Faces of Hawai‘i’s Islam

Islam in Hawaii
Image by John Hook

There is a house in Mānoa Valley that doubles as the only mosque in all of Hawai‘i. Meet four of its members.

There is a house in Mānoa Valley that doubles as the only mosque in all of Hawai‘i. A few thousand Muslims are members, part of the .05 percent of Hawai‘i’s population that declare Islam as their religion. The Mānoa Mosque is a hub for both Muslims and immigrants alike. Malaysians, Palestinians, Egyptians, Moroccans, Indians, local residents of Hawai‘i, people from all over the globe, gather together to worship under the same roof, despite having adapted Islam to their lives differently in accordance to their individual cultures. They are a people who have been hurt by the portrayal of the media—often a uniform sensationalizing—and by those who seek to harm them because of their religion and race, yet they all agree that Hawai‘i has been a welcoming harbor. The portraits featured here introduce but a few Islamic faces who have made Hawai‘i their home.


Nighat Quadri (pictured center, in pink, with her family)
Occupation: Department of Health, health educator
Emigrated from: Karachi, Pakistan
Languages: Urdu, Bengali, English

On Pakistan:
I went to college over there and worked at a hospital. I never felt scared going out or anything. I always felt secure. But the law and order is more problematic now than it was at that time. I tend to wear gold all the time. I wear it over here also. And the same was in Pakistan. I would go to work, go shop, do whatever I wanted. Never felt like somebody would mug me or anything. But now, when I go there, this is the first thing that I take off. You are not supposed to go outside with any kind of special gold or anything flashy, like designer purses. Then people tend to get attracted, and you get mugged. Those are the kinds of things that have changed [from] when I was there as a Pakistani back in the 1990s.

On Emigrating:
We moved from Pakistan to Connecticut in 1997. We came because we got an immigration visa. [America has] a lottery program for some of the countries, and Pakistan was one of the countries. My husband won their lottery for immigration to America, so we came. It’s a better life, I guess. I wanted my kids to have more opportunities. It was not like I didn’t have a good job. Me and my husband had good jobs. We had a comfortable life over there. In the beginning, of course, I was very homesick. But in my mind, I left my country, I left my parents, my mom, and my family over there. So I’m going to try to make it work. That’s why me and my husband went back to college to get a master’s degree in public health. It was hard with three kids. But I made my mind that I’m going to make it work. It did work out in the end.

On Hawai‘i:
I practice my religion freely. I go to my mosque. I wear whatever I want to wear. In many countries, we don’t have that kind of freedom. In general, America is very tolerant, but after 9/11—I was in Connecticut when that happened—there was a lot of being uncomfortable. When we moved to Hawai‘i, my goodness, it was like going back to home. Hawai‘i is very much like Karachi, which is a seaport. But also, the people over here are so welcoming in general. People are so much more welcoming. I felt the spirit of aloha right away.


Azad Abdeljawad
Occupation: Entrepreneur, grocery store owner
Emigrated from: Deir Dibwan, Palestine
Languages: Arabic, English

On Palestine:
The [Israeli] occupation is still present in the West Bank, unfortunately. Recently, a lot of killings have been happening, a lot of kids have been dying, getting killed, and the situation’s getting worse. In this day and age, the people in power can’t come to any agreements. My mom’s side is pretty war-torn. It hasn’t been warfare, it’s just psychologically and economically. It hasn’t been a lot of guns and bullets, but it’s different ways, and maybe worse. Maybe if you kill a person, it’s better—they don’t have to live through it. When you cut the food away from them, you raise the prices, you limit their freedom, you live like a chicken in a cage. You can’t go anywhere. There’s some places where there are land mines all over the place. There are signs [that say] if you step over here, you might blow up.

On Emigrating:
I came [to Hawai‘i] in 1997, when I was 5, [with my parents and sisters]. The occupation was getting worse. It’s to the point where if you can come to America, you might as well just come. Now [at 22] I own this grocery store [in Kalihi]. It’s like the American dream, you know? I’m just fortunate because Hawai‘i’s a really tough place to make it out. I’m just happy, I thank God for everything. [People from Palestine] are happy for me, but I can see the jealousy in their eyes.

