Dr. Alim Khandekar
A former Chair of the ISNA Founders Committee, a previous President of the Muslim Society of Memphis, and a current thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon, Dr. Alim Khandekar is one of our community’s earliest members who helped establish the Muslim community. He takes us back almost half a century ago on a journey through the progression of the Memphis Muslim community. To encourage further success, Dr. Khandekar points out areas that he believes the community can still work on.
Interviewed by Naisha Chowdhury
For members of our audience who haven’t had the opportunity to meet you, can you briefly introduce yourself?
I was born in Burdwan, India, West Bengal. Soon after I was born, Pakistan was formed and there were some communal riots between Muslims and Hindus. Shortly after, my father decided to move our family to Dhaka, which was then East Pakistan. I was about two and a half years old when we moved to Dhaka. I am one of six siblings. I have two older sisters, and of the four younger brothers. My siblings and I grew up in Old Dhaka. We went to school there and then I went to medical college in Dhaka city. I came to the United States in 1970, immediately after I graduated medical school. This was before the civil war between Pakistan and India, and before Bangladesh’s independence. I came to America before all of those events took place.
You are among the first Muslims to come to Memphis. What was the community like when you came?
When I came here, Dr. Moinuddin and Br. Fariduddin Faruk were here. It was a very small Muslim community. There wasn’t an exact “community” doing gathered activities. At that time, we didn’t even know when Ramadan was. One day, this was in 1975, they called me and said “You know, Eid is tomorrow.” I said, “really?” I should have known when Eid was but I was so busy with my work, I didn't even know that it was approaching. We had a little gathering at Dr. Fariduddin Faruk’s house that Eid night and there I got to meet some Muslims, we were probably altogether around 8-10 people.
Since you moved to Memphis, how has the Muslim community evolved? What can the community still work on?
After that Eid, we met the next Eid, although I don’t remember if we had Eid prayer or not. But soon, we felt the need for meeting more often so we used to meet at the University Center of both the University of Tennessee Health and Medical School as well as Memphis State University. Initially, we had regular Sunday afternoon meetings where we would gather for Halaqa and read the Qur’an. Shortly after, we started a class for teaching our children as well. We were given two rooms where we would sit and pray Dhuhr. After Dhuhr, we would have our programs. Throughout the year, we would also have some communal events such as Eid prayers, taraweeh during Ramadan, and Isha prayers during the weekends. This was in 1976. Around the end of 1976 and the beginning of 1977, we started having Jummah prayers. We would have Jummah prayers at a place called “Interfaith Center.” I don’t know if that place still exists now or not but it was behind the UT Medical School. We used to pray Jummah depending on when they could open the door for us; sometimes we wouldn't be able to find the key or get in. At most, it would be a total of 5 of us attending Jummah prayer. A year later, in 1978, we formed the Muslim Society of Memphis. At that time, Dr. Usmani had moved to Memphis from Holly Springs, MS. After he came to Memphis, we began having more regular meetings. We formed a group and tried to raise some money to buy a piece of property to build a mosque. After we gathered some money, we bought the property which was an old house and then we renovated it and used it as our mosque. Today, that property is Masjid As Salam.
The Memphis community has grown in numbers, in Masajid, in activities, and overall, I can only say that we should be appreciative for all of the progress we have made. But we can still improve; there is a lot of room for improvement. Although we do not have any fights amongst ourselves, one thing that I think is lacking here is that we are still not doing things together as we should. I think we need to have better strategies in regards to Dawah, interfaith work, and social service. The way we are doing it now is that something comes up and then we do something, we are reactionary most of the times. Proactively, we should make a plan at the beginning of each year listing what we will do in the coming year, allocate money, and decide who will do what, and how to approach things- short term and long term planning. This is missing. I think it is a perfect time to do this because we have a lot of resources as far as money, talent, and number of people, we have everything except a good plan on how to go about executing our ideas.
You work with many organizations on a local and national scale, can you mention some of them and the work you do with them?
Locally, I have been working with all the Masajid, Pleasant View School, and some social activities that go on surrounding them. I also work on some “periodic” activities like Interfaith Dinner and Muslims in Memphis programs. I also participate in some organizations outside of Islam, interfaith activies like communication with other faith groups. Nationally, I am involved with ISNA, NABIC, Islamic Medical Association, and Bangladeshi Medical Association. For these, I have to travel and go to conferences and meetings in America and internationally. I also do surgery back home.
I believe that Allah (SWT) puts us in different places with purpose. The fact that I ended up coming to Memphis and then staying in Memphis is because Allah (SWT) put me here. Being here, I see many things that happen and then I participate. When you see things that need to be done surrounding you, then you should step up and do something. Sometimes you take initiatives, sometimes you support someone as they do the work, and sometimes, you just sit back and see what happens.
What’s your biggest motivation in balancing all of the work that you do, what prevents you from burning out?
I do get burnt out but my motivation is that I want to be useful to others: useful for my family, useful for my friends, useful for my community in Memphis as well as the bigger community in America. Not that I’m doing everything I should be doing, but I feel that if I don't do anything, I will be held accountable for that. I don’t want to have a chance to do something but not do it. But I am getting old so I don’t know if I can continue to do a whole lot.
In terms of a role model, in our religion, we look up to the Prophet Muhammad صَلَّى اللّٰهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ as he is the best role model for all of us. Beyond that, we look at our Shuyookh, our scholars, and other people who have done things for the community. These people are like our guideposts, and we follow them in what they did or are doing.
Do you have any words of wisdom or advice that you’d like to share with readers who want to do similar work as you in their future?
It is necessary for you to keep your mind open, be humble. We cannot make people do things they do not want to do. We need to lead by example. The best way to pass our enthusiasm is to work with people, not tell them what to do. If you see something that needs to be done, you start doing it and then invite people to help you do it. That’s the spirit I would like to tell everyone to follow.