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  • Writer's pictureAslam Abdullah

Dr. Muhammad Ashraf: The Cardiologist who resuscitated the Community in Central California

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

Fresno local newspaper honoring Dr. Muhammad Ashraf

The Morrison Masjid was built by the Sikh rulers of Kapurthala

Kapurthala called the 'Paris of Punjab' because of its breathtaking architecture and gorgeous gardens, was a princely state in British colonial India. Its rulers were Sikhs, and the majority of its residents, 58 percent, were Muslims in 1947. There was interreligious harmony, as is evident from the Moorish Mosque constructed by the Sikh rulers to honor Muslim citizens.

The fire of hatred started by the Hindu nationalists through their organizations, such as the RSS, Hindu Mahasabha, and Araya Samaj, who advocated the expulsion of Muslims from India or a second-class citizen status if they stayed in India engulfed almost the entire country. The country got divided. The state symbolizing religious tolerance saw the murder of over 15,000 Muslims in its streets.

In the book "Communal Violence in the Princely States During Partition - 1947, professor Kanwaljit Kaur from Punjab University - Patiala describes some of the events in detail. On August 15th, in Patiala, about 500 rioters, including police and troops in uniform, attacked Mohalla Kucha Rangrazan and killed 1,000 Muslims. They killed about 14,000 Muslims in Patiala state.

His parents were lucky. They survived the attack and journeyed some 216 kilometers to Faisalabad to build a new life from the ashes of a well-settled community since the 1700s in Kapurthala. Many lost their lives.

It was here Muhammad Ashraf was born in 1950. Seventy-three years later, living close to the best national Park in the US, Yosemite National Park, he remembers events and places that shaped his life. As the second of four brothers, he recounts his challenges in pursuing modern education in a culture without education.

Participants of the Muslim Youth camp in Yosemite offering prayers

Since 1980, when he moved to the Central Californian town of Madera, he not only established a successful clinic specializing in cardiology but was instrumental in initiating the first mosque in the area, an annual youth camp, a middle school, and two annual health camps that since 2010 have served over 50,000 patients free. His efforts to start a health clinic in Mendota, a small town in Fresno, deserve special mention. The city has a total land area of 3.3 square miles. Its population is about 13,000.

In 1891, Mendota thrived as a Railroad storage and switching facility site. The city is identified as The Cantaloupe Center of the World. S

The city suffers from chronic unemployment, averaging 20%. In 2009, a drought combined with a recession caused unemployment to surge above 40%. Unemployment was quoted at 45% in May 2011.

In 2019, USA Today named Mendota the "worst city in America" due to poverty, violent crime rate, and high unemployment. In this city, Dr. Ashraf established a clinic with the help of his physician friends and the city officials.

Dr. Ashraf was also instrumental in opening a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, and sponsoring and participating in medical camps worldwide.

He plans to turn his school into a higher secondary school. His involvement in local government was evident when the state public officials and the media recognized his services to the community a few months ago by honoring his highest state public award.

He introduced a sense of selflessness in public work and motivated many to dedicate themselves to this noble task. Central California has more than 25 Islamic centers and a well-established community with its weekend school and charitable institutions.

Dr. Muhammad Ashraf with his wife and daughters.

It wasn't easy to balance a life between one's vocation, community work, and raising a family with three daughters, especially when his life partner suffered from a rare genetic eye disease that left her virtually blind. His inspiration comes from Saadia Saadi, who never complained about his medical condition in the 48 years of their marital life. Instead, she stood by him in every step of his work. His daughter, Madeeha, is an attorney who worked for the State Department and authored a monumental study on female trade worldwide. His daughter Afifa worked as a teacher, and her twin, Rabeeza, now helps him run the clinic.

Dr. Ashraf used his resources to serve his community and, in the process, introduced the greater Fresno community to prominent thinkers and stalwarts of the Muslim American society such as Dr. Sulayman Nayang, Imam Siraj Wahaj, Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, Dr. Hassan and Maher Hathouts and Dr. Muzammily Siddiqi among hundreds of others.

Each year, in the beautiful surroundings of Yosemite, hundreds of families assemble to reconnect with scholars and develop a sense of belonging to a faith that brings together people from all ethnic and cultural groups.

