Imam Taha Hassane Discusses Immigration, Sharia, and Life as a Muslim
Last week Peace Catalyst President Rick Love sat down with Imam Taha Hassane of the Islamic Center of San Diego. They discussed immigration, living as a Muslim in America, Sharia, and what Christians should know about interacting with Muslims.
Rick Love: Tell us a little about yourself.
Taha Hassan: My name is Taha Hassane. I’m originally from Algeria and migrated with my family to the Untied States in 2001. I graduated with a Bachelors in Islamic Studies from the Islamic University of Algiers, and after my graduation I worked for 10 years as an Imam and high school teacher, teaching Arabic language and Islamic Studies, until I migrated to the U.S. We settled in Denver, Colorado for 3 years and then moved to San Diego in 2004. Since then, I’ve been the Director and Imam of the Islamic Center of San Diego. The Islamic Center is the largest mosque in San Diego County, so we do have a very, very ethnically diverse community with people from literally all over the world. A big portion of our immigrant members are refugees - from Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, etc.
RL: What are some of the hardest things that you’ve experienced living in the U.S., and what are some of the best?
TH: As an immigrant, of course, missing back home at the very beginning is a big obstacle, a big challenge. But the welcoming American society helped us tremendously to overcome this challenge. I really appreciate the way I was welcomed, whether in Denver, Colorado or in San Diego, California. So the transition was very short, basically. Also, being ignorant of the nature of American society. You know, when you grew up in the Middle East or North Africa, having no idea about Western society, you think that you are going to fight every single day to preserve your faith and cultural identity - it’s not the case. We found our space here, and it was very easy for me and my family, as well as many families in the community, to integrate positively into the American society while preserving our faith and cultural identity.
RL: Few Imams that I’ve met work for peace the way that you do. You connect with religious leaders, elected officials, and law enforcement officials and network with all sectors of society. What motivates you to engage at this level?
TH: So basically, if you look at the Imams in the United States or North America, the vast majority are immigrants coming from other places. For some Imams, it took them a long time to integrate and to understand the nature of American society - the law of the land, American culture. So, many of the Imams coming to the United States to serve their own communities in mosques and Islamic Centers were basically physically here but mentally somewhere else, from wherever they came. So it was very difficult for them to get out of the bubble and reach out to their neighbors - their next-door church or temple or synagogue - and try to build a good relationship with the rabbi, pastor, priest, etc.
RL: Why do you think it was natural or easy for you to do this?
TH: Because I found people around me who have helped me do this, and not only from the Muslim community. I’ve found priests and rabbis who reached out to me first, who knocked on my door just to introduce themselves, inviting me to share with them coffee or tea and just told me about themselves, about their communities, about their house of worship, etc., and that helped me in a big way to understand or at least to review my understanding of American society. So I started thinking about the importance of building bridges and working with everyone, and I actually I started knocking on doors, inviting my fellow clergy and faith leaders to get involved and to share with them my thoughts about how to promote peace and tolerance in our city.
RL: I’ve also noticed you engage with North Dakota Pipeline protests, Black Lives Matter, and that breaks the stereotype of what Imams do.
TH: More than that, the border communities, Latino communities. I see a lot of overlap. Their issues are my issues. When the border communities start experiencing brutality from the border patrol, for example, and I start seeing victims within the border communities because of this mishandling of security issues, this is my issue. We are all living in the same city, in the same area, and we are all neighbors. What happened to that Latino boy or man or girl, it will happen tomorrow to my daughter or my son or my community member. The same thing for the Black Lives Matter. There is a long history of racism and discrimination against people of color in our country here, and we still see some of the aspects of that. So when I see this injustice done to the people of color in my city and in my nation, I have to take action. The same thing with the Native Americans. When the crisis of the North Dakota Pipeline started, I was doing my pilgrimage in Mecca, and someone contacted me and gave me the background of the situation. We are all together in this nation, on this land, brothers and sisters, and whatever causes pain to any one of them should cause pain to each and every one of us.
RL: What are some of the key verses of the Qur’an or Hadith that have shaped you as a Muslim and especially as a peacemaker?
TH: Basically the entire Qur’an from cover to cover and the entire prophetic tradition of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) inspires me to be a good human being, first of all. To be a source of peace. To be a person who should be positive in society. And the most interesting verses from the Qur’an and Hadith that inspire me are verses that talk about a very distinguished concept we have in the Islamic tradition: promoting that which is good and challenging that which is evil. And when we talk about evil, we mean the injustices, bigotry, discrimination, racism, etc. This is not only when injustice is done to Muslims but to all creation - human, animal, or nature. This is what inspires me to get involved in climate issues as well. Promoting that which is good means that whenever there’s something good going on in our society, it’s mandatory for me as a Muslim to be part of it. Whenever something is going wrong it is mandatory for me to stand against it, regardless of who is the victim and who’s the perpetrator.
