the righteous honorable scribes…[and] he will have two rewards.” The degree to which one memorizes the Quran is the degree to which one ascends in status in the Muslim world and heaven. Another sacred saying declares, “Recite and ascend, … your station will be at the last verse you recite…what is meant by the ‘the companion of the Quran’ is the one who memorizes it by heart.” This religious duty takes years of preparation.
“Memorizing the holy Quran is not something easy,” said Imam Bashir who has taught the book for more than 25 years. “You need to focus. You need to give all your effort only to memorizing.”
Since 2001, Bashir has traveled from Senegal to Harlem to spend nine months of every year teaching the Quran to members of New York’s Senegalese community. He said his students include some adults but are mostly children.
Muslim parents find that New York City life disrupts their children’s religious upbringing. For one, their children are required by law to attend schools five days a week starting at the age of 6. Almost all attend public school which don’t offer Quran study as an option. Also, since the adults are in over their heads with work, they have little time of their own to teach their children about their faith.
In sum, the Senegalese community has very little time for memorizing Quran verses. “Here we don’t try to make them memorize all the holy Quran because it is very hard for them,” Bashir admitted. “We don’t have time to teach them, only on Saturday and Sunday. We just try to teach them the basics, and have them memorize some verses.” African Muslims also say that the lack of time to study the Quran and to experience its values means that Muslim kids live in a values vacuum.
Abdoulaye Diouf, 51, has been in New York since May and works in construction. He explained that Islamic education is better for children in Senegal because they have the time, and they learn how to respect their elders. The Quran (Sura 17, 23) teaches, “…be kind to parents…, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honor.” Diouf says that in his home country children are punished for any disrespect, unlike New York City, where he feels such behavior is more tolerated in schools.
Harvard University sociologist Mary Waters (who grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn) has documented in her article “Spar the rod, spoil the child?” (2009) a common feeling among immigrant parents in New York City that the public schools damage the city’s moral order by its neglect of religious and moral teaching. There is a belief that a decline in the moral order of kids leads to a decline of the public order that in turn cycles back onto the kids.
Consequently, many Senegalese send their children back to their home country for education. With a baby in her arms Sokhna Faty Diagne, a young Senegalese woman, worries about the future holds for her own children. Sitting reflectively on a couch at the Murid Islamic Community of America house on Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem, she voices an immigrant parent’s perennial complaint, “Here, you can teach in the room, but once the child leaves, he sees some things that are different from what he already learned.”
Diagne explained that because of such worries, many immigrant families send their children back to Senegal to receive an Islamic education according to their own traditions and values.
“Once these traditions and values are ingrained in them, they can come back here and confront the other world,” said Diagne.
However, organizations such as Human Rights Watch in New York, criticize the way Islam is taught in many Quranic schools in Senegal.
It is not uncommon for “marabouts,” teachers of the Quran, to send their students, known as “talibe,” out to the streets to beg for money. In Dakar, the streets are full of talibe, barefoot and dressed in rags. They come up to taxis, tourists, and food vendors, looking for money that they will take back to their marabout. In certain cases, the marabouts use this money to run their school. But there are marabouts who exploit students and keep money for themselves. In some cases, students spend more time begging than they do learning the Quran.
The government of Senegal is working to end this exploitation and undermining of moral education. However, many Senegalese have mixed feelings about how to do this because they believe that begging, when it’s not overdone, instills humility and selflessness, core principles in Islam. Many other religions also emphasize begging as a way of being humble before God and identifying with the poor. The Catholic church has had begging orders, and some Buddhists sects send out their students and priests to beg. Here in New York City, the contributors to beggars often feel a sense of doing a duty to help the poor.
For Bashir begging is a character-building suffering. “You have to suffer,” he said. The iman explained that begging and being away from home for long periods of time teaches children to survive. “You are going to suffer in this life.” He believes that when they come back to the hard life of New York City, the kids are better prepared to succeed.
Delphy, a Senegalese man who has been in New York for 11 years, said of child beggars, “Using them is not a good thing. But to educate them, that’s our culture, that’s our custom.” The question is, can the Senegalese custom of educational humility survive the New York City custom of dog-eat-dog success?
Jeff Tyson has worked with human rights organizations in both the United States and Senegal. He is currently a graduate student at the Columbia University School of Journalism. His bachelor's degree in international relations and French is from University of Rochester.