The Faithful

The city’s Muslim community finds a home.

Written by Annalise DeVries, Photography by Stephen DeVries

It is nearly sunrise, and within more than a thousand Birmingham households, Muslim families are praying. This is the fajr, the first of five daily Islamic prayers. In a city in the Bible Belt, time can be marked by religious and spiritual events — church bells downtown, Sunday sermons, mid-week Bible studies, and the passing of each Christmas, Lenten season and Easter.

Amid this more prevalent religious culture, members of the local Muslim community conduct their own services. Their daily prayers are accompanied by Friday evening services at the masjid (or mosque), a month of fasting in late summer called Ramadan and two annual festivals — Eid al-Fitr, the breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, celebrating when God spared Abraham from sacrificing his son Ishmael.

Waleed Ghabayen

The Birmingham Islamic Society (BIS) administers three mosques in Hoover, Homewood and Fairfield. According to BIS president Ashfaq Taufique, the three locations see a total of about 1,000 men and 150-200 women at prayers on Friday evenings, and as many as 3,000 during Ramadan. Because women are not required to pray in the mosque, he estimates the overall population is about 5,000. They are a diverse group — most coming from South Asia and the Middle East, with a smaller, but growing, population of American Muslims.

Rather than feeling counter-cultural, members of the BIS are at home in the South. Taufique describes Birmingham as one of the United States’ “best kept secrets.”

BIS treasurer Waleed Ghabayen says that while he has heard of people confronting prejudice and discrimination, his experiences have been positive. “The religious aspect of the South ties us in better than people realize, because we support the same conservative values,” he says. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

The sense of civic pride among Birmingham’s Muslims has translated into a shared commitment to the city’s growth and development. Most recently, the BIS helped establish the Red Crescent Clinic of Alabama, in partnership with the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent in North America. The clinic is open every Sunday afternoon at the Hoover Center and offers basic health care to the uninsured of all religious backgrounds.

For Tanveer Patel, the clinic’s vice president, this kind of service is part of a commitment to improving the city. “We love Birmingham,” she says. “We want to be a part of helping to grow Birmingham because we want our kids to stay here.”

This story looks at three couples from the BIS. Their stories — including that of a nurse from Alabama and her Palestinian husband, and an Indian husband and wife who work in healthcare technology — capture some of the personalities of Birmingham’s Muslim community while also conveying some of the community’s history,  diversity and guiding values.

Ashfaq and Rita Taufique

Ashfaq and Rita Taufique

More than 30 years ago, Rita Taufique, née Caruso, moved from Philadelphia to Dallas in search of a job. When she accepted a secretarial position with an engineering firm, she did not anticipate meeting a mechanical engineer from Karachi, Pakistan. Rita was unfamiliar with Islam before she met Ashfaq Taufique. Since their meeting and subsequent marriage, however, she has supported his faith and leadership of the Islamic community, even while she was not a Muslim.

The Taufiques arrived in Birmingham with their four children in 1989. Soon afterward, Ashfaq connected with the local Muslim community, which was then based out of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He explains that like most Islamic communities in the U.S., the BIS got its start as a student group. Ashfaq helped expand their services and facilities beyond UAB.

In the early 1990s, the community changed its name from the MSA to the BIS. It also moved to Homewood, where they had a masjid and a full-time school, called the Islamic Academy of Alabama.

Ashfaq explains that the BIS has three primary goals: to conduct Islamic religious services, to educate Muslims about their faith and to reach out to others. Through the Homewood masjid and school, the BIS had more adequate space for prayers, Friday services and the celebration of Islamic festivals. They also took on the formal education of their children. In 2001, Ashfaq became the BIS president.

During this period of growth, Rita worked alongside Ashfaq to help meet the community’s needs. She would drop her sons off for prayer. She also cooked when the community began preparing large meals during Ramadan and broke their fast together.

In 2007, the BIS added a new location, the Hoover Crescent Islamic Center, which became the community’s primary facility. It allowed the BIS to conduct more community outreach. This past March it became the home to the Red Crescent Clinic.

Along the Hoover Center’s walls, Ashfaq placed posters explaining the tenets of Islam. The headlines include, “What is Islam and who are Muslims?”, “What do Muslims believe about Jesus?” and “How does Islam elevate the status of women?” The posters are part of Ashfaq’s goal of improving communication between Birmingham’s Muslims and people of other faiths.

The Taufiques have spent more than a quarter century establishing this kind of cross-confessional discussion in their personal lives. In 2009, 30 years after the couple met in Dallas, Rita converted to Islam. A year later, they performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj.

Their family continues to carry out a religious exchange. Their two sons are Muslim, while their two daughters are Methodists. “We are a symbol of humanity,” Taufique says of their religiously blended family.

