Where the path may lead
One Muslim family seeks understanding in Columbus.
The sun has set and Wan Baba and her youngest daughter, Teehah, are still at the Islamic Center on Chestnut Street. The small basement is dimly lit, with little windows peeking out to the parking lot. Cardboard boxes filled with snacks are scattered about, and just below the loudspeaker in the ceiling is a whiteboard with phrases written in Arabic.
Wan offers us coffee and hands us each a pack of Cheez-It Baked Crackers and a chocolate chip granola bar. She scurries around the cluttered kitchenette and apologizes when some dirty dishes crash into the sink.
Teehah, who turned 9 in May, finds a dinosaur puzzle in a cabinet in the back of the room, sits down at one of the long plastic tables and asks if we’ll help her put it together. Her name is short for the first chapter in the Quran called Surah Al-Fatiha (the opener). She looks up at her mother at the Keurig.
“Are you going to have one?” Teehah asks.
“I’ve had enough coffee for today,” Wan laughs. “Am I right?”
“You’ve had, like, 10 every day!” Teehah says.
Suddenly, a man’s voice comes over the loudspeaker, singing in Arabic. Wan ditches the idea of coffee and begins to collect her things.
“Excuse me,” she says when she hears the call to prayer. “I’m just going to go pray for a few minutes.”
She grabs her daughter’s hand and Teehah trails behind her mother, following her upstairs in a pink polka-dot hijab.
Wan and Teehah are part of the seven-member Zulkifly family, who came to Columbus in 2012. They, along with roughly 150 other Muslims, are members of the Islamic Society of Columbus, housed in a small brick building just north of downtown.
Today, more than three million Muslims live in the United States. Bartholomew County’s Muslim population, estimated at just over 300, may seem small at first glance. But that figure puts the county in the top 6 percent of all U.S. counties, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives.
The growth of the Islamic community here is directly related to Cummins Inc., a Fortune 500 engineering company that hires employees from all over the world.
Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop says the city’s diversity is an advantage and broadens everyone’s thinking. “What you realize quickly is that we’ve got far more in common than we do differences. Diversity makes us a better city.”
Wan, her husband, Zulkifly Yusuf, and their five children have found that kind of welcome here. But they’ve also faced suspicion and resentment, especially in the wake of terrorist bombings in Europe and the highly charged political debate this election season. For them, the Islamic center is a refuge, a place to pray, play, learn and be with friends.
“It’s really like home for some of us,” Wan says.
At their nearby brick ranch house, Wan and Zulkifly, both 44, are preparing a Malaysian dinner with noodles, vegetables and chicken.
The kids sit in the living room, watching the Disney Channel. Books and family photos line the walls. Two of their 18-year-old son Iman’s paintings are displayed at the front of the room. One is abstract, and the other is his rendition of the green light at the end of the dock in The Great Gatsby.
Teehah is first to remove her hijab. Without it, her long dark hair falls past her shoulders. Her older sister Farah soon follows suit, but Wan leaves hers on as she heads straight to the kitchen to cook.
Farah, which means happiness, is in the eighth grade at Northside Middle School. She’s nervous about transitioning to high school because she doesn’t want to get lost during passing periods. She plays the clarinet and aspires to be a pediatrician.
“I kind of want to go to Mars,” Teehah chimes in.
Farah has to wear her hijab anytime she is out in public because she is a teenager. Teehah decided to start wearing hers in school on her first day of third grade, and she also wears it at the Islamic center. She wants to start wearing it full time when she begins fourth grade.
When Zulkifly visits Malaysia each year, he buys Wan hijabs, which mysteriously go missing now that both girls are wearing them, too. “I like the ones that wrap around because they’re prettier,” Teehah explains. “But the ones you slip on are so much easier.”
Farah chose to cover her hair at an earlier age. She was 6 when she started begging her mother for more hijabs. Her school in the U.K. had more Muslim students, and she didn’t want to feel like the odd one out. Now, the situation has reversed, and she stands out because of her hijab.
She says most of the kids who pick on her just ask “unintelligent” questions about her religion.
“I’ve been asked if I have ears, if I’m bald or if I shower with my hijab on,” Farah says.
None of her close friends in Columbus are Muslim, but it’s all the same to her.
“Friends are friends,” she says bluntly.
