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Jamaica imam promotes education of Islamic faith

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Imam Aziz Bilal, the leader of a mosque in South Jamaica, is on a mission to educate his neighbors on the true spirit of Islam after the attack on the World Trade Center by Arab terrorists fostered misunderstandings and animosity toward the Muslim community.

Bilal, the imam of the Masjid Al-Ham-Du-Lilal mosque at 121-03 Sutphin Blvd. in South Jamaica, said he is available to anyone who wants to learn more about his religion and is planning a series of inter-faith conferences with other Queens religious leaders.

A Jamaica HS graduate who became a Sunni Muslim after beginning life as a Christian and then joining the Nation of Islam, Bilal said his religion is “about serving God in the best way possible and doing good towards other people.”

The U.S. government contends the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center Sept. 11 were members of a network of Islamic extremists called Al Qaeda, led by exiled Saudi Osama bin Laden, who has been given haven by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Bilal said the terrorists, who claimed to have been devout Muslims, have misrepresented the Muslim faith and distorted the meaning of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, creating the need for him and other imams to teach Americans about their religion.

His mosque, which belongs to the Muslim American Society, has about 40 members who represent different countries as well as different ethnic and racial backgrounds, Bilal said. Like the majority of the world’s Muslims, members of Bilal’s mosque are Sunni Muslims.

The Muslim American Society is a charitable, religious, social, cultural, educational non-profit organization headed by Imam W. D. Muhammad, the son of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, but it is not affiliated with the Nation of Islam, an organization formally open only to black Muslims.

Born in Selma, Ala. and brought up as a Christian in South Jamaica, Bilal joined the Nation of Islam at a young age. The black organization was led by Elijah Muhammad in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

When Muhammad died in 1975, his son, Imam W. D. Muhammad, led Bilal and others in the Nation of Islam toward the teachings of the Koran.

Those who followed W.D. Muhammad, including Bilal, studied to become Sunni Muslims. Many who did not follow W. D. Muhammad instead chose to follow Louis Farrakhan, the current leader of the Nation of Islam.

Under the guidance of W. D. Muhammad, Bilal dismissed most of Elijah Muhammad’s teachings, but retained what he learned about self-respect and dignity.

“Islam teaches that people are people [regardless of race] and your dignity and self-respect come from your worship of God,” Bilal said of the Koran.

Bilal said he is frustrated when he watches the news on TV and listens to non-Muslim scholars misinterpreting the Koran.

“That is not fair to the Muslim community and it is not fair to the world,” Bilal said of interviews.

He said is also frustrated when he listens to interviews with Muslims whose English is so poor it is difficult to understand them.

He suggested that black Muslims like himself would be perfect for interviews because many of them grew up speaking English in the United States, were raised as Christians, converted to Islam and have studied the religion extensively.

Turning to the U.S. and British military’s air strikes in Afghanistan, Bilal said he supports them, but is concerned about the lives of innocent Afghans. He said he prays the bombing will end soon.

Afghanistan, a predominately Muslim country, is one of the poorest countries in the world.

“They are good people, very religious people,” Bilal said of the Afghans, “but they have their problems. I don’t think Osama bin Laden has a majority of their support. I think the people would support anyone who provide them with food and shelter.”

Bilal said the tenets of Islam allow Muslims to fight wars in self-defense, but the Koran condemns the killing of innocent people. He also clarified the concept of a Muslim holy war, explaining that no current Muslim leader has the authority to declare a holy war.

In earlier centuries, rulers called khalifiahs had power over the entire Muslim empire and they had the authority to call a holy war, Bilal explained. The rule of the last khalifiah ended in 1923. Now, each Muslim country has its own political and religious leaders, Bilal said.

“We all believe in the same concept in terms of God, but when it comes to politics, it is entirely different,” Bilal said of Muslims across the globe.

Bilal said he ran as a Democrat for City Council this year in part because he wanted to break the negative stereotypes of Muslims in the United States.

“It is important that people begin to see those of the Islamic faith as people who are not anti-American or anti any religion” Bilal said.

He lost the Democratic primary in the race for City Councilman Thomas White’s (D-Jamaica) seat but plans to run for public office again in the near future.

Reach reporter Betsy Scheinbart by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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