Of his wife, Ashfaq says, “She is my deputy. Whatever I do is because of her support.”

Cindy Ghabayen

Waleed and Cindy Ghabayen

Waleed Ghabayen first arrived in Alabama in 1984, following in the footsteps of his older brother, who previously attended community college in Gadsden. The move to the American South geographically extended his already dispersed Palestinian family. Ghabayen grew up in Kuwait, where his father taught elementary school. Now his family lives in Syria, Gaza, Sweden and Birmingham, where he also has a sister.

Ghabayen met Cindy after transferring to Jacksonville State University. They had English 101 together. She was a freshman, and he was a senior. For Cindy, who grew up in the small town of Grove Hill, Ala., Waleed introduced her to an Islamic faith and Arab culture she never knew before.

Cindy was aware of only two religions as a child — the Pentecostals she was raised with and the Southern Baptists. “You either sat down and shut up, or stood up and shouted,” she says.

Waleed, however, had roommates from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Syria. “I learned more from them than I ever knew existed in books,” Cindy recalls.

The couple married when she was 18 and he was 21. They had their first child, Layla, a year later. Then, in 1993, they moved to Birmingham, where Cindy attended nursing school and Waleed built up a network of Domino’s Pizza franchises (he now owns six restaurants).

Only after they were married 10 years did Cindy convert to Islam. It was after the birth of their second daughter, Lena. She says she felt she had been a Muslim in her heart much longer but did not immediately make a public proclamation. They later had two more children, Nadia and Saif.

Waleed describes the unifying principle of Islam as a shared obligation to do good, both within the Muslim community and for those outside of it. To that end, he is the BIS treasurer and teaches classes on the Qur’an at the Hoover Center’s weekly Sunday school. Cindy volunteers at the masjid and works as one of two nurses at the Red Crescent Clinic. The Ghabayens also support four of Waleed’s sisters living in Gaza and Syria.

They became the recipients of the Muslim community’s good will two years ago, when their eldest daughter Layla died in a car accident. Strangers provided them with meals and sent them messages of support. They also filled the prayer room during Layla’s funeral service, believing that the more people praying at the service, the greater the blessings for the deceased in the afterlife.

Shortly after her daughter died, Cindy recalls a woman asking her how she came through the tragedy. Cindy says she could rely on the authority of God’s sovereign will — a tenet heavily emphasized in Islam — and the support of the Muslim community in Birmingham.

Maqbool and Tanveer Patel

Maqbool and Tanveer Patel

When the Patels first considered moving to Birmingham, their friends in Chicago warned them against relocating to a seemingly backward city in the Deep South. When a second opportunity arose in 2002, however, Maqbool and Tanveer decided to check it out.

They were already attracted to the warmer climate and close proximity to family in Atlanta and Florida. When they actually visited, the city’s beauty and strong family values sold them. There was even an ice rink in Pelham where their eldest son could play hockey.

Once in Birmingham, the Patels quickly got involved at the BIS. “We have always been attached spiritually,” Maqbool says. “It was good for us to connect with people of our faith here.”

Tanveer describes their guiding family values as a “three-legged stool,” where they dedicate themselves to education, healthcare and local economic development. All of these principles are guided by an impulse to give back to their community.

Maqbool’s contributions to the BIS developed swiftly. Soon after moving to Birmingham, he joined the board, then, in 2004, became the director of the Sunday school. At the school, volunteer teachers offer courses on the Qur’an, Islamic rituals and festivals, and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Today they see 140 students every Sunday. Maqbool manages the curriculum, recruits teachers and fills in where needed.

To help manage the BIS administration, Maqbool used his professional expertise as a healthcare software developer. He created a system that organizes all of the BIS affairs, from school records to lists of births, marriages, and divorces. It also gives a diagram of the Muslim cemetery, listing who is buried in each plot — especially useful since Muslims do not generally use headstones to mark graves.

As an extension of the software, Maqbool developed an iPhone app that gives members information regarding daily prayer times and events at the masjid, weekend school and clinic. The app has about 300 downloads, he says.

Maqbool explains that the software is not quite complete, but when it is, he will make it available to other Islamic communities for free.

The Patels’ emphasis on community service recently translated into helping found the Red Crescent Clinic, where Tanveer is the vice president and Maqbool is a board member. For the Patels, the clinic was an obvious extension of their professional work. Tanveer uses her experience as an entrepreneur in healthcare technology to organize the clinic’s administration, and Maqbool developed software to manage the clinic’s records.

Their two sons also contribute. Their eldest, a 19-year old student at UAB, volunteers his Sundays at the clinic, and their 14-year old youngest helps Maqbool with the IT management.

Tanveer explains that their shared contributions to the BIS bring them together as a family. “It is a very common interest,” she says. “It helps strengthen us, and we hope our sons do the same with their kids.” •

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