A tale o’ two sermons

By Shahzad Raza

Published: January 20, 2011

The last time Imam Muhammad al-Asi led Friday prayers inside the Islamic Centre on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC, he was 35 years old. Now he is 60, but still wishes he could do it again.Islamic-Center-of-Washington-DC-640x480
For the past twenty five years, Imam Asi has been leading Friday prayers directly outside the mosque, ignoring inquisitive passersby and commuters. Meanwhile, official Friday prayers continue inside the mosque every week.
And just like that, the illusion of a seemingly pleasant, congenial place of worship situated in the heart of the capital of the world shatters. The internal strife that characterises the Islamic centre seems to mirror power struggles within the global Muslim community.
It is difficult to read Imam Asi. His memory is sharp, and he infuses his humour with a tinge of cynicism. Some people call him a wise and pious man, some consider him a sinner, and many just don’t pay him any heed.
Imam Asi’s complicated story begins in 1983, after the centre’s authorities expelled him from the mosque. He was the first and the last elected imam the mosque could boast of. Interestingly, Imam Asi holds the Saudi Embassy responsible for his expulsion.
After he was expelled, he was accused of illegally entering the mosque and disturbing prayers led by another cleric. A court found him and 50 of his followers guilty and banned them from entering the mosque again.
“Those were the days. The revolution in Iran, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the assassination of Anwar Sadaat… Muslims in this important capital couldn’t afford to be unaware of what was happening in the Muslim world,” recalls Imam Asi.
Imam Asi knows the history of the Islamic Centre like the back of his hand. He is eager to tell his side of the story, but before going any further he just wants to concentrate on his lamb kebab, served at a famous Asian restaurant called Kebob N Karahi on New Hampshire Avenue. He is wearing a blue cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and he looks hungry.
Imam Asi was born in the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1951. He moved to Lebanon to complete his high school education and attended the Arab University of Beirut to study Arabic.  In 1973, Imam Asi returned to the United States and graduated from the University of Maryland in government and politics in 1979.
“At that time, Muhammad Abdul Rauf used to be the Imam of the Islamic Centre. He Feisal Abdul Rauf’s father — you know, the man behind the Park-21 initiative near Ground Zero in New York,” says Imam Asi.
The Centre’s official website says a handful of diplomats and American Muslims formed the Washington Mosque Foundation in 1944. They supported the Foundation’s appeal to raise funds to build a mosque. Soon they managed to collect enough money to purchase land on Washington’s prestigious ‘Embassy Row.’
The Islamic Centre was established during the 1950s and registered as a trust. From the 1950s until 1979 the Centre’s administration was a function of accredited embassies located nearby. During that time the Egyptian embassy was responsible for appointing an Imam to the Centre. Other positions were agreed upon by a committee of seven ambassadors who would rotate on a two year basis.
Meanwhile, the number of Muslims in Washington and its suburbs started increasing. The first and last elections for the position of imam were held in 1981 and Imam Asi was elected unopposed.
Imam Asi claims that the Saudis are prejudiced against him. His ordeal began in March 1983, when he and his family members were forced to leave the Centre. “I was accused of keeping illegal arms at the Centre, which is nonsense. I was never charged with that. It was a just a way to have me thrown out,” says Imam Asi.
After Imam Asi was expelled the Islamic Centre remained closed for more than three months. On Eid, a sunny July morning in 1983, the centre’s doors were finally opened again. According to Imam Asi, he and his followers went inside to the pray and while they were doing so, the DC metropolitan police entered the Centre and arrested him and 50 others. After court proceedings that dragged on for four months a jury found them guilty of unlawful entry into the mosque. They had to pay a fine and do community service.
Mohammed Abdi Bey is among those who cannot enter the mosque. He now sells perfumed candles outside the centre and offers prayers behind Imam Asi. He is disabled and collects alms from mosque-goers.
“Imam Asi is a genuine Muslim. But the mosque administration and the Saudi Embassy consider him an Iranian agent,” says Abdi, referring to a 1400-year-old rivalry between Muslims on sectarian lines. All of a sudden the row surrounding the Islamic Center appears to be a typical tussle between Wahabi and Shiite Muslims.
Imam Asi is not afraid of engaging in another war of the words with the Saudi Embassy. He alleges that the Saudi Embassy is illegally preventing him and his followers from praying inside the centre. When asked which law the Saudis cite to restrict his entry, he replies: “Ask them.”
The Center’s administration is very private, and pictures are not allowed to be taken inside the mosque. The administration may grant permission, if requested.
“No, no, no. He [Imam Asi] does not belong to the centre. Go outside and talk to him if you must. I cannot tell you anything,” a clerk at the centre exclaims when asked about the controversy.
Only Imam Abdullah — appointed head of the Center twenty -five years ago — is authorised to speak to the media. His secretary, Sister Fatima, fixes the appointment, but it is difficult even to speak to her. She often refuses to take telephone calls and meet in person.
Imam Asi claims that expulsion from the centre is not the only hardship he has faced. The Saudi government never granted him a visa to perform Hajj, he says. He terms this ‘revenge’ taken by the Saudi authorities. He claims that former Saudi Ambassador to Washington Prince Naif himself made sure that Imam Asi’s visa requests would not be entertained.
Despite his resentment, Imam Asi says he has accepted his fate.
His prayers outside the Islamic Centre are both for God and the people. He seeks mercy from God and wants people to witness his silent protest. He longs to lead Friday prayers like the good old days — but knows this is wishful thinking.
“I don’t want to fight any legal battles to become the imam of the Islamic Centre again. It is beyond my reach. I don’t have the time or the money to pursue this. I know the Saudis will never let me get my position back,” Imam Asi says.
But he quickly adds, “I will continue leading Friday prayers outside the centre until I die.”
LITTLE KNOWN FACTS ABOUT ISLAM AND AMERICA
1)   One of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, hosted the first-ever Iftar at the White House in honour of the visiting Tunisian ambassador.
2)   Thomas Jefferson even taught himself Arabic from his own personal copy of the Quran.
3)   Another of the founding fathers, John Adams, considered Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) one of the great ‘inquirers after truth.’
4)             George Washington personally welcomed Muslims to come and work for him at Mount Vernon.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 16th, 2011.

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