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Children of Change : New names. New holidays. New rules. Youths accepting Islam face a lifestyle conversion.

July 27, 1993|ABIGAIL GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the muezzin at the Islamic Council of Southern California begins the 1,400-year-old chant of the adhan, the slow, deep, long vowels of the Arabic call to prayer, the men of the Al-Haneef family already are kneeling at the front of the mosque.

Other worshipers remove their shoes and pad over the soft tan carpet. Men move to the front and women to the back, not disturbing the reverie of white-robed Bilal Ali Al-Haneef and his sons, Hassan, 13, and Jahmaal, 11, who are facing Mecca with their heads bowed.

The boys have no trouble remembering when during the prayers to stand, when to kneel and when to bow their heads to the floor in obeisance. But sometimes they struggle with their Arabic pronunciations because they have only been saying the prayers since November, when they joined their father in accepting Islam. Their mother followed within a month.

"When I did the prayer with my father over Thanksgiving, I felt a lot better about myself,"Hassan says of his decision to become a Muslim. "I thought it was the right thing to do. All the time Allah is on my mind now. Everything I do now has something to do with Islam."

Although exact numbers are difficult to assess, most experts estimate that 4 million to 7 million Americans practice Islam, believed to be the fastest-growing religion in the country. And of the roughly 25,000 Americans who convert to Islam each year, says Fareed Nu'man, director of the department of research for the American Muslim Council in Washington, more than 90% are African-American.

African-American parents have been introducing their children to Islam since the early part of the century when Marcus Garvey called on them to forge ties with their African past. The trend continued with the Nation of Islam, founded by W.D. Fard in the 1930s and led for a time by Malcolm X, although the majority of conversions today are to orthodox Sunni Islam.

As more adults turn to Islam, they bring increasing numbers of children into the faith with them. At Masjid Bilal, a mosque in South-Central Los Angeles, the imam , or spiritual leader, says he has 50 or 60 adult converts annually, which can add 100 to 200 new children each year.

For the children of converts, a mid-childhood change to new names, new holidays, new rules, new friends and often a renewed family bond can mean a different path toward accepting--or not accepting--Islam for themselves.

"Islam does not create any more problems than Judaism or converting to Christianity," says Maulana Karenga, chairman of the black studies department at Cal State Long Beach. "It depends upon how it's introduced and how the parent makes the person feel--greater by it, more important by it, more achieved by it, or confined and constricted by it."

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The Al-Haneefs' Watts-area home is immaculate; it is the boys' responsibility to keep it tidy.

The chocolate-colored carpet still shows vacuum lines. Off-white floral-patterned couches are spotless. A stack of books, including Part 30 of the holy Koran, "The Prophets' Stories for Children" and "Science: The Islamic Legacy," is neatly piled on the coffee table.

At meals, after a brief word of thanks to Allah for the bounty, Bilal Ali Al-Haneef adds: "Thank you for making us Muslims."

Bilal, who had been Earl R. Driver Jr. for 45 years, pledged his faith to Allah last October. He chose his new name carefully: Bilal was the first muezzin of Mohammed, the first man to call the believers for prayer. Ali means honorable, and Al-Haneef means one who forsook the path of many gods for the path of one God, he says.

A month after their father's conversion, the boys, who were given Muslim first names at birth in spite of being baptized Roman Catholics, told their mother that they wanted to abandon her faith.

"All I could say was, 'Are you sure this is what you wanted to do?' " Raashidah Al-Haneef recalls. "They said it felt good to them. All I could say was Allah knew best--at that time, it was God knew best."

The day after Thanksgiving--Nov. 27, both boys recall--Hassan and Jahmaal took shahadah ; they affirmed their belief that there is no god but Allah and that Mohammed is his messenger.

"Once a family decides to convert to Islam, you're really talking about a different way of life," says Hakim Rashid, an associate professor of human development at Howard University's School of Education. "The potential problems have a lot to do with the age of the children and how much the children have internalized and identify with the dominant culture."

Rashid adds, "If a family converts to Islam and they have an adolescent son or daughter who has a boyfriend or girlfriend, they would be expected to give that relationship up, because the concept of dating does not exist in the Islamic lifestyle."

Converts must also accept Islam's dietary rules, which means no pork or alcohol; restrictions on explicit language, which can mean staying away from certain types of music, movies and television, and dictates about modest dress.

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