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Latvia's Muslim community reaches out

  • 2004-01-29
  • By Elena Banks
RIGA - One fifth of the world's population is Muslim. Islam is the fastest growing and perhaps most misunderstood religion in the world. But while Islam has never before enjoyed such popularity, neither has it been more controversial. Estimates as to how many Muslims there are in Latvia range from 500 to 10,000, but it would seem that the number is gradually on the rise. Elena Banks takes a look at how the small but devout Muslim community keeps the faith while remaining a distinct minority group.

Five times a day, from Latvia to Sudan, from Pakistan to Morocco, the haunting call to prayer stirs the souls of devoted Muslims all around the world. Whether the call arises from a dark basement or a towering mosque, it begins with the same Arabic phrase Muslims have used for nearly 1,400 years. "Allah...u akbar," the faithful sing out. "Allahhhh...u akbar!" (God is great.)
On a cold and snowy winter day, I stand outside an old wooden house in a rundown part of downtown Riga trying to find the entrance to the Muslim Islam Center in Latvia. I know I'm at the right address but there is no obvious sign to show me that this is the place, other than something written in Arabic by the basement windows.
Finally, I'm saved by the MICL's spiritual leader, Mamound Saeed, who comes and meets me outside the house. He leads me down a narrow staircase, and through several small, rather dark rooms to the center's place of worship. The prayer room is covered with carpets embroidered with elaborate arabesques. In a corner, vaguely pointing in the direction of the grand mosque in Mecca, the all-important altar is set aside.
According to the MICL, there are some 10,000 Muslims living in Latvia. But the historian Vladislav Scherbeinsky believes that the first traditional Muslim congregation was established in Riga as long ago as 1902.
"In Islam we don't have nationalities," says Saeed, a dignified-looking man originally from Sudan, to explain the lack of clear historical data concerning the settlement and growth of the Muslim community in Latvia.
Muslims may be bound by their shared faith but their circles in Latvia consist of various nationalities, including not only people from Arabic countries, but also quite a number of Russians and Latvians as well. The Central Bureau of Statistics had seven Islamic groups registered in 2001, but only five in 2002. These range from Idel, a Muslim organization led by Rufia Shervireva, to Iman, a Latvian Chechen congregation led by Musan Machigov.
Saeed explains that one of the main tasks of the MICL is to educate people about Islam. "We don't go to schools or to other public places, but if people are interested they come here and then we talk," he explains. Saeed first came to Latvia back in 1989 to study. Somewhat unusually, he believes that Muslims enjoyed more freedom during Soviet times than they do today.
"The government at that time even gave us a special room in student dorms where we could pray. But now it's more complicated. I feel that there are things that are not said to us but there is definitely a political influence. And still there is so much confusion and so many misunderstandings, but the Koran preaches religion and human tolerance, he says."
Saeed says that every day they pray 20 times for Abraham. "I think that we believe more in Jesus than Christians do."
Ultimately, Saeed hopes that the MICL will build the first mosque in Latvia but he's reluctant to talk about how such a costly project would be realized. "We don't get any international financial support, but we hope at some point in the near future to build a Mosque in Riga. For this we need approximately 3,000 square meters," Saeed explains.
The famed Latvian poet and translator Uldis Berzins is currently laboring away at the first-ever Latvian translation of the Koran. The translation is being supported by Latvijas Kulturkapitala Fonds, a government body that allocates state funds to cultural projects.
Berzins, who is fluent in several languages, including Turkish and Arabic, eloquently explains why he wanted to undertake the huge task. "I did it," he says, "to understand and to see the world more clearly. If we want to exist in our language then we have to translate the whole world, or as much of it as possible, at least its fundamental bases. The Koran is one of the key texts of humanity."
Berzins says that the Koran commands sacrifices from Muslims - be it in the form of one's property, or one's relationship with one's relatives, or striving in life in the name of God. Of course, the ultimate, and most notorious example, of this is the jihad (holy war).
It remains to be seen how many people will actually take an interest in Berzins' translation, but given the recent publication of several books about Islamic culture Latvians now have more opportunities than ever to find out for themselves what Islam is really all about.
Dagnia Kirkoz is one of a surprisingly large number of native Latvian converts to the Muslim faith. "My conversion to Islam gave me a psychological tranquility, a gift I had not been able to enjoy before I began communicating with Allah," says Kirkoz, who originally comes from Madona, but now lives permanently in Beirut with her Lebanese husband.
Kirkoz graduated from the University of Latvia with a nursing diploma but developed an interest in Islam through some of the Muslim students she studied with. She was especially impressed by the polite and even moral way in which they dealt with other people. "They were serious in their studies. They undertook the responsibilities of their alienation and schooling with a seriousness unlike all the other young people at the university, who were more interested in pursuing life's pleasures," she says.
"My husband was the wide door through which I entered Islam, for he answered all my questions about this new faith. In the end, he convinced not only my emotions, but also my mind."

Islam fact sheet...
In Arabic, Islam means "submission to God." Its etymological roots come from "salam," or peace.

The ultimate messenger for the Muslims is the Prophet Mohammed. Aged about 40, Mohammed retreated to a cave in the mountains outside Mecca to meditate where it is believed that he was visited by the archangel Gabriel, who began telling him the Word of God. Until his death 23 years later, Mohammad passed along these revelations to a growing band of followers, including many who wrote down the words or committed them to memory. These verses, compiled soon after Mohammed's death, become the Koran, or "recitation," which are considered by Muslims to be the literal word of God and a refinement of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The Koran consists of 114 suras, or chapters, and covers everything from the nature of God, to laws governing mundane affairs of men.

Although Islam began in Arabia, only about 20 percent of Muslims live in the Arab speaking world. Islam's two main branches, the Sunni and the Shiite, arose from the seventh century, when the minority Shiites lost a dispute over who would rule the Muslim world. Since then the Shiites, many of whom live in Iran and Iraq, have struggled, sometimes violently, against the majority Sunnis.

More than one-fifth of humankind follows Islam, making it the world's fastest growing religion.
l Christianity - 2 billion
l Islam - 1.3 billion
l Hinduism - 900 million
l Buddhism - 360 million
Most Muslims in the Western Hemisphere live in the United States. There are as many American Muslims as American Jews - roughly 2 percent of the population in each case. However, Muslims have far less political influence. Two-thirds belong to immigrant families, and one-third are African Americans who have converted since the 1960s, returning to the religion of their forebears. The Majority of American Muslims support a secular, democratic state and are ecumenically oriented, willing to bridge religious and sectarian divides.

Muslims by the million:
Indonesia - 181,
Pakistan - 141,
India - 124,
Bangladesh - 111,
Turkey - 66,
Egypt - 66,
Nigeria - 63,
China - 38,
Russia - 12,
U.S.A. - 6
Source: National Geographic