Next to Farah on the couch is Ihsan, 16, which means compassion. He is cradling his 2-year-old brother, Ilyaas, on his chest. At the Zulkifly house, Ilyaas, named for a religious prophet, is the star of the show. Everyone takes turns holding him, feeding him cookies and giving him high fives as he toddles around the room.
Although Ihsan has never had a pet, he thinks he might want to work with animals someday. But according to his mother, he remarks resentfully, he’s too irresponsible for a pet cat.
Ihsan just began his second season on his school’s lacrosse team. He has braces and a wider stature than his older brother, who has a runner’s build.
No one really moves when Wan announces that dinner is ready. “If they’re hungry they’ll come, if not, more for us,” Wan says as she sets down our plates.
The Zulkifly family’s story starts in Cambodia, where Zulkifly Yusuf was born and lived until he was 7. His family fled Pol Pot’s regime and moved to Malaysia, where Wan was born and lived with her eight siblings.
“My father stressed very, very much the importance of education,” Wan says.
When she was 15, Wan’s father died. With all her siblings away at school, Wan lived alone with her mother. Her father’s influence drove her to excel in secondary school and pass a placement test that landed her at a better school, where Zulkifly was a student. The two met as classmates when they were 16.
Wan’s mother died when Wan was 17, and she and Zulkifly attended different universities. But mutual friends helped them keep in touch. “He would send me a birthday and Eid card every year,” Wan recalls.
Dating wasn’t really an option, since it is against Islam for a man and woman to be alone together before marriage. On top of that, per Cambodian customs, Zulkifly’s parents already had promised him to marry a family friend’s daughter, a girl he had never met.
It took a lot of convincing for both families, “but eventually things worked out,” Wan says. “Here we are 20 years later.”
In a Muslim marriage, the suitor is expected to ask permission from a woman’s father in order to marry her. Since both of Wan’s parents had passed away, the responsibility to give Wal, or permission to marry, fell to Wan’s oldest brother Abdullah Sharin.
“The big brother was that,” Zulkifly says as Wan laughs. “Big and scary with big hands.”
After they were married, they kept with the Islamic tradition that Wan’s last name – Baba – would stay the same, and their children would take on Zulkifly’s first name as their last.
The couple had their first three children – sons Iman and Ihsan and daughter Nurfarah, Farah for short – while living in Malaysia. “We thought we were done,” Wan remembers.
A year later, the family relocated to Durham, England, where Wan got her Ph.D. in philosophy and applied linguistics from the University of Leicester. In 2007, Teehah was born. “Then we really thought we were done,” Wan says.
Five years later, Zulkifly got a job as a reliability leader at Cummins, so they moved again, this time to Columbus, and got their green cards. Wan started teaching English as a second language at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus.
Another two years passed and the family greeted their seventh and final member, Ilyaas, who was born in Columbus.
Moving to a new country meant large and small changes for everybody, but they adjusted quickly. Culture shock really hit them when, driving on the opposite side of the road, they saw fast food restaurants on nearly every corner. They were surprised to see that police officers and security guards carried weapons. For Farah, the differences between apples in England and in the States stuck with her. “The apples are so huge!” she exclaims. “In England, I could finish an apple in, like, four bites. Here it takes a whole hour.”
The Zulkiflys’ journey is one of many paths to Columbus’ Islamic Society. The center’s demographics are more diverse than most mosques because Muslims here come from more than 30 countries, says spokesperson Hanna Omar.
“We have people here who are Hoosiers and have eight different generations that have been in Indiana,” Omar explains. “We have people from various African countries and European countries. We have Mexicans, Chinese, Malaysians and Sri Lankans, so there is lots of diversity.”
The group started out in 2001 as 40 or 50 Muslims praying in an apartment. They were a slowly growing minority that needed a place to call their own. So, they rented space in the United Way of Bartholomew County building and watched their community flourish.
But they were forced to move again when the building burned in December 2009. They bought the current building, previously a Reformed Presbyterian Church, and transformed it into the first house of Allah in Southern Indiana.
Now, seven years later and almost double in size, the group uses the three-story space for just about everything. The basement has a kitchenette and seating area where members gather and feast during Ramadan and other Eids, or Muslim holidays. Every Sunday, children meet in the four classrooms to learn Arabic and study Islamic teachings. And anyone may come to the partitioned space on the main level for the five daily prayers.
