How does one uphold the strict moral code of the Koran, which forbids drinking and promiscuity, in a society that seems to encourage such behavior?
About 10,000 Muslims expected to gather today for the start of a three-day meeting in Baltimore will wrestle with that question, particularly as it relates to their children, a generation born in the United States but with feet in two cultures.
The 25th national convention of the Islamic Circle of North America, the continent's second-largest grass-roots Muslim organization, continues through Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center.
"This convention is an international gathering, which brings scholars from all over the Islamic world and draws participants from all over America and Canada," said Zulfiqar A. Shah, vice president of the Islamic Circle and chairman of the convention program. Speakers are coming from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and India, and delegates are coming from as far as England and Japan. There will be separate sessions for women and youths.
The convocation will open this afternoon with prayers led by Imam Sheikh Hussen al-Sheikh, the grand priest of Medina, Saudi Arabia, Islam's second holiest shrine. Most of the sessions will be conducted in English, although some meetings will be in Arabic, Urdu and Bengla.
Islamic scholars say the convention's theme, "Moral Dimensions of Islam," is inspired by fears of immigrant Muslim parents that they might be losing their children to the lures of a permissive American culture.
Zahid H. Bukhari, a fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, said that many immigrant Muslims are doctors and engineers who began arriving in this country following modifications to immigration law in 1965. Over the years, their energies went to building mosques and Islamic schools.
Now, he said, the Muslim community (there are an estimated 5 million Muslims nationwide)is going through a transition.
Sulayman Nyang, a Howard University professor specializing in Islamic studies, says the community is facing the reality of what he calls "the myth of return."
"They have this idea they will be going back home," he said. "But as I remind them all the time, that's a myth; they're never going back. If they would just listen to the accent of their children, they will get the point."
In facing that reality, Bukhari said, the immigrant generation has turned its concerns to preserving its faith - and culture.
"They have established institutions. Now, they are confident they are here, and they want to make some contribution to the society," said Bukhari, who with Nyang is co-directing a three-year study of the American Muslim community. "Their primary concern is the second generation, how to educate them in this environment."
Moral concerns focus on three areas. "The parents are very concerned about kids getting into alcohol, which is haram (prohibited by the Koran) for Muslims," Nyang said. "They're concerned about them getting into promiscuity. And they're very much afraid kids might be affected by gay culture. Those are the three cardinal sins they want their kids to be sheltered from."
"Freedom is a double-edged sword," said Maqbool Patel, president of the Islamic Society of Baltimore and the father of six. "You have to be careful how you use it. There's no doubt American society today is most convenient in terms of people being able to say what they want to say. But it can be detrimental. ... It could affect the family structure in the long run."
Aasil Ahmad, 21, a former president of Georgetown University's Muslim Student Association, advises the first generation to relax - his peers have become proficient at navigating in both worlds.
"Being born in America, I'm much more understanding of the American perspective of things," he said. Instead of recoiling from American culture, Ahmad said, many in his generation are seeking to engage it with the moral and religious principles they learned from their parents.
A central message of this weekend's convention will be that if parents want to pass their religious heritage to their children, they must teach by example.
"If you want to make your children good Muslims, first the parents have to be good Muslims," Bukhari said.