Inside the WhatsApp group of young Muslims praying for Bernie’s health

A group of young American Muslims just finished an entire recitation of the Quran on the Vermont senator's behalf. Here's why.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., left, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Vice President Joe Biden, right, participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (RNS) — It’s no secret that many Muslims are fans of Sen. Bernie Sanders, so much so that some affectionately call the 78-year-old Democratic presidential candidate “Uncle Bernie.”

So when the news broke that Sanders had suffered a heart attack earlier this month, Hamzah Raza kidded on his Instagram account about setting up a group to read the Quran for the senator.

“You know, like if your real uncle ended up in the hospital, you would recite the Quran on his behalf and pray for his health and recovery,” said Raza, a 23-year-old Islamic studies student at Harvard Divinity School.

The profile picture of the Quran Khatm For Bernie WhatsApp group. Courtesy image

Immediately, he said, he began receiving messages from his Instagram followers: Was the group real? Could they be added to it? Oh, and could their friends join, too? Could they also read this prayer for Sanders, or that prayer?

The day after Sanders’ heart procedure, Raza set up the Quran Khatm For Bernie, a WhatsApp group where 40 young Muslims tracked the group’s team effort to complete the recitation of the entire Quran and pray for Sanders’ health and guidance.

The group’s profile picture? A screenshot of a viral video of Sanders donning a traditional cap and ajrak, a blockprinted Pakistani shawl, during a September campaign event in Houston.

“I wanted to be part of the khatm because as a Muslim who lives in America, I believe that out of all of the candidates, Bernie Sanders is the best candidate for not just Muslims but all oppressed peoples,” said 25-year-old Joe Milburn, a law student in Chicago. “I wanted to be part of a movement to pray for his health and guidance.”

Last week, the participants finished a full recitation of the holy book of Islam, which contains around 77,500 words in Arabic and which Muslims believe was revealed as the direct word of God.

“The idea is that when we’re saying these prayers, it makes us more receptive to God’s blessings,” Raza said. “So inshallah (God willing), with this completion of the Quran, we will receive some more blessings that will make our prayers for Bernie more powerful.”

Messages within the Quran Khatm for Bernie WhatsApp group of how many prayers have been read and which parts of the Quran have been read. Screengrabs

Most participants read a few juz, the 30 equal-sized sections that the Quran has been divided into, on the Vermont senator’s behalf. Others read the Hizb al-Bahr prayer for protection and the Dalail al-Khayrat collection of prayers for the Prophet Muhammad.

Some group members also volunteered to recite 100 salawat, short prayers invoking blessings on the Prophet Muhammad – in total, the group performed over 4,000 salawat, Raza said.

Hamzah Raza. Courtesy photo

The group mainly comprises U.S. Muslims in their teens and twenties, but there’s also an international presence: A friend of Raza’s from Gaza Strip offered to read 100 salawat for Sanders.

When asked by some group members whether it was permissible to read Quran and perform these prayers on behalf of a non-Muslim, Raza also ran the idea past a sheikh, who gave them a green light.

“He told me it’s fine, because (the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) also prayed for non-Muslims’ health,” Raza said. “But he also explained that usually when we pray for non-Muslims, we should also pray for their hidayah” – the Arabic word used to refer to divine guidance. 

Though this year’s American Muslim Poll found that young Muslims’ rate of voting is significantly lower than that of their non-Muslim peers — only 63% of Muslim young adults reported being registered to vote, compared with 85% of all young adults — U.S. Muslims have shown a willingness to show up for Sanders.

Reports this week indicate that both of the country’s Muslim congresswomen, Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, are set to endorse the candidate.

With hashtags like #Muslims4Bernie and #InshallahBernie and events like the Bay Area’s Iftars With Bernie — as well as Sanders’ 2016 sweep of Michigan, where the campaign courted Muslim voters through Arabic-language ads in the city that has America’s largest Muslim population — U.S. Muslims have rallied together for the candidate.

“Muslims are not a monolith with who they’re voting for, but I would say Bernie Sanders is the single most popular candidate in the primaries among American Muslims,” Raza said. “His vision for America is just very different from what we’ve seen in the White House before. It’s one where Muslims are very much included and very much a part of society. He shows not only in his rhetoric, like some other Democrats do, but in real ways.”

For Muslim voters — 76% of whom vote for Democrats, per the American Muslim Poll — Sanders has managed to set himself apart from the beginning.

“If someone ranked all of the presidential candidates by their friendliness to the Muslim American community, Bernie would be miles ahead of everyone else,” 21-year-old Zainab Kahloon, who participated in the WhatsApp group, said. “One thing I appreciate about the Sanders campaign is that they’re one of the only ones that have actively reached out to the Muslim American community. In both of his campaigns, Sanders visited mosques and prominent Muslim gatherings and hired Muslim Americans for important positions in his campaign.”

Back in August, Sanders was one of two candidates who spoke at the Islamic Society of North America’s first-ever presidential forum, where he received a hero’s welcome. Weeks before that, he sent a video recording to attendees of the Muslim Collective for Equitable Democracy conference, billed as the first national gathering of Muslim Americans in politics.

Sanders hired the first-ever Muslim campaign manager for a major presidential campaign and has continued to work with staunchly pro-Palestine activist Linda Sarsour — whom he brought on as a campaign surrogate during his 2016 bid for the presidency, and who speaks at major Muslim gatherings around the U.S. on the candidate’s behalf — despite the controversies swirling around her.

But more importantly, members of the group said, Sanders has been a consistent advocate for issues that are close to many Muslims’ hearts.

Besides his support for universal health care and a living wage, Raza said, Sanders has emerged as the strongest candidate when it comes to speaking about human rights in Kashmir, Palestine, Yemen and other central humanitarian concerns for Muslims around the world. He criticized the Iraq War from the outset and has lambasted the Trump administration’s controversial ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries.

Still, Raza said he felt that Sanders “could be stronger when it comes to foreign policy.”

A poll last year by the Brookings Institution found that 56% of Democrats are in favor of imposing sanctions if Israeli settlements in the West Bank continue. But Sanders has not gone so far. 

“At least not yet,” Raza said.

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