Obama’s First Visit to a U.S. Mosque as President:
A Black History Month Reimagining
All are most welcome to link to and share this story, but it may not be reposted, reprinted, rewritten, excerpted or otherwise duplicated in any medium without the express written permission of the author. (Originally published on PreciousSpeaks.Com on February 3, 2016)
By Precious Rasheeda Muhammad
“The function of freedom is to free someone else.” ― Toni Morrison
“What a beautiful flag,” observed President Obama.
He couldn’t make out all of the detail, but the brilliance of its color had captured his attention as he made his way up the steps of the masjid.
He turned to the children crowding around him and fixed his gaze on the smallest among them: a toddler wearing a sharp green kufi and eyeing the president’s every move.
“What’s your name, little brother?”
“Aadam Ibrahim!” blurted out the boy’s older sister.
Hard as she tried, Raisah’s excitement had not allowed her to hold back. She immediately clapped her hands over her mouth, two little mocha-tan mounds of flesh piled on top of each other. Only a muffled “Oops!” sound escaped next.
Raisah was disappointed in herself. Her mother had warned her that morning to wait her turn, to not be over anxious during the president’s visit. And Raisah had sat there, as her mother’s fingers were all busied in two-strand twisting Raisah’s gorgeously-kinky hair, and then carefully tucking Raisah’s soft curly twirls neatly under Raisah’s favorite purple and gold headwrap, and Raisah had promised.
Yes, Umi, I will be patient. I will wait my turn.
“It’s alright, little sister,” came the president’s comforting response to Raisah’s outburst. “You’re a good helper. Thanks for the assist.”
So much relief overwhelmed Raisah, she couldn’t contain her smile. If the president thought she had helped, then surely she wouldn’t be in trouble with her mother, she told herself.
She fidgeted with one of her hand-painted earrings that her big cousin Yumnah had made for her to match her headwrap. She played with a two strand twist that had somehow managed to wiggle free from under her headcovering. Then she encouraged Aadam Ibrahim forward, with a gentle nudge. At just seven years old, she had already perfected the protective older sibling flair.
“Aadam Ibrahim, what are those colors on that flag?” inquired the president.
He had stooped down to the toddler’s height and was now pointing up at the flag hanging high up on the building.
“Do you know your colors already, young man?”
Aadam Ibrahim looked in the eyes of the man who had just been a giant before him moments before, but who was now at eye level. Then he looked back at his sister. Then he sneaked a shy look back at the president.
“Red, green, and yellow,” his voice barely a whisper in the president’s ears.
“Excuse me?” asked the president. “Come on, one more time, Aadam Ibrahim.”
“Red, green, and yellow!” shouted Aadam Ibrahim, with all his two-year-old might.
“Red, green and yellow, little brother? That’s right. Such vibrant and vigorous colors,” remarked the president. “So full of life! I bet you know all of your numbers too.”
“But … Mr. President, don’t forget about the open book on the flag,” offered Raisah. “And the Arabic.”
“Okay, little sister,” the president agreed, rubbing his hands together to generate some heat and eyeing some of the aftermath of Snowzilla. Though the blizzard had hit Washington a week earlier, there was still quite a bit of melting to go before the ground would be fully clear. “Why don’t you tell me about it on the way inside? This weather is too fickle. I don’t want your elders to blame me for you all getting sick.”
The president scooped up Aadam Ibrahim in his arms, to quicken their pace. The toddler rested his head on the president’s shoulder, wrapped his arms around the president’s neck, his tiny midnight brown hands a sharp contrast against the president’s white collar.
The president felt himself relax into the warmth of the embrace. He wondered, for what seemed like the millionth time in his life, what it would be like to have a son—a little Barack Hussein—in addition to the beautiful daughters he already had.
One thing was clear for sure: he could barely keep up with Raisah—her half skipping, half walking, dragging him along by his one free hand not holding Aadam Ibrahim, all the other children tightly thronged around them, and she, near breathlessly tumbling out words about the open book on the flag, with the light rays radiating out of it, explaining that it represented the importance of the Qur’an’s guidance in their lives, and how the Arabic was their testimony of faith about their belief in one God and the message of the Prophet Muhammad, and how it was flying, at her masjid, right alongside the American flag because it represented a focus on their love and respect for the laws and beauty of their country, too.
“It’s like that on the Muslim Journal too, kind of side by side.”
