HOUGHTON — Best estimates suggest there are between 300 and 400 Muslims living in the Upper Peninsula. 150 of them congregate here, in Houghton Michigan.
It’s a small minority, a distinct enclave, but it’s inevitably growing. Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion. So, why settle in the Upper Peninsula? It may have to do with the shared principles of opportunity and education.
Michigan Technological University is a diverse engineering school, inviting scientists, mathematicians, and engineers from all over the world. Muslims are attracted to the school, quite possibly because of the historically embedded principles of their faith.
Ancient Islamic scholars invented the scientific process. Algebra, trigonometry, engineering, astronomy all have their roots in Islam. The first all women’s university, a madrasa was founded by Muslim women in Morocco.
That spirit of Muslim academia is alive and well here at Michigan Tech. Dr. Marwa Abdalmoneam has earned her PhD in Physics here and also served as an instructor at the university. She is a very active member of the school’s Muslim Student Association. Despite common misconceptions about the oppression of Muslim women, Dr. Marwa scoffs at the idea that women of Islam are undereducated.
“I was faced with this only when I came to America,” said Dr. Abdalmoneam. “In Egypt, we are more than fifty percent of the university students, that’s for the women. Same thing for the faculty members, especially the younger age. Above [age] 55, which are almost going to retire now, this is the only age where you have more men as faculty members for example.”
Her mother is a chemist. Her aunt was an employee in the minister of justice, another aunt is a factory worker. All the women in Abdalmoneam’s family come from various backgrounds, and span across all education levels.
Although most members of the MSA Michigan Tech group come from Africa, the Middle East, South East Asia, and beyond, assimilation is necessary.
MSA advisor Dr. Ossama Abdelkhalik is a faculty member in the Dept. of Mechanical Engineering and says raising a family here isn’t as difficult as you might think.
“If I were to raise [my children] in Egypt, it would be challenging. But, the challenges are different,” said Dr. Abdelkhalik. “There is no problem at all. As long as you can convey the message to the kids, educate them, give them at least the necessary minimum education about the religion, then they can get the information and live the life the way they choose to live it.”
Both doctors are from Egypt. Celebrating the holy month of Ramadan in a U.P. compared to home is distinctly different.
“It’s a big thing. We start preparing for Ramadan in Egypt two months before,” said Dr. Abdalmoneam.
“It’s a very small community, so the positive side of that is that everybody knows everybody,” said Dr. Abdelkhalik. “It’s like a small family together. We get together on Saturdays, we talk, and have food together. This is a positive thing about being in a small community. Also, the area here is very safe. They understand different religions. We don’t encounter any problems being Muslims here in the U.S.”
The group was founded in 1989, originally to collect donations for the purpose of building a mosque in Houghton. But, there are no mosques here. Instead they gather at the community center to pray, five times a day, and during Ramadan to break their fasts with other fellow Muslims.
In 1997, after a brief hiatus, MTU MSA came back from with a force. The group has a high reputation of being active on campus. They are engaged and committed to helping the Muslim community live their lives in the U.P. according to Islam.