RL: As you know, most Americans fear Muslims and are afraid of terrorism and Sharia law. How would you answer their fears? What would you want to say to them?
TH: This fear that resides in the heart of my fellow men and women, especially here in North America, is understandable. But sometimes, I believe, it’s kindof fabricated. There’s a big Islamophobia industry in the U.S. These Islamophobes are exploiting this fear and trying to promote it in order to score political points. But I would like to say the following: Terrorism and and extremism have no religion and no culture except the culture of hate and the culture of death. When we talk about terrorism, we talk about the roots of terrorism. A lot of the time we talk about what we see, but we forget we should target the roots and why these people are acting like this.
RL: What would be some of the roots that come to mind?
TH: A lot of injustices that are taking place in this world. When we drop drones on innocent people in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and kill innocent civilians, what do we expect these people to think about us? We need to look at our behavior in this world first and then see what we can do to to fix this world.
RL: Okay, so what about Sharia law, though? Aren’t there a lot of Muslims that are quietly trying to take over through Sharia law?
TH: Unfortunately, Sharia law is the most misunderstood concept in Islam. The word Sharia in Arabic means “the path” or “the way.” Sharia means the law that is derived from the sacred texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith. So when Muslims scholars talk about Islam in general, they divide Islam into two parts: things that we believe, and things we practice (called sharia). So everything I do as a Muslim on a regular basis is part of sharia. Praying five times a day, fasting in the month of Ramadan, giving my alms, is all part of Sharia. Is this a threat to anyone? When I go to the store and I ask for halal meat, is that a threat? Now, if you mean by Sharia some of the judicial aspects in Islam, that doesn’t apply to people in general. These apply in specific conditions where Muslims live as a majority and they choose to be governed by this. So I would like to send a strong message to my fellow Americans that fearing Sharia law in the United States or in the West is nonsense. It has no basis.
RL: So going to North Dakota and working with Black Lives Matter, is that Sharia?
TH: Of course. It is one of the core teachings of our Sharia to stand for that which is right and challenge that which is wrong.
RL: What are some of the ways that Christians can bless or partner with Muslims?
TH: Approaching Muslims, understanding them. Breaking the walls of stereotypes and misconceptions. Just share a cup of coffee or tea with your fellow Muslim neighbor, classmate, or coworker, and just open your mind and heart and try to understand this human being that is sitting next to you. And you’ll realize that this human is like you, is a citizen who works very hard to provide for their family, seeks prosperity in their lives, tries to send their kids to the best school, etc. We are very blessed here in the United States, especially here in Southern California, that we live in a very diverse society. This diversity is a blessing, it’s not a curse. Unfortunately, some people look at this diversity as a source of threat, but no, it’s something beautiful. We are living in a place where we can meet people from all over the world so we can learn from each and every one of them, so we can become better people. Those who close their minds and don’t allow anyone else who doesn’t look like them, have the same faith as them, doesn’t speak the same language, who doesn’t eat the same food as them, they are missing a lot from this beautiful life.
RL: So the majority of people listening are Christians. What would you like all Christians in America to know about Muslims?
TH: I want them to know that this United States of America has never existed without Islam and Muslims. If you think that Muslims just came from the Middle East and North Africa and South Asia a few decades ago, you are mistaken. Muslims have been part of this nation since the very beginning. Look at some of the statements made by our founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson. Whenever he mentioned different faith communities in America he mentioned “mohammedans.” And he meant Muslims. And he even had his own copy of the Qur’an that is still preserved at the Library of Congress. More than 1/3 of the African people who were enslaved were Muslims. The Sears Tower was built by a Muslim architect and engineer from Bangladesh. There are many more examples to show that Islam and Muslims are part of the American social fabric. They are not strangers. They are not here to stay for a few years and go back. We’re not going back anywhere. This is our nation. We are here through the good and the bad. We are here to contribute positively to the prosperity of our nation like everyone else.
RL: What would you like to say to Christians specifically, you addressed citizenship, but any closing words to Christians?
TH: Reach out to your Muslim neighbors. Knock on their doors, go visit them in their mosques, introduce yourself. Try to learn from them what Islam is all about and teach them what Christianity is all about.