As a Muslim, it never bothers Hanane Neff-Loutf when co-workers ask why she wears the hijab. She enjoys working with open-minded people who ask questions, who want to get to know her. Originally a native of Morocco, Neff-Loutf came to the United States in 2005 to learn English. She has lived in the Spokane area since 2006. She has a degree in industrial engineering and works as a project engineer at a steel factory in Spokane.
For Neff-Loutf, wearing the hijab (veil) is not a dress code but a moral code.
“You cannot wear the hijab and talk trash. Walking modestly, talking modestly, it’s a whole package,” she said.
Being a Muslim in Spokane is no different than in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Indonesia, but an Islamic woman in Spokane meets challenges.
“Facing people with the hijab is basically announcing that you are a Muslim,” she said.
In a post Sept. 11 world, she acknowledges that this is problematic. In the U.S. and in Europe it is harder for Muslims to be accepted.
Neff-Loutf admits that Muslims and non-Muslims have a lot of work to do because of “media games.” On rare occasion you hear Islamophobia denounced from a Christian pulpit. Muslims are more often portrayed in a negative way, she says.
“Whatever non-Muslims think of Islam, it is probably untrue. Reports on Islam by the main-stream media are usually by non-Muslims speaking about Muslims,” Neff-Loutf noted.
She notices when the language shifts in the news depending on who is the victim and who commits the violence.
“When Muslims are targeted, the word ‘Muslim’ is minimized and the media will say, for instance, ‘North African.’ But when Muslims are the doers of the crime, all the language is Islam,” she said.
Speaking of language and Islam, I asked her whether core beliefs are expressed in specific words or phrases in the branches of Islam. Starting with the Quran, she indicates this sacred text is the very word of ‘Allah’ (the Arabic word for ‘God’). Though in the Quran, Allah spoke through the prophet Muhammad, the Quran contains not Muhammad’s words, but Allah’s revelation.
The Arabic language is central to Islam. Keeping with Arabic accomplishes two goals: first, it unites Muslims around the world, and second, it preserves the authenticity of the original message revealed over 14 centuries ago. Though the Quran was revealed in Arabia, it is for all humankind. Neff-Loutf notes that less than 18 percent of Muslims are Arabs.
“It is very critical for Muslims that the Quran is in Arabic,” she said.
The Quran is kept in Arabic to preserve its meaning. Any translation of the Quran is an interpretation, and no longer the Quran.
According to Neff-Loutf, all Muslims read the Quran and worship the same way in Arabic regardless of geographical location or race. Core beliefs of Islam also remain the same for Muslims in Japan, Pakistan, England, the U.S — everywhere. The pillars of faith in Islam are as follows:
• the oneness of Allah;
• the angels;
• the previous revealed books:
-the Zabur (Psalms) given to David, peace be upon him
-the Tawrat (Torah) given to Moses, peace be upon him
-the Injeel (Gospel) given to Jesus, peace be upon him
• the prophets of Allah;
• the resurrection and the hereafter;
• the predestination by Allah of all things, both the (seemingly) good and the (seemingly) bad.
Muslims believe in the universality of Islam. Islam is not a new religion that popped up out of Arabia. The root of Islam is obedience to God the creator. Peace with oneself and the environment begins when a person submits to the creator.
“The Israelites were Muslims,” says Neff-Loutf, “but Islam is not just a religion of Abraham. Islam began with the creation of Adam.”
Her response to my question, do you think it is possible to understand a person’s religious beliefs based on language, clarifies her belief in Allah. “If I hear you say ‘Allah,’ I know what you mean. If you say ‘God,’ I don’t know what you mean. God can be anything you make it — self, money, wealth, fame. The word Allah cannot take such forms. Allah is unique as the supreme being, as the creator of everything.”
The word Allah does not distinguish Muslims from non-Muslims. The point of separation, say from Jews, Buddhists and Christians, is the belief itself. The idea of who Allah is sets Muslims apart.
Who is Allah?
Neff-Loutf says, “Allah is not Jesus, peace be upon him. Jesus was a prophet of Allah created by Allah. Jesus is a savior in the sense that he came with a message. He does not have power to save. Allah alone has power. Jesus and Muhammad were both created. The distinguishing belief for Muslims is submitting to Allah alone and not the creation.”
Hanane believes in the miracles of Jesus granted by Allah. She also believes that Jesus was not crucified and that he ascended to God, though not in the Christian sense. Muslims do not believe Jesus died; rather, God saved Jesus from his enemies and rescued him from the cross. In this sense the cross carries no significance for Muslims.
“Why would we believe in something that tortured a great prophet? He is risen but did not die, and he is with God right now,” Neff-Loutf said.
