Dr Siddiqi among 100 People who Shaped Orange County

(The Orange County Register has published an article on Dr Muzammil H. Siddiqui recognizing him as one of the 100 people who have shaped Orange County in the last 100 years. The example of the eminent religious scholar is an inspirational one and the article is reproduced below courtesy Orange County Register for the benefit of our readers. – Editor)

It is the dilemma one immigrant group after another has faced in the United States: preserve the ways of the old country or adopt those of the new? For emigrants from Islamic countries and their descendants, the issue is even more pressing in a society that often treats their faith, however peacefully practiced, as a source of strife or even terrorism.
In Garden Grove, Muzammil H. Siddiqi has spent nearly a quarter-century as religious director of the Islamic Society of Orange County, attempting to build bridges from his Muslim congregation to the rest of the community.
As an imam, lecturer and college professor, the 62-year-old Siddiqi, a native of Rampur, India, performs a delicate balancing act. While nurturing a spiritual and cultural oasis for the county’s growing population of Muslims, he dreams of forging a gateway to friendship between his congregants and a community he says understands them far too little.
”You’re wearing different clothes, eating different food, you look different, you pray differently – it’s our responsibility to explain who we are.”
After completing religious studies in India and Saudi Arabia, Siddiqi studied in Geneva and England. Learning the Bible and Christian theology, he was increasingly drawn more to their similarities with Islam than their differences.
Siddiqi was directing the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., when he traveled to California in 1981 and visited the Islamic Society, then Orange County’s only mosque. It was a humble affair, a converted church so close to a nearby kennel that worshipers had to pray loudly to hear themselves above barking dogs.
Siddiqi saw promise in the mosque and became its religious director. Gradually, more worshipers, mainly of Middle Eastern, Pakistani and Indian descent, joined the center, driving up attendance at the Friday prayers from a few hundred to an estimated 1,500 to 2,000.
But for Siddiqi, it was not enough for only Muslims to discover the mosque; those of other faiths also needed to see and understand it.
He taught Islamic studies at nearby schools such as Cal State Fullerton; he helped organize dialogues and round tables with Christian and Jewish leaders, often inside the mosque; and he hosted forums where up to 200 visitors can observe the faithful at prayer.
His message of outreach reached its height immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which left the imam stranded in Washington as he prepared to meet President George W. Bush to discuss Muslim-American relations. Siddiqi was chosen to speak at the interfaith memorial three days later in the nation’s capital; mourning the nearly 3,000 dead, he attacked terrorism as the ultimate perversion of the Qur’an and his faith.
If Siddiqi has had to overcome suspicion from outside Islam, he also has been challenged from within. At the Islamic Center, the tension over his teachings came to a head in 1992, when the mosque’s board of directors voted to eliminate his position as religious director.
Days later, at a tense gathering of hundreds of members, the imam declared that his foes turned against him for not embracing a more radical, openly political brand of the religion. The outcry among worshipers drew attention, and a month later the directors reinstated Siddiqi.
In nearly 40 years, the Islamic Society has grown from a religious hub to a social and educational one, comprising a mosque, an elementary school and counseling services.
Siddiqi’s dream is for a seminary, a place to train future imams in a region where many mosques – a dozen now operate in Orange County – cannot recruit enough clerics close to home and must hire from abroad.
A pipeline of US-educated religious scholars, he believes, would enable American Muslims to accept the surrounding society as a partner.
“Strangers have become neighbors, though sometimes the neighbors have become strangers,” he said. “It’s very important that people should understand each other. This is a matter of survival now.”


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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