Qari Noman speaking at an interfaith service at ISM after the 2020 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand
Qari Noman Hussain has served in Milwaukee’s Muslim community for 10 years
When Qari Noman Hussain moved from Chicago to Milwaukee in 2011, the fresh seminary graduate told his mother, “Just two years, Mom, and I’ll be back.”
After a decade of service as a Muslim cleric in greater Milwaukee, the young imam – he is now 32 – is finally going home, stepping onto a bigger platform and leaving behind big shoes to fill in greater Milwaukee’s Muslim community, colleagues and community members say.
“He has been an important voice in the Muslim community of Milwaukee for the past 10 years,” said Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah, the religious director of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee. “He has contributed greatly to the wellbeing of this community. We will miss him a great deal.”
Taking the scholar’s path
In an interview at Masjid Al Noor in Brookfield, where Shaykh Hussain serves as imam, he described his life’s path. His parents decided he would begin kindergarten in an Islamic school. By the time he was 10, Hussain had spent three years memorizing the Quran. When he was 11 or 12, he traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, for boarding school in an Islamic seminary, where he would spend the next 8 years.
“I think the environment at that school in Chicago, with older kids who were already memorizing Quran, is what made me want to memorize Quran and go to seminary,” Hussain said.
“Also, I was gifted with a decent voice so my mom would always encourage me to give the call to prayer and she would make me recite the small surahs whenever anyone came over. I was super shy, never wanting to talk. I consider myself to be an introvert. The kindergarten, reciting surahs, deciding to study in South Africa—these were all stepping stones towards becoming an imam, he said.
“My parents weren’t from religious families and my dad was hesitant to send me overseas to become a scholar. For him, the question was, ‘How are you going to make a living?’
My dad worked two jobs. He didn’t have an education. ‘I don’t want you to struggle like I did,’ he told me.”
Initially, young Hussain felt happy and excited to study abroad. But being home only one month a year, during Ramadan, made him homesick, he said. He thought of dropping out. Although his parents missed him dearly, his mother urged him to finish what he started. Her encouragement helped him get through the challenge, he said. “And I had a good group of friends who were also motivation for me.”
When he completed the program and returned to Chicago, his dad asked, “Are you going to college now? Are you going to study to be a doctor?”
“I would say, ‘Look, I went and studied for 8 years. I know it benefits me personally (to pursue a financially rewarding profession) but that’s not the only reason I studied. I want to be able to have an impact on the community.
The last day of Sunday School at Masjid Al Noor in Brookfield
“There was a point where I saw that change in my father— from skeptical about me studying Islam to a point where he was proud of me and was happy. You could see that glow in his eyes when he would see me addressing the community and leading the prayer.”
With the Chicago market for imams saturated, Hussain sought opportunities in the Milwaukee area and landed a position at Masjid Al-Huda in Greenfield. “I remember telling my mom, ‘I’ll gain some experience for a couple of years, then come back to Chicago.’”
But Hussain hadn’t expected to fall in love with the Milwaukee community. “After the first few years, I started to see Milwaukee as a place where I thought we would settle down, raise our family and get old here. The community here is very tight-knit, where you walk into the masjid and know everybody by name. The love and respect, care and compassion the community has shown me and my family these past 10 years has been just amazing.”
Becoming an Imam
Qari Noman, as everyone calls him (“Qari” is a title for one who has memorized the Quran), started his service at Masjid Al-Huda in Greenfield, as the religious director and youth director. There he established the first hifdh program in the state, a full-time program for memorizing the complete Quran.
Nader Shammout of Milwaukee, now 24, joined the program when he was a junior in high school. “We studied Quran all day long, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. We didn’t want to neglect other studies so we were homeschooled in math, science and other subjects. When I joined the class, I already knew 10 of the 30 chapters of the Quran. I enrolled for just one year and finished.
