“You could say I was hungry for the truth without even realizing I was searching for it,” says Western North Carolina native Joseph (Yusuf) Gantt, “and that led to a journey of maybe 10 or 15 years in which I finally recognized Islam. It satisfied my hunger.” Two of Gantt’s family members, his mother and a sister, have also embraced the faith.
Some 35 or 40 years ago, Gantt recalls, he’d returned to the area to do a 40-day fast in Pisgah National Forest. “I just went deep in the forest. … I had known how to pray, and I knew about Islam for many years before that but didn’t consider myself a Muslim. Then it occurred to me: Why am I sitting here praying in a forest by myself when I should be praying with other people that have the same belief?”
So Gantt, who was born in Fletcher, left the forest and went to study at The Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., followed by more study in Egypt. After that, he worked in various capacities as a consultant to nonprofit Islamic organizations. Now retired, Gantt devotes his time to his family and his faith community.
Until a few decades ago, most Americans probably had little awareness of Muslims. These days, Islam and individuals claiming to be its adherents appear frequently in screaming news headlines, yet most people in this country still consider themselves Christians and don’t know much about what the Pew Research Center and others say is the world’s fastest-growing religion.
Western North Carolina has had a Muslim population for decades, says Khalid Bashir, a physician at the local Veterans Affairs Hospital who serves as president of the Islamic Center of Asheville. “There are some people who were originally from here and they converted to Islam, probably in the late ’70s to ’80s.” Today, he continues, there are about 75-100 Muslim families in the area, many of them immigrants from far corners of the world.
But who are these people, and how do they fit into Asheville’s kaleidoscopic faith community?
On any given Friday, Gantt can be found at the Islamic Center on Old Fairview Road, praying alongside maybe 60 others. The masjid, or mosque, is a large carpeted room; only males are required to go there for prayer, but part of the room is partitioned off for women who wish to attend. The center doesn’t have an imam (prayer leader) at the moment, so the “khutbah” (Friday sermon) is usually given by a volunteer, often Bashir.
Visitors are welcome here. Muslims, non-Muslims and student groups from Warren Wilson College and UNC Asheville come to learn about Islam and the Quran. In addition, the facility serves as a kind of community center: Each Friday after prayers, some of the men stick around for a family-style meal; there are also monthly potlucks.
The Asheville Islamic Center is the only formally organized mosque in North Carolina west of Morganton, and it continues to see modest but steady growth. Perhaps the busiest time is Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. During this major holiday, the mosque hosts about 200 people, notes Bashir.
The language of faith
On one recent Friday, the sermon was short and simple, essentially a guide to proper behavior in the masjid. Besides telling worshippers how to enter, move around and find a place in the room, the speaker, Bashir, urged his listeners to wear clean clothes and avoid eating stinky food.
That practical approach was a far cry from the rousing, persuasive, inspirational model followed by many modern Protestant sermons.
But to this outsider, at any rate, the core of the short service seemed to be those parts that are always the same: ceremonial words spoken in Arabic, personal prayer and the physical movements of praying. The name Islam comes from an Arabic word meaning “submission”: The faithful are supposed to demonstrate their submission to God by, among other things, praying five times a day. But though some local Muslims attend the masjid daily, many do much of their praying and connecting with God outside the mosque.
Lina and Mohamid Abuadas run the Pita Express in Hendersonville, serving Middle Eastern food. Verses from the Quran and other Arabic words adorn the walls. But since Friday, Muslims’ holy day, is typically very busy at the restaurant, the couple can’t always make it to the early afternoon service at the Islamic Center. Still, Lina says she always makes time to pray: The energy it gives her helps her make it through the day.
And when the restaurant closes after lunch, she turns it into a studio, teaching classes in cooking and belly dancing as well as Arabic and Hebrew. Arabic is the language of the Quran and, for Muslims, the language of prayer. Lina stresses the importance of knowing the language and being able to read the text in its original form. A Hendersonville rabbi, she says, is studying Arabic with her in hopes of being able to do that one day. Two other students, a husband and wife, were so moved by what they learned that they converted to Islam. The husband, notes Lina, “said, ‘I want to experience what you experience. I want to have that peace of mind; I want to have that energy.’ So he studied Arabic, Quran and Islam. And he is practicing, he is actually praying, just like us.”
Home away from home
Several decades ago, WNC residents like Gantt began praying together in living rooms. Others joined them and, over time, the community grew large enough to rent spaces where they could worship. Finally, about a decade ago, the congregation built the Islamic Center.
Immigration has been a driving force for the religion’s growth in the area. “It’s a pretty heterogeneous population of Muslims,” says Bashir. In addition to local African-Americans and a handful of Caucasian converts, “We have all kinds of people from all countries,” including Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Pakistan, India, Southeast Asia, Sudan and Kosovo.”