On Hawai‘i:
Fortunately, Hawai‘i is very kind to other ethnicities, other religions, and whatnot. So I’m very happy that we don’t have to face discrimination that the Muslim communities face in other states. The Muslim community here is supportive anytime anything happens in Gaza or anywhere in Palestine. I wish we could have more mosques, that we could have more locations so we can reach out more. But the Muslim community here is really limited, so right now, the mosque we have does a good job in accommodating.


Douniya Ahmed
Occupation: Chinese and Korean language student at UH Mānoa
Emigrated from: Ali Sabieh, Djibouti
Languages: Somali, English, Chinese, and some Korean

On Djibouti:
We lived in huts, basically. It’s very rural. You’ve heard of Somalia, right? We were split from them, but we’re the same people. We speak the same language. Djibouti is a very, very poor country. We didn’t have skyscrapers. You had to be super rich to have cars. It was only the French military there that had cars. People like us just walk or take a train. It’s the second smallest in all of Africa, so it’s very community oriented. That’s why I kind of like Hawai‘i, because everyone is nice and all of the locals are pretty chill.

On Emigrating:
My dad worked for the Red Cross, and they gave him the opportunity to move to the United States. When my parents told my grandparents and uncles that we were going, they didn’t believe us. They kept saying, “We don’t believe you, we don’t believe you.” And then we left. It was pretty epic. We felt like we were in a movie. It was like the American dream. For the first year and a half, we were sent to Texas, and that was in 2001, right after 9/11. So it didn’t work out. The people were crazy. People put graffiti on my house and said terrible things. The kids and my mom moved up to Seattle, and my dad followed us afterwards. When we lived in Seattle, we actually lived in a shelter for the first year up there. Then we got on our feet. Now we have our own house in Hawai‘i. I didn’t really understand when I was younger. Now I’m older, and it’s like, wow, we were actually at the bottom.

On Hawai‘i:
Most [prejudice] is from tourists. I work at Walmart and I have some tourists, from the South or whatever, and they’ll come and demand another cashier. Or they’ll stand in line, and when they see I’m their cashier, they’ll leave. Last month I got off of work, and I was taking the bus home, and the bus driver refused to let me on his bus. That was late at night, and I had to walk home. I don’t hear about much racism towards other girls at the mosque, though. Being a black Muslim, I’m the bottom of the barrel.


Maseeh Ganjali
Occupation: Stage actor, director
Emigrated from: Tehran, Iran
Languages: Persian, English, some Arabic

On Iran:
[Iran has] a very two-dimensional portrayal in media. It’s not the Iran I know. It’s not to say that Iran’s not limited in some ways, but the complexity of it all is always missed in the media here. It’s still a young government. It’s sort of a new country with a lot of young people. Majority of the population is under 30 years old. So that means they’re figuring a lot of things out, and in that process, not everything is going to be fantastic. I miss Iran’s poetry and the performing arts. Poetry was always a part of my life, a part of our culture.

On Emigrating:
Before coming to Hawai‘i, I told myself, “Don’t have any expectations and take it all in as it is,” instead of expecting it to be a certain way or always comparing it to what you’re used to. I think coming to Hawai‘i with that mentality really helped me to adjust and to sort of accept everything. It helped me in understanding the people and the culture here. I remember I got to Hawai‘i on the 3rd of August 1997, [when I was 13], and [Kaiser High] School started the last week of August, and I didn’t speak any English. My dad dropped me off at school and was like, ‘I’ll see you at home.’ And I realized, okay, if this is going to happen, I’m going to have to do it on my own. So it took me about four months to understand what’s happening around me, and over a year to understand the conversations people were having. After about two years, I was able to engage in those conversations in a way that I’m comfortable.

On Hawai‘i:
Part of being in Hawai‘i is accepting diversity. As long as you’re okay with people and don’t cause trouble, people are friendly. I guess it’s part of that aloha spirit. But it’s a very interesting place, Hawai‘i, because we’d like to think racism doesn’t exist and prejudices are not really on people’s minds, but they are. Whether it’s towards Muslims or any other group of people. You think of other minorities that come here. They experience a lot of prejudices. So to say Hawai‘i is “all aloha and no prejudice” is not really facing reality. And I have experienced prejudice, but the times I have received love from people outnumber those bad experiences by millions to one.

This story is part of our Migration Issue.

My Cart Close (×)

Your cart is empty
Browse Shop