Learning the language of their faith
At LI mosque, Muslims study Arabic to gain deeper insight into Quran
By Shomial Ahmad
The Muslim students' fingers moved right to left in their open Qurans as they recited religious verses in throaty Arabic accents. For 10 days, nearly 50 students sat in the basement of a Westbury mosque, learning the correct pronunciation of the Quran.
Wisam Sharieff, 24, a Long Island native, taught the class. His sneakers peeked through his long white robe. He laughed often, with his smile opening up behind his black beard.
On weekday nights this month, students from across Long Island gathered in the classroom at the Long Island Islamic Center, learning the hard and soft sounds of Arabic letters. In a religion in which the five mandatory prayers are always recited in classical Arabic, part of a Muslim's piety rests on the memorization and proper recitation of the Quran, the Muslim holy book.
"Arabic is a very sensitive and delicate language," Sharieff said. "If you mispronounce the letters, you will change the meaning."
Sharieff's parents emigrated from southern India in 1968, and Sharieff grew up in East Meadow and Hempstead. He learned to read Arabic at the Westbury mosque, where he said he constantly mispronounced words. One of his common gaffes would be to pronounce the 'Q' in Quran with a soft 'K' instead of a deep 'Q.'
On his 13th birthday, his parents paid for his admission to the Islamic Institute of Education in Chicago. He spent his days there, from the dawn prayer to the evening prayer, memorizing and reciting the book. Three years and three months later, he had memorized the entire book - every word, every letter and every accent.
After that, he decided to take his learning and follow the prophet Muhammad's example by teaching the Quran to others. That goal brought him back to Westbury to teach.
Sharieff has been teaching the class for seven years. In many ways, his class is a small window into Muslim life on Long Island, with a cross-section of students, native-born and foreign, young and middle-age. He began with four students, and in the past 12 months he has taught more than 300. He gets requests to teach classes from as far away as Las Vegas and Glasgow, Scotland.
With Muslim families becoming part of the fabric of life on Long Island, Sharieff said he believed parents had other concerns that took priority over their children's Islamic education, such as SAT prep classes.
Sharieff speaks in a manner his Long Island students can relate to. He switches from reciting Quranic verses in his deep Arabic accent to using American slang.
When he explained that one Arabic accent requires elongating a letter, he snapped his fingers. "You let it ride for two counts," he told the class.
One letter's pronunciation follows the rule of the Fonz, the Happy Days character known for his drawn-out "Aaay."
"You do 'the Fonz,'" he told the class, after writing the curvy letter on the board. "You stretch the 'y.'"
For three hours each night, the students listen to his lectures. The men sit in the front rows and the women in the back, wearing their carefully pinned head scarves. They pronounce their "q's" from the back of their throats, and their "a's" as if they're trying to take a big bite out of an apple.
One of the students, Smithtown resident Barbara Cartabuke, is taking the class for the second time. She converted to Islam a year ago.
"After I read the Quran, there was nothing else that I could read. It's that moving," said Cartabuke, 44. "I wanted to know it in its pure form."
Another student, Syed Huda, 25, first learned to read the Quran at the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens. He would sit in a room with other students and rock back and forth, learning the Quran's rhythms.
"This class has been awesome," he said.
After finishing his work as a management consultant in Manhattan, Huda drives to Westbury to attend class. He concentrates on his prayers, listening closely to the Arabic pronunciations.
At the start of Ramadan in September, the Muslim month of fasting, he hopes to practice his pronunciation by reading the Quran every day.
The class culminates when the students take all of the day's lessons and read in Arabic in unison a chapter out of the Quran. On a recent day, their voices rose up and down, following the rhythm of the letters. Their mouths stretched open to properly enunciate each letter. Some students counted with their fingers, to make sure they were elongating each letter for the correct number of counts.
Then from upstairs came the sounds for the evening call to prayer. The class ended abruptly. Some students looked blankly at the board. Others scanned their notebooks. Sharieff closed his eyes and listened.