The president turned in the direction of the confident voice that came from the back of the group of children. Ten-year-old Maryam had grown slightly annoyed by her younger peers getting all of the president’s attention. I’m not going to be left out, she reasoned to herself. This may be my only chance to ever meet a president of the United States!
“The journal is our community paper,” she continued. “It’s been like that almost half a century: the American flag on one side, our Muslim flag on the other, but both equally at the top of the page.”
Maryam’s grandfather had once worked as an offset pressman for the paper, when it had had just shifted from being called Muhammad Speaks to being called Bilalian News for a short time. Maryam wondered if she should share that too. She wondered: would it make her grandfather proud of her if she did that?
Meanwhile, Raisah took one look at the dazzling yellow flower Maryam had fixed expertly on top of her creamy-orange colored headscarf, slightly positioned a little above Maryam’s right ear, and vowed to convince her mother to do the same for her. It was so pretty! But, she could hear her mother’s response now.
No, Raisah. You’re too young to maintain it. That flower will be gone by the end of the day.
“I see,” said the president, winking at Maryam. “You little brothers and sisters are sharp on your history. What schools do you attend?”
“We are homeschooled,” many of them responded.
“I understand that, I understand that,” said the president, a smile tickling at his lips and welling up in his eyes. “Many a day I spent learning at my mother’s kitchen table too.”
“No sir, Mr. President,” Raisah corrected, vigorously shaking her head, snapping her attention away from her fixation on the flower, “in my house we have our own desks and computers, maps and Arabic letters on the wall, cubbies and blackboards and—”
“Okay, okay,” the president chuckled, “I see I have to watch my every word with you all.”
Eighty-six-year-old bones don’t stop no show, Sister Clara Karim was always telling the believers at her masjid when they insisted she needed to stop doing so much. They weren’t going to stop her now, either. Not today!
And so when President Obama entered the masjid that Sister Clara had contributed to being built with her hard earned pennies, in her younger days, Sister Clara was perfectly guarding her hospitality post, even donning white gloves for an extra pristine look. She had been, after all, a captain in the Nation of Islam back in the day, before Imam W.D. Mohammed transitioned the community to mainstream Islamic practice. Indeed, Sister Captain is what some of the believers still referred to her. A term of endearment for her now.
Sister Clara introduced herself to President Obama and directed him to where he needed to remove his shoes. As they entered the prayer area, the president remarked to Sister Clara that he was awed by the sprawling open space. He had never visited an American mosque before, as president, he told her, but in other countries he had sometimes seen partitions dividing the men and the women, or the men and women had been on completely separate floors.
“Well,” Sister Clara said, shoo shooing away anyone who tried to aide her, but quietly appreciating that the president had slowed his steps to a near tortoise-like pace to accommodate her frailties, “here the women and men have equal space, on the same floor. We don’t come through no back doors or side entrances here, Mr. President. That’s not our way. We’ve gone through too much as a people, sir, to do that. No, no, no sir. You need to come visit us more.”
“Yes, ma’am, Sister Clara! Yes, ma’m,” he responded with deference, suddenly feeling like he was a school boy again, one who had been scolded by his favorite teacher.
“In fact,” added Sister Clara, “you see that rope-like divider in the middle of the musallah?”
“Well, that’s to make sure the women have enough space. That the brothers don’t crowd them out. And if the sisters don’t have enough space, it’s moved up more, so they can have more space. You understand now?”
“Yes, ma’am, Sister Clara.”
He could not help but be distracted by her countenance, as she spoke. Something about the particular smoothness of her dark skin, not a wrinkle identifiable, and how it curved and folded and sagged and tightened around her strong facial features, and how the light in her eyes commanded a defiant presence as she made eye contact with him, reminded him of the elders he had met in Ghana, during his trip with his family back in 2009. She probably has Ghanaian roots, he thought to himself. He had a way of doing that—placing people, and at the most unexpected of times—given his life travels.
Sister Clara patted his hand when they reached the front of the masjid, where the imam usually stood to give the khutbah, lead the prayer, or give the ta’aleem. Then she gestured for him to stand in that position.
“Go on now, Mr. President,” she firmly instructed, when he tried to turn back and escort her to her seat.
So he went on, and the children carefully waited for her slow walk to her chair—if she got down on that floor, as she always said, she would not be able to get back up—before they crowded around the president on the floor, some of their hands pressed into the carpet with anticipation, others folded neatly in their laps with patience.
