Day 26: Illinois, Hanging out with Shi’as in Chicago

By Aman Ali | 65 Comments »

Note: This post is talking about Sunnis and Shi’as, so before you comment on this post, remember the wise teachings of Mary J. Blige: “We don’t need no haters, just try to love one another.”

When I was 10 years old, I asked my dad what was the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.

“Shi’as are much better looking than us,” he said.

Until college, I had little or no encounter with Shi’a Muslims growing up let alone did I know anything about what they believe in. So any opportunity I get to hang out with them, I jump on because they’re a vital community to talk about as we highlight Muslim communities across the country.

There are roughly ten thousand Shi’as that live in the Chicago area and 3-4 mosques. They have a few cool Islamic schools in Chicago too, and I can’t wait to perform standup for one of them on Oct. 10.

For our 30 Mosques trip, we checked out BaitUl Ilm, a funeral home converted into a Shi’a mosque in a quiet Chicago suburb. It’s a temporary place for the worshippers here – next door is their simple yet ravishingly designed mosque that they hope to finish construction on by next year.

What’s cool about BaitUl Ilm is how plugged in they are with the rest of the Chicago Muslim community. The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago is a huge local umbrella organization of different mosques and Muslim groups. BaitUl Ilm is the only Shi’a member of it. The mosque also regularly sends its imams to Sunni mosques for talks and leading prayers and Sunnis do the same.

“Not only should we be learning how to maintain our Shi’a identity, but we should be doing so while living in harmony with the other members of the Muslim community here,” said Imam Sulayman, one of the religious leaders here at the mosque.

The imam wore the black turban and robe designated for Shi’a clerics. He’s a youthful guy who greets me with a soothing tenor tone. I broke my fast with him among the other congregants in the mosque and took note of a cultural display on the wall that the mosque made to pay respect to some of the most revered leaders in Shi’a Islam.

Afterwards I chatted with the Imam and other congregants on a wide variety of subjects. I think even though Shi’as and Sunnis may have different approaches to practicing Islam, we sometimes fail to realize we face similar socio-political issues just living in this country. With all the talk about the opposition to mosques in New York City, Murfreesboro, Tennessee and even Sheboygan, Wisconsin taking up my attention, I knew little about a nearby Shi’a mosque here in Chicago that is having issues too.

The Imam is well versed in American history and said what worries him is the direction religious discourse is headed in this country. He compared presidential candidate speeches given by John F. Kennedy Jr., a Catholic, in the 1960s and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, during the past election cycle. Both candidates were scrutinized for their faith because the American electorate traditionally elected Christian Protestant leaders

Kennedy dealt with the issue by dismissing the concerns and saying his faith had nothing to do with how he’d govern (“I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic”). Romney, on the other hand, had to go on the defensive and basically explain his belief system to the public (“What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history.”)

That’s what’s happening to us Muslims, Sunni or not. Our mosque projects are getting protested and our leaders are under intense scrutiny and forced to explain random out-of-context statements made years, if not decades ago. So rather than trying to wedge ourselves on the differences between Sunnis and Shi’as, we Muslims need to be there for each other. Like I said before, there are only 6-7 million of us in this country and we don’t have the luxury of dividing ourselves.

The imam said what we Sunnis and Shi’as should be doing is promoting a more pluralistic Muslim community, instead of arguing and trying to convert each other. He compared the type of Muslim community he’d like to live in to all the awesome halal food restaurants we have in New York (he must know how to get my attention, hehehe).

“You not only have halal Arab or halal Indian food, but you also have halal Thai, Chinese and Mexican food,” he said. “And then when you travel somewhere else that doesn’t have it, you begin to crave the choice from all those types of food, even if you don’t like eating all of them. Similarly, I’d rather be living in a Muslim community where Sunnis, Shi’as, Sufis, Salafis and other groups are living among one another.”

All that talk with the Imam made me hungry… for hanging out with people like him more often.

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  1. September 7th, 2010 | H Naderi says:

    excellent post. man you guys continue to amaze me during the course of this trip. Allah give you both towfique

  2. September 7th, 2010 | Grayson says:

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Great post…of course I am biased as I couldn’t agree with you more.

    As a small minority that is facing an increasing amount of scrutiny and targets of political and physical attacks, we certainly should stick together and not import division to our communities here. The Quran talks about the beauty of diversity so that we may know ourselves.

