Above: The new Imam for the area Indonesian community meets other local leaders like Al-Huda School principal Haroon Baqai.
TML: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from, and your educational background?
Ustadh Fahmi: Alhamdu lillah I went to an Islamic boarding school in Indonesia called "Pesantren Persatuan Islam". Usually in Islamic boarding schools like this we have to do both the mandatory K-12 curriculum and the Islamic studies curriculum in tandem. So I did my K-12 education this way. Then I did my associate degree in foreign language studies at Borobodur University, Jakarta. Then I continued my education in Al-Azhar University in Egypt and got my bachelor's degree in Usooluddin, with a major in Aqidah. After I graduated from Al-Azhar, I applied in a master's program in "Jami'ah American Maftuhah" in Egypt, or what was known as "Open American University". Unfortunately due to administrative reason, I had to leave the program and return to Indonesia. I resided in Aceh, a province in the Sumatran Island, and finally got my master's degree in educational management from Syiah Kuala University in Aceh. Before coming to the U.S., I taught as an adjunct professor in the same university, teaching Introductory Islamic Studies for undergraduates.
TML: What about your family? How many children, how old, and what grades are they?
Ustadh Fahmi: I have four children, three of them were born in Cairo and the little one was born in Aceh. The eldest is now in the 11th grade, the second in 9th grade, the third in 5th grade, and the fourth one is now 5 years old. Alhamdu lillah the eldest three are now studying in different Islamic boarding schools and currently memorizing the Qur'an (7, 11, 6, juuz respectively).
TML: What's your favorite past time?
Ustadh Fahmi: I really enjoy traveling. It started as a job, really, but as I travelled to different places I really began to enjoy the journey. When I lived in Aceh, I was often invited to give talks and trainings to different communities across the province. In Indonesia, we have this national initiative called "Da'i Saudi" -a program sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government- where 100 or so imaams travel to remote areas and small villages in Indonesia to invite the local communities to islam and create local programs and training for the communities. I was part of this initiative and was so privileged to share the beauty of our deen to these communities. In the process I began to enjoy the traveling aspect of it because I think there is so much to learn from this experience. It enriches you as a person and opens your horizons, to appreciate different people and different communities.
TML: What's your favorite food?
Ustadh Fahmi: Anything that has coconut milk in it, and of course Rendang -the staple dish of West Sumatra, since I am originally from there. Alhamdu lillah the good thing is I don't have miss any of these foods here. We have a very generous Indonesian community who would happily send me good Indonesian food. Something to be thankful for. The caring of the Muslim community here and the sense of "ukhuwwah" (brotherhood/community) far away from home.
TML: Tell us about your journey to America. How did you find out about the IMAAM Community and Rockville?
Ustadh Fahmi: I actually found out about the opportunity from a friend of mine who forwarded the information that an Indonesian Muslim community in Washington DC area was looking for an imaam. I studied the requirements (job description) and decided to apply for the position. After a formal application and a Skype interview with their search committee, I was formally invited to work here for 6 months beginning in this past Ramadan. Because I wasn't teaching this semester in the university, I accepted the offer. The administrative process was a bit long due to the visa screening process in the U.S. embassy in Indonesia, but alhamdu lillah it went through and so here I am.
TML: What do you see as the role of imaams in American Muslim communities?
Ustadh Fahmi: One of my roles I think is to continue to nurture/strengthen the sense of "ukhuwwah" (brotherhood and community) among ourselves as Muslim. I believe that with this sense of "ukhuwwah" our hearts will be connected, our relationships are renewed, and our acceptance of and love for the teachings of Islam will be strengthened. But of course this is not an instant process. At least from my experience, we have to first get to know each other -or what we call the process of "ta'aruf". From knowing comes understanding, or "tafahum." In shaa Allah, and bi idhnilLlah, with this deeper understanding of each other there will be "takaful", or the act of helping each other in goodness. It is my belief that through this step-by-step approach, not only we -as community- will be able to give and take good advice from the teachings of our beloved Prophet Muhammad, sallAllahu alayhi wa sallam, but also to find sweetness in following it. Our hearts will become alive. So to come back to your question, the role of the imaams here is to be the driving force for this change.
TML: What are the biggest challenge facing Muslim communities in America?
Ustadh Fahmi: The challenge of the youth - In terms of the youth, I think one of the biggest challenges is to bridge the intergenerational/intercultural gap between the youth and their communities in general, and more specifically between the youth and their nuclear family -which is supposed to be their their primary source of "tarbiyyah" (education). I am really interested in getting to know more about how the local leadership here have dealt with this challenge. As we know the Muslim youth here are facing an unprecedented challenge to construct and negotiate their identities as Muslim as well as American. The society in which they live is without question very diverse, with different -and often time conflicting- values. Yet we also know that the youth is our asset, our future bearers of Islam. Therefore as a community we really need to invest our effort and energy to help our youth grow and embody their deen in their everyday lives, to be comfortable with it, and to help educate others about Islam. I think we need more initiatives on youth teaching/mentoring other youth to bridge this intergenerational/ intercultural gap that we have.
TML: What are the main differences between Muslim communities in America and Muslim communities in Indonesia?
Ustadh Fahmi: The similarity I think is very encouraging. I mean, it gives me a certain level of comfort knowing that no matter where you are, whether you are in Indonesia or America, you will find the eagerness of your Muslim brothers and sisters to help out each other. Again, this "ukhuwwah" is very important.
Above: Al-Huda School students greet the imam after he delievered a talk at the school.
In terms of the differences, one of the major differences I think is the rhythm of life here. I understand that our lives nowadays are generally fast-paced, regardless of whether you are in Indonesia or in America. We somehow are expected to work long hours, which sometimes lead to the difficulty on our part to find the work-life balance. I see this -at least as I observe it firsthand now- as a challenge for the communities here.
Another difference is the physical proximity to the masaajid. Like other Muslim countries, in Indonesia we are blessed with the opportunity to hear the adhan being called five times a day from almost every corner of the streets. We have many masaajid (though not all are big), but I think this physical closeness to the masjid may serve as an advantage for those of us who live in a Muslim country because we feel more attached to it. There's always a place to go to to revive our imaan, and a comfort zone, whenever we face challenges in our lives. Here, some -if not many- of us have to travel far to have this safe haven. But alhamdu lillah, here we have the alternative of building this outside of the masaajid. For example in our Indonesian Muslim community, we try to do regular halaqah from home to home for the community, so the people will in shaa Allah feel their imaan revived after meeting their brothers and sisters in Islam; and after hearing words of admonitions/glad tidings from Allah and His Prophet, sallAllahu alayhi wa salaam.
TML: You visited the Darussalaam community last week, tell us a little bit about this visit. What was your impression?
Ustadh Fahmi: My visit to Darussalaam and Al-Huda school was motivated first by the desire to get to know more about this community and to map out possible joint activities between IMAAM and Darussalaam/Al-Huda, in shaa Allah. Some of our Indonesian community members here also put their children in Al-Huda school, so it makes sense to get to know more about their programs. Mashaa Allah after the visit, I was very impressed with what the school and the community has accomplished in the last 15 years. I was especially inspired by the level of engagement of the youth in this community, and was thinking about possibility of having some members of Al-Huda youth to come to the IMAAM community; to share ideas/experiences and collaborate with the youth in IMAAM community. Again, this goes back to what I was saying before about the vision for our youth. We need more youth to participate in our community, and to lead our community.