Zubaida Ibrahim

Lisa Mandel
Zubaida Ibrahim at the Daar ul-Islam mosque. Photo: Lisa Mandel

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Sometimes, Zubaida Ibrahim knows she is up against an overwhelming image problem, but that challenge only makes her double her resolve.

A Muslim woman who was born in Pakistan and has lived in the United States 42 years, Ibrahim works virtually every day to build and strengthen bridges with other faith communities, particularly the St. Louis Jewish community.

Her head loosely covered with a white hijab dotted with hearts, Ibrahim displayed her force of character in a quiet, unassuming way late last week at her comfortable brick home in Town and Country. On a wall in her dining room hangs framed pictures of her three children – two sons and one daughter, all doctors.

Ibrahim seemed eager to explain why she sees Islam as a positive force in the world, and not the destructive faith as is so frequently portrayed the news. 

After 9/11, she resolved to become a personal ambassador for her interpretation of Islam, living and practicing the faith as she understands it and answering as many questions as she can.

“In Islam, you cannot take a life,” she said referring to suicide or martyr bombers. “God gave you life. No one can take a life.”

Rather, her way to pay tribute to her faith each day is by acts of charity, teaching and speaking out on the positive aspects of Islam.

“More people should do the same,” said Ibrahim, 65, as her husband, Mohammed Ibrahim, sat beside her. “We need to get to know each other. We have dialogue groups. We have learned so much. We talk about children, marriage, schooling.”

She also agreed that it can be an act of courage to stand before a group of strangers and answer questions about Islam, which is widely caricatured and misunderstood by many Americans. 

In her most visible example of building relationships across the sometimes vast chasm between Muslims and Jews, Ibrahim was co-chair of the Jewish-Muslim Day of Service on this past Christmas day.

That effort brought more than 600 people of both faiths together to perform various acts of charity, as both Islam and Judaism require, at more than 20 sites in the area.

Her outreach with the local Jewish community over the last several years is becoming well-known and appreciated.

She and her husband, 69, a civil engineer with his own consulting firm, have attended Passover seders. They are comfortable discussing the similarities of the two faiths, and they find they have been warmly welcomed into homes and synagogues. Today they are U.S. citizens; they met at the University of Karachi, which they both attended nearly 50 years ago.

“We have been to several seders,” said Ibrahim, adding that she enjoys the food and the story of the Exodus. “We are trying to mend things with the Jews.”

Leanne Schneider, a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth, nominated Zubaida Ibrahim as an Unsung Hero. She met the Ibrahims during a trip to Israel in 2007 led by Rabbi Mark Shook of Temple Israel.

“We really became good friends on that trip,” Schneider said. “We have maintained our friendship with Zubaida and Mohammed. She is a low key and modest person.”

To this, Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, adds her own perspective.

“Zubaida is a remarkably caring and loving person,” she said. “She obviously cares deeply about her faith community and also about others.”

Don’t be fooled by Ibrahim’s small size or quiet manner, Abramson-Goldstein said.

“Beneath her soft and gentle demeanor, there’s a fierce desire to act on this approach of hers,” she said. “We are literally brothers and sisters. She often speaks of me as her sister. I feel that too.”

Like Schneider, Abramson-Goldstein said her relationship with Ibrahim developed after the trip to Israel, which included several Muslim, Jewish and Christian couples.

Asked if she ever discusses the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israel’s relations with Palestinians and various factions, she said: “We talk about it…There has to be a fair solution. Something has to be done. We have some give and take when we talk.”

The goal, notes Abraham-Goldstein as well as Ibrahim, is to improve understanding between Muslims and Jews, as least in the St. Louis area.

That trip to Israel was an eye-opener all round, the three women said. But it’s Ibrahim who continues to take the steps necessary to extend herself, to explain the tenets of her Islamic faith in the face of what has been a rough period for many Muslims following the terrorist attacks nearly 12 years ago. 

When she speaks with people of other faiths, she says the first question that usually comes up concerns the status of women in Islam.

“I am asked, ‘Are women treated like they have second-class status?’” she said. “Women have a right to speak, to vote and so on.”

As for covering her hair, Ibrahim said she did not always do that. When she was rearing her children, she wasn’t covered.

“I did not read the Koran then. Now I read it more closely,” she said. “Muslims don’t have a dress code. Women have to be modest. That’s all.”

For Ibrahim, the parallels between people of her faith and those of the Jewish faith are obvious: prayer to one God, being descendants of Abraham, observance in prayer and practice in and out of the home, charity (tzedakah in Judaism, zakat in Islam) should be given without calling attention to oneself and, of course, the killing and preparation of animals for eating and the prohibition on eating pork.

“When I came to the United States,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, “my grandmother told to buy meat from the Jewish butcher.”

Such similarities, in addition to the wellspring of both faiths in the Middle East, give Zubaida Ibrahim hope. She wants to point out the similarities of the two faiths and therefore help to bridge the gap of misunderstanding.

She believes much progress in mutual acceptance could be accomplished if children in schools were taught about the various aspects of religion, whether Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism.

The problem, she noted, is that teaching religion in American public schools can be tricky and even considered against the law unless it’s taught as cultural history. But she has visited the Jewish day schools here and found a warm reception from students and teachers.

She has hope for the younger generation of Americans, regardless of their faith or upbringing.

“Sometimes the older people want to stay in their own world,” she said.

That’s not where Zubaida Ibrahim wants to be.

Zubaida Ibrahim

AGE:  65

FAMILY:  Married to Mohammed Ibrahim; two sons, Ahmer and Shariq, and one daughter, Saman;  three granddaughters and one grandson

HOME:  Town and Country

OCCUPATION:  Office manager for Ibrahim Engineering, her husband’s firm

FAVORITE PASTIMES: Zubaida enjoys gardening and cooking.