The Quba project adds a Muslim school and masjid, or place of worship, to the mix, focusing on the spoken word of the Qur’an, which, to an outsider, possesses many musical qualities.

In Hearing the Qur’an, religion scholar Michael Sells writes: “The sound of Qur’anic recitation can move people to tears,” noting that recordings of accomplished reciters are popular sellers in the music stores of major Muslim cities.

Quba’s own founder, the late Sheikh Nafea Muhaimin, was an electrician and jazz saxophonist who was drawn to Islam by the sounds of the Qur’an recited by his Muslim musician friends, says Saida Abdul Aziz, the administrative-services coordinator at Quba overseeing the exchange with Muller’s class. “He said, ‘This sounds like music to me, and I want to know about this music.’” To learn more, he came to a community in Philadelphia called the International Muslim Brotherhood (IMB), which had been created in 1949 to support the practices of Sunni Muslims living in an urban setting. “We were friends later in his life, and he said to me, ‘Saida, one day I was standing in the front of the line with my finger up [and testifying] that there is no God but Allah, and I was thinking, How did I get here? I was outside trying to learn to be a musician better. And he laughed and said, ‘All of a sudden, I realized I was in front of the whole congregation. I was the imam.’”

Under his leadership, the IMB opened a weekend school, the Quba Institute for Advanced Studies, in 1973. (It was the precursor for several other programs, including the full-time day school that opened in 1992.) But Sheikh Nafea Muhaimin felt that he couldn’t be a good imam without immersing himself in the Arabic language. He moved with his wife and children to Medina, Saudi Arabia, for additional studies.

It was a challenging time for his oldest son, Anwar, who was pushed back from sixth grade to first grade, where he was teased and called names. But Anwar quickly advanced, memorizing the entire Qur’an by age 15 and graduating first in his high school before earning the title of sheikh at the Islamic University of Medina.

Today, Sheikh Anwar Muhaimin is CEO and Imam Mufti of the IMB and its subsidiaries. His brother, Anas Muhaimin, is also an imam there, as well as the organization’s chief financial officer.


John Meyers (left) and Ibrahim Muhaimin collaborated on a project about Quba’s founder (and Ibrahim’s grandfather) Sheikh Nafea Muhaimin and his family.

When a scholar enters any community to do research, certain issues have to be negotiated, and when that community is a place of worship, there can be some “tricky moments,” Carol Muller says. (Her class would later experience a few with Quba.) Where do you put the microphone, for example, when a congregant is giving a spirit-filled testimony? How does a non-believer respond when asked to join in prayer? Even Muller—whose own father was a Presbyterian minister—experienced a moment of discomfort during one gospel-music project when everyone was asked to hold hands at a church gathering. “I was next to a male student and said, ‘Don’t you ever accuse me of sexual harassment!’”

Before beginning their research at Quba, Muller and her students posed questions about the community’s expectations of them. Among other things, they learned that they didn’t have to dress differently to attend prayer services there, and that it was all right for them to film people in the school. “We had a whole lot of assumptions, and not one of them was correct,” she says.

“We want people to be modest in their appearance, so they fit in, but covering makes people feel you’re something you’re not,” explains Abdul Aziz. “And you shouldn’t have to do that. It’s not your religion.”

Abdul Aziz has lived all over, from the Pine Barrens to Egypt; as someone who has dealt with a wide array of people, she knows how to read intentions. That comes in handy when she’s trying to discern the motivations of parents who want to send their children to Quba. If they expect to avoid academic rigor, they’ve come to the wrong place, she tells them.

Abdul Aziz also wanted to make sure that Muller’s motivations were sincere, so she asked her to commit to a three-year partnership with the school. “The children that you start with in eighth grade, I want them to believe that by the time they get to 11th grade and have to apply to colleges, that they can actually go to Penn,” she told her. “And they won’t do that if you come for one year and then leave.”

Her forthright manner underscores the unusual position she holds as a woman at a Muslim institution. “I sit in the imams’ office as an equal partner with the imams in the decisions and programs that are developed for this masjid,” she says. “Our imam believes that God made men and women for a reason, and they don’t think alike and they don’t approach things alike. It provides balance. And without [women] in every place listening and having a voice, you’ve lost half your brain power.” (“Some-times it becomes kind of heated,” she adds. “Because I don’t see things like them.”)

“We want our children to learn the value of diversity in gender, in race and culture, in thought and educational level. It’s variety that will make you a much more productive human being and your organization a much more productive organization.” Today’s students will “have to compete on a world scale with people who have languages and history and culture that extend way beyond theirs,” she says. “They’re going to have to learn to compete and get along with people who don’t look at things the way they do.”

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Music Lessons By Susan Frith

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/10/06