I have always been a firm believer that family is not determined by whose blood runs through your veins but by people whose souls connect to your own. That belief was reinforced last week when I came to New Orleans to participate in The New York Times Student Journalism Institute and began documenting how an Islamic community is thriving in a predominantly Christian city.
Almost 56 percent of the New Orleans population is religious, but only 0.54 percent practice Islam, while Catholicism is practiced by 63.8 percent, according to CityData.com. There are about 4,000 adherents of Islam in Orleans Parish, where there are over 130,000 Catholics.
Imam Nu’man welcomed me into Masjid Ur-Rahim, his masjid, which is Arabic for mosque. Visiting the mosque was a new experience for me, and I came in as an observer with no preconceptions.
My original intention of telling a story about how a small population of Muslims were surviving in a Christian city quickly changed. What I found was something a little different; what I found was a family.
After a recent Friday afternoon prayer service, or Jumu’ah, I sat down with Imam Hakeem, a colleague of Imam Nu’man’s.
“In the teachings of Islam, there’s always the effort to develop and maintain a family atmosphere within the community,” Imam Hakeem said, which is referred to by the Arabic word ‘Ummah.’
“The whole of the Islamic community is really one.”
Imam Hakeem is the head of Masjid Balil, which is in the Lower Ninth Ward. I was able to observe and interact with him and his congregation very closely over the course of a week.
During my visits to both masjids, I saw a community, a family. I witnessed their sense of unity and the Ummah that Imam Hakeem discussed. I saw it in their prayers, their laughter, their conversations, their teachings, their songs and their fellowship. I saw that Muslim faith brought them together, not simply as people who believed in the same thing, but as a family that prayed as one.