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Imam Abdulah Polovina strives to foster understanding among Muslims and non-Muslims alike
Objavljeno: 01. Feb 2018. 20:02:22
By Emily Green

As he walked softly across the plush, carpet-covered floor of his Southeast Portland mosque, Imam Abdulah Polovina explained that in Islam, there are “99 Beautiful Names” for God.
“Allah,” he said, “is most common.”

Imam Abdulah Polovina sits in his Portland mosque. (Photo by Celeste Noche)

Polovina, 44, is a soft-spoken Bosnian man with a thick accent and a magnetic smile.
On this chilly Wednesday afternoon in January, the prayer hall at his mosque is quiet and empty. During Polovina’s Friday services, however, anywhere from 50 to 100 Muslims fill the room – even more when Friday lands on a holiday, he said.
But his services aren’t exclusive to followers of Islam. Polovina has made a habit of opening the doors of his mosque to anyone who wants to learn more about his faith. Whether visitors are followers of other religions, police officers, politicians or simply the curious passerby, Polovina is happy to have them.
“I invite them to come, to actually hear and see that we Muslims have no hidden agendas,” he said.

In November, Polovina welcomed a group of 25 Linfield College students to his Friday service. The students were there as part of a religious studies class, led by professor Jennifer Williams.
The female students brought scarves to cover their hair, but Polovina told them there was no need to wear the head coverings unless they were comfortable with it.
He showed the students where to take off their shoes before entering, where mosque-goers typically wash their hands and faces before prayer, and where to sit during the service – they joined the women in the back partition of the hall.
In Islam, everyone prays in the direction of the shortest distance to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. That’s where, in the seventh century, they believe Allah revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. From Portland, that direction is slightly east of due north.
Williams said her class needed to “talk through” the gender segregation in the prayer hall, but they didn’t feel excluded from their position in the back with the women.
A pamphlet on “Women in Islam” that Polovina often gives to first-time visitors states that when people think of Muslim women as being “oppressed, inferior and unequal,” they are confusing Islam with cultural practices.
“These stereotypes,” it argues, “fail to recognize that Islam has empowered women with the most progressive rights since the 7th century.”
According to the Quran, men and women are equal in the sight of God, and Islam gave women the right to education, to marry someone of their choice, to work, to own and sell property, and to participate in civic and political engagement.

Upon their visit to Polovina’s mosque on Southeast Foster Road, Williams’ students didn’t really know what to expect. But like most visitors, they were touched by the graciousness of their host.
But there was one thing about the visit the students found unsettling.
Across the street and a couple hundred yards away from the mosque, a large billboard proclaimed, “Jesus … Your Only Way to God,” with an image of the crucifixion.
Funded through Christian Aid Ministries’ Gospel Billboards program, the advertisement was the first thing several of the students noticed when they got out of their cars in the mosque’s parking lot.
“We felt like that was a fairly insensitive message to be right in front of this Muslim mosque,” Williams said.
Through a large window in the prayer hall, the billboard’s message was clearly visible from where the students and Muslims knelt in prayer.
It has since been replaced with a McDonald’s advertisement.
Regardless of whether the billboard’s proximity to the mosque was intentional, its polarizing message serves as a reminder of why Polovina’s approach to spiritual leadership is necessary.
For him, sharing Islam with non-Muslims is an integral part of his calling. But it’s not one-sided. He seeks out the truths of other religions as well.
He believes shared understanding among different religions is the key to peace, and he strives to help followers of different faiths see the values they share, rather than focusing on the differences that separate them.
He was the first Muslim ever to enroll at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry – a Catholic college. He graduated with a master’s degree in 2015.
What the billboard’s sponsors may not realize is what Polovina learned while studying religions of the world: The Bible shares many teachings and religious figures with the Quran, including Jesus, who is an important prophet in Islam.
Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad taught many of the same universal values, such as peace, love and justice, Polovina explained.
Williams, who teaches a class called “Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” said the three religions are all “Abrahamic,” meaning they are derived from Abraham.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize how much they are pulling from the same origins,” she said.
All three religions are also monotheistic.
“They essentially worship the same God, the same tradition of God,” she said. Where Islam and Judaism are more focused on submission and practice, Christianity is more focused on belief, orthodoxy and proper doctrine, she said, “but they definitely overlap.”
With more than 1 billion followers worldwide, Islam is the world’s second-largest religion, after Christianity.
“There is so much polarization,” Polovina said. “When actually, we go deeply in his (Jesus’s) teaching, and the teaching of our Prophet and in general of Islam, we see so many similarities, and something that can connect us more than disconnect us.”

The Quran is the primary holy book of Islam. (Photo by Celeste Noche)


Polovina’s mosque is housed at the Bosniaks Educational & Cultural Organization, or BECO. The large, two-story building and adjoining playground serve as a community center where Bosnians come together for religious and non-religious events and gatherings.
More than 200 Bosnian families belong to BECO, although not all members are practicing Muslims. Most fled Bosnia-Herzegovina following the genocide that ended in 1995. They were the targets of a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign waged against them by Bosnian Serbs.
Polovina, who grew up in Bosnia-Herzegovina, was wounded three times during the war – once when he was shot in the leg during a sniper attack.

