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Islam and How to Live It: One Faith, Many Beliefs

Some schisms are centuries old, others modern-day. Stereotypes fall quickly in a city with fault lines of its own.

August 02, 2004|Peter H. King | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Friday afternoon prayers at the mosques of Las Vegas tend to draw late-arriving crowds. The ritual call to prayer has been recited, the weekly sermon has been launched, and still the stragglers stream in, kicking off their shoes and scurrying to find a place on the prayer rug.

Nobody seems to take much notice. Nonetheless, Muslim worshipers who show up after the Islamic equivalent of the first pitch do forfeit an opportunity for enhanced reward in the afterlife.

"There is a tradition," said Zafar A. Anjum, imam at the Jama Masjid mosque on Desert Inn Road, "that on Fridays angels come to the door of the mosque and make records. The one who comes in first, Allah gives him a reward equal to that person who sacrifices the camel, and who gives away the meat of the camel as a charity."

The second Muslim, Anjum went on, receives the same reward as one who has sacrificed and donated a cow, the third a goat, the fourth a chicken, and so on down the sacrificial food chain. The last to arrive on time for prayers earns a chit for paradise equivalent to that of giving away an egg.

"After that," he said, "when the speeches start, these angels close their records, the books. Those who come after that, their names are not written. They don't get any rewards."

In the course of a year of visits, Las Vegas Muslims would prove to be passionate instructors in the intricacies of Islam. They would weigh in, when asked, on the war, geopolitics and terrorism. What seemed to animate them most, however, were questions that got to the heart of what it meant to be a Muslim.

Their thoughts on the afterlife, on arranged marriages, on traditional Islamic dress, on dream interpretation and beards and angels -- whatever the topic, most did their best to tackle it. The tutorials were given in the entry halls and parking lots of mosques, around dinner tables, in office conference rooms and, late one night last July, from behind the wheel of Muhammad Hayat's well-worn Mercedes-Benz.

"This is Islam," Hayat, a clothes salesman originally from Morocco, was saying. "This is the work of the prophet."

He and another Muslim man were headed to the mosque for final evening prayers after making a call on a widow and her five children. The family, newly arrived from Afghanistan, lived in a small apartment outside the city. The mother spoke little English, and the oldest boy in the room, a 10-year-old who had picked up the language in school, acted as host. He laid out a plastic tea set on the rug and, explaining that there was no tea in the house, offered the visitors tap water.

Are you all still making your daily prayers at home? Hayat asked the boy.

"Some days," he said.

With her son serving as interpreter, the mother said she had been looking for work at the casino hotels as a maid. In the meantime, her oldest boy, a teenager asleep in the next room, was supporting the family as a roofer -- not the softest of jobs in a Las Vegas summer.

"They don't know too much about American culture," Hayat said of the family. He was back in his car and rolling down a slight grade on the Boulder Highway. The lights of the city were spread out below. "But day to day, basically, they survive. All they need is two or three more breadwinners."

The excursion was part of a weekly effort to reach out to others who had been missing at prayers or who perhaps had fallen into some difficulty. The purpose of the visit, Hayat said, was simply to offer a measure of moral support, "to maybe put a smile on their faces."

"This, little as it is, makes a difference. This is Islam. Islam is not a matter of worship. You go out of your way for other people the best way you can. How you worship, and what you say when you worship, that is something up to you."

Outside the car window, lighted billboards flashed by, one after another, hawking $7.99 prime rib, loose slots, looser women. Hayat seemed to notice none of it. He talked rapidly over his shoulder as he drove, teaching:

"A Muslim is somebody who submits his life to the will of Allah in the best way he can. Meaning you try to live your life according to what Allah wants. Of course you are not going to be 100% successful, but at least you try as hard as you can.... Islam is not race. It's not only for the Arabic-speaking people. No. Islam is the complete religion, the last religion. After this, there is the meeting with Allah.

"And everything in this world, everything in this life" -- he waved a hand across the window -- "is the proof of the existence of the Allah. Nothing here can be created with the human being by chance, like this." He clicked his fingers, and as he did so, the car happened to pass Sam's Town, a casino-hotel ablaze with flashing lights.

Does that everything include Sam's Town? a passenger ventured from the back seat.

The rearview mirror reflected Hayat's thin smile.

"Well," he said, "this is another thing."


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