TARIM, YEMEN — There are said to be 365 mosques in the sleepy village of Tarim, one for every day of the year. Five times a day, calls to prayer echo through this desert valley, reverberating through the narrow streets, penetrating the mud and straw walls of homes and shops, reminding all that "there is no God but Allah."
Those calls are heeded by such young men as Jamal ud Deen Hysaw, who grew up in Illinois; Yahwa Rodas, who was born in Kansas; and Abdul Karim Yahya, who hails from California.
Each of these robed and barefooted young men has converted to Islam and adopted new names and manners. They live here at the Dar al Mustafa religious academy in Tarim. They wake daily at 3 a.m. to study the Koran, along with some 600 other students from around the world. They spend their long days learning the ways of the prophet Muhammad in preparation for spreading his word.
But as Americans still try to cope with the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and as Islam is being eyed with suspicion by many unfamiliar with it, these men acknowledge that they have their work cut out for them.
"Now, more than ever, the world is in need of explanations," says Mr. Yahya, who, like his American friends here, changed his name when he became a Muslim. "But people are also more ready to listen than before ... and we have our mission to bring them in."
A seven-day horse ride from the holy city of Medina, Tarim was one of the first villages to embrace Islam during the prophet's lifetime. Soon after, its missionaries began to journey throughout the world. Tarim's clerics and scholars are credited with spreading Islam to Indonesia, Malaysia, and East Africa in the early 13th century.
The Dar al Mustafa academy opened up seven years ago to revive this ancient tradition. And it is from here that this new generation of missionaries "Sons of the West" as they call themselves hope to set forth and tell their American brothers and sisters what truth is.
This truth, they say, has nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with accepting Allah and adhering to his ways. Nonetheless, they shy away from criticizing Osama bin Laden whose ancestral home happens to stand in the same valley. "I don't know enough about Osama bin Laden to blame or praise him," says Yahya.
He would point an accusing finger not at one person or another, but at "disobedience to Allah." That, he states, "is the root of all our problems," and that is why the student missionaries are determined to bring guidance to the unbelievers. "We need to bring people back to their deliverer," he says.
But these men do have one worry, they say. The Yemeni government in an effort to get back in the good graces of the US might close their school.
Since Sept. 11, the government has closed hundreds of private religious schools such as this one, and detained close to 200 foreign students. John Walker Lindh, the American standing trial for joining the Taliban in their fight against the US, is believed to have become a militant in a Yemeni school similar to this one.
Those efforts are beginning to bear fruit. The US announced this week it will soon send some 150 special forces troops to Yemen to help root out terrorist cells, and US warships will soon begin to stop for refueling at Aden.
The young men here say they believe in jihad or holy war but in terms of a war of words and not deeds. After a four-year course, which is conducted in Arabic, they will be sent out as missionaries, either to their own countries or elsewhere. "My father said that we will stay here until we learn a lot," says Yahya's 6-year old daughter, Mariam. "Then we can leave, and we will go home and teach the infidels."
The men boast that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the West. Though there are no formal tallies available, the men say that even since Sept.11, some 25,000 converts have joined their ranks in the US.
Mr. Hysaw admits he is somewhat apprehensive about returning to a country in which many people have a heightened suspicion of Islam.
"After Sept. 11, I felt a lot of anti-Islamic emotions in the air," says Deen, an African-American who came to Islam through an earlier interest in the Nation of Islam. "Folks would call out derogatively to me and my wife in the street.... So, yes I have some trepidation about how it will be when I return. But, hopefully, by then things will be calmer."
As one young man talks the others all nod in agreement and support. They close their eyes and murmur invocations as Allah's name is mentioned.
They pull at whiskers on their chins that seem to refuse to grow any longer. They stop all chatter when the sound of the Muezzin beckons for prayer. They won't look a woman in the face, shake her hand, or remain alone with her in a room. But they also grin slightly at the mention of girls, bars, and rock music.
All three have pierced ear lobes, and one admits he has a tattoo under his robes. Telltale signs, perhaps, of lives left behind.
Hundreds of years ago, descendants of the prophet came and settled here in Tarim. They secluded themselves in surrounding caves to pray, erecting walls around their homes in the village, so their children would stay home, read the Koran, and stay clear of corrupt worldly pursuits.
When these righteous children left their compounds, they were sent directly off into the world to preach and teach. And when they returned, each such missionary would build a mosque to thank Allah for having shown him the way.
"Inshallah" God willing concludes Yahya, touching his breast with his hand in a gesture of love, "we will have many more mosques here soon."