    God willing we stand together.



    P.S. Glad you guys are still on the road…really enjoying seeing the adventure unfold. Eid Mubarak !

  3. September 7th, 2010 | shireen says:

    Great post! Thanks for coming out to our humble little mosque/converted funeral home ha. Moulana Sulayman Abidi has been a really great asset to our community – outside of being a American history nerd – he was raised in America, so I think he has a unique understanding of being a Muslim youth in America, especially during these times. I’m really glad him and our mosque are getting some positive attention through your project =] Keep up the good work, looking forward to your Dearborn trip visiting the largest mosque in North America, which happens also to be Shia. As Imam Khomeini said, “Those who wish to sow disunity between Shias and Sunnis are neither Shia nor Sunni.”


  4. September 7th, 2010 | Hina says:

    good job Aman! i like how you did this piece and all the little plugs everywhere. my favorite is the line in the beginning, the quote from your dad! he is hilarious! cant wait to see you again on 10.10.10!

  5. September 7th, 2010 | Salaam says:

    True that, you should hit up an Ahmadi Muslim mosque too

  6. September 7th, 2010 | Mazaher Chagani says:

    Great Post…Great initiative….im sure you enjoying your trip so far!! the variety of food must be amazing LOL

    its true that rather than pointing out our differences, how about focusing on our similarities and making sure our differences don’t offend each other. Yes everyone has the right to follow whichever faith they find appropriate at the same time everyone has the right to be respected for his choice.

    United we stand..Divided we fall…time and again we have seen this statement repeat itself in various different forms…its about time we actually took its advice!!!

    good work…havent had time to read through all your post but look forward to reading them all


  7. September 7th, 2010 | Sven Olson says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed your pictures and narrative. I am familiar with the Ross, ND area and enjoyed that in particular. Thank you and peace be with you.

    .. from a Lutheran who married a wonderful Catholic girl ..

  8. September 7th, 2010 | Rashed says:

    I’d just like to point out that not all Shi’ite clerics get to wear black turbans (as you state above), but only the sayyids (descendants of the Prophet, pbuh) among them.

  9. September 7th, 2010 | achmed says:

    That’s interesting. Is there any specific reason for that?

  10. September 7th, 2010 | Amena Khan says:

    I like how you stated that we don’t have the luxury of dividing ourselves up. I also like how you started the post by dismissing the thought of hate comments. Nice.:D. Good photographs. I have to admit, when I see our religion being practiced with even the slightest difference (than how I do it), I feel uncomfortable, so I stay out of it.

  11. September 7th, 2010 | MJ says:

    Again, another great post. I notice that you referred to the leader of the mosque as an “imam.” I know that the term “imam” has a different context in Shia interpretation. Does the “imam” of the mosque refer to himself as such for the ease of the greater Sunni community, or is that the term that you guys using for the ease of the population reading your posts? Just curious. May Allah bless you on the rest of your journeys. I really love this blog.

  12. September 7th, 2010 | Cherine says:

    ASA Guys,
    Eid Mubarak to you both! I thought what you did was very coo-el. And if I had known my deen better in my younger days this would really have been the thing to do. You guys really put a smile on my face and I hope my sons, Zakariya and Issa, take their mother’s gypsy spirit and does something similar whether here or abroad. Much love to you guys from Detroit. Stay safe.

    Wa Salaam,

  13. September 7th, 2010 | mariam says:

    very nice pictures!
    loved wise teachings of Mary J. Blige.
    have a happy Eid inshaallah : )

  14. September 7th, 2010 | shireen says:

    He refers to himself as Moulana. It’s just another cultural form of religious personality or someone learned of Islam. I’ve seen it used mostly within the Southeast Asian, Iranian, or Afghani community.

  15. September 7th, 2010 | Tasneem says:

    Assalamu’alaikum wrwbth,
    Another great post! Thank you for visiting a ‘different’ mosque and allowing the rest of us a peek into a regular happening there. You are quite succeeding in the art of blending ‘us’ and ‘them’ into a healthy dose of ‘humanity.’ May Allah bless your Ramadhan journey, and for allowing us to tag along.
    With lots and lots of du’as for you….

  16. September 7th, 2010 | Amir Shiva says:

    Eid Mubarak.

    This was mushaallah very nice project. May Allah reward you for bringing Muslims together.