The president could clearly see, from the position where he stood, everyone in the entire room and everyone in the entire room could clearly see him. That sea of African American Muslim faces looking intently at him unnerved him a bit. He felt some indefinable sadness that he had not seized a moment like this earlier in his presidency.
“It feels like community in here today!”
The depth of excitement in his voice surprised even him. He thought he might have even sounded a little like a preacher, warming up.
Something about the way he said it, as if he was half surprised, half relieved, but fully at home, caused laughter to fill the room. It continued for a long time. It continued until it became so infectious that Sister Clara caught one of the Secret Service detail, a young white man, struggling to stifle a broadening smile.
“It’s okay, brother,” she said. “I won’t tell.”
And he laughed out loud then, too, first kind of self consciously and then what-the-heck-full-on.
And everyone else, who overheard his awkward start and then full-on rumble, laughed even louder, and then that round of laughs, too, became infectious throughout the room.
It was the first day of Black History Month that day President Obama visited Masjid Muhammad. The children had spent many Sundays studying up for the president’s visit. They had even studied about other presidents who had visited masajid, in the United States and abroad. They had even studied up on the history of the magnificent Dakar Grand Mosque in Senegal because they knew President Clinton had visited during his presidency.
“The minaret is really over two hundred feet tall?” exclaimed Raisah during the class that covered the Senegal visit. “That is really, really high.” And then, after a closer study of the images, a more subdued realization: “That place is really fancy.”
One Sunday the children had even had a chance to visit the American Islamic Heritage Museum over on Martin Luther King Jr Ave, in the old Sister Clara Muhammad School building. There they had been fascinated by the pictures of President Obama’s visits to the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
Brother Amir, the curator, couldn’t understand why the students’ faces were becoming gloomier and gloomier as they viewed the images: grand fountains and magnanimous domes; intricately-designed stained glass windows and luminous chandeliers; towering, castle-like entryways and inviting open-air courtyards. And not one of the children would share why their mood had changed so fast.
No one except Raisah.
“Ours is not that fancy!” lamented Raisah. “We don’t even have a minaret! Why is the president coming to see ours?”
Yes, the other children chimed in, “Why? Why would he want to come to ours?”
“Ask the president, children,” advised Brother Amir, with a knowing look that he lacked the poker face to hide. “I’m positive he will tell you why.”
Brother Amir wasn’t worried at all. He knew the president had done his homework. The children would not be disappointed. He was sure of it.
“You could have visited any mosque in the area, Mr. President. Why did you choose to come here?”
Muhammad had gotten up his nerve to get on one of the microphones set up for the question and answer period to be held later. Before he had spoken he had been reciting, below his breath, the supplication of Moses to his Lord, over and over.
“O my Lord! expand me my breast,” Muhammad had kept saying, “ease my task for me. And remove the impediment from my speech. So they may understand what I say.”
It was something Sister Clara had taught him, to get over his fear of speaking in front of audiences. She had taught him when he was just a first grader—pointing out the words carefully in the Qur’an—but he was still making good use of it now even as a high school freshman.
His amplified question to the president—which punched out stronger than he intended, true to the nature of many people with fear of speaking: sometimes things just come out too hard, too fast, too strong—had sliced clean through all the laughter in the masjid, causing a silence so jarring it could only be fairly compared to one thing: the eerie noiselessness following a deafening thunderclap.
Everyone was laughing too much, Muhammad felt. The more they had laughed the more he feared that time would run out and he would never get the chance to ask his question. It was important. He and the other children had agreed that he would ask. He was the oldest and they all adored him. They had no idea though, that he would do things out of order. (He’d had no idea he would, either.) Proper introductions and formalities had not even started. And now everyone was staring at him.
The president cleared his throat.
“Alright now, Muhammad,” Sister Clara spoke up, loud, from her authoritative perch on her chair, “that’s a good question. Come on now, Mr. President,” she encouraged, aiming to smooth out the awkwardness of the moment. “Speak!”
“Yes, ma’am, Sister Clara,” responded President Obama. “Come on and stand up here next to me, Muhammad.”
Muhammad walked up to the front of the room, dread in his every step. What was coming next?
President Obama put his hand on Muhammad’s shoulder and spoke.
