Growing up Protestant, Dorothy Eng had no idea Islam existed. And had she not attended a talk offered by The American Institute of Islamic History and Culture on Sunday, she would have been equally oblivious of the practicing Muslims living around her.
“There was always a mystery about Islam that was never brought to the surface,” said Eng after Sunday’s program, the beginning of a year-long series: “Keys to the Human Heart, The Spiritual Journey Towards the One,” created to celebrate and share Muslim culture. “It is the first time I have seen who actually practices this faith here in our country.”
Before converting to Islam, the veiled members of the discussion panel may have been as unfamiliar with the religion as Eng herself. How they embarked on their “spiritual journey” and lived through it was the topic of the Sunday talk at St. John’s Presbyterian Church on College Avenue.
“I spent a lot of time taking this piece from this religion this piece from that religion and trying to be in touch God that way,” said Iman Hoffman, addressing an audience mainly composed of other converts. “Eventually I came to realize that I needed organized religion and so I set out to find religions.”
After spending 24 hours locked in a room with the Bible, the Buddhist Scriptures and the Koran, Hoffman came out with the Koran under her arm.
Sara Kim was not as determined to adopt a new faith, but found Islam through a friend. Although at first reluctant to wear a veil or stop drinking, she ended up changing her lifestyle and her life.
“I had a lot of things that I was struggling with and every time I’d ask (Muslim scholars), the answer came back to me and it just made sense. It got to a point where I couldn’t deny it anymore, so I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to please God,” said the four-year Muslim.
Aside from an outlet for their spiritual needs, the speakers said they found true equality between men and women through their adopted religion.
“In real Islam, which is not always practiced in the world, men and women are equal, stand before God regardless, each as an individual,” said Hoffman, her black veil strongly contrasting with her pale skin.
“The modest dress we adopt it’s very powerful and it works. You just don’t find transgressions against women in Islam when people are practicing it well,” added Kim.
To non-Muslim women in the audience their statements came as a surprise. “You just associate it with being very hard on women,” said Jill Peterfeso, a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
Changing that view is the purpose of the series of talks, said Maimoona Ahmed, its coordinator. “Those stereotypes are just propaganda to keep women away from Islam. Who would want to be stuck in the corner of a room or in a closet?”
The year-long series of programs is divided into a number of cycles, each with its own topic. The current series is called “The Feminine Side of Islam,” but the gatherings are not only about women or for women. People who attended the talk Sunday observed Muslims in prayer, listened to Islamic music and ate baklavas and dates.
“It’s to celebrate the way people are and have been, to learn, to share and to have fun”, said Nazeer Ahmed, the institute’s president.
All sessions begin at 3 p.m. and are held at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, 2727 College Ave. Oct. 22 the topic will be: “Blessings and Challenges of our African-American Sisters,” Oct. 29, “It’s a big World out there and Muslim Women are Involved,” and Nov. 5, “Women Warriors, Women Thinkers and Women Awiliya.” For more information, call 925-672-2623.