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After Homework, Duty as an Imam
With Cleric's Visa Denied, Va. Center Enlists Its Most Learned: Two Teens

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006

The boy, round-faced and thin, stood in front of the hundred or so men, his arms crossed, his eyes closed. When he knelt, they knelt. When he stood, they stood. When he stumbled for a word, squinting to access the search engine of his mind, they waited.

In a few hours, 13-year-old Aman Chhipa would be back at home sitting in front of his computer playing a video game, pretending he was a knight slaying giant spiders with a gem-laden sword. But at that moment, and for an hour each night this month, he is a boy leading a room full of men.

Aman and another teenager, Uzair Jawed, 16, were thrust into the revered role of imam, or prayer leader, at the Islamic Community Center of Northern Virginia, mostly out of desperation. A cleric from South Africa was supposed to lead the center's nightly prayer for Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims, as he had done for the past three years. But after Ismail Mullah arrived at Dulles International Airport on Sept. 22, he was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials and sent back to South Africa.

The center, in Woodbridge, had prepared for months for Mullah's arrival and had paid thousands of dollars for his airfare. Without him, its leaders had less than a day to find a hafiz -- someone who had memorized the more than 6,200 Arabic verses of the Koran and could recite them without looking at the text.

They searched among the adults. No one. They called other mosques. No one.

They then turned to the two boys, the only ones among them who had mastered the text enough to guide the congregation through the 30 sections in 30 days. The Koran is divided into 114 chapters containing more than 6,200 verses comprising about 80,000 words. It is like learning part of the Bible in Latin when you don't speak Latin.

"I thought, how am I going to do this?" Aman said. "I was nervous. It's a huge responsibility."

Aman is an eighth-grader at Fred M. Lynn Middle School in Woodbridge whose family is from India. He memorized the Koran by age 10. Uzair, 16, is a ninth-grader at Woodbridge Senior High School whose family is from Pakistan. He memorized it by the time he was 13.

Together, they lead the nightly prayer, correcting each other when needed, as is custom. Days that were once spent perched in front of a PlayStation 2 for hours, they said, are now heavy with studying that starts about 5 a.m. and stretches to about 11:30 p.m., with school and life in between.

"Before we were hafiz, we were just kids," Uzair said.

He and Aman might be the nation's youngest imams, said Nihad Awad, the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Islamic civil liberties group in the United States. The two are also a testament to the post-9/11 need for U.S. Muslims to groom their own leaders and stop depending on those from other countries, he said.

"Imams who come from overseas, sometimes they bring a different mentality. They come from Muslim-majority places. They have different cultures, norms and traditions," Awad said. "I think it's important that we develop our own."

Aman's father, Nasir Chhipa, a director at the center, agreed. Mullah's inability to enter the country left the community disappointed and with many questions, he said. Some men who came to pray in the first few days left in frustration to search for another scholar. The ones who have stayed, he said, have come to depend on the boys.

The teenagers have taken on their community's burden and hopes -- at least for a month.

"In some sense, I think whatever happened, it happened for the good," Chhipa said. "We learned a lesson from this. . . . We have to produce our own scholars."

Long Days With the Koran

When Aman was 7, his father enrolled him in a school in Pennsylvania where he took academic classes for three hours a day and studied the Koran for 8 1/2 . "When I first dropped him off, it was very hard for me. I literally cried," Chhipa said. "Every day I called them and said, 'Could I talk to my son?' The principal said, 'You have to be patient.' "

About three years later, in the middle of Ramadan, the principal called him and said that Aman, whose name means peace, had finished memorizing the text. "When I saw him reciting the Koran without looking at the book, that was the moment of my life," Chhipa said.

Memorizing the text is only part of the challenge in becoming a hafiz. He must practice daily. "It's easy to memorize; it's very hard to remember," Chhipa said. "The Koran is nobody's friend. If you forget the Koran, the Koran will forget you."