Wan and her close friend Sahar Almasri are on their knees behind the partition in the prayer room, where women gather on the red-and-gold carpet. Sahar wears light makeup and a gold necklace with a symbol encrusted with diamonds that means “Praise to God” in Arabic.
It’s time for Jummah, a weekly prayer held on Fridays, and although only men are required to attend, Wan and Sahar have come, too.
A man at the front of the room leads the prayer, while others arrive late. Before they enter, they must wash themselves in a process called Wudu, and the sound of splashing water comes from the nearest bathroom. Everyone praying together creates a low humming noise.
For Muslims, Islam is about defining their relationship with Allah and better understanding their role as his creation.
To achieve this goal, Muslims study the Quran and are called to prayer five times a day. Muslims believe the Quran was sent to them directly from Allah, so they can use it as a guide to navigate life. Allah also sent the Prophet Muhammad to teach the practices in the holy book.
A Muslim’s faith, or Iman, is determined by the six pillars of faith, which are essential beliefs.
There are fundamental and non-fundamental practices as well. The five pillars of Islam listed in the Quran are, perhaps, the most fundamental religious principles.
One key practice is modesty. When they reach puberty, women are expected to cover up around those not in the immediate family, and men must be clothed from the navel down. How Muslims, particularly women, decide to cover up is usually influenced by the country they are from.
For example, Wan is from Malaysia and wears a headscarf, but a woman from Pakistan may not be expected to cover her hair because that is considered a non-fundamental way to show modesty.
“People tend to confuse culture and religion,” Wan says.
For instance, Islam forbids forcing a woman into marriage or committing murder. Yet, in some cultures, these are accepted practices. Wan says associating forced marriage and honor killings with Islam is a common misperception.
The Quran also mandates that the husband’s money is for the family, and any money a wife makes is her own. Household duties should be shared between the man and woman. “I work, my money is mine. He works, his money is mine,” Wan says. “He provides for everyone.”
Eating halal food is another fundamental practice. Meat, other than pork, is halal if it is slaughtered in the most humane way possible, with a swift cut to the throat that inflicts the least amount of pain. Pork is haram, which means forbidden. Alcohol, as a beverage or ingredient, is haram, too.
Wan shops at Restaurant Depot in Indianapolis. Sometimes, the family eats out at the two halal establishments in Columbus, Apna Kitchen and Mumbai Grill.
Together, these principles and practices form the core of the Islamic faith.
On a warm Sunday at the Islamic center, Wan decides to teach her first religion class of the day outside. She and her students sit in a circle and take turns reading from the Quran. Later, she steps in for an Arabic teacher who is running late. It’s Teehah’s class, and Wan doesn’t speak Arabic, so she’s flustered.
“Everybody take out your Arabic book!” Wan orders. “I know everyone has it, so no more excuses.”
Until the teacher arrives, Wan points to pages that the children have already studied and has them review the vocabulary.
Meanwhile, Iman is in an upstairs classroom where kindergarten students are memorizing short Arabic verses through song. He usually leads the class, but, today, a new teacher is giving lessons. A breeze blows in through the open window and chimes from a nearby house accompany their singing voices. The walls are plastered with coloring-book pages of the Prophet Muhammad’s name in Arabic and Kaaba, the center of Islam’s most sacred mosque in Mecca.
Iman has gelled hair and is wearing red sneakers and a Nike t-shirt that says, “Man Up or Shut Up.” He’s a senior at Columbus North High School and has run cross country since his sophomore year. Iman also is president of the National Honor Society and helped found a creative writing club at school. He says he started the club when a girl he had a crush on didn’t want to start it on her own. But he found he enjoys writing. “I’m a poet kind of guy,” he says.
Iman graduates in May and is set on going to Purdue University and becoming a dentist.
Sundays at the center end with a prayer that starts just before 2 p.m. Afterward, some of the girls linger in the room, comparing cartwheels and roundoffs. Other children throw their shoes back on and head outside for races or football. The parents chat, sometimes breaking conversation to call out a child’s name or round up the family.
Wan waits patiently by the family’s silver Nissan minivan with Zulkifly in the driver’s seat. Iman is finishing up a game of football, and his siblings are still hanging out with friends. Eventually, they all make it to the van and head home.
But life isn’t always this quiet. Muslim families like the Zulkiflys sometimes do encounter bullying and harassment.
One day at the supermarket parking lot, Wan saw a man write down her license plate number. Another time, she was driving down the road when a man drove up next to her car and glared at her. Wan noticed the rifle on his dashboard.
