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"The sound of a basketball bouncing in the gym early in the morning is spiritual for me," says Jamaal Diwan, imam of the Islamic Center of Irvine (ICOI), and that quote alone shows that the 30-year-old is no ordinary holy man. The Torrance native heads one of the fastest-growing mosques in Orange County, a modest structure in an industrial park that draws more than 2,000 worshippers every Friday for Diwan's afternoon and evening khutbahs (sermons). He's conversant in Facebook and Twitter, does ecumenical outreach, and even hosts a secular book club for those interested (next on the list: a biography of Benjamin Franklin).
Most important, Diwan doesn't see any divide in the Muslim-American hyphen. As an Islamic scholar, he's equipped with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad to navigate immigrant Muslims through life in the United States. But as a convert, Diwan also understands where their children are coming from.
"Home is not here for a lot of immigrants, and that means differences between children and their parents," Diwan says in his office. Just outside, women in hijabs lead the mosque's nursery through children's rhymes in English. "But the differences are small. What I do is facilitate."
Diwan describes his upbringing as the "typical upper-middle-class suburban SoCal life." Son of a Pakistani father and a Canadian mother who weren't particularly religious, he enrolled at the University of California, San Diego, eventually graduating with a bachelor's degree in Third World Studies. There, his love of hip-hop and basketball led him to Islam.
"A friend I played basketball with at the gym said I should read The Autobiography of Malcolm X," Diwan recalls. "The big thing with Malcolm is a consistent brutal honesty with himself in search of truth, but [he was] always dedicated to something bigger than himself. The theme of social consciousness—it opened my eyes to injustice. By the end of the week, I became a Muslim."
From there, Diwan became involved in the university's Muslim Student Union. He never "consciously" decided to study to become an imam. "The way I saw it, if I was going to do something like [convert], I wasn't going to take it lightly," he explains. Studies into Islam led him to Egypt, which he fled just as the 2011 revolution took off. Upon returning, he was contracted to work with youth groups in Orange County, eventually gravitating toward the ICOI, which offered him its head imam position in the summer of 2012.
Diwan's emphasis on paying attention to young Muslims has pegged the ICOI as "the youth mosque" in Southern California Islamic circles, a label the imam somewhat embraces. "I don't like the 'youth is the future' cliché, but they care to change and do," he says. "Adults can, too, but it's important in our youth that they understand their faith that's positive to their surroundings. Their existence should have some sort of influence on the world around them." Toward that end, Diwan organizes youth classes, regionwide conferences—and, yes, basketball tournaments.
Father to a baby boy, Diwan plans to further grow ICOI through a capital campaign and his own education, hoping to eventually earn a doctorate in religious studies. And he's happy to do it in a region still known more in mainstream circles for evangelical Christianity than Islam. "For Muslims in America, Orange County is a special place, and there are amazing people doing many amazing things," Diwan concludes. "And whatever small part [our mosque] can do in that, it's a blessing."