Sitting in a semi-circle with Qurans resting open in their laps, they one by one recited the melodic verses, glancing questioningly up at their imam between lines.
He smiled at their correct pronunciations, corrected them when their intonations or pauses were off.
Quran recitation classes are important to Imam Yasser Shahin.
“When I came to this community, I saw their need (for a teacher),” he said. “I do not want to be asked by God, ‘Why did you not share the knowledge that you have?’”
Shahin moved to Spokane from Seattle to study film production at Eastern Washington University. Originally from Palestine, he said he grew up learning the Quran from knowledgeable scholars and Muslim leaders in the Middle East — prompting him to train to become an imam.
He said he’s inspired by Prophet Muhammad’s words, “The best among you is the one who learns Quran and teaches it.”
“In our religion we are directed and ought to share our knowledge with people,” Shahin said.
So education is his top priority as the masjid’s (or mosque’s) new leader.
Since he was hired, he’s been busy teaching the Quran to men, women, children and elders within the Spokane Islamic Center through classes, Friday ceremonies and sermons.
“If I can come out of this community after a few years knowing people are reading better, know better, realize more and are able to reason according to Islam, then I have accomplished my goal and I seek Allah’s wisdom to guide me with this responsibility,” he said.
He said when people come to the U.S. and practice a religion — like Islam — that is a minority it’s easy for customs to get lost, but said through education sacred practices can live on.
“We live in a society where we don’t hear the calls to prayer like we do in the Middle East. We don’t see women walking in full hijab, we don’t see men with traditional dress,” he said. “So it’s different, but even with that we still find a lot of knowledgeable people in this community. A lot of women still wear the hijab, kids know when it’s time to pray they need to pray. It’s a blessing. My goal is just to increase that number, increase that knowledge.”
Mamdouh El-Aarag, a member of the Islamic Center’s board, said Shahin spent a weekend teaching at the masjid before the board chose to hire him.
“Based on his feedback, and because his qualities matched really well with what we needed (we hired him),” he said. “He’s been working with the youth quite a bit and the kids adore him.”
Shahin, who is in his late 20s, begins classes at EWU in the Fall, but said his duties as imam and his passion for film making won’t mix, as one’s a human interest and one is a sacred call.
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Tracy Simmons is an award winning journalist specializing in religion reporting, digital entrepreneurship and social journalism. In her 15 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti.
Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas and Connecticut. Currently she serves as the executive director of SpokaneFAVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Wash. She is also a Scholarly Assistant Professor at Washington State University.