history

Dr. Mohammad Aslam Cheema

The Arab and Muslim Women’s Research and Resource Institute was fortunate to interview Dr. Cheema on June 14, 2010.  Dr. Cheema explained the years he stayed in Chicago in the early 1950s for medical school training. He described the sparseness of the Muslim and Pakistani community and the ways that he and his wife created a small community.  Returning to Pakistan, he intended to stay and establish specialization departments at certain hospitals. Upon the lack of success of this endeavor, due to inadequate supplies and untrained personnel, Dr. Cheema returned to the U.S. for a residency in Milwaukee. Over the years, he was instrumental in expanding and establishing the community in Milwaukee. In his seventies, Dr. Cheema’s stories reveal much about the start of the Milwaukee Muslim community and the way of life for early immigrant Muslims to America.

The interview with Dr. Cheema on June 14 was insightful as he provided key insights into the early Chicago Muslim community. He described the segregation of the Muslims along ethnic lines, but the pleasant relationship among all of them. He explained the high prevalence of Armenian Muslims and the power of the Nation of Islam. At one point, he described in great detail a dinner that he had with Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam. Insights into that encounter are invariably important in American history and the understanding of Islam in America.  He explained, “the Nation introduced Islam to America.”

In the interview, he described how the community in Milwaukee area grew. Interactions with non-Muslims varied, he explained, based on what political leader was governing the area. He described the initial difficulty in securing an approval to open the Islam Society of Milwaukee, and his hand in the eventual allowance of its establishment.  Furthermore, he served on the boards of several national Muslim organizations, which were influential in bringing Islam into American life.  His lengthy and detailed tails of American and Pakistani life are not only vibrantly interesting, but key in understanding how early minority communities are established and sustained.
Dr Cheema’s interview is a brilliant conversation providing insight into the early communities of Chicago and Milwaukee, the life of a Muslim-Pakistani doctor, and the difficulties of establishing institutions for American Muslims.

Particularly interesting was the conversation which transpired after the recorded was turned off. At the end of the interview, the daughter of Dr. Cheema joined her father in a lengthy discussion of politics and the necessity of education ensued. Dr. Cheema insisted that the history of Islam extends back into the early years of America, explaining that one of Columbus’ assistant captains was a Muslim from Spain and that Thomas Jefferson, who owned two Qur’ans, based the constitution most certainly from that Holy Book amongst many others. The family was certainly an informed, educated and political family, caring about their community and its development within the American culture. Dr Cheema’s interview is irreplaceable, exposing a deep history of American Muslim life.