Now, he said, he teaches others to appreciate freedom.
“Because in Bosnia, we fought for that freedom, and we know the value of freedom,” he said. “We try to give message to others here, to young people, that we need to be careful in which way we deal with each other because we know it is so hard when that freedom is attacked. Freedom in America is still there, but we need to build it in a way.”
More than 100,000 people were killed and more than 2 million were displaced as a result of the Bosnian War. Polovina estimates that roughly 350 to 400 Bosnian Muslim families live in the Portland and Vancouver metro areas.
Before the war broke out, Polovina said, Bosnia-Herzegovina was a multicultural country where people of different faiths shared a mutual respect.
“We believe that we, from Bosnia, we are the crossroads between East and West,” he said. “From our historical experience, we can motivate and inspire our friends here to understand it’s OK to disagree, but despite all the disagreement, despite all our differences, we live in a time in which we need each other.”

The country’s capital city of Sarajevo, where Polovina grew up, was married and started a family, has long been known as a cultural crossroads of Europe, where East meets West.
It was also where Polovina discovered his calling and first led his community as an imam.
In 2000, his cousin invited him to visit Seattle during Ramadan, Islam’s sacred month of fasting. While he was there, he met refugees from Bosnia who urged him to move to the U.S.
Three months later, he did.
“Families from Bosnia needed a spiritual leader to help them to overcome the struggles in a new country,” he explained. “Language was one barrier, along with financial problems, the constant search for an adequate job, culture shock and spiritual thirst.”
He led the Islamic Community of Bosniaks in Washington for 12 years before moving to Portland with his wife and five children, where he’s become known as an advocate for Portland’s greater Muslim community, as well as for the Bosnian Muslims he represents.
“He has been instrumental in bringing that very enclosed and marginalized community to the front lines of positive partnerships with the city,” said Natasha Haunsperger, a police officer assigned to the Portland Police Bureau’s Office of Community Engagement.

Imam Abdulah Polovina (Photo by Celeste Noche)

Polovina has been an active member of the Police Bureau’s Muslim Advisory Council since its establishment in 2015, helping officers understand how to work with his community and also how to recruit younger Muslims to the force.
Haunsperger said Polovina has invited police officers to Friday prayers at his mosque and has given them tours of BECO. She said he serves as the department’s liaison to Muslims living in East Portland, often meeting with East Precinct commanders over cups of tea.
“He also participates in our monthly meetings,” she said, “where we’re trying to figure out how to address current issues, such as the perceived rise of Islamophobia, and how to portray the local Muslim community in its true light.”
Jan Elfers, director at Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, has gotten to know Polovina through speaking at BECO’s annual anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica.
Srebrenica is a town in Bosnia-Herzegovina where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in 1995.
“I have a lot of respect for him and his willingness to be out in the community and be a part of both educating communities about Islam, and learning about other religions, and also putting his faith into action in a lot of different ways,” Elfers said. “Especially in the last year, he’s been very active with going to churches and working on educating people about the Muslim ban and working with the Muslim Consulate on communications.”
Polovina has also spoken on panels and at rallies in Portland about the challenges that refugees and Muslims are facing in the current political climate.
Interwoven with all his public efforts is a strategy to get to know people on a personal level. He wants to jump over the hidden wall created by labels, such as “Muslim” and “non-Muslim,” he explained.
“I would like for people to see me not just as Imam but as a human being that is doing something for that common good,” he said. “My advice for everybody is to try to build that personal level because each of us can do something.”


At the Institute for Christian/Muslim Understanding of Oregon and Southwest Washington, Polovina is an active board member.
That’s where he met the lead pastor at Portland Mennonite Church, Rod Stafford. The two men have gotten to know each other and have visited each other’s houses of worship to deliver greetings and attend sermons.
They have also united their practitioners for meals at BECO and then at the Mennonite church on Southeast 35th Avenue.
“It was really positive for the people involved,” Stafford said. “It breaks down whatever assumptions or stereotypes you might have. In the Christian tradition, we’re told to love our neighbors as ourselves, but you’ve got to figure out who your neighbors are first, and I think that really helped a lot.”

The mosque at the Bosniaks Educational & Cultural Organization in Portland. (Photo by Celeste Noche)

Behireta Corbadzic, a Bosnian refugee, has been attending Polovina’s services at BECO with her mother and two daughters for three years. When she moved to Portland, she said, her father was suffering from colon cancer.
“Abdulah was here for my family,” she said. “He helped me, whatever I needed help with, and I believe that is how he is with everybody else.”
Corbadzic said she’s been to Friday services where Polovina has invited Christian pastors to speak.
“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “I think this should be done more from every religious side, because sometimes people just assume what is being talked about, what they teach us.”
She said imams she’s met previously haven’t had the same enthusiasm for interfaith dialogues.
“I’m not sure why,” she said. “I really like the idea of us talking more, sharing what we learn, what we believe, and all that. To keep the door open to others, it just helps so much for us to understand each other.”

Imam Polovina in the mosque at the Bosniaks Educational & Cultural Organization in Portland. (Photo by Celeste Noche)

(, | 26 Jan 2018)

Email Senior Staff Reporter Emily Green at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @greenwrites.

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