  17. September 8th, 2010 | Naseer says:

    Salaams Aman,

    I was very interested to see your blog entry about the Sh’ia mosque, since of course you had to forego stopping at Islamic Foundation. I grew up next door to a Sh’ia family in Hyderabad and I still call the sons “bhai’s” since they were like older brothers to me.

    While there are ideological differences, the point is you don’t have to become them to be with them. In relation to the world at large, Sh’ia communities are much closer to us than other religions, and people of Abrahamic religions are closer than other religions, and people of faith are generally closer than those without belief in a higher entity. It seems that if we look for commonality, we can enjoy community. (Of course, there is a stopping point somewhere…)

    I was thinking you’d observe more of the various intricate rituals, such as the karbala rocks, green sajda areas, etc. The Sh’ias have a lot closer connection to their origin stories of the martyrs, etc.


  18. September 8th, 2010 | Mohammad says:

    Why do you assume that by exploiting “intricate” Shi’a rituals you will portray a the proper message?

  19. September 8th, 2010 | Mohammad says:

    The Sayeed bloodline is the purest bloodline due to their direct relationship with Mohammad s.a.w

  20. September 8th, 2010 | Akhtar says:

    My Shi’a friend explains that rituals play an important role to keep unity and creates a forum to propagate the teachings of Imam Ali. They indulge in acts of grief to strengthen their spiritual connection with Allah and protest against the all acts of injustice by remembering the “scarifies” that Husain ibn Ali made in Karbala.

  21. September 8th, 2010 | Ahlam says:

    Is this is my old roommate Shireen? :) If you really wanna see unity manifest, try sharing an apartment :) Miss the good ole days.

  22. September 8th, 2010 | Tabriz says:

    I second that. I think this will help inform the world that Sh’iites and Sunni are openly looking to embrace unity.

  23. September 8th, 2010 | Ayesha says:

    I would like to commend you both on this blog. I am a south African muslim of Indian descent & after reading your posts realized just how secluded my life was. For the most part my community is made up of 99% Indians so reading about the various communities was truly enlightening .

  24. September 8th, 2010 | Aisha says:

    I too love my shia brothers and sisters! I grew up in Pakistan where our closest neighbours were shias and I swear to God, I didn’t even know we were any different until I was in tenth grade and my neighbour was studying for a different Islamic studies exam then I was. So, I was like “Hussain let me see your book maybe its easier than mine and I can get out of taking my version.” Believe me his version was no differnt or less difficult than mine. So, the moral of the story is One Allah, One Quran, One Islam! Peace!

  25. September 8th, 2010 | Syed Ali Rizvi says:

    Mashallah very nice post!! Just wanted to clarify a comment from the brother above..

    [a forum to propagate the teaching of Imam Ali]

    -Although there is nothing explicitly invalid with this statement, it does seems to imply “the teachings of Imam Ali” were something novel or distinct from the Sunnahat of the Prophet. A cursory glance at any authoritative source of hadith (Sunni or Shia) will categorically find just the opposite to be true. In fact, Imam Ali was a source of guidance to the first 3 caliphs on fiqh matters on which they could not determine.

  26. September 8th, 2010 | ellen says:

    MashaAllah brothers, this was a really beautiful post. As a Shi’a muslim celebrating Eid alone this year (sadly hubster is in his home country) and living 2 hours from the nearest Shi’a mosque, looking at the pictures was like being at home for a while. Thank you :) And I agree about unity. I have spent the entire Ramadhan this year praying in Sunni congregations and while I do stick out a bit with my turbah, I feel no less connection between us all especially in this beautiful month alhamdulillah.

  27. September 8th, 2010 | Dilawar Ali Khan says:

    Very interesting and intelligent post.
    All of us Muslims,(regardless of our individual believes)must unite on one Muslim platform and keep all our personal skeletons locked up in our closets at home.
    Must realize one thing that the only people in the world are living in unsafe conditions are Muslims in their own countries, and must ask ourselves why is that?
    We always forget the teachings of “Quran” where Allah(SWT) say about staying united and not to brake ourselves in groups.
    May Allah give us the wisdom and the strength to stay united as one Muslim nation,and make us able to forgive each other,and accept each other only as one Muslim. Amine
    May Allah Bless you guys, and this Ramadan following you guys on the road trip across the nation have made me feel like a part of a very big Muslim family, and hope every one of us feel the same.We are the lucky one to have this brother hood bond through our religion not any body else have this privilege,and may Allah(SWT) able us to use this bond to improve our lives.Amine.

