The summer afternoon was stretching out into a long gentle drift into twilight. The imam at Masjid Noor Al-Huda was laid out for a nap after holding prayer services during the day. Then, there was a knock on the door. Who was this? Someone asking for further teaching? Homeland Security? The gas meter man?
Imam Muddasar Hussain, 29, the leader of Masjid Noor Al-Huda near Gun Hill Road in north central Bronx, peeked out to find Journey reporters. If he was upset, he never showed it. He put on a wide smile as he swung opens the inconspicuous, beige side door that led to his abode. With a thick British accent, the imam invited them in.
After they entered, he shut the door and walked calmly over to his day bed, where he ensconced cross legged in a relax demeanor. The white robe and cloth pants he wore settled to fit his seated posture. He was a barrel-chested man with a thick beard wearing black rimmed glasses, and a white skull cap. Such an imposing figure would probably make you do a double take if you saw him on the street.
His room held a wooden dresser, a book shelf filled with stacks of pamphlets, a kitchenette, a Queen sized mattress, and a pair of black sneakers on the floor beside his bed frame. This was where Hussain slept, ate, studied and lived.
Masjid Noor Al-Huda, which in Arabic means "The Light of Guidance Mosque,” is a modest three story family building converted to a worship center in 2009. Its sizeable backyard, which can fit 250 people, holds a time for “breaking of fasts” in the evening during Ramadan. Hussein leads prayers and sermons in Urdu, Arabic, and English to a worship service for about 200 people on Fridays, the day Muslims hold their largest prayer services. He said the majority of the 250 to 300 regular worshipers are from Pakistan. Non-Hispanic Asians increased their numbers in the Bronx by 22% between 2000 and 2010. However, the mosque also includes Hispanics from South America, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.
Ensnared in a Homeland Security abyss
Hussain’s journey on American soil has been topsy-turvy. In 2013, the imam, who was born and bred in Bradford, England (thus making him a citizen of the European Union), had to leave the United States because his visa had run out. He applied for other visas, most notably the R1 visa for religious leaders. For a time, he was stuck in the UK.
For religious communities throughout the country, immigration reform is a hot button issue. Conservative Christian Hispanics launched a 40-day hungry strike hoping to expedite immigration reform in Congress. Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, committed to “pull out all the stops.” The Muslim Public Affairs Council has been monitoring and promoting immigration reform for over a decade. Even American Jews, through the organization Jewish Social Justice, have jumped on the bandwagon to help immigrant religious leaders.
Hussain, who was separated from his congregation, was unsure when he would be able to continue his tenure as an imam in the Bronx. “I am trying to gain reentry,” Hussain said at the time over Skype. Being an undocumented immigrant is not an option, so he had to wait for the proper papers to come through.
“I hope he can come back in a month or two,” worriedly said Raja Javed, president of the masjid, over the phone. “The children really liked him.” The masjid had no choice but to temporarily install a new imam in Hussain's absence.
Hussain was able to get back to the Bonx masjid last year. Nonchalantly, he said by phone, it’s “the same routine: classes for the youngsters; and Friday congregational prayer. Ramadan is approaching now.” And since he has returned the congregation has more than doubled in size.
The making of an imam
Hussain was a public school teacher for three years in the United Kingdom before taking on the imam cap in the United States. "Becoming an imam wasn't a decision I made consciously," he said. After obtaining a Bachelors degree in European History from the University of Bradford, he went to the University of Huddersfield for a Masters program in English, and then took a one year course called the Postgraduate Certificate in Education, which qualified him to teach in England. He taught English and History for high school students.
Hussain took his job seriously as a teacher. "If you're not passionate about what you're teaching and the children you're teaching, then you should not teach," Hussain said. "You have a big duty, not just to care about your students, but to nurture them in the right way. You can't just say, 'I'm going to teach English and History' and that's it."
But sometimes his good intentions were taken advantage of and during those moments of hardships as an educator, Hussain prayed to Allah.
In his early years of teacher training, he had a ninth grade class in its final weeks of the semester when violence ensued. During a showing of Amistad, the historical drama, one male student began to disturb the classroom by throwing things.
