Young woman sets out to learn the Quran, verse by verse

Faduma Muhammad Warsame
Faduma Muhammad Warsame, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Minnesota, photographed at her home Friday, May 8, 2015, in Eagan.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

Faduma Warsame is a woman on a mission.

On Sunday, the 21-year-old graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in English and a minor in teaching English as a second language. One might expect Warsame to start hunting for a teaching job, or take a break from school in the summer.

She's doing neither. In late July, the young woman will embark on a journey she has waited years to make: She'll be memorizing all 6,236 verses of the Quran.

In her family's Eagan split-level home, Warsame, the eldest of eight children, nestled recently on a couch with her smartphone. She wasn't texting or tweeting, but reading from a Quran app.

"That's my goal right now, to be studying the Quran full time after graduation," Warsame said.

She recited one of her favorite verses — one about how all people came from a common beginning. This is the poetry she fell in love with.

Warsame knows learning the Quran by heart is no easy feat. Islam's holy book is 604 pages and consists of 114 chapters of varying lengths. Muslims believe the Quran is the word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel in Arabic.

"If this is the true word of God, it's an amazing thing to memorize," Warsame said. "We believe it's an act of worship, too. If you truly love the Quran, you can take it wherever you go, you don't need to have a book with you all the time."

For the past five years, Warsame has been studying the Quran part time at al-Jazari Institute at Al-Farooq Youth and Family Center in Bloomington.

But now she wants to take it a notch higher: Since March 10, Warsame has raised more than $2,000 through an Internet fundraising campaign to pay for an intensive summer Quranic program at the Bayyinah Institute near Dallas.

I still did not know who I was because I did not know much about my religion at all.

Such a fundraising campaign is "an extra step of dedication," said Omar Ali, who teaches high school Islamic studies at al-Amal School in Fridley. "I've never seen anybody who's done that."

The number of Quranic schools, known as dugsi in Somali, is growing in the Twin Cities, along with the state's Muslim population. Many Somali parents believe having their children memorize every verse of the Quran is the most noble rite of passage in their faith.

Muslim children in countries like Pakistan, Somalia or Nigeria spend most of their free time after school learning the Quran. But it's often a struggle for young Muslims in the West to balance their religious studies with their secular education and extracurricular activities.

Warsame's journey stands in contrast with those taken by a handful of young men — some who likely crossed paths with her at the Bloomington mosque — who now face charges of trying to travel to Syria to enlist with ISIS. She said she disagrees with the notion of fighting for extremist groups overseas and has sympathy for the men's families in Minnesota.

The alleged ISIS recruits displayed a new religious fervor a few years before their reported attempts to enlist with the group. Families and friends of these men say someone took advantage of their developing beliefs and radicalized them.

Ali, the schoolteacher, said young people who try to take a shortcut to learning Islam may be especially vulnerable. Radicals could influence these teenagers and persuade them to seek a more "pure" form of Islam in another country, he said. "Learning the religion needs a lot of patience, which is something a lot of kids don't have," Ali said.

Warsame said young Muslims in America can find it a struggle to balance their American side with their Islamic identity and values.

Faduma Muhammad Warsame
Faduma Muhammad Warsame, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Minnesota, photographed at her home Friday, May 8, 2015, in Eagan.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

As the first born of eight children, Warsame knows that struggle. "It's very hard growing up the oldest," she said. "You don't know what the right path is. Everything is a trial run."

For years, her studies and family responsibilities kept her from moving forward with the Quran. It wasn't until she turned 17 that she seriously started learning the Quran at a local dugsi.

"The unsaid rule is that once you're over the age of 13 14, 15, dugsi isn't really for you anymore," she said. "I felt like it was really embarrassing."

Warsame was born in a refugee camp in Kenya in 1994, a year and a half before her family immigrated to the United States. Her parents did not go to college, their schooling having been interrupted by the civil war in Somalia.

Her mother tried to continue her studies in Minnesota, and Warsame remembers her mother doing ESL homework, something that was "so easy for me," she said. "And so I'll be like, 'Mom, I can help you with your homework.'"

"It's really humbling seeing my parent strive so hard," Warsame said.

At Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Warsame excelled in academics, but that's also where she struggled most with her identity. Though she was active in extracurricular activities, had good friends, participated in the debate club and knew her teachers on a personal level, there still was something missing from her life.

"I still did not know who I was," she said, "because I did not know much about my religion at all."

For now, Warsame wants to delve deeply into a fuller understanding of her faith.

"Just listening to [the Quran], it would make you wonder: What kind of impact will it have when you understand every single thing?" she said. "That's why I push myself."

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