“As I got to know him, I realized Qari Noman is genuinely one of the most passionate, kind-hearted, humorous – he has too many good traits to name. People are naturally drawn to him and feel like they know him. I believe when God loves you, he makes you lovable to others,” Shammout said.
“I have known him for a long time. He fundamentally changed my life. When I joined his class, I was a shy, maybe a bit troubled, youth,” said Shammout, who is currently in the process of applying to medical school. “He always asks about me. When I was a teen, I could get a little emotional about sports. He gave me advice on how to react when I’m frustrated. Today I am a lot more careful and a lot more in control of my emotions.”
Hussain said his years at Masjid Al-Huda helped him grow. “When you come back from studies, you are very zealous. You have your knowledge and you want to make sure everyone understands it the way you understand it. You start realizing very soon it can’t always be your way. You can’t be sitting on a high horse. I realized that if I want to be effective and productive in my work, I have to meet people where they are.”
After four years at Masjid Al-Huda, Hussain was chosen to be the imam at ISM-West, Masjid Al-Noor, in Brookfield, where he has served the past six years.
ISM West 2018 Council
“When he was up for consideration, I got a group together and went to the Shura,” recalled Orusa Mozaffar Hassan of Brookfield, former ISM West Ameerah and Council President. “He was the whole package. He had learned the Qiraat, the 10 methods for pronouncing the Quran. He is an “alim,” a master scholar of the religion. He was born and raised in the U.S. and understands the culture.
“Our kids definitely need someone who understands the culture here, and not just the kids. It is important to me, too,” she added.
“His personality is welcoming. He loves to have fun. He brought many different types of people to the masjid and makes everyone feel comfortable. People tell me all the time that they wouldn’t have come had it not been for Qari Noman.”
Qari Noman attends everything, not just Friday prayers, ISM-West community members say. He is at all the programs and lectures, and participates in the masjid’s 5K run, camping trips, art programs and movie nights. He plays basketball and soccer with the youth. He is always available when someone needs counseling and responds to everyone without hesitation, they say.
“He has been a great role model and imam for the young people,” said Mohamed Nasef, 21, of Brookfield. “A few weeks ago, ISM West took teens through college age kids to play paintball and he went with us. He knows how to be a normal guy and a friend. He keeps the younger generation coming to the mosque.”
Reflecting on his experience as an imam, Hussain said, “One thing I have made sure to do is to always be available for the community. Whenever the community reached out to me, I tried my best to make myself available, whether it was the weekend or late at night, meeting at the mosque or at their home, whether it was a wedding or someone’s funeral, I made sure that I made myself available, that I gave those things priority over things that were less important at that time. A huge quality I have gained in my time here is learning to be present and to let people know you care about them, in their happiness and in their grief.”
Being an imam in the Milwaukee community “has allowed me to be more receptive, more respectful, less judgmental,” he said. “When we meet someone, we start judging them by their appearance or what they do. Over the years, you know what I have realized? The people you would not have imagined are some of the most pious individuals.”
“I can’t remember him missing anything,” Hassan said. “He is very accessible. It is not realistic to think we can find someone who can do what he did. We can’t look to replace him. It is not going to happen.”
Qari Noman Hussain and Abdullah Watson at a program for new converts at ISM West
Faiz Ahmed and Qari Noman at ISM West’s 5K run
Beyond the mosque
Hussain’s openness and commitment to the greater community have made him a valuable voice for good, Dr. Shah said. “Qari Noman is popular, young and progressive, ma’ shallah. He is very popular with both youth and adults, and in interfaith circles, ma’shallah. His beautiful lectures, social media posts and open access to the community all contribute to our wellbeing.
“When Our Peaceful Home was first established, Qari Noman was one of the first people to lend his enthusiastic support to our organization,” said Basema Yasin, the coordinator and advocate of the culturally specific domestic violence program for the Muslim community. During “our first National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October 2019, Qari Noman was the first to deliver a powerful Friday Prayer Sermon addressing the topic.” He participated in educational Zoom sessions on strengthening the Muslim family and even answered questions in Urdu. OPH advocates have sought his guidance when dealing with specific cases and he served as a guest speaker at OPH fundraisers.