“I looked back at him, and he knew I saw the gun,” Wan says. “I was terrified.”
With her infant son Ilyaas and Teehah in the car, Wan drove away and didn’t report what happened to the police.
However, the Zulkiflys have been surprised by the acceptance they’ve found here, too.
In August 2014, three local churches were vandalized with graffiti that read “Infidels!” and “Qur’an 3:151.” That passage says terror will be “cast into the hearts” of those who don’t follow Allah.
Wan’s friend Sahar, who’s involved in the society’s community outreach, says she worried when news of the incident spread. But she was touched by the response of church leaders, including the Rev. Clem Davis, a longtime pastor at St. Bartholomew Catholic Church.
Davis says no one he talked to imagined that anyone at the Islamic Society had been responsible. “Some voiced that anyone with Google can look up troublesome texts, in the Bible or the Quran,” he says.
After the incident, the church sponsored a series of eight discussions regarding terrorism, its coverage and the Islamic faith. “I, personally, had never studied Islam nor even looked at the Quran. That was eye opening,” Davis says. “Connecting with them showed us the human side of everyone’s life. That made for a warmth and an affection that grew up between us.”
As we finish our dinner with the Zulkiflys, the discussion turns serious. Wan and Zulkifly sit next to each other, playing off each other’s remarks.
In media coverage of bombings and beheadings by ISIS and other extremist groups, Americans see images of Muslims who dedicate their lives to the destruction of the West. Yet, the Zulkiflys say groups like the Taliban and ISIS twist the words of the Quran to justify violence.
“They bomb everything. The mosques, the synagogues, the churches . . . They bomb everything,” Wan says. “Whereas in the Quran there is a chapter that says when you are even at war you cannot destroy houses and places of worship. They are doing it right now, and they are claiming to represent Islam. How can you represent when you are doing the opposite of what Islam is telling you?”
“You can’t even cut the trees during war,” Zulkifly adds.
They are frustrated and saddened when political candidates address Islam as if it were a cancer to be eliminated.
Wan won’t forget the coverage of September 11, 2001. “I remember watching TV and praying, ‘Please don’t be a Muslim, please don’t be a Muslim’,” she says, fighting back tears.
She knew if a Muslim were responsible for the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, her faith would be wrongfully judged.
“A big chunk of what people choose to believe is what they hear,” Zulkifly says.
Wan and Zulkifly insist that knowledge is vital to ending misperceptions about Islam. So they make sure their children, both the girls and boys, are actively pursuing an education. They point out that extremist groups, like ISIS, would deprive their daughters of the chance to learn.
“I think education is key to freedom,” she says. “If you want to be oppressive, you leave the man ignorant.”
It’s important to Wan and Zulkifly that their children understand Islam and make a positive impact on their religion’s image.
“ISIS scares me as much as it scares you,” Wan says. “I know that if they were to catch me, I would be . . .” She doesn’t finish her sentence, but makes a cutting gesture across her throat.
On the last Saturday we spend with the Zulkifly family, we meet them at Ihsan’s lacrosse game. The wind is cold, but Wan and Teehah brave the weather to cheer him on.
“Come on, Ihsan, go!” Wan shouts.
She points Ihsan out to us among the players dressed in blue-and-white jerseys. She yells again, clapping, when Ihsan makes an assist and his team scores. They’re up 7-0.
Ilyaas is asleep, so Zulkifly stays with him in the van. Farah is at a band competition, and Iman is working a shift at Subway. Wan stands on the sidelines and Teehah sits, wrapping her stuffed dog in a blanket she brought. A little boy asks if he can play, joining her on the grass.
We leave before the game is over, following Wan and Teehah off the field. Later, Wan reveals to us that she’s not sure how much longer the family will stay in Columbus. They would like to stay until Ihsan graduates high school, but Wan admits she feels restless. Still, moving back to Malaysia or another Muslim country would feel like a step backward.
“I think I have embraced diversity when I live in a non-Muslim country,” Wan says. “By moving to other countries, I learn more about Islam and more about tolerance.”
Living in Columbus has changed who she is, she says. Growing up in a Muslim country made Wan biased toward Muslims, but after living in a new country, she has found that there is more than one way to live.
She and Zulkifly hope their children will be able to live in any society as Muslims, no matter where their paths may lead.