  28. September 8th, 2010 | Ayesha Ahmed says:

    Aaww….you had to bypass Mosque Muryum:) Great topic though. How about you “up it a notch” and stop at an Ahmadiyya mosque? Or, another notch, and an Ismaili Jamaat Khana?

  29. September 8th, 2010 | Ayesha Ahmed says:

    How about a whole section on: What your parents told you about Shias.

    I’m sure we would uncover a whole lot of “interesting” thoughts.

  30. September 8th, 2010 | Mohammad says:

    last line was amazing…almost epic I’d say.

  31. September 8th, 2010 | Anonymous says:

    Most people are afraid of the unknown. When you see Islam being practiced not exactly the way you do, ASK QUESTIONS (in a respectful way) and don’t close your mind. If that practice can be explained with Quran and Sunnah, it should be respected. Sunni may practice Islam as taught through the Companions where as Shia practice Islam as taught through the Prophet’s(salawat) family. We are all still brothers and ONE UMMAH.

  32. September 8th, 2010 | Mikaeel says:

    Here’s one thing I say to Muslims regarding Sunni Shia relations…Picture yourself on the bad side of the city, in a dark alley, with a group of thugs about to rob, beat and possibly kill you. Suddenly you hear the words;”AS SALAAMU ALAIKUM” and feel a brother at your back or beside you. Is your first thought, “Al Hamdulillah, Allah has sent me help” or “Are you Sunni or Shia?”

  33. September 8th, 2010 | shireen says:

    No, I think you’re thinking of ShEreen…

  34. September 9th, 2010 | Fatimah says:

    I’m happy to read (in the post and comments) about Muslims going beyond our perceived differences and more towards our commonalities, which in this case, are social struggles and love for Allah. Let us continue to move forward!

  35. September 9th, 2010 | Asad says:

    I’m upset that you guys didn’t let me know you were going to the masjid that my parents most regularly frequent! I needed to be there, with you!

  36. September 9th, 2010 | Shahryar says:

    Nice, my Nikkah with my wife was done in this masjid. And a few months back, Maulana Sulayman conducted my wife’s brother’s nikkah.

    Also, don’t forget about the other masjid you visited ( http:// back in Spring 2008 to do stand-up. That’s my home masjid that I frequent.

  37. September 9th, 2010 | achmed says:

    I mean why black. Was this practiced by the Prophet SAW or Imam Ali or their immediate descendants? No hate intended, just a little curious.

  38. September 9th, 2010 | Emma says:

    Bangladeshis use the term “maulana” as well.

  39. September 9th, 2010 | Anonymous says:

    “In relation to the world at large, Sh’ia communities are much closer to us than other religions…”

    Confusing comment, as the Shi’a are a school (or sect) that fall under the Islamic religion.

  40. September 11th, 2010 | Abbas says:

    Salaam. I really enjoyed this post. There is so much diversity and vibrance in the Muslim world, and from your blog I can see that America brings it all together! Unity and Peace!

  41. September 11th, 2010 | Zeeshan(india) says:

    Shia”s and Ahmadi”s they are not muslims.

    and Please for Gawd Sake . dnt compare them with us

  42. September 11th, 2010 | H W DATOO says:

    Wondeerful posts….I enjoyed your blg…
    With this spirit we shall move forwrad…


  43. September 11th, 2010 | Rick Sanchez says:

    Love your story, love the idea. It’s a great teaching too. Good luck…Peace to all and do it again next year!

  44. September 12th, 2010 | fatima hemyari says:

    MashaAllah :)

  45. September 12th, 2010 | Ali says:

    Mashallah very nice Guys, good job. I am jealous for this is something I truly love to do. next year instead of cross country, how bout cross continents and maybe blog about how people in different countries celebrate the holy month. Just a thought. I ask Allah swt to give you both the power and ability to continue your journey of sharing to the world who we truly are, we are people of peace and love for one another. And i pray that Allah grants you the return home safe. just to answer a question from above..”why do they wear black turban” … the clerics who wear the black turban have a direct linage to the holy Prophet pbuh. meaning that they trace their roots right back to him, blood related. and the ones who wear white do not. We call the ones who wear black ” Sayed” and the one who wears the white turban “Sheik”. There is no difference between the two when it comes to the knowledge and leadership they hold.

