By Elsie Walker
Imam Jawad Ahmed remembers a time when he was “kind of lost in the wilderness”. He’d always been a faithful Muslim, but something was missing, a connection to God. He had a spiritual change in college, which ultimately led him to study theology. As the spiritual leader of the Islamic Society of North Jersey (ISNJ), Ahmed wants to help children, youth, and adults to realize a connection with God.
Located on Route 46 in Mt. Olive, the ISNJ is based on the Sunni (sect) faith. Saima Mehboob of Mt. Olive, the ISNJ’s Treasurer and Communications Lead, shared how the ISNJ came to be. “Around 1999, a group of seven – eight Muslim families came together in the Budd Lake area to worship and build ties. The Islamic Society of North Jersey (ISNJ) was formally established in 2006 with 75 members. We have grown to 200+ members,” Mehboob said.
Ahmed is a relatively new addition to the ISNJ, coming to it in November 2018. However, he has been an Imam since 2000. He explained what an Imam is. “Imam is like the spiritual leader of the community, providing comfort and solace with religious education, and leads the community in prayers to God,” he said. Ahmed had originally come to this country to study engineering and later switched to chemistry. It was during college that he felt a spiritual change that would change the direction of his life. He graduated college and started working for a pharmaceutical company. However, he ended up leaving that to study theology in Pakistan. He was ordained and commissioned in 2000. He has served other Muslim communities in New Jersey and New York, before coming to the ISNJ. However, he is not a stranger to the Muslims at the ISNJ, as he had been a guest Imam, coming there to speak for many years. Ahmed is married with four children and lives in Hackettstown.
“Worship is five times a day at the mosque (located at the ISNJ site), at different intervals of the day, and includes readings from Quran; this is done seven days a week,” said Ahmed. Those worship times coincide with the five obligatory prayers that Muslims must make each day. If possible, members come to the mosque for prayer. However, since many work or are at school, they pray there.
Mehboob shared about the timing of prayers during the day. “Morning Prayer (Fajr) is right before sunrise. Afternoon Prayer (Zuhr) is usually mid-day. Late afternoon Prayer (Asr) is a couple of hours before the sunset prayer, Maghrib. Sunset prayer (Maghrib) is at sunset and Night prayer (Isha) is a couple of hours after the sunset prayer, Maghrib,” she explained
Ahwad added that,” On Fridays, the Imam gives a sermon before prayer at noon time for the weekly congregation prayer called ‘Friday prayer’ which all members must attend to pray collectively to God.”
During worship, men and women sit in different areas. Mehbood explained why there is a separation. “Islam is a strong advocate of the family environment and modesty. Non-related women and men are not expected to socialize or worship in close quarters. In the group setting or worship, or jamaat, you will see individuals standing in a line, or siffat, behind the Imam and following him in prayer. Men form standing rows immediately behind the Imam, and women are in standing rows behind the men. This isn’t because men are perceived to be better than women. Rather, it is so that each can concentrate on their prayers…”
The ISNJ helps Muslims grow in faith through educational opportunities for children and adults. “Our key contribution to the local Muslim community is our Sunday School,” said Mehboob. Mehboob noted that they have a dedicated volunteer staff of about 20 people; that includes committed teachers, principal, and administration. Currently, 120 students are registered, ranging in age from kindergarten to 10th grade. A three-hour session is held every Sunday, during which students learn Quran (the Islamic sacred book), Arabic, and Islamic Studies.
In addition, there are fee-based Quran lessons offered throughout the week, with separate sessions for boys, girls, and women. Mehboob noted that those are driven by community need. The ISNJ also hosts free lectures which include Sister (women only) sessions. Information on those is posted on the society’s website at www.isnj.net/
Outreach is also part of the life of the ISNJ, with the youth actively involved. “ISNJ will provide financial support on a needs basis to either individuals or organizations. Also, our youth group has volunteered with Bread of Life at Newton Presbyterian Church, ICNA Relief (Muslims for Humanity), and handed out free hot meals outside Masjid Al Wali in Edison.” Bread of Life, in which they were joined by youth from Trinity United Methodist Church, is a mission offering food and fellowship to those in need. During warm months, meals are distributed in Memorial Park in Newton. ICNA Relief helps those underserved populations across this country. Mehboob also noted that the ISNJ youth hosted an art fair and used the proceeds to purchase 100 items that were then donated to a soup kitchen.
Mehboob noted that empowering the youth at the ISNJ is important. “We actively coach and guide our youth members to lead as young Muslim Americans. You may have heard about the petition Haashem Akhtar initiated in Mt Olive for students to have Eid (a Muslim holiday) off as a school holiday,” shared Mehboob.
Eid is the day after the end of Ramadan. Ahmed explained that Ramadan is a 30-day fasting period during which Muslim focus on gratitude for how much they have, like enough to eat and good health. The fast reminds them of hardships that others face. Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, having nothing to eat or drink until after dusk. The Imam said it is similar to Lent.
Eid is a time of celebration. Muslims dress in their best clothes; there is a service (outdoors if the weather is good). They exchange gifts and visit each other. Currently, Eid is not a religious holiday for which school is closed, like the religious holidays of other faiths. Muslim students are allowed excused absences to be out of school on that day. However, that means that they may miss a test or certain lessons that have to be made-up. Having the holiday off (when it falls on a school day, it follows the lunar calendar) would change that. That is what is trying to be done with the petition. Mehboob shared that already Muslim students at Mt Olive High School have collaborated with the school administration to be excused for Friday prayers, which they offer together in the school.
The ISNJ holds a family night once a month for its members. A guest speaker is invited to provide a faith- based lecture, followed by a potluck dinner. Mehboob noted that the turnout is usually 20 to 25 families. Currently, the society is focused on fundraising and finding a property to meet its community’s growing needs. Mehboob explained that during Friday prayers, they can have more than 200 people in attendance.
The ISNF is a member of the Mt. Olive Inter-faith Alliance with the United Presbyterian Church, Flanders, and Abiding Peace Lutheran Church in Budd Lake. “The Alliance is a commitment by our three faith communities, and any other residents of the greater Mt. Olive area who are interested, to build relationships, increase interfaith understanding, and work together to promote the good and the larger community,” explained Rev. Serena Rice, pastor of the Lutheran church.
Rice explained the role the ISNF has played in the alliance. “The formal activities of the alliance have included an open worship hosted by ISNJ, where members of area churches were invited to observe their Sunday mid-day prayers, hear from the ISNJ community and youth about their faith, and share a meal,” she said. In addition, there has been an interfaith potluck meal hosted by United Presbyterian, Flanders and a bake sale organized by members of the ISNJ and Abiding Peace Lutheran Church to collect food and raise money for the Mt Olive Food Pantry, which is housed in Christ Episcopal Church. “Beyond planned events, the Alliance has also fostered relationships among members of the community. Last Ramadan, members of Abiding Peace were welcomed to an Iftar (feast breaking the fast after sundown), and members of ISNJ participated in a service project at Abiding Peace packing lunches for Bridges Outreach in Summit,” Rice shared.
“The recent arrival of Imam Jawad has brought additional energy and passion into this new religious partnership. We continue to explore ways to continue building bridges, create new partnerships and proclaim the more profound unity that exists underneath our diversity,” noted Rev. Rick Oppelt, pastor of the United Presbyterian Church, Flanders.