Muslim lecturer Anwar Hajjaj offers potential converts to Islam "a very delicious meal," but he won't force-feed them. "If you want it, take it."
A steady stream of Americans are finding the religion appealing and are becoming Muslims. One of them is Halimatou Wali Diallo.Diallo said she found peace, tranquility and balance after her conversion from Catholicism last year. "It enhanced me as a person," said Diallo, 34, a management information systems analyst in Silver Spring, Md.
Historians and interest groups could offer no statistics, but they say the number of converts has been building over the past decade, conforming with a general worldwide growth of the faith.
Hajjaj asks potential converts at the Dar el-Hijrah Islamic Center here three questions: Do they believe in one god? Do they believe that Jesus was a prophet but was not the son of God? Are they willing to accept Mohammed as a prophet?
If they answer yes, Hajjaj tells them they are ready to become a Muslim. They do this simply by repeating a verse from the Koran, Islam's scripture, after him - "There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet." Then a mosque attendant shows the converts how to perform ablutions, religious washing rituals, and prayers.
Muslim activists insist they are not out to convert people, citing a verse from the Koran that says: "Let there be no compulsion in religion."
Hajjaj, who hosts a weekly radio program about Islam, said he converts five to eight Americans every month at the center in Virginia. Farzad Darui, manager of the Islamic Center in Washington, said 16,000 people have converted through their program since 1962.
Islam also has spread to the Latino community, which now has an Islamic center in New York, where hundreds of Latinos have converted since 1992. The center includes a mosque, where the Friday sermon is given in English, Arabic and Spanish, and it puts out a religious Spanish-language newspaper.
The American Muslim community numbers about 6 million, half of them African-American. At a reception in February 1996 for Muslim families to celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton called Islam the fastest-growing religion in America.
William Martin, professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston, Texas, said the growing number of Muslims in the United States could have some impact: It could bring more pressure on the government's dealings with Muslim countries. It could impede efforts by conservative Christians to return to a Christian nation. And it would expose more Americans to Muslims.
"Familiarity doesn't always lower the barriers . . . but it can," said Martin.
Martin said one of the appeals of Islam is its strict morality.
"A lot of people who are living dissipated lives . . . feel like `I really shouldn't be doing this but I really need help,' " said Martin.
As their numbers rise, American Muslims have become more aggressive about raising awareness about the religion.
Muslim groups have published pamphlets on Islamic religious practices. Glossy catalogs advertise Islamic videos and CDs featuring songs, cartoons and background on the faith. A 25-poster set integrates Islamic art and calligraphy with computer graphics to give basic information about Islam. Mosques around the country offer classes in Islam and Arabic, which every good believer should learn to read the Koran.
Jigsaw puzzles illustrate Islamic landmarks; a watch with a micro computer chip chimes the entire azan - call to prayer - five times a day; Islamic greeting cards, prayer rugs and "I love Islam" keyholders are easier to find.
In addition, activists are helping new converts adapt more easily to a lifestyle in which dating, drinking, eating pork and using credit cards are no longer acceptable.
Hajjaj offers converts counseling at the Dar el-Hijrah Islamic center. Some of the questions he helps answer are: How and when are new converts going to break the news to their family? What should they do with credit card debts? Islam considers interest usury. How should they handle friends who think they are crazy because they have converted?
"We tell them not to reject this culture. Take the good out of it and leave out the bad. Stay in touch with your family even if they don't open the door," said Hajjaj. "Let them feel Islam is building not destroying."