An Islamic Scholar’s Balancing Act

Junaid Jafar, a Bangladeshi American, has had an Islamic education. Only recently has he decided to pursue an additional degree in computer science. For him, success lies in striking a balance between the two seemingly incompatible disciplines.

Junaid Jafar, son of the Al-Mamoor Mosque's imam, getting some some fresh air outside the mosque in Queens, New York, on Sept. 27, 2015.

Junaid Jafar, son of the Al-Mamoor Mosque’s imam, getting some fresh air outside the mosque in Queens, New York, on Sept. 27, 2015.

A young Islamic scholar from Bangladesh walked out of an ornate mosque in Jamaica, Queens. It was just after Sunday noon prayers. Wearing a light purple gown that extended all the way to his feet, with black sneakers, Junaid Jafar approached his friends waiting in the courtyard. They had a lot to discuss. A community youth meeting was fast approaching.

The Muslim community in the United States is young. Pew Research Center estimates that 44% of Muslim Americans are between the ages of 18 and 29. 21-year-old Junaid Jafar’s story may shed light on an isolated and often misunderstood part of New York City’s population.

Jafar was born at his grandmother’s house in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Three years later he immigrated to the United States. His father had arrived in New York years before his family to help establish a mosque in Queens. “My father was the imam of the Jamaica Muslim Center from the beginning,” Junaid Jafar says.

At the beginning, Jafar’s father ran the Muslim Center from a garage. In 1996, it was moved to its current location on 168th Street. However, the twin minarets that make the Center a Jamaica landmark today did not exist then, and the building was half the size. The Jafars lived on the top floor of a house adjacent to the Muslim Center.

Junaid Jafar attended the Quranic school that met at the Center. He was in class during the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001. “I was still too young to process what was going on,” Jafar said. However, the video showing the airplanes fly into the World Trade Center terrified him instinctively.

What terrified him even more was the change in people’s attitude. “People started hating Muslims and they started looking at us in a different way,” Jafar says. There was usually a police car waiting in front of the Muslim Center, to protect the Muslim community. Jafar’s mother also became more protective. She would not let his son play at the park anymore.

14 years have passed since 9/11. Junaid Jafar had plenty of time to analyze what had happened. Muslims have some legitimate complaints about the Western world, he says, and adds, “ISIS was the result of the Iraq War.” He blames American foreign policy towards Iraq for creating an environment that is conducive to terrorism.

Junaid Jafar lifts his hands up to Allah the Creator, inside the Al-Mamoor Mosque in Jamaica, Queens, on Sept. 27, 2015.

Junaid Jafar lifts his hands up to Allah the Creator, inside the Al-Mamoor Mosque in Jamaica, Queens, on Sept. 27, 2015.

Jafar stresses that he is against terrorism. “I definitely do not agree with the stance these extremist groups are taking, because that is not what Islam teaches us,” he says. He believes that Muslims should unite and protect their rights peacefully.

In 2011, Cairo was a stage for revolution. As a student of Islamic studies in the Egyptian capital, Junaid Jafar was not going to be able to witness the peaceful unification he was hoping for. Thousands of protesters had filled the streets of the capital and forced Hosni Mubarak, the nation’s dictator for three decades, to resign. The result was violent chaos, as well as a glimmer of hope for democracy.

Schools were closed. Junaid Jafar was stuck in an apartment with his friends. “It was chaotic, but when we were there, we were playing Playstation,” he says. However, he was not out of harm’s way. “Most of our neighbors were downstairs in the lobby with big knives just to prevent thieves or anything from coming in.”

Junaid Jafar completed his studies in Egypt and returned to Jamaica, Queens in 2014. During the decade that he spent in Egypt, Jamaica Muslim Center had changed. The twin prayer towers had been erected and the community had grown. What mattered to him the most was to be beneficial to his community.

Jafar says he would like to excel as an Islamic scholar. However, this is not his sole aspiration. He is studying computer science at a community college. “My main focus is to work at a good firm and also to try to help out my community. I want to keep my Islamic side intact,” he says.

Jafar smiles during a youth meeting at the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, New York. The meeting on Sept. 27, 2015, was frequently interrupted by laughter.

Jafar smiles during a youth meeting at the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, New York. The meeting on Sept. 27, 2015, was frequently interrupted by laughter.

Waiting for the community youth meeting to start, Junaid Jafar reflected on his past and future, as he sat on a colorful prayer mat inside the mosque. His friend Rehat Mannan, youth director of the Jamaica Muslim Center, interrupted him. The meeting had begun. Jafar got up and took his seat in one of the mosque’s classrooms. He says he is determined to occupy that seat even after he becomes a sought-after computer scientist.

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