Wednesday, April 05, 2000

A Journey of faith

Ceremony marks the reading of Islam's holy book

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Especially in the beginning, computer games and basketball seemed a lot more fun to Mohsin Sultan than the ancient tradition of reading Islam's holy book, the Koran.

[photo] Mohsin Sultan gets a hug from his uncle Aziz.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        The 8-year-old Mason boy sometimes chafed at learning Arabic instead of shooting hoops. But by last week, Mohsin was counting the days and minutes until Saturday, when more than 300 friends and family gathered at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati.

        They celebrated Ameen, a ceremony to mark Mohsin's accomplishment of having recited the entire Koran, the holy book in Arabic that is two inches thick. Mohsin read right to left the words of God during 18 months of twice-weekly tutoring sessions.

        “I think the more you read, the more "sawab' (rewards from God) you get,” says Mohsin, in a quite serious tone.

        Then he's back to talking about other aspects of the event. Like the cakes, for instance. One is chocolate, decorated to look like fireworks, Mohsin explains. The second cake is white with balloons.

        Another good part of Ameen? The presents, Mohsin giggles.

        When they start coming in, Mohsin piles the presents onto a gift table. One is wrapped in Star Wars paper; others are tucked into fancy gift bags. A few presents Mohsin shakes. Long eyelashes can't hide the sparkle in his eyes.

[photo] Mohsin prays at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        Friends and family, from infants to grandparents, stream through the doors. They kiss Mohsin on the forehead, congratulate his parents, Tariq and Sufia Sultan, and tousle the hair of his little brother, Hamza, 4.

        Mohsin squirrels out of a hug from his father, half-embarrassed, half-thrilled by all the attention.         The guests know this ceremony is part of something bigger, that it's a salute to the strong sense of community they have nurtured among many of the Tristate's 10,000 Muslims. This is not the first Ameen many of these guests have attended. Several of Mohsin's peers have completed reading the Koran.

        And the event's significance is bigger still. Mohsin's celebration is but a grain of sand on a beach in the history of Islam. He is one of countless young Muslim boys and girls to read the Koran since the beginning of Islam.

        Yet Saturday is Mohsin's night. It is one boy in one corner of the world taking one more step on his journey of faith.

        “For every parent, it is a dream come true for their child to recite the holy Koran,” Mr. Sultan says.

        Muslims are required to learn how to read Arabic, regardless of their native tongue. Daily prayers, one of the five requirements of Islam, are in Arabic. Further, the language serves to unify the 1 billion Muslims worldwide and preserves the integrity of the text, says Mohsin's uncle, Jawaad Rahman, 28, of Virginia. It also links them to the past.

        “Muslims have been saying the same things for 1,400 years,” he says.

        The ritual helps Mohsin develop an Islamic identity, says Mr. Rahman. It also “connects the child to God through the Koran.”

        The next step for Mohsin is to begin understanding the Arabic, not just reciting it. Then he can rely on the Koran as a “life guide,” says Mrs. Sultan.

        “It's not just a book to be read on certain occasions,” she says. “It sets values and morals. It gives our history.”         At the Islamic Center, Muslim tradition meshes with American culture.

        Stacks of Pizza Hut boxes sit on the kitchen counters. From the steam table wafts intoxicating smells of chicken tikka, shish kebab, korma (veal), and biryani, a mixture of rice and meat.

        Mohsin learns cursive in the second grade at Mason Heights Elementary and Arabic prayers at home. He dons a traditional Pakistani bushcoat outfit; another boy wears a Nike jacket. Many of the women wear saris or shalwar and kameez, traditional dress of India, Pakistan and the Middle East; most of the men wear suits.

        During a last-minute rehearsal, Mohsin fiddles with a gold chain draped across his breast pocket. His finger follows the Arabic words right to left.

        Then it's show time. Mohsin sits small between the adults of his family. But his voice is rich and full.

        In rhythmic tones, he recites the Koran in Arabic.

        “Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds,” is the translation.

        “Merciful and compassionate master of the day of judgment. You do we worship, in your guidance, do we seek, guide us along the straight path, not the path of those with whom you are angry or those who go astray.”

        Over the static of his lapel microphone, Mohsin thanks Allah for the many blessings, his parents for their support and encouragement and his brother for leaving him alone during the tutoring sessions.

        He beseeches Allah to help him “be a good Muslim.”

        Then Mohsin flashes the audience a snaggle-toothed smile, and they're reminded that although he has completed a very adult task, Mohsin is still a young boy who figures it's time to play.


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