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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, September 2, 2002

Local Muslim stirs debate

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

Saleem Ahmed's book, "Beyond Veil and Holy War," wasn't even off the press yet when it started making waves in the island's Muslim community.

Some of his provocative arguments: That the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed were misinterpreted by Mohammed's followers; that a woman need not wear a veil; and that women don't have to pray separately or behind men.

To make these determinations, Ahmed studied Islam's holy text, the Quran, a compilation of revelations made by the archangel Gabriel to Mohammed, a 40-year-old goat herder, over a 23-year period beginning in 610 A.D.

For Muslims, the Quran is sacrosanct, the official word of Allah. The Quran was compiled by those with whom Mohammed shared his revelations, and Mohammed himself confirmed the content of the writings.

Ahmed contrasts the Quran, however, with a body of religious doctrine called Hadith (pronounced more like hah-dees than hah-deeth).

Saleem Ahmed

Discusses his book, "Beyond Veil and Holy War" and Islam:

• 7 p.m. Thursday, Yukiyoshi Room, Krauss Hall, UH Outreach College. Free.

• Also: A six-session class, "Understanding Islam," at UH Outreach College, will be 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Sept. 18-Oct. 23, $30; 956-5666.

The book is available on the Web, and at some bookstores. It's published by Moving Pen, a company of which Ahmed is president.

During Mohammed's lifetime, people consulted him on a variety of religious and contemporary matters, and his responses were compiled by others in the Hadith. The method of collection was fraught with shortcomings, Ahmed says: The words could have been misinterpreted or taken out of context.

In the 224-page book, subtitled "Islamic Teachings and Muslim Practices with Biblical Comparisons," the Quran is contrasted with Christian beliefs and those of other religions: Judaism, Buddhism and occasionally Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism. And Ahmed's foreword includes perspectives offered by two non-Muslim Hawai'i residents: a prayer leader for Sof Ma'Arav, a conservative Jewish congregation, as well as a lecturer at Chaminade, a Roman Catholic university. He also includes comments by clergy, including Rabbi Avi Magid of Temple Emanu-El.

All that preparation, however, didn't shield him from criticism by Muslims.

Ahmed, a soils expert who worked for the East-West Center before starting a second career as a financial planner, remembers the lecture he gave at the Punahou's Wo Center in early July, nearly six weeks before the first carton of books arrived at his Hawai'i Kai home.

The head of the Muslim Association of Hawaii, Hakim Ouansafi, stood up and questioned how Ahmed could write a book about the Quran that calls into question basic tenets of Islam, when the liberal-leaning Ahmed is not a cleric.

Reached more recently, Ouansafi's criticism had not softened. "It is a fiction book, based on no reality," Ouansafi said. "He's using his Ph.D in agriculture to write a book about Islam."

The two men diverge on several points. The most visual could be the issue of the hijab, or women's head covering: Ahmed's wife and two daughters never wore them. Ouansafi's wife, who converted to Islam, does.

Ahmed said the Quran only asks women and men to dress modestly, and that women should cover their "bosom" with a veil, not their face. He said the Quran asks a woman to wear a jalabib, or outer garment.

Ouansafi takes issue with the translation in Arabic of the word "jalabib," saying when Mohammed referred to it, he was talking about a nun's outer garments.

Ahmed prays Salat, a five-times-a-day prayer, and attends mosque services occasionally, but he doesn't fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan. But that doesn't mean he's not a Muslim, he said. He raised his children to learn Islam, he said.

"Anyone who believes in one God and leads a righteous life is a Muslim," Ahmed said.

Correction: Saleem Ahmed prays Salat, a five-times-a-day prayer, and attends mosque services occasionally. He said anyone who believes in one God and leads a righteous life can be considered a Muslim. A previous version of this story contained other information.