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Mohamed Shuayb’s phone is always buzzing. As an Islamic scholar, he’s long been a trusted source for practicing Muslims in the Twin Cities who seek religious perspectives on contemporary issues.
Sometimes, the questions are about family matters—as in the case of a recent phone call in which a woman asked about her rights within Islam to break the bond of marriage after her husband abandoned the family and refused to divorce her.
Other times, the questions are about finance, especially taking out loans with interest, which Islam prohibits. For example, as one caller recently asked, “What should Muslims do if they need to take out loans to pay for school or buy homes?”
But in the past two years, most of the callers have wanted answers to questions Mohamed hadn’t thought of before the pandemic: How can Muslims stay safe from COVID-19 without compromising their religious duties? Especially concerning to many has been whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine, which they’ve suspected contains pork gelatin—as is the case for other vaccines, including those taken against flu, shingles, measles, mumps, and rubella.
Trying to explain these legal opinions to every individual, Mohamed realized, takes a lot of time and energy. Yet, they’re important questions that guide the everyday lives of thousands of practicing Muslims, especially Somalis, in the state.
To better meet the community’s growing demand to find answers, Mohamed established the Bayan Research Center (BRC), a nonprofit center that opened in January 2021 in St. Anthony, Minnesota. Over the past year, BRC has become a hub for academics and experts to tackle unspoken challenges including family problems, special education, substance abuse, mental illness, homelessness, and more.
As part of our “Stories from the Pandemic” series, produced in partnership with Minnesota Transform and the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, Sahan Journal interviewed Mohamed about BRC’s origins, research mission, and community engagement. The interview was conducted in Somali and has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re obviously a well-known sheikh in Minnesota. I’ve seen you give the Friday sermons a few times at Abubakar As-Sadique mosque in Minneapolis. Before I ask about BRC, I want to get to know you a bit more and your educational background.
I was born in Saudi Arabia. I completed my primary education there. Then my family and I moved to Qardho, Somalia, where I completed my high school. After that, I traveled to Egypt to study at Ain Shams University in Cairo. I graduated, in 2005, with a bachelor’s degree in economics and mathematics. I’m now pursuing a master’s degree in political philosophy. My research interests include political philosophy and Islamic studies.
I also studied Islam the traditional way: under various sheikhs in learning circles at mosques and Islamic centers.
I came to Minnesota in 2008.
You founded the Bayan Research Center, which has been in business for 11 months now. How did the idea come about? What was the need?
Somalis, for the most part, have moved here without a plan. Unlike other immigrants who came with specific goals in mind—things like going to school or securing professional jobs upon landing in the United States—Somalis arrived here as refugees; they escaped violence. And for the better part of their stay here, they’ve been in survival mode.
The community has grown over the past three decades. You’d find a growing population of second- and third-generation Somali Americans within the community now. As a result, we’re seeing an emergence of issues that have long been suppressed: divorce problems, opioid use, mental health crisis, homelessness.
But the problem is not that we have these problems; it’s that there are no comprehensive studies that shed light on the magnitude of the challenges. For example, if we talk about homelessness in the community, no one can give you accurate data on homelessness. This is because Somalis are often counted under the Black population.
So BRC was born to document these challenges, release accurate data, and introduce recommendations.
What has the center done so far?
We’ve held many community forums. One of them was about how the Somali community can play a positive role in state and national politics in the United States. Another forum focused on education and the achievement gap, bringing together experts in the field. Other forums shed light on family and social issues in the community. We wrote recommendations that aim to address these issues and published them on our social media platforms.
You mentioned family issues a few times. Could you give an example of what these issues include?
We have some disconnect between parents and their children. So we held forums on parenting. We brought together experts, including mothers and fathers, to address the issues by explaining the importance of parenting and the need to invest time in the children.
We know of many cases where children are taken to school in the morning and then to after-school daycare centers. They are often released from these daycare centers at around 10 at night. So by the time they’re home, it’s almost midnight. They’re tired.
We explained to the parents that the kids need time to rest, interact with their parents, and do their homework. We also talked to them about social media problems. We encouraged parents to ensure they’re keeping an eye on the games their kids play and the films they watch. Sex trafficking and other kinds of recruitment often begin with social media communications.
We’ve also been holding community events on the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the community and the ways in which the community can recover. In addition to those forums, we’ve also written articles on mental illness and how COVID exacerbated it.
What platform does BRC use to engage the community?
We connect our resources to the community through social media, Somali television channels, Whatsapp, and phone conference rooms. The phone conference rooms are among the most popular platforms, especially among the older generation. Many of the older folks can’t navigate YouTube channels or webinars. So they just call the number and listen as they would if they were to talk to another person. We strive to connect with the people where they are.
BRC is a nonprofit organization. Who funds it?
It’s a nonprofit organization. So far, we haven’t received funding from foundations or government agencies. The Somali community has supported us financially.
How big is the staff?
We have two part-time employees and a few more volunteers.
Where do you see the Bayan Research Center in the next 5, 10 years?
The response from the community has been tremendous. We’ve been around for only 11 months, but so many people have connected to our forums and lectures. We’ve seen hundreds, sometimes thousands of people join events through social media and the conference calls. We have more than 67,000 followers on our Facebook page.
I hope to continue this work in the years to come and produce evidence-based solutions to our challenges. I hope our study will be useful not only to the community but also to governmental and educational institutions across the state.
I’d like to end our conversation with a question that isn’t about BRC. You’ve given me examples of the sort of calls you’ve received recently. There was a woman who wanted to divorce her husband; someone who had a question about loans with interest; and people who were skeptical about the COVID-19 vaccine ingredients. How did you answer these questions?
About the divorce question: Yes, in Islam, women do have the right to break the marriage under certain circumstances. I often recommend to callers that they take their case to the mosque. These kinds of cases require thorough investigations involving a committee of scholars who look at both the husband and wife’s side of the issue. There’s no simple answer.
About the loan question: We’re still studying what university students and homebuyers can do to fund their respective goals. We know that the economic system of the United States is based on loans and interests. We’re working with scholars, financial experts, and elected officials to find solutions. As Muslim Americans, we aren’t satisfied with being on the economic margins; we strive to be the best citizens we can—and that includes obtaining higher education and building assets, such as homes and businesses.
About the vaccine question: All vaccines are halal, whether they contain pork products or not. And the COVID-19 vaccine is particularly important. Not only it’s halal, we’ve communicated with people that it’s obligatory upon every Muslim. In Islam, the preservation of life is so significant. So, if the COVID-19 vaccine prevents death, then all of us must get vaccinated.
The main reason we’ve created the BRC is to ensure that the Muslim community has a center that helps them navigate these complicated questions. We realized that it’s much better to have an institution providing these answers than an individual sheikh.