During his community work, he faced enough challenges that could have broken down any strong person. The first trial came when the mosque he had helped establish became the center of a power tussle. Some individuals were so intense in their desire to control the Muslim place of worship that they even threatened to use violence. Dr. Ashraf and others refrained from retaliating and opened an alternative center to pursue their religious work. The worst was after 9/11 when he met the probe of law enforcement agencies for unknown accusations and uncommitted action.

Closer to his school, the Valley Crescent, was the office of a charter school established by an organization, Biladullah. The group had undertaken several projects to help the African-American Muslim community. The law enforcement agencies had suspicions and found a reason to raid its village in Fresno's vicinity. The agencies could not prove their accusation but found some financial irregularities and closed their institutions and projects. Some of their office bearers also served prison terms.

Children at the camp planting trees

The proximity of Dr. Ashraf's school led the authorities to question him. They followed him, and the officials raided his school. They could not find any objection and had to stop the investigation. It was one of the most challenging times of his life. His career was at stake, and his reputation online. Yet he stood up firm and faced the challenges courageously.

A second incident occurred recently. Someone vandalized the Madera mosque. Dr. Ashraf became the voice against this hate crime. He organized public meetings and press conferences. Instead of focusing on the hate crime, the authorities chased him and started targeting him on grounds unknown to officials until today. They reached his residence to arrest him. Luckily, his daughter was there to prevent that. Later, the law enforcement agents apologized and even offered lunch to him, but he refused.

Dr. Ashraf owes everything to his faith and family for his values and work in the US. He learned the importance of sacrifice from his father, perseverance, and patience after the tragic death of his younger brother, the habit of being grateful in all circumstances from his wife, and the quality of discipline from his father, his actual role model.

His father was not an educated person in the modern sense of education. He came from a farming background and spent time and resources in tending agriculture. Even one in the small village knew him. He was their judge, advocate, and guardian. After completing his education in the town where he grew up, he joined another school, walking six miles daily to pursue higher education. The higher secondary school was far from the place of his residence. His father decided to move to a bigger town to help his son fulfill his dream of higher education. Over the comfort and status, he chose his son's future dream. He bought a small house close to school, college, and stadium. It is here Dr. Ashraf developed a keen interest in physics. Upon completing higher secondary with distinction, he informed his father that he wanted to be a physicist, an academic pursuit he could not explain. The father advised him to pursue medicine.

Dr. Ashraf now realizes the worth of his father's advice, who stayed with him until he completed his education at Nashtar Medical School, Multan. Dr. Ashraf came to the US in 1975 to join Mt Sinai Hospital in New York residency. Unfortunately, his father was not alive when he acquired the credentials to practice in the US.

However, the event that shook him to the core was the tragic death of his newly married younger brother in an accident in Belgium. Dr. Ashraf heard about the tragedy from an unknown person he had never met in his life, Amanullah Khan, who found out about two dead bodies lying in a morgue. Amanullah discovered that the two were of Pakistani origin and had died in a car accident. He searched the wreckage of the car to find the identities of the deceased and got hold of Dr. Ahsraf in the US. Aman took care of the formalities of flying the bodies to Pakistan and worked with the Belgian authorities to collect insurance money from the driver responsible for the accident. He sent every penny to the family of the deceased in Pakistan. Dr. Ashraf never met Aman, but he still remembers his help and efforts to ensure to help the family.

"I am trying to do what I saw my father do, sacrificing his comfort to give me a better status. I am trying to do what I saw Amanullah Khan do, helping strangers and standing by them in their hour of difficulty. I am trying to do what I saw my wife doing, never complaining about her challenges and never questioning the divine wisdom of her condition.," he credits them for what he is today.

He believes that it is God who, through small or big events, prepares His creation to take on more significant challenges. Ultimately, it is up to individuals to learn from those events to move to a higher stage of life or become stagnant. "I chose to walk in the shade of events, learning from everyone who could teach me, and my journey would continue until I return to my Creator; he asserts.

Dr. Ashraf playing volleyball with campers

He is content with what he has. He takes pride in his accomplishments without being arrogant. What he has done in Central California is beyond the strength of one person. He believes that it was the will of God that inspired him to offer his contribution to people he calls his neighbors.

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