Aman studied daily before, but now it consumes almost every moment of his downtime. He begins reading the Koran shortly after waking at 4:30 a.m. for breakfast and continues reading it at any possible moment during the day, even taking the Koran to lunch with him. "They ask me, 'What's that book?' " he said of the other students.

His classmates don't know he's a hafiz, he said. But at the center, the men who stand behind him in prayer each night don't call him just Aman anymore, they call him "Hafiz Aman" -- like Dr. or Mr. or Professor.

"People will greet me properly, not as if I'm their friend but as if I'm their senior," Aman said.

It was strange at first, he said, but he's getting used to it.

"When I was small, I used to always think that I wanted to be something big when I grew up," said Aman, whose upper lip is showing the start of a mustache.

Uzair, who wears a respectable beard, said that as the community has started giving him more respect, he's started behaving differently, trying to act in a way that deserves it. When his father told him on that Friday that he would have to recite the prayers the next day, he said it was both an honor and terrifying.

"I was nervous. I was thinking I wouldn't be able to do it," he said, adding that with each day it has become easier, almost fun. "We're just trying to enjoy it because we have no other option."

His schedule has become much like Aman's. Wake up before sunrise, study the Koran, go to school, come home, study the Koran, break the Ramadan fast and study the Koran. In between, he prays five times and does his homework.

The Woodbridge center is simple, consisting mostly of a large community room and small office, hidden behind a Subway and video rental store on Jefferson Davis Highway. The center has a regular imam, but he has not memorized the Koran.

Those who congregate there said they are grateful for the boys. Still, they know they lost something when Mullah's entry was denied. In addition to leading the prayer, he would have guided donations and doled out advice if needed. The teenagers cannot play such a role, because it is the equivalent of asking them to have a master's degree in Islam.

"A young kid and a grown priest is a big difference," said Fahad Mirza, 29, adding that the boys are "wonderful" but that "they are there just because we have no choice."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations is writing letters to politicians demanding to know why Mullah and other scholars were turned away at the last minute. Nationwide, at least four other Islamic scholars were denied entry, without explanation, Muslim community leaders said.

They are questioning why the government waited until the men arrived in the country instead of denying their visas early enough for the mosques to find replacements.

"We don't want this to fall in the cracks and to just be forgotten. We need to get answers from our government," Awad said. "We want people to be abiding by the law. We want to protect our country. . . . At the same time, we just want to make sure we do not step on people's rights and that we continue to be an open and welcoming society."

Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection would not say why Mullah was turned away but said more than 1,000 people are denied entry every day for a variety of reasons. Kelly Klundt, a spokeswoman, said: "The State Department may issue a visa which allows someone to apply for admission into the U.S. It is not necessarily a guarantee that they will be permitted."

Those at the center describe Mullah as a soft-spoken man who was born in Gujarat state in India. They said his speeches were not extreme.

Chhipa said he had spoken briefly with him since the incident. "He said, 'I don't know why they did it to me.' . . . He said they only said, 'We're only doing our job.' "

Mullah was glad to hear that the center had found a replacement for him, Chhipa added.

Leaders, and Now Friends

The teenagers weren't really friends before, seeing each other only occasionally during prayer time at the Woodbridge center. But now their parents say they are attached, having developed a friendship through their shared responsibility.

After the prayers ended one recent night, the boys shuffled out of the center, looking as tired as the older men among them.

Waiting for Uzair at home was algebra, English and Spanish homework.

Aman, who had finished his homework earlier that day, would get to steal a few rare moments of play. Within minutes of walking into his house, he shed his traditional garb for sweat pants and a T-shirt emblazoned with the word "basketball" -- his favorite sport. He then swooshed down in front of the computer, clicked on his favorite video game and within seconds was lost in a wooded area of imaginary beasts. In one corner of the screen, he chatted with friends in a language far from Arabic: "Sup?" and "Kool."

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