ORONO, Maine — Mostapha Aghamoosa of Orono attended Muslim schools in central Texas as a child, but he does not consider himself to be a follower of Islam now.
The 25-year-old graduate student in chemistry at the University of Maine said that out of curiosity he attended a lecture on campus Thursday comparing Islam and Christianity.
Jamal Badawi, professor emeritus of management and religious studies at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, gave a speech titled “Islam and Christianity: Similarities, Differences and Areas of Mutual Cooperation.” The Rev. Kent Ulery, president of Bangor Theological Seminary, joined him at the Wells Conference Center during the question-and-answer period.
“I was struck by the idea of there being similarities between the two faiths,” Aghamoosa said after the event sponsored by the Muslim Student Association as part of Islamic Awareness Week. “The language of allegory, if you consider allegory a language, seems to be a very good way of tapping into man’s spirituality.”
The graduate student was one of about 100 people, including students, faculty and members of the nearby Islamic Center of Maine, who attended the lecture. The vast majority of those in attendance were Muslims.
“You talked of shared values,” Ulery said at the beginning of the Q&A period Thursday, “and I thought to myself, ‘That’s what I’ve been preaching my whole life.’ And, I’m feeling a sense of lament that the Christian community does not understand as much about Islam as you understand about Christianity.”
Badawi was one of two speakers at UMaine on Thursday and Friday. Mohamed Diini, 27, of Columbus, Ohio, also met with several members of the Honors College and spoke Friday night at Bennett Hall. Diini is working on an advanced degree in Islamic scholarship.
In lectures and informal discussions, both men explained the five pillars of Islam and separated for Americans the difference between what the Quran, the holy book of Islam, states about topics such as the education of women and their role in Muslim society, and how they have been interpreted by different cultures.
“Women are forbidden to drive in Saudi Arabia,” Diini said Friday afternoon, “but there is nothing in the Quran about driving. It is important for people not familiar with Islam to see what is and what is not based on its teachings.”
He said that the Quran does require women to dress modestly and cover their hair. Some traditions where Islam is the dominant religion require that women cover all of their bodies but their eyes. But in his native Somalia, Diini said, women wear long skirts, long-sleeved blouses and colorful scarves but do not cover their faces.
How women are educated also is a cultural not a religious decision, Badawi said. The Quran clearly states that women and men were created equal before God and that Muslim women have specific rights when it comes to financial, property and marital issues.
“The prophet Muhammad said the seeking of knowledge is an obligation, not just a right, of all Muslims, men and women,” Badawi said.
Diini, who came to the U.S. at the age of 13, was in high school in suburban Washington, D.C., when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. He said Friday that he went from explaining the tenets of his faith to half a dozen friends to speaking to thousands of people in a few years.
Today, he travels the world as an educational and motivational speaker. One question he and Badawi often talk about as they did in Orono, is the meaning of the word “jihad.” It has been improperly translated as “holy war,” Diini said, but those two words are not in the Quran.
“‘Jihad’ is mentioned many times in the Quran,” he said, “but it means to struggle against something. If someone invades my home and in defending myself I am killed, I would have died in the path of jihad. Most often, it is used to refer to the struggle of the soul against the temptations of the devil.”
Islamic Awareness Week has been held at the University of Maine during the spring semester for many years, according to Ismail Warsame of the Muslim Student Association.
Diini told Warsame on Friday that he was impressed at how active the student group and the Orono mosque are in Maine, a state with such a small Muslim population.
Depending on the year, the Muslim Student Association has between 25 and 50 members each academic year, Warsame said Friday. About 40 percent of them are exchange students. The rest, like Warsame, have spent a good portion, if not all of their lives, in the United States.
Melissa Ladenheim, who teaches at the university’s Honors College, said after meeting Friday afternoon with Diini and Warsame that the dialogue was an important one.
“Students know so little about the subject of Islam,” she said. “This is an opportunity for them to have a conversation with people who are experts in Islam and to break down stereotypes.
The five major teachings, or pillars, of Islam are:
• Shahada, belief in and recitation of the profession of faith, “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah.”
• Salat, prayer offered while facing Mecca five times a day — at sunrise, midday, midafternoon, sunset and before going to bed.
• Sawm, fasting during Ramadan, the month when the Quran was revealed to Mohammed.
• Zakat, contributing financially to the Muslim community, similar to tithing in some Christian denominations.
• Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in each Muslim’s lifetime, if physically and financially possible.