For Christians, the death of Jesus Christ is very important because sins are forgiven. Muslims have a different concept of sin, which shapes their view of the cross.
According to Neff-Loutf, “There is no sin because Adam repented. God accepted the repentance so sin doesn’t carry on. Why would God kill a human being, even his own son, for the sake of others? This point is very difficult for Muslims to understand. If God died on the cross, then who is running the show?”
Such “logical difficulties” in the Christian belief system make no sense to Muslims.
In Christianity, Christ’s blood is tied to the forgiveness of sins. In Islam, there is no blood ritual. What counts most is the story, like God sending a ram to spare Abraham’s son, Ishmael (Isaac for Jews and Christians).
“The majesty of God doesn’t require blood. Why do people sacrifice to God? It makes God into a cannibal,” Neff-Loutf said.
In Islam, specific words and phrases unite entire communities, again, regardless of location and ethnicity. The one word that unifies all Muslims is the name Allah. The three ways of communicating with Allah are ‘Thikr,’ ‘Dua,’ and ‘Salah.’
Thikr means remembrance of God. Thikr has many aspects: ‘Subhanallah’ (praise be to God!) when a Muslim evokes God in amazement; ‘Insha’Allah’ (God willing) when speaking of the future; ‘Masha’Allah’ (everything is from God) when admiring or praising something or someone; and ‘Bismillah’ (in God's name) when starting a task.
“You start everything with ‘Bismillah,’” Neff-Loutf explained. “Invoking God in this way means blessing everything you do. If you eat something in the name of Allah, that thing will never hurt you.”
The second way of communicating with Allah, Dua, is supplication. It is asking God for help, forgiveness, guidance, strength, or any other personal prayer.
The third, Salah, means the daily worship prayers. Salah is special because it is the second pillar of Islam. All Muslims perform these prayers in the same manner as performed in the congregation. Thikr and Dua can be said in any language. Salah has to be said in Arabic, standardizing the worship of Allah worldwide.
A common greeting among Iranians, Turks, and Afghans is ‘Salam alaikum’ or peace be on you.
Neff-Loutf says, “It means I am giving you peace. I guarantee peace between you and me in our greeting and departure. It is always to leave each other in peace.”
Islamic phrases that promote peace bring about a tension, especially for non-Islamic Westerners after Sept. 11. The question becomes how to accept Islam as a religion of peace when not all Islamic groups desire peace. Islamic militant groups still pose serious threats throughout the world. Terry Gross’s interview with New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman on April 4, for one, draws awareness to the brutality of al-Shabab, a branch of al-Quaida, in famine-stricken Somalia.
Neff-Loutf offers her perspective. She defines terrorism as “to threaten and create fear by acts of violence.” She realizes that some Muslims misuse the faith.
“Extremists can actually abuse the text. Islamic terrorism is new. A beautiful history of Islam wouldn’t exist if extreme Islam stemmed from the text. I get frustrated by any act of terrorism carrying an Arab name and committing violence,” she said.
She identifies two major causes of terrorist activity — oppression in the Middle East and the misuse of religious texts through brainwashing.
“If you google ‘Gaza kids’ under images, you see horrifying things going on that we aren’t exposed to, things that give license for terrorists to commit horrific acts,” said Neff-Loutf.
She refuses to focus on Islamic terrorism. “Every religion has its black sheep—people who want to do bad things even in the name of religion.”
Naturally, it bothers her to hear of Muslims acting violently in the name of Allah. Equally horrifying, she notes, are all the ‘legitimate’ killings that take place, “say governments killing people.”
She offers some final words on the divisiveness, hatred, intolerance, and judgment separating Muslims and non-Muslims. “There is a lot of ugliness, but we are all people of faith. As people of faith, people who hold some belief in a divine being based on experience, this is good enough to stand together and move forward. If you believe that someone’s belief system has hate towards others, you must check yourself.”
The way forward is for Muslims and non-Muslims to get to know each other, offers Hanane. “We must get together. There is no other way.”
Perhaps there is. The pursuit of peace calls for more than a balancing act.
As a Christian getting to know a Muslim, I’m struck by the fact that my view of God and Jesus differs vastly from Neff-Loutf view of God and Jesus. Besides getting together, it takes something extraordinary — self-awareness, humility, curiosity, wonder, I don’t exactly know, perhaps all three—to transcend my beliefs and at the same time not reduce Hanane to hers.
It is reaching the place beyond ugliness to something beautiful called human.
For now, the majority of Muslims have to worry about counteracting misconceptions and negative publicity, while those who have suffered loss or died at the hands of Islamic militants must be allowed to remember and be remembered.
Hanane Neff-Loutf is a SpokaneFAVS contributor.