“Who says we have to do things in order anyway?” he asked. “Let’s change it up a bit today. Let me tell you why I am here today, Muhammad. Let me tell all of you.”
He directed Muhammad to sit down next to him and then he sat down too.
“I’m here—I’m here today to honor Binah, a two-month old Muslim baby girl of African heritage sold on the auction block in Charleston, South Carolina, shortly before the start of the American Civil War. I’m here today to honor Zuma, an African-born Muslim woman who was stolen from her homeland and illegally sneaked into the United States on the last known slave ship to enter the country, just a year or so before the start of the Civil War—her body lies in rest in Alabama. I’m here today to honor African-born Bilali—and his Muslim wife and children—who struggled to pass on their faith tradition while enslaved on Sapelo Island in Georgia, so much so that Bilali was buried with his Qur’an and prayer rug and left behind a manuscript in Arabic about his Islamic practices. I’m here today to honor African-born Salih, also enslaved in Georgia, who was so steadfast in his Islamic practice that his own slave master recorded his religious devotion and shared it with very influential people in America. I am here today to honor Ayuba, an African-born Muslim who ran away from a tobacco plantation in Maryland, not far from here, because he could not say his prayers in peace, he who was here before the father of our country was born, or even the principal author of the Declaration of Independence was born, or even before the United States had been founded, or even before the American Revolution had been fought, and before the Constitution had even been a dream.
Other places were suggested, and I discussed these places with my advisors. All these other places had their appeal for different reasons. Indeed they were all very worthy places to visit, of course. But then I asked around some more, I did my research, talked to some people who know, and I found that this place, Masjid Muhammad, is the first mosque in our nation’s capital built from the ground up by American citizens. I found out that the imam of this mosque is a veteran with 30 years of service in the Air Force and at the highest enlisted rank: Chief Master Sergeant. I found out that the imam of your national community, who passed away in 2008, who designed that flag outside your building—Imam W.D. Mohammed—had been the first Muslim ever to speak at a presidential inauguration, the first imam to do many things in service to better unity in this country, even when others would shun him for it. And I could not overlook that history.
I looked at the location of this community. It’s in the Shaw neighborhood, named after Union Army Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. I learned that there had been men who shared both African and Muslim heritage who fought for the Union during the Civil War. I saw the names: Osman and Hassan and Said and more. And I learned that this is the area where many freed enslaved people had once come to live. I’m sure there had to have been Muslims among them too, given how rich this history is.
And so I thought about that, that this is where you all are today, in this historic place, where freed Africans once lived, people who without the labor stolen from them this country could not have been built, people who among them were Muslims too. And I thought about how no one notices this when it comes time to talk about history—American history, American Muslim history, Black history, what have you—andno one acknowledges the legacy that all of you here are, especially you children, even though the most well known American Muslim contributors to society came from your national community, including the great champ, Muhammad Ali. And I realized that is not fair, especially not to the children here, Muhammad.
I chose you because I know what it is like for my history to be distorted, challenged, forgotten, obscured, ignored, twisted, and used for political purposes. I knew I had to visit a mosque in the United States before the end of my presidency. Other great presidents have, and I, who have living Muslims relatives in my own family, have not. And there is all of this hateful rhetoric about Muslims. I said to Michelle, this is too much for the children. We have to do something for the children. So I said, I will visit a mosque if my primary focus is on the children.
Beautiful buildings don’t make people great, children. Beautiful community life makes people great, children. And I learned that is what your national leader was all about when he was alive: building community with all good people.
If I am honest, Muhammad, I am ashamed I’ve waited this long. I know my advisors don’t want me to say that. But I am ashamed that I waited this long. I ashamed because though I am deeply committed and devout Christian, I descend, in part, from an African Muslim family whose history goes back centuries. Your history is my history, too. Just like many of you also descend from people who have been Christians in this country, and their history is your history too. And so we are double, triple, maybe even quadruple connected, if you really dig deep and get serious about the facts.
And so I came here today for you because there is no place I would rather be on this first day of Black History Month, if I am going to be in a mosque, than this mosque led by an African American Air Force veteran, this mosque on sacred ground of freed people who slaved to build our nation’s capital, this mosque, the first to be built in the capital by American citizens, citizens who are descendants of those who helped build this nation, this is the place I choose for my first U.S. visit to a mosque.
And I don’t have a problem saying that. Let the history books record that I came here today and honored my ancestors, let the history books record I came here today for the children.”