"I sent him out, and he became violent and pushed me around. That was new to me," Hussain said. He mentioned that UK law prevents educators from fighting back or touching the student. He decided to call his boss, the head of ninth grade, and the school security took the student away.
After the incident, Hussain went home and spoke to Allah. "I said, 'Please Allah, don't let this effect me in any way,'" he recalled. "He [the student] could have said I assaulted him." Fortunately, the student was put on disciplinary action, and nothing happened to Hussain. He realized Allah had answered his prayers.
After work, Hussain started visiting Islamic talks. He was riveted by the discussions and theological debates of Islam. A teacher by day and a student of Islamic theology by night, he spent two to three hours, six days a week taking the Dars-e-Nizami course, a curriculum used in Islamic schools, primarily in India. "It is Sufi by tradition and teaches moderation," Hussain emphasized. "If you fall off too much, it's not good. Avoid extremism and do not negate the rights of your everyday responsibilities to your wife and children."
Within the framework of Islamic theology, Sufism emphasizes knowing the Allah who resides in oneself. To know oneself is to also know Allah. Sufism tends toward the mystical and the musical. Sunni and Shiite Muslims consider Sufism as unorthodox, but its teachings have wide influence even in those communities.
Hussain brought this wisdom to the US. The first time Hussain stepped foot on US soil was in February of 2011, when he attended a celebration called Eid Milad-Un-Nabi to commemorate the Prophet Mohamed's birth. However his arrival was less than pleasant.
"I was stopped for four hours in Newark Airport," he said shaking his head. While Homeland Security let him go after four hours of questioning and waiting, the situation annoyed Hussain more than scared him. He now braces himself every time he flies back to England to see family.
He came back to the United States in September of that year. From the contacts he had strengthen during his first visit, Hussain was offered an imam position at Masjid Noor Al-Huda and accepted the job. Although he gave up his profession as a teacher, his heart was still inclined toward nurturing people through teaching and mentoring.
"As an imam, you will need to have a teaching background," Hussain said. "People who are teachers are better listeners."
Learning through evangelism
"We have a 19 year old Dominican kid who converted to Islam, he lives near White Plains," Hussain remarked. "He came yesterday and had questions about faith. He said to me, 'What's the point?'"
"I told him that faith is about consistency. If you're not consistent, you can't grow," he recalled, then paused for a moment of reflection. "When I was in a teaching job, the third year was me looking at how I can grow and be the head of the department."
Besides planting pearls of wisdom to the youth in his congregation, Hussain also has a streak of an evangelist. He invited his barber, a non-Muslim to the masjid. "He was curious," Hussain said.
His barber took Hussain up on the invitation and went, resulting in mixed results within the congregation. "Some people in the masjid asked why I don't find a Pakistani barber. I say to them, 'Why? My barber is right down the street and he does a good job,'" he answered. "I don't confine myself to finding a Pakistani barber!"
While his barber did not convert to Islam, Hussain openly admitted that interacting with non-Muslims like his barber gives him a better perspective. "It helps me a lot to realize people are not as prejudice as some people believe," he said. "I walk around like this." He waved his hands up and down his long white robe, acknowledging how strange it might be for some people to see a grown adult wear a flowery white robe in public. "People question, but they do not hate."
City-life for an imam
On the opposite spectrum of Hussain's eye-catching clothing, he spoke of the unassuming quality of Ramadan. "Ramadan is the greatest of worship events. You can wake up in the morning and pray, but no one can tell if you are fasting unless you tell them," he observed. "It is truly a relationship with God." During Ramadan, the masjid is open every night for breaking fast together.
He leads Masjid Noor Al-Huda in the same manner he views the city: easily; approachable; and with a passion for diversity. "We're living in a multi-cultural society," Hussain said to A Journey. "As New Yorkers and as a city, people are very open minded."
As a parting pleasure of his seemingly unlimited hospitality, he offered us tea and sweets. I politely declined and thanked him for his time, a precious gift of its own. Then, I walked out the door thinking about my desire to become a teacher.
--- with additional reporting by Pauline Dolle
Masjid Noor-Ul-Huda Islamic Center
3033 Young Avenue
Bronx, NY 10469
For more information: http://www.masjidnoorulhuda.com/