TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - As the nearly 400 Muslim families living in Tyler and Longview observe the holy month of Ramadan, the East Texas Islamic Society is opening its doors to visitors.
The 16th annual open house held at their mosque on Highway 64, east of Tyler, was attended by more than 200 people Tuesday, May 21.
The event aims to build connections among people of all faiths in East Texas.
Anwar Khalifa has helped plan this event for years. He says he hopes others will open their minds about Islam.
“There’s still a lot of ignorance and the only way to combat ignorant is through education.”
Attendees included Christians, those who don’t identify with a particular faith or denomination, law enforcement, elected officials, and even a Jewish rabbi.
Tasneem Raja, the executive editor of the Tyler Loop, a non-profit journalism initiative that produces a digital magazine, says she came to listen to new perspectives.
"All different varieties, you know. Age diversity, race, and ethnicity diversity, religious diversity. People who don’t identify with a faith, like myself, but really deeply believe in the power of building community.”
Erasing labels and moving past misconceptions is where new relationships often form.
“I think (it’s) a way for people in our community to come and experience you know their neighbors that they might not otherwise get to meet," Raja said.
Shamsa Ashraf is principal of the Islamic Faith Academy, a private Pre-K through 3rd grade school operated by ETIS. She joined a panel discussion with Gamal Abdel-Hafiz, the first Muslim FBI agent, and Yasmeen Khalifa, a student at UT Tyler and managing editor of the Patriot student newspaper.
“You can do anything with the power of prayer," said Ashraf. "My God is your God. God is one. God is the same for everyone.”
Moderated by Anward Khalifa, the panel took questions from the audience and explained the tenants of Islam.
No questions were off-limits. Attendees asked about terrorism, the Quran, Jesus, Mary’s portrayal in Islam, and many other topics.
"I heard someone say recently, ‘All I need to know about Muslims is from 9/11,’ Sue Lander shared. "And you’re like, ‘Those were terrorists.’ Just like we have christian terrorists or whoever that’s done school shootings and all that. They’re not identified by their faith.”
Sue and husband Steve are members of the group Tyler Supports Our Muslim Neighbors, which organizes Christians, Muslims, and Jews in educations, social, and volunteering opportunities.
Steve Lander says he wants other Christians in the community to embrace the Golden Rule.
“We really need to be focused on loving one another doing for others, you know, as we would want them to do for us.”
As they turn toward Mecca five times each day for prayer, followers are called to submit to Allah, the Arabic word for God, and reflect on their lives.
“If you have that deep connection to God you can call upon him and ask for anything and he will answer,” Ashraf said.
That’s why doctor Nabeel Ahmed says he prays with his patients of all religions. Guided by the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, he says the Quran inspires him to be an example to others.
“It talks about constantly how peaceful it is how we live should be living together as one.”
After the sun set, the conversation continued over a meal consisting of Arabic, African, and Asian dishes. Iftar is the meal when Muslims break their daily fast during Ramadan, which is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
Khalifa says there’s hope these strengthened friendships and newly found knowledge will resonate with others.
“It’s important to us to make sure that the community knows that we’re part of this community. We care about this community and that we’re here to make our community better.”
ETIS welcomes visitors for daily prayer and classes. Friday prayer is held each week at 1:45 p.m.
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