On my commute to and from work, I drive by King Arthur’s castle; a pyramid, a giant lion, the Statute of Liberty and sometimes I’ll pass by the roar of dancing waterfalls rising and falling to the tunes of Frank Sinatra.
Sometimes, I’ll stop behind a taxi cab advertising the latest Cirque De Soleil show or trucks advertising other shows that leave little to the imagination.
The same cabs that take visitors around the Las Vegas Strip somehow also end up at mosques around the Las Vegas Valley.
That’s Vegas, too.
Behind the marquees are minarets. Just visit the Islamic Society of Nevada, a little more than a mile away from Boulder Station Casino.
Your immediate stop upon deplaning at McCarran Airport may be a slot machine outside your gate or it could be Masjid Al-Noor, less than a mile away from terminal three and now currently under construction to rebuild and expand.
Some may hear clinging coins falling from a slot machine into a winning hand, others hear an adhan (call to prayer) somewhere in town.
While visitors are experiencing gluttony in the form of an all-you-can-eat-buffet, at Masjid As-Sabur, located in an improvised part of town, a bag full of groceries donated by congregants and sandwiches made by Omar Haikal Islamic Academy students are being dispersed to non-Muslims and Muslims.
The four-mile stretch that’s The Strip indeed has enough sparkle for any visitor to stop and stare. If you’re a local here, your eyes gravitate to the majesty found in the mountains surrounding the Las Vegas Valley. Red Rock Canyon, about 40 minutes from The Strip, is a geographical wonderland of wildlife, fossils, hiking trails and cliffs of red rock and sandstone.
The local Muslims here will make sure it’s a stop for their families and friends to see and are reminded of Surah Rahman’s most repeated phrase: “Which of these favors of your Lord do you deny?”
That’s my Vegas. Turns out keeping the faith in Sin City is possible, and that’s a testament to the Muslims who immigrated here, raised families and created a foundation for worshipping and embraced the Islamic principle of giving back.
Las Vegas Muslims share development stories similar to other American-Muslims. What started as one-story house for Sunday school has now sprawled into six mosques including an Islamic school for kindergarten through eighth grades. Muslims live here and pray here.
While in college, when I introduced myself as a native Las Vegan, I’d get questions about where the houses were located in Vegas and what it was like growing up here. For a while, I just gave into everyone’s assumption I lived at the Bellagio — you know, because everyone growing up in Vegas must have lived in a casino and attended school in a showroom with classes taught by Siegfried & Roy.
Some of the stereotypes were kind of true. Growing up, I went to the movie theaters, bowling alleys and ice cream parlors in casinos. So, explaining Vegas as a viable place to live became the norm. I even wrote about it for my college newspaper.
Then I started traveling to conferences for Muslim professionals and I got questions on whether there was a Vegas Muslim community. I started memorizing the latest census data I had on the number of Muslims who live here and rattled off the names of the mosques in Vegas, where they were located and where halaqas were held for women.
Sometimes, though, people really wanted to know where the nearest halal eatery to The Strip is. I started memorizing those locations, too. Now, when I’m contacted about what the Muslim community is like, I’m ready to answer questions and include a link to LVMuslim.com and my story on South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine in Vegas.
The questions are warranted, and I welcome them because I too am curious about what corners of the earth our Muslim brothers and sisters live.
But sometimes, questions are met with judgement and assumptions. I found a need to justify why I lived here, why anyone would live here.
And then there’s the comparison of Mecca becoming the Las Vegas of Saudi Arabia. The media does it. Muslims do it. I get the need to compare the two cities. Both are in the desert. Mecca’s transformed into a city of high-rise hotels that happened to surround the Ka’aba. Both cities have a hard time preserving history.
Muslims want to express their displeasure with Mecca’s changes and need to compare it to city that elicits their idea of materialism and greed. Let’s pick Vegas, they say! These two cities do share similarities. As my friend Samantha reminded me, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), grew up in a culture where prostitution and gambling prevailed but out of that grew Islam.
Yes, our community has its fair share of challenges. There are many Muslims who work in various sectors of the casino/hospitality industry and grapple with maintaining their religious beliefs with their need to get food on the table. Muslims are not immune to gambling and alcohol addiction.
Of course, some of my volunteer friends and I would like our mosques to increase its offering of programming relevant to today’s societal issues. We’d like more people to step up to organize events. We want more women on mosque boards, not just teaching at the Sunday school. We’d like people to show up for Islamic lectures, not just because there’s free food. So the same story goes for all Muslim communities in America.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of good happening here, and I’m reminded of that when I see my community members throughout the year –- not just during Ramadan. I see them serving their Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors. I’m thankful for the diverse representation of Muslims I interact with and learn from at the mosque, at Taraweeh prayer and during iftar. African-Americans, Syrians, Palestinians Pakistanis, Syrian, Egyptian, Indonesian …
I’m thankful for the leadership of Masjid As Sabur, where volunteers constantly step up to help individuals of all backgrounds. The mosque hosts free health clinics and each year, Masjid As-Sabur partners with Catholic Charities and Islamic Relief to sponsor a food and clothing drive at the Day of Dignity each year.
I’m thankful for Masjid As-Sabur’s Imam Fateen Seifullah, who gently reminded us on Friday prayer July 3, that Ramadan is a way for us to remember to hold on to the Quran because it saved us. Because it heals us. “The point is, 200 people show up to eat,” Imam Seifullah said, of daily iftars at the mosque. “But no one wants to be nourished on the Quran.”
I’m in awe of Imam Seifullah’s wife, Nisa, who coordinates many activities for the mosque and has an iftar sponsor for every night of the week in Ramadan.
I’m thankful that we live side by side with our friends of faith including the Christians, Mormon, Jewish, Hindu and Sikh communities, to name a few. I’m thankful that my friend invited her son’s former high school teacher, a Mormon, to join us for iftar at a Turkish restaurant the second day of Ramadan. I’m thankful the teacher enjoyed it and wanted to learn about Ramadan.
I’m energized by our young adults, who are mobilizing to spread good will after being inspired by Deah Barakat, Yusor Ab-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha, three students who were tragically killed in Chapel Hill, N.C. in January. The UNLV Muslim Student Association spearheaded a local initiative to collect canned foods for local charities through the Feed Their Legacy campaign.
The organization and the staff, students and families of Omar Haikal Islamic Academy encouraged other local groups like the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, to get involved too. UNLV’s MSA got fifth place in the competition, bringing Nevada into fourth, and the students created a video to dispel stereotypes about the Muslim community of Vegas, too.
I’m thankful that my town of hospitality and tourism is welcoming to visitors from all backgrounds. You’ll often see Muslim families walking through casinos and visiting tourist locations. Some of the women are wearing abayahs and niqabs or hijabs.
I’m thankful for our Muslim women volunteers, who behind the scenes provide social services, financial assistance and emotional support for many families. I’m thankful for the Islamic Society of Nevada for opening its doors to anyone interested in learning more Islam, for its used clothing shop and providing shelter for the homeless population to cool off as temperatures rise to triple digits this summer.
So when you’re thinking about the Muslims in Vegas, and if you’re here for a visit, say a little prayer on your exit — for our community to continue to thrive, for the Haikal Islamic Academy being built a few blocks from the shopping outlets; for the kabobs you can get near convention centers.
And, be thankful that in a place where you wouldn’t expect it, God bestowed his Nur – His light – on this city of neon lights.
Afsha Bawany is a former reporter, who now works in higher education. Her articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, Las Vegas Sun, The Orange County Register, Las Vegas Business Press, Desert Companion Magazine, AltMuslimah and The Huffington Post. She tweets @AfshaB.