Posted by Charles Honey | The Grand Rapids Press March 28, 2009
EAST GRAND RAPIDS -- Muhammad Rasoul, chief operating officer of Global Forex Trading, has been in back-to-back meetings since 5:30 a.m., starting with a conference call to Japan and London. He hopes to be home in time to put his two younger kids to bed.
But in this typical wire-to-wire day, Rasoul also will make time for something sacred: the five prayers Muslims are expected to make each day.
"Anytime, I can close that door and do whatever I have to do," Rasoul says of his airy office at 4760 E. Fulton St. in Ada Township. "I really benefit from having that five minutes of peace and quiet to myself. It's almost like a meditation."
Prayer is an obligation Rasoul takes seriously, as he does all other aspects of his adopted Islamic faith. Whether it's flying to Singapore on business or teaching his children about God, Islam is his guidebook for doing the right thing.
If you think you know who Muslims are, meet Rasoul and think again.
With his Christian, Allendale upbringing, reddish-blond hair and Amish-style beard, he doesn't fit the popular image of a typical Muslim. But Rasoul strives to follow God's word and the Prophet Muhammad's example in all things -- including his high-powered job as an international currency trader.
A colorful prayer rug hangs near his office door and prayer beads dangle next to a white board. On it, over a diagram of the company's international offices, is written in Arabic, "In the name of God, the most merciful, the most beneficent."
"I put it up here just as a reminder," says Rasoul, 36, intensely talkative and friendly in a guy-next-door way. "It wouldn't be possible for me to work the way I work if I didn't have a firm understanding of why I'm doing it."
Taking a cue from the popular WWJD bracelets, he will ask himself in every major decision, "What would Muhammad do?"
"Those values I have for the right way of doing things -- I can't separate that from my job or my home," he says.
That conviction has served him well at Global Forex, a fast-growing online currency trading firm that operates under the brand GFT.
Since he joined as the firm's third employee in 1996, it has grown to 350 employees worldwide, with more than 150 working under him. GFT has three U.S. offices and five others from the United Kingdom to Dubai, with customers in more than 120 countries.
His job as executive vice president and COO is turbo-charged, piling up 500 to 800 e-mails a day and flying more than 120,000 miles a year. He has risen through the ranks quickly since joining GFT founder and president Gary Tilkin as a college intern.
Rasoul's confidence, quick thinking and fair treatment of employees fueled his rise, says Kurt Hoeksema, vice president of trading and risk management.
"He's very, very driven," says Hoeksema, 32, of Byron Center.
Hoeksema was surprised when he met Rasoul 10 years ago and found his boss named Muhammad was a white guy from Allendale.
They have become friends since then, finding common ground in faith and family despite differing beliefs.
"Faith is the most important thing in my life," says Hoeksema, who attends Mars Hill Bible Church. "I believe the same is true for him."
Rasoul says Islam has helped him do his job well and ethically. He looks to the record of Muhammad's behavior for a role model.
"When my job gets stressful, I try to follow that example of being calm, watching my tone, making sure I'm listening to all the perspectives."
He extends those values to his family and their 1908 home on a broad, tree-lined street in East Grand Rapids. Children Nadia, 8, and Yaseen, 6, go to Wealthy Elementary. Nadia takes dance, and Yaseen plays soccer. His wife, Michele, minds them both while Michael, 18, her son from a previous marriage, takes martial arts and cooks delicious dishes.
A traditional lifestyle
It's a largely typical American family though they don't celebrate Easter. And while the kids enjoy Christmas gatherings with their grandparents, Muhammad and Michele teach them Islamic values and the meaning of the holy month of Ramadan.
Michele's hopes for the children are the same as those of most mothers.
"I want my kids to grow up to be happy and to be accepted for who they are," says Michele, 39 explaining she feels at home with Islam, a faith she adopted three years after marrying Muhammad in 1996.
"I had these ideas about what a Muslim woman was," says Michele, who grew up attending Baptist Sunday School in Comstock Park. "I thought women wore hijabs (head coverings) because guys didn't want their wives to be seen."
In reality, she has found women are "honored" by Islam and that she is not obligated to wear the hijab. She rarely does because she doesn't like drawing stares, or cashiers shouting "DO YOU WANT PLASTIC OR PAPER?" as if she didn't understand English.
But she appreciates the direct relationship to God she feels Islam affords, that she doesn't "have to go talk to some man and have him tell me all the things I had to do to get right with God."
Muhammad also had misconceptions about Islam before he learned its basics from a deli clerk. That was in 1993, when he was still named Russell V. Brown III and worked the night shift at Kinko's.
Raised in the conservative Anglican Catholic Church, he moved from Grand Rapids to Allendale around age 6. As a teen, he loved hip-hop music and dreamed of being a rapper. But he says he got with the wrong crowd, made bad decisions and ended up on probation for carrying a concealed weapon.
Then he went to the deli near Kinko's one night and saw Yusef Ali wearing a turban. Rasoul asked about it, and Ali told him about Islam.
"As soon as I saw him, I was like, 'There's something different about this guy,'" recalls Ali, 37. "He was charismatic, and he was interested in learning. Before we knew it, we were off and running."
Rasoul was ready. He had been wrestling with doubts about the God he had been taught and studying other religious traditions. Ali began feeding him books on Islam. Rasoul devoured them.
Through reading and meeting Muslims, Rasoul found Islam clicked. He saw it as an extension of Christian teaching though it portrayed Jesus as a prophet, not God's son.
"Really, it didn't go contrary to the way I was brought up," he asserts. "In fact, it confirmed what I felt was right about how I was brought up and clarified things I had issues with."
He made his declaration of faith, or shahada, at a gas station where Ali worked. Soon after, he moved into a house with Ali and others that functioned as a prayer and teaching center. Eventually, they established Baitul Shukur, a mosque on Jefferson Avenue SE where Rasoul is treasurer.
He took the name Muhammad Al-amin Rasoul, Arabic for "Muhammad the trustworthy messenger." The name is apt, he says, because, as a Caucasian, he delivers a message by dispelling people's preconceptions about Islam.
"There are plenty of times in a business meeting (when) one guy says, 'I have never met someone named Muhammad who looks like you.' It gives me an opportunity to explain and expand their understanding of what Islam is."
Rasoul says Islam changed his life for the better, and fast.
"Before, it was all about me, about what I wanted. (Now), my motivation is totally different -- doing right by God, right by my family and right by me. When things are in that order, it's hard to screw up."
Still, he's keenly aware of his shortcomings but is confident God understands.
"At the end of the day, we've just got to do the best we can," he says, "and God will be all right with that."
E-mail Charles Honey: email@example.com