The Americas

The Fazl Mosque – A Mosque for All Time

Cast in the shadows of the evening, it stands between the Turkish and Russian consulates, an embassy of sorts itself. The sidewalk in front of it is shaded and cool, and as I enter the black iron gate of the enormous townhouse, my eyes fall on the sign in front which boldly proclaims its identity. Wa s h i n g t o n Fazl Mosque. The words are etched on a metal plaque which, like the building, has grown duller with age. The workmen’s ladders and the scaffolding hide most of the front of the brick and stone building, and I cannot help thinking that it must have been a beautiful structure in its early d a y s . And yet, even in its current state, the building inspires a certain awe, a certain respect. It is almost as if there is a tangible layer of peace around it, and standing in front it, one is aware that history was made around this building. I walk towards the front door as the wind makes it way across the driveway, sweeping along dry leaves, and I feel the timeless energy of the building. Perhaps it is only because it is part of my past, or perhaps it is because the mosque is like a living entity, witness to its share of history and drama, like an old man whose wisdom is apparent in his lines, in the cracks and folds. The inside of the townhouse is just as peaceful as the outside, although perhaps a bit more mysterious. The air feels a little damp, and even as I strain to listen for any sounds from the upper levels of the townhouse where the resident missionary’s family lives, my ears are met by nothing but silence. In the room to the right of the entrance waits Ahmed Haleem, a man who has been a member of the mosque since 1954, four years after Fazl mosque was established as the 46 Review of Religions – October 2002 The Fazl Mosque – A Mosque for All Time The role of a mosque is more that simply being a place of worship. It is an integral part of the community that it serves. Over time it is looked back as a pillar of society and a centre of religious and social assurance. This article presents a personal snapshot of the Fazl Mosque in Washington, USA and touches on different aspects of its history. By Hananah Zaheer, Washington USA first mosque in the nation’s capital. Sitting on the sofa in his khakis, white t-shirt, and a super bowl xxxii hat, Haleem presents a friendly figure. He takes off his hat as I approach, and greets me with a traditional ‘peace be upon you.’ He has been a silent figure in the local history of the mosque, a devoted member, now the president of the DC chapter, a man of quiet dignity. He speaks of his first contact with Islam, and recalls with a smile a woman he worked with who would take her lunch hour to say her prayers. ‘I would wait by the bus stop to see if Saeeda was on the bus. If she was, I would get on. If she wasn’t, I would just walk.’ The woman, Saeeda, eventually became his doorway into the community of Ahmadi Muslims, a minority sect within Islam, considered non-Muslims by most other Muslim factions. Haleem recalls the segregation of society in general at the time. ‘Schools, hospitals, union stations…’ His tone is amused. ‘You get on the same train. You just get on through different doors.’ Coincidentally enough, the make- up of the local Ahmadiyya Muslim c o m m u n i t y, and the mosque, shifted just as the political and social situations were shifting in the country. The mosque started in 1950 as a small one, with a membership of only seventy-five people. Even though ‘a majority [of the mosque members] were Caucasians,’ the mosque served as a place for unity in a country where segregation was rampant. ‘Even the Sunnis and Shia’s could come and offer prayers and celebrate Eid here.’ It was this mosque that enticed him towards the religion, how- ever. After attending a Nation of Islam meeting, and a brief talk with Elijah Mohammad, Haleem decided he was not interested in militancy. After being introduced to the mosque by Saeeda, Haleem was struck by the peaceful atmosphere at Fazl mosque, where he saw people living together in harmony, advocating ‘Love for all, hatred for none,’ the slogan that still serves as a motto for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Over the next ten years the make-up of the mosque membe- 47 The Fazl Mosque – A Mosque for All Time Review of Religions – October 2002 ship shifted and became pre- dominantly African American. Today, the majority of members are Pakistanis, although the African American and Caucasian members still continue to attend. Haleem names missionaries that attended to the mosque over time. He is just stating facts, but I am stuck by the realisation that he, like this building, has been here through all the changes. I ask him what impressed him most about this mosque. I am expecting him to talk of the space it affords for prayers and big functions, the sense of peacefulness it brings, but I am surprised by his answer. ‘I was most impressed with the fact that personalities that came to the mosque were such that you talk with them like you talk to anyone else.’ The Community is based on principles of equality and brotherhood, and Haleem was surprised by how accessible the leaders of the movement were. Even personalities like Dr. Abdus- Salam, Nobel Prize winner for physics, and Sir Chaudhry Zafarullah Khan, president of the UN General Assembly and the International Court of Justice, would come to offer their prayers and stay for hours to answer p e o p l e ’s questions on politics, physics, and anything else that came up. Over the years, the mosque has served as not only a place to offer prayers, but also as temporary residence for several young members of the community, for others, it presented itself as a safe haven. ‘Sister Rashida moved here after she got divorced…she lived on the third floor for twenty years.’ Even though the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has now outgrown Fazl mosque, moving to a bigger, more modern structure in Silver Spring, a number of members still continue to visit Fazl mosque. The building, being nearly ninety years old, same age as Ahmed Haleem, has borne its share of rough weather. But in the face of all that has gone on around it, it stands still as a mark of faith. As I take my leave of Ahmed Haleem and walk out the door and into the darkened road, I take with me the image of the symbol of peace and tranquillity, and the man who holds that image within his heart. 48 The Fazl Mosque – A Mosque for All Time Review of Religions – October 2002