Fruit's role in a Muslim dilemma

My minivan was running on empty Sunday morning, so I stopped at a 7-Eleven to buy gasoline on my way to church. Usually, I pay at the pump with my Visa check card, but this time I had cash, so I went inside to hand $40 to the clerk. The woman in front of me was buying cigarettes from a cheerful young cashier who was talking about her Christian faith.

"I'd be at church right now if I didn't have to work," said the employee, who was not shy about sharing her testimony even as she rang up tobacco and alcohol sales.

I thought about the 7-Eleven crew member, working at a job that probably would not be her first choice, when I read a Chicago Tribune story this week about Muslim liquor store owners. Reporter Manya A. Brachear's piece explores the dilemma faced by store owners trying to balance their faith with the necessity to make ends meet. Here's the top of the story:

Prescribed by his Islamic faith to pray five times a day, Mazen Materieh often prostrates himself on one of the prayer rugs in the basement of his corner store. When he is done, he returns to his perch behind the counter, where he sells liquor, lottery tickets and pork skins -- all forbidden by the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad.

"I'm not justifying what I'm doing. I know it's wrong," said Materieh, 52, of Orland Park. "I'm an honest person. I don't like to be a man of two faces."

Materieh's conflict is common in corner stores across Chicago's South Side. On one hand, store owners cannot make ends meet without selling what customers demand. On the other, consuming or profiting from products forbidden by their faith is considered sinful. What's more, neighbors blame the stores for perpetuating violence, addiction and obesity in low-income neighborhoods.

After that introduction, the story gets to the news peg:

Now, a coalition of Arab and African-American Muslims is offering Muslim merchants an opportunity to improve their reputations and renew their religious principles by selling fresh produce and healthy foods, especially in neighborhoods without major groceries. Along the way, they hope, store owners will think twice about selling forbidden products. The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago has provided a grant that will serve as seed money for pioneers in the campaign.

What do you think so far? Read the whole thing, and then I'll tell you what I thought.

Personally, I really liked this piece. It's a meaty subject (get it, pork?). And it's a fresh angle (get it, fruit?). OK, end of my attempt to be punny.

Let's get serious ...

Too often, news stories portray people of faith at extremes. They're either totally righteous or totally hypocritical. In most cases, I think all of us fall somewhere in the middle. Brachear manages to highlight contradictions in what people believe -- and what they practice -- in a way that just seems, well, real.

Take this section:

Materieh and a partner opened Sharif Food & Liquor at 5659 S. Racine Ave. after arthritis prevented him from working in construction and a halal restaurant venture didn't work out. "Sharif" is an Arabic word for "honorable."

He doesn't allow his children to help in the store, and he regularly argues with his wife, who doesn't understand how he can rationalize selling alcohol. He admits a sense of shame came over him after taking religious education classes at the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, where his family worshipped.

"In our religion, God loves believers and repenters," Materieh said. "If I have good trust in God, I should go and do the right thing and not feed my kids with this money. But we are human beings, and we are weak. I pray to God to get me out of it."

I like that Brachear explained the store name. That's a nice touch.

Another nice touch is that the piece delves into Muslim theology. Now, you'd think that would be a given in a story such as this. But GetReligion readers know how often that does not occur. Here's the relevant section:

Sheikh Kifah Moustapha, imam and associate director of the Bridgeview mosque, preaches against haram (forbidden) business practices regularly. He bases his sermons on a verse in the Quran that implores the faithful to avoid intoxicating temptations.

"Believers, wine and gambling, idols and divining arrows are abominations from the work of Satan," the Quran instructs.

Though many Muslims defend their business practices by arguing that scripture forbids only consumption, not the sale, they are wrong, Moustapha said.

I do have a quibble with that last paragraph. Any time I see a phrase in a story such as many Muslims defend, I expect that I'll hear from at least one of them. However, the writer does not include any Muslims who make the argument cited.

I almost forgive that omission, however, because of the excellent sources who are included, from a Muslim neighborhood activist to Muslim store owners who never have sold pork or alcohol -- despite the economic challenges.

The ending section highlights what's at stake in the effort to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to the neighborhood:

Others are eager to follow suit, including Ida Rihan, 48, owner of Delta Foods, 1158 W. 51st St., who has not yet received a grant. Rihan declines to sell alcohol or pork. Her husband was shot 10 years ago by an intoxicated gunman who stole $65. Sitting on a stool behind bulletproof glass, with a mosque prayer schedule taped next to the cash register, she cheerily greets her customers, many of whom call her Mom.

Two doors down on 51st Street, Nasheet Salah, 29, owner of K&K Foods, advertises discounts on vodka, cognac and beer. "That's a living. You've got to do it to prepare the table," he said.

Rihan doesn't judge her neighbor. She said people must decide how to balance belief with business.

She would prefer to offer fresh meat and produce regularly, but it's a choice she can't afford. She said she would welcome a grant that would enable her to upgrade her merchandise.

"It's a hard neighborhood here," she said. "I have a lot of respect for everybody, and everyone has respect for me. You have to do what you believe is right."

This is a real story from a real Chicago neighborhood -- see the specific addresses for proof. Kudos to the Tribune for a compelling local story that gets religion in a real way.

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