Islam Against Ignorance | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Islam Against Ignorance 

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Amir Ali can't wait for the world to rediscover its Islamic roots. He calls Abraham a great man for preparing the world for the prophet Muhammad. But around the 13th century, Ali says, someone brought hypocrisy into the mix and the prophet's message got corrupted. Islam has had an image problem ever since.

"We're supposed to be honest, truthful, and excel in relationships between God and man, relationships between other people, and in our professions," says Ali, who calls himself a moderate and Jerry Falwell an extremist. But he is disappointed by the failure of Muslims to become leaders in fields like computer technology, medicine, finance, education. "God has promised us to become superpower of the world," he says. But before that can happen, followers "have to go back to the original books of the Koran. If God is pleased, they will get the gold medal--the whole world will become Muslim."

Ali offers his predictions over muffins and tea served in the main room of the Institute of Islamic Information and Education at 4390 N. Elston. Ali, who sports suspenders and dark glasses and wears his curly hair shoulder length, is the institute's proprietor. He opened it in 1987 after noticing a Christian Science Reading Room down the street. It began as a few shelves of books that didn't fit in his apartment. Now, he says, it has become a means of converting America to Islam.

What if America doesn't want to convert? "We're not going to force anyone," says Ali. But after the terrorist attacks, he reports, hits on his Web site, iiie.net, went up 200 percent. The number of people seeking to understand the religion who've ended up converting has surprised even him. "It's pretty well documented that after 9/11, all Koran sold out, all Islamic books sold out." Overall, "it's good," Ali says. "We are here to answer questions, and a by-product is some convert to Islam."

Ignorance is the enemy, says Ali, who first began introducing Americans to Islam in 1962, the same year he moved from Hyderabad, India, to Iowa City. As an undergrad at the University of Iowa he met his wife, Mary, who is of German-Swedish descent. In 1967 Ali attended a technological conference in Washington, D.C., where he heard about an imam who performed Islamic marriages. So he called Mary and told her to get on a Greyhound and head east. The couple ended up here after Ali got a scholarship to pursue his PhD in biochemistry at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

After their four children were born, Ali became busier with efforts to bring Islam to America. Oil had made for flush connections between the U.S. and the Middle East, and in 1972 Ali helped a not-for-profit organization called the Muslim Community Center raise enough money to open a mosque at North and Kedzie. Ali says it was set on fire twice before a Molotov cocktail finally destroyed the place. In 1982 the group opened a sprawling Islamic center, including a mosque and a school, at 4380 N. Elston. Five years later came the institute next door, and a satellite operation in Morton Grove opened in 1989.

Both locations stock Korans and brochures, videos (kept in locked glass display cases), and lots of books. For newcomers to the faith Ali recommends Qasim Najar and Yahiya John Emerick's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Islam. "Christianity is not a menace, but Christian fundamentalists are a menace," Ali says. "The Idiot's series talks a lot about that."

On a recent rainy Saturday, a visitor named Syed dropped by. "I have some general questions. I hope you can help me," he said to Ali, who gestured with muffin in hand for Syed to sit down.

Syed asked how to apply the Koran to taking a bath. "I thought you had to wear a towel."

Without hesitating, Ali answered, "You take a bath nude."

"I see," said Syed. "With nothing at all."

"Nothing," said Ali. He found a brochure on the subject and handed it to his client. Syed stood and read, then said he was still a little unsure.

"I gave you everything you need, right there on those two pages," said Ali. "I answer according to the teachings of the prophet Muhammad and the Koran. If someone tells you you cannot be nude when you are in the bath, that is opinion. If you want opinion, you can go get 100 opinions."

Syed said he understood. He thanked his adviser profusely. Ali said it was not a problem and went back to his muffin. Syed adjusted his cap, then walked outside into the rain.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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