Naperville Sun: Keeping the faith

Just off a bustling thoroughfare a few miles east of Naperville, the parking lot outside a Methodist church begins to fill up. The shadows are growing long as people file gradually into the gathering room.

Beneath a wall dominated by a wooden cross, the worshippers unfurl patterned rugs, overlapping them slightly. The rectangle formed by the cluster of floor coverings is tilted slightly, so that when it fills with those in prayer, each will be facing toward Mecca.

The congregants have stepped away from their daytime lives as professors, physicians, researchers and homemakers to gather as they do at dusk every Thursday evening. Although their faith calls for prayer five times every day, they come here weekly to share in worship, fellowship and a meal.

The Shia Muslims, members of the Irshad Learning Center and mostly Iranian-born, gather in this borrowed space for now. Services in the past have been held at the Steeple Run clubhouse in Naperville, and at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.

The center’s board still hopes to secure zoning clearance to open their own location in a former home on three acres the group owns on 75th Street just east of Naperville. Turned down by the DuPage County Board in January, the request has been appealed in the Northern Illinois District of the U.S. District Court.

Humbling the soul

The azan — a soothing, melodic call to prayer — begins the group worship. A series of supplications opens the reverential ritual, addressing categories of transgressions against God and making note of the almighty’s myriad mercies.

“A lot of the things are in common with the Bible and the Torah,” said Dr. Mojtaba Noursalehi, a member of the ILC board. “Our challenges are not any different (from those of other faiths). We come here to get spiritually uplifted.”

As the prayers cycle through in Arabic, those seeking blessings become increasingly humble until their souls are effectively laid bare.

“It’s like, ‘I have nothing but my tears, my tongue and my heart,'” Noursalehi said. “It’s a language of total surrender … The whole process of prayer is basically a purification of the soul.”

Begun at sunset, the daily worship is composed of rakats — units of prayer that repeatedly bring the faithful to their feet and down to their knees, foreheads pressed to the floor. Noursalehi stressed the serenity of the personal meditations.

“There’s no political affiliation, no ‘must-have, must-do’ ritual,” he said. “Even though we sit in a group, it is totally individualized. … It’s supposed to make you walk out of here a better person — for your family, for your community, for you personally.”

Familiar foundations

A speaker delivers the message during each shared worship service. Although most of the adults are fluent in Farsi, the words come in English so the younger faithful will easily understand them.

On this evening, college professor Shahab Razfar relates stories of Moses (“one of the five top creations of Allah”), Joshua and Aaron, and urges the worshippers to acknowledge and nurture their inherent thirst for knowledge.

Razfar and the other ILC adherents know their faith is not well understood by much of the West. But they say the common threads outnumber those that divide denominations that worship a supreme being.

“The moral, the message, is consistent,” Razfar said. “I think there’s a big gap in people’s knowledge of religion in general, and they fear what they don’t understand.”

The transcendence of divisions remains a fundamental issue, he said, for faiths throughout the world.

“Trying to transform that culture, I think, is the basis of all the religions,” he said.

A growing community

The local Muslims are aware that the terror activities of extremists tied to Islam have greatly heightened the apprehension swirling around much of the billion-member faith. Yet the religion has a growing presence. The Ismaili Muslim community opened a center in Naperville recently, and in addition to the Irshad group, the Islamic Center of the Western Suburbs also is looking to establish a site in DuPage County. Its permit application is up for review by the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals later this month.

The metropolitan region has seen its Muslim population rise recently, adding about 25 percent to the ranks in the past several years.

“The Census Bureau doesn’t ask questions about faith affiliation, but I think it’s safe to say there are about half a million Muslims in the greater Chicago area,” said Amina Sharif, communications coordinator for the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

CAIR is coordinating the legal challenge to the County Board’s denial of Irshad’s permit request. The complaint names Chairman Robert Schillerstrom, ZBA Chairman Robert Kartholl and the 16 members of the two boards who voted against the petition. The defendants late last month filed a motion to dismiss the case. Court dates have not yet been set, Sharif said.

Among those not named in the suit are James Healy, Tony Michelassi and John Zediker. The three County Board members represent District 5, in which the proposed center site is located, and all of them voted to approve the permit.

Constant change

The region’s expanding Islamic population provides new opportunities for dialogue that may lead to better relations. Dr. Ghassan Zalzaleh, an ILC member, cited an Arabic proverb to underscore the need for mutual understanding.

“‘The human being is the enemy of whatever they don’t know.’ It’s not related to religion; it’s human beings,” Zalzaleh said. “There’s a temporary benefit to sticking with your tribe…. If you don’t know people, you fear them.”

Naperville resident Roy Larson is familiar with the tribal mentality. The former Methodist minister spent 16 years as a religion reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun Times and another decade as editor and publisher of The Chicago Reporter. From there, he went on to head the Garrett-Medill Center for Religion and the News Media at Northwestern University for six years.

During his stint at the Reporter that began in 1985, Larson cultivated relationships with Muslims who rode the commuter train with him downtown from Evanston and back each day. He was curious about the faithful who gathered for mid-day prayer on Wabash Avenue, up the street from his office. The world-jarring attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were still years away.

“At that time, I don’t think there was a lot of hostility toward Muslims,” he said one recent morning. “People took things in stride, didn’t feel overrun or overwhelmed.”

Larson, 80, sees a pendulum at work. He has been studying the shifting demographics in DuPage County and believes the passage of years can function as a healing agent.

“I think (Muslims) will be assimilated in due time. There’s a lot of ‘take our country back,'” he said. “There’s a sense of a way of life lost.”