Lina and Mohamid are Palestinians who moved to Houston from Jerusalem nearly 30 years ago to pursue the American dream and leave behind the violence, poor economy and stressful environment of their homeland. But they didn’t like the noise and crowds in Texas, so when friends told them about Western North Carolina, they visited, fell in love with the area and decided to move here. With its four seasons, mountains and natural beauty, says Lina, the Land of the Sky felt more like home.
Many local Muslims voice similar sentiments. Born in Algeria, Ferhat ben Massod moved here from New Jersey. He says he and his now ex-wife chose this area because of its trees and mountains. And though Rochdi Ammar, who’s originally from Tunisia, moved here to be with his then-wife, the Hendersonville nurse says he, too, finds the climate and environment friendly.
Having an established and welcoming mosque also helps: Both men say they searched the internet for a mosque before deciding to relocate here, and they’re proud to be part of the local community. Nonetheless, being Muslim in America has its challenges.
One Pita Express customer, remembers Lina, asked her, “You are so good, why can’t you be Christian?” Her response was, “Why can’t you accept me the way I am?”
The customer, Lina explains, was wondering whether she feared a backlash from Americans upset about the violent acts committed by some in the name of Islam. But Lina says she isn’t worried because those people aren’t her.
“I practice my religion without imposing on anybody. It doesn’t matter to you if I take five minutes, go into the office and pray: I’m not affecting you in any way.” If anything, she maintains, she’s helping her customers, because when she returns from prayer, she’s energized and provides better service.
The political thicket
Still, it can be hard for outsiders and Muslims alike to disentangle the religion from political movements, both here and abroad. And even Muslims who are secure in their own spiritual identity are likely to encounter uncomfortable questions.
When Xpress asked Gantt for an interview, for instance, his initial response was, “You don’t want to talk to me: I’m a terrorist.” And though he was joking, his reaction reflects the way many Muslims feel about being unfairly labeled.
Social media, notes Ammar, spread the misconception that a huge percentage of Muslims are involved in terrorism and violence. To him, that seems like propaganda designed to divide people who are simply trying to live in peace.
A lot of his fellow worshippers agree. They’re disappointed that so many of their neighbors are content to form their opinions about one of the world’s major religions based on distorted perceptions gleaned from media reports. Massod, for example, invites non-Muslims to visit the local Islamic Center and learn about the religion firsthand.
“Muslims are human,” he points out. “They can make any mistake, like any other religion or any other people around the world.” Besides, he explains, it’s a religious duty to teach everyone about Islam in a nonforceful way.
Gantt, meanwhile, says he’s spent time with people all over the world, and misconceptions exist among both Muslims and non-Muslims. Traveling and living abroad, he says, he’s encountered “people who tend to be a little ignorant or suspicious about white American males. ‘What are you doing here? Are you CIA or FBI or something?’ But I just tell them, ‘The religion is for everybody: It’s not just for whoever you think it’s for.’”
Without exception, though, all the local people interviewed for this article emphasized that anytime violence rears its head, the motivation is power, culture, economics and/or politics — not God. And while political disagreements divide many people in the Middle East and elsewhere, they report, their faith is uniting Muslims here in WNC.
E pluribus unum
“Islam itself is the religion,” Gantt explains. “Muslims are people who claim to follow the religion. Whether they follow it or not is one thing, but the religion doesn’t change. And Muslims being amongst each other can be a positive reminder of what they share.”
The local Muslim community’s relatively small size, he says, creates a culture of inclusivity that promotes spiritual growth. In larger communities in non-Muslim countries, Gantt points out, “Whether it’s in Europe or South America or the Caribbean, it’s easy for the Muslims to separate based on ethnic or cultural biases. But when they come here … it’s not enough people for all of the people from one culture to go start a mosque over here, another one start a mosque over there. They are forced to be here together, knowing that the only thing they have in common is Islam.”
Bashir agrees. Muslims in other countries, he says, behave more the way Christians do in the West, banding together in sectarian groups. But for Muslims, that’s wrong, Bashir believes. And while the local masjid doesn’t discourage small differences such as hand placement during prayer, it doesn’t cater to ideological divisions.
At the end of the day, Gantt maintains, the local Muslim community may actually benefit from a quintessentially American phenomenon: the melting pot. This, he says, affords the opportunity to separate culture from religion, “because, in most other parts of the world in which Muslims can be found, they don’t have the economic or religious or political or educational freedom that they do here.”
And though realizing the ideal isn’t easy, Gantt admits, it’s important “that they be able to learn from each other, share with each other and strengthen themselves in the religion, rather than in cultural or ethnic identity.”