“Qari Noman has always understood the plight of the victim and the need for organizations such as ours to offer support to women who are often alone in this country,” Yasin said. “He has been an immense asset to our community and his departure will indeed leave a void that will not be easily filled.”
Hussain has worked actively with many other Muslim organizations, including the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Marquette University Muslim Student Associations, serving as a speaker and providing advice. He has also served with Ma’ ruf Center for Youth Innovation, a Muslim non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of Milwaukee’s most disenfranchised and marginalized communities, and supports activities at the Dawah Center in Milwaukee.
He is on the Leadership Council of Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance, where he said, he is “supporting the work of Sister Janan and others who have been on that front for a long time.” He is proud of the work they have been able to do in encouraging Muslims to be more politically active – “not only increasing the awareness about the importance of voting but being civically engaged. We are starting the Wisconsin Muslim political history in Milwaukee. I think that is a big deal,” he said.
Hussain has also played a large role in interfaith relationships, serving as a leader in the Brookfield-Elm Grove Interfaith Network and as a member of the cabinet of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. He recently spoke on a panel with other interfaith leaders speaking about race at Marquette University.
Milwaukee has a long history of interfaith work, but it has been led by laymen, he noted. “I think it is important for clergy to be involved in that work and that is why I chose to be a part of it.”
Pardeep Singh Kaleka, the executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, said he has deep respect for Qari Noman. “He is a scholar but he is also very connected to the people. He has a deep understanding of theology that comes from an understanding of life. He has a lived faith.
“What I also love about him is his ability to exemplify vulnerability,” Kaleka said. “He is one who will share his life—his sadness, his grief, his joy. When you connect to Imam Hussain, you connect to all of his experiences. I don’t know if there are a lot of men who are in tune to all that. “We have talked about the loss of his father. I can identify with losing a father and having to step up. There is a maturity when that happens. For young people who may be struggling with some of those dynamics, like how do I grieve, it is really important to show them, as he did, that vulnerability is a strength.
“Last year George Floyd’s murder touched off so many deep wounds in our society. We had an entire summer of doing interfaith marches. Imam Hussain was a leader in so many of those marches. He was an organizer. He really does embody putting your faith into action.”
Qari Noman speaking at an AAPI Vigil
Allah’s perfect plans
“Allah is the best of planners,” Imam Hussain wrote in a message to the ISM community. “Allah has a way of changing our plans … and this year served as a reminder to all of us that no matter what we envision, no matter what we hope, no matter what we plan, there is truly nothing in our hands.” He goes on to explain that since his father’s death, as an only son, he has been considering the need to move back to Chicago to be close to his mother.
In his interview with the WMJ, he also shared that he and his wife discussed the benefits the move would have for their children. If any of his children aspired to pursue religious life as he did, Milwaukee does not yet have the level of Islamic instruction needed. That is one of his prayers for the Milwaukee community, he said.
“Along with that, it is an opportunity for growing professionally myself and that is part of the decision here. Milwaukee has prepared me for the next chapter in my professional growth. I am grateful And I think that because the opportunity presented itself, it made sense to take this step.”
Hussain has accepted a position at the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park, Illinois, one of the oldest and largest institutions in the Chicagoland area. “It creates an opportunity of growth for me where I will be able to oversee the religious affairs and the vision and direction of the organization, moving more into a leadership role overall,” he said.
“I will be able to apply the skills I have learned over the past 10 years on a larger platform and continue to grow in my own professional life. My gratitude and thanks go to the opportunities I had in Milwaukee and the community that supported me, and the organizations that believed in me.”
Hussain’s last day at ISM-West is August 14.
“We wish him well and hope he visits often,” Dr. Shah said.
Qari Noman and his children: Qasim, 8; Hashim, 7; Muhammad, 6; Hafsa, 4; and Hamzah, 3.