KINGSTON — Dr. Ibrahim Almeky warmly welcomed a reporter into the conference room of his Pierce Street medical practice.
The conversation wasn’t about health care or prescriptions, but his other occupation: religion.
While the bulk of Almeky’s time is spent practicing as an internist at his Urgent Care center and at the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center, he’s also the imam — or an Islamic prayer leader — at the Masjid Al-Noor Mosque in Wilkes-Barre.
Almeky leads a congregation of about 300 that includes recent immigrants, students as well as people — like him — who have long since planted roots in the region.
“We have an open door policy,” Almeky said. “Come and attend the prayer.”
The mosque has called 991 Scott St. home since the early 1990s. In addition to serving as a house of worship, it has become a community center for Islamic people in the Wilkes-Barre area — much as Catholic parishes did for immigrants to Northeastern Pennsylvania in the 1800s and 1900s.
Pennsylvania remains overwhelmingly Christian, according to 2014-15 survey data by the Pew Research Center, with 73 percent of adults identifying as followers of Jesus, including Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians and other sects.
Non-Christian faiths are practiced only by an estimated 6 percent of adults in this state, Pew found, with Judaism and Islam at 1 percent each.
At the current rate of growth, Islam is projected to overtake Judaism as the nation’s second most populous religion by 2040, Pew predicts.
Worldwide, Islam’s estimated 1.8 billion followers put it second only to Christianity, which has more than 2.4 billion adherents.
Coming to America
Though born in Egypt, Almeky, 52, has lived four decades of his life in the United States.
He spent time in New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut, studying medicine at Yale University and the University of New Haven before accepting a position with the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center about 15 years ago.
“What matters is what you bring to the area,” the Shavertown resident said, with an obvious sense of pride in his work for the community. “I’m serving the veterans and extending a hand to people who need medical help.”
Almeky said his story is one that can be seen in many other local immigrants who share a community in the Islamic faith.
“You’ll find that most people have the same path; around 80 percent of our community are professionals,” Almeky said, specifically saying many are either engineers or doctors like himself.
He also said that, between all of the local colleges and universities, there are between 300 and 400 Islamic students who have come to America to study.
“It’s an excellent way to close the gap. It helps the students come and learn, and an educated person tends to think in depth,” Almeky said.
Thoughts on Islam
Almeky said such in-depth thinking is something that is sorely needed across all cultures. According to Almeky, one of the biggest issues facing humanity is ignorance.
“Islam is not how it’s portrayed in the media. News lives on people’s anger,” Almeky said. With a hint of resignation, he added: “The issue of the ignorance will always be there.”
Almeky took the time to explain Islam at length. According to him, the word “Islam” comes from an Arabic word meaning either “peace” or “submission to the will of God.”
God has a will for all things, he explained — the sun’s role is the light to world, while man’s is to worship God.
The word Islam means “submission” or “surrender,” meaning followers — known as Muslims — surrender to the will of Allah, which is the Arabic word for God.
“The sun submitted itself to the will of God; all of God’s creation must submit to his will,” Almeky said.
He said that this belief isn’t far removed from the traditions of Judaism or Christianity — adding that all three of the Abrahamic religions, which originated in the Middle East, follow the same God.
“We know it all comes from the same God,” Almeky said. “I’ve listened to lectures from Christians and rabbis. As a Muslim, I have to understand what it is all about — the teachings of Jesus, of Moses, peace be unto them.”
In Islam, familiar biblical figures including Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus are all seen as prophets of God, who all came before the Prophet Muhammad, to whom Muslims believe God revealed the most complete version of his will in the Quran.
Muslims believe that all the books of each of the three Abrahamic religions are divine revelation, he added.
Almeky said, for him and many believers, Islam is more than just a religion in the conventional sense. It’s a complete way of life. With rules requiring prayer five times a day, charitable donations and a strict dietary code, it’s easy to see how deeply the religion impacts the culture of believers.
“God wants you to work to perfection,” Almeky said, adding that God’s will is for each person to work to be the best they can be.
As an imam, Almeky said it’s his job to help his congregation of about 300 be the best they can be.
Almeky’s father was himself a prominent imam in Egypt, Almeky said. Over the years, he and each of his three brothers all received training to become imams, saying his brothers lead mosques in countries around the world.
For the imam, providing correct guidance to his congregation is a massively important responsibility. It’s hard to overstate the importance. As Almeky said, if he leads his congregation astray, he will have to answer for it in the afterlife.
“It’s a huge weight,” Almeky said. As such, Almeky said he always answers questions from the faithful honestly — if he doesn’t know the correct answer, he will say so and do more research, instead of coming up with a half-baked answer that might be wrong.
The mosque’s responsibilities are also concerned with education and fellowship in this life.
In addition to the place of worship, the mosque also houses a school for students between Pre-K and fifth grades. According to Almeky, the school follows the same curriculum of the Dallas School District, with the addition of scriptural and Arabic language studies.
And the mosque plays host to basketball hoops and ping-pong tables. The mosque has also held community blood drives.
Almeky said the mosque has enjoyed mostly harmonious relations with non-Muslim neighbors over the years.
Last year, members of the mosque handed out $25 gas cards to neighbors, thanking them for being kind. Almeky said most of the neighbors graciously accepted the gifts or politely declined. Some threatened to call the police.
The mosque’s doors are always open to educate the curious, Almeky said, reiterating that ignorance has been the cause of strife between cultures.
“In Islam, nothing is hidden,” he said.
Almeky believes many people who are hateful of Muslims are so inclined because they have a basic misunderstanding of their own faith, and this is what he hopes to combat in the community.
“Most problems come because people don’t understand Christianity,” he said. “Was Jesus prejudiced? Why are you?”
He stressed that Islam — like all major religions, he says — is all about peace.
“Peace is a beautiful word, and it doesn’t come without understanding,” the imam said. “One of God’s names is Peace. He’s the one who gives the peace. We’re the ones who are destroying the peace; it’s not God, it’s not religion, it’s people.”
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DON’T MISS Day 2 of “Faces of Islam” in Monday’s Times Leader.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan