Sheikh Kaleem grasps my hand and smiles when I ask him what impact his blindness has had on his faith.
“You ask some interesting questions,” he said amidst a crowded room of people at the Islamic Da’wa Center in Milwaukee. “I’ve memorized more verses of Quran while I was blind than I did when I wasn’t. If it meant I could memorize more Quran, I wish I could go through this blindness process at least 10 more times.”
He’s wearing a pearl white turban and hunches foward in the noisy room as I lean towards him to hear better. The sheikh is an active imam in several mosques in the Milwaukee area and has also taught kung fu for over 30 years. During that time, he said his students have never lost a tournament.
Both the sheikh and his wife are blind. The sheikh worked as a visual artist and lost his vision in the early 1990s from excessive exposure to art chemicals. His wife lost hers recently to a battle with sickle cell. But neither of them make much of their blindness.
“I see it as a temporary inconvenience,” he said. “Allah has the ability to give us sight and the ability to take it away. To say being blind is a problem would be denying the will of Allah.”
There are over 15,000 Muslims in Milwaukee today, but when Sheikh Kaleem was a child in the 1960s, there may have been only 3-4 Muslim families in the area and no mosque.
“I still remember being a child and we’d pray Friday prayer inside someone’s living room,” he said.
The Muslim community here is rapidly growing thanks to some of the work the Da’wa Center has been doing. One of the crown jewels of this center is its outreach to prison inmates and transitioning them to a better life once they get out.
“When you’re locked up, a lot of people turn to Islam because it’s a way to survive and avoid getting beaten up by other convicts,” said Ayyub Alamin, one of the center’s founders. “But that’s easy because you’re practicing Islam in isolation. It’s when you get out when the real struggle begins.”
Imam Zakaria is an imam at the mosque and a Muslim chaplain in the state’s correctional facilities. He said one of the ongoing issues for the mosque here is reaching out to ex-cons who begin slipping back into their old habits after they get out of prison.
“I’ll see a brother at the Da’wa Center and a week later I’ll see him locked up again inside one of the prisons,” he said as he shakes his head.
What I like about the Da’wa Center is there are very few people who simply come here to worship. Each of them are plugged into the community trying to better the people around them. A man named Hashim chats with me at length about this subject and how we as Muslims have been neglecting the social service aspect of our religion.
“We spend so much time taking care of minarets and domes on our mosques that we don’t take care of our people on the streets,” he said.
The Da’wa Center’s roots go back to the 1980s when a few Muslims set up an Islamic hotline that anyone could call for answers about Islam. One guy running a grocery store set up a phone line at his job that people around the neighborhood could call with questions about Islam. After work, the calls would be forwarded to his home, sort of like a 24 hour Islamic hotline. In the mid 1990s, the actual Da’wa Center was established and has been growing ever since.
Sheikh Kaleem says he has to run to lead prayer at another mosque. Before he leaves, he puts his hand on my shoulder and asks me to look around the room as everyone was eating dinner.
“What a beautiful community,” he said. “You can just sense the beauty by just walking by these people.”
Sheikh Kaleem grabs his robe and walking stick and gives me his salams. I hand him a 30 Mosques business card and he rubs his fingers over it and smiles.
“I sense there’s something really special about you,” he said as he put the card in his shirt pocket.
I want to ask him what he meant by that, but at this point, he already walked away. I don’t know when will be the next time I’ll see him but that’s only a temporary inconvenience to me. I have a feeling we’ll cross paths sooner rather than later