  46. September 12th, 2010 | Mike S. says:

    I think the question regarding “why do they wear a black turban” was more about the reason for the choice of black versus a different colour.

    For example, is it because the holy Prophet pbuh wore a turban of that colour?

    Just curious. :-)

    I’ve enjoyed reading about the journey. I can’t wait to see if you guys cross the border and visit various mosques across Canada. Maybe even meet the cast and crew of CBC’s “Little Mosque on the Prairie”

  47. September 13th, 2010 | ShEreen says:

    Yea Ahlam, that’s another Shireen who spells her name wrong :P .And yea those were the good old day.

    I know some of you may disagree, but I think sometimes we get so caught up in the idea that it somehow promotes disunity if we talk about being Sunni and Shi’a, but we fail to realize that we HAVE to confront this issue and aknowledge that these differences do exist. Reason being, at the very least, Sunni and Shi’a communities exist, and to deny the ability to call or identify oneself as Sunni or Shi’a can simply deny that entire community resources, and opportunities for growth.

    I agree with Moulana Sulayman in that we can be a much more productive Muslim community as a whole if we acknowlege and respect one another, and unitedly (idk if that’s a word) work to protect one another’s rights. The spirit of unity lies in our ability to work with one another by respecting and honoring one another through the acknowledgment of our differences, and striving to learn more about one another. Both parties (Sunni and Shi’a) can be guilty of this.

    Those who know me know I’m pretty passionate on the subject, so I’m very grateful that BUI was included in this segment and that this blog has reached so many people. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  48. September 14th, 2010 | jahanzaib says:

    very right… i love the spirit you have….

  49. September 16th, 2010 | Nadeem says:

    The way your father handled the differences between shias and sunnis, shows what a wise and decent man he is. You are very lucky to have such a person as your father.

  50. September 25th, 2010 | husain says:

    Hi(salam alaykom) Dear Brother
    I think that today more than any time in past
    we need UNITY both sunni and shia brothers and sisters, all of us are muslim.

  51. September 28th, 2010 | thy bilet fiyatları says:

    Ne güzel bir gezi yapmışsınız tebrik ederim doğrusu keşke doğru düzgün ingilizcem olsada türkceye çevirebilsem bu yazdıklarınızıda ülkemizde yayınlasam turkey

  52. October 5th, 2010 | Haider Alvi says:

    Indeed this was a great inspiration for all muslims
    round the globe. Allama Iqbal put it this way.”Muslimhein ham watan hein sara jahan hamara”.
    Quran narrates it this way “kuntum khairin ummatin ukhrijat lin,naas” Message is for all mankind. Love all and respect all.

  53. October 6th, 2010 | Zeeshan(india) says:

    Love all respect all, Treat them nicely,

    but cant say they are muslims and good muslims than us!~

  54. October 18th, 2010 | Ali says:

    This article did nothing to explain the difference between Sunni’s and Shia’s.

    I wish the article talked more of the difference to help promote the unity we need.Ahmadi’s are not muslim, maybe that should have also been explained.

    The article spent more time promoting the mosque, which i think is great, but should have utilized the oppurtunity to explain the difference. you would have gotten more useful mileage out of this blog post.

  55. May 12th, 2013 | hadari says:

    Could anyone point me in the direction of a good Shia mosque .in. Chicago? I am a new Muslim convert looking to follow the path of Shia. My email is . salaam.

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  57. 30 Mosques » Blog Archive » Day 26: Illinois, Hanging out with Shi’as in Chicago

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  60. May 27th, 2015 | John says:

    Unity between Shia and us is a must. they are muslims like us.

  61. May 28th, 2015 | Naveed says:

    Salam ,

    Dear sit , I want to ask some question about stay us, Chicago
    My full name syed Muhammad Naveed from Pakistan. Now I m in Saudi Arabia
    I m working last last 1& years as system /network eng.
    But now company not renew my contract to next year
    Because I m shuts. So I need to out here
    I have U.S. visa B1/B2
    I want come there and stay there.
    So how to I legal there.

    I am waiting ur respond

  62. October 22nd, 2015 | Hamza Ha says:

    Wow you went to this mosque? This is the mosque i go to sunday school at! I know every room of the picture and alot of people in those pictures!!

  63. October 23rd, 2015 | Graciela says:

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  64. September 24th, 2016 | Arline says:

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