In an era in which pundits predict escalating cultural and military clashes between the West and the Islamic world, the thought of a Muslim officer in American uniform might seem surprising to some. Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad first enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1982. At that time, America was reeling from the Middle East oil crisis, hostilities between Iraq and Iran, and the Iranian hostage ordeal. The Gulf War followed less than a decade later. On September 11, 2001, Major Muhammad was stationed as a chaplain at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C. In the days and weeks that followed, he ministered to the injured and survivors and led Friday prayers at the Pentagon. How many of us knew that Muslim prayers were said routinely at the Pentagon, especially in those days? Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad gives a face and a compelling voice to a phenomenon that has grown steadily and — given news headlines — counter-intuitively: the increasing numbers of Muslim Americans serving in this country's armed forces.
He is also a product of a slice of American religious history that I find fascinating — that of African-American Islam, which accounts for over one-third of this country's Muslim population. Muhammad grew up in Buffalo, New York, surrounded by Methodists and Baptists. And then, like many young African Americans of his generation, he became inspired in the 1960s by figures like Muhammad Ali and especially Malcolm X.
Many Americans' knowledge of African-American Islam may end where the popular movie about Malcolm X ended, with his assassination by rival members of the Nation of Islam. Yet by the time Malcolm X died, his understanding of the nature of Islam had undergone a radical transformation. A decade after his assassination, militant Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad was succeeded by his son, Warith Deen Muhammad, who reformed mainstream African-American Islam in a fashion consonant with Malcolm X's personal transformation. The Nation of Islam, under the notorious leadership of Louis Farrakhan, lives on as a splinter group. But the majority movement of African-American Muslims, the Muslim Society of America, joined orthodox global Islam, rejected racially separatist beliefs, and allowed a greater role for women. Major Muhammad belongs to this tradition of 2.5 million members. Malcolm X's sense of Islam as an embracing world faith — the epitome of tolerance and openness — came to him while on pilgrimage at Mecca. And Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad speaks similarly and movingly in this hour of his own pilgrimage, or hajj.
Closer to home is the dedication with which he just spent 18 months representing America in Iraq. His military nametag spelled out his name in English and in Arabic. Many Iraqis understood for the first time, upon meeting him, that there are Muslims in the United States and in the U.S. Army.
I have written in this journal before of my observation that Islam is not at heart a religion of words and doctrines but of daily lived piety. Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad does not present himself as a preacher or theologian; he is a man who walks the walk of his faith. A handful of Muslims in the military — most recently Hassan Akbar, a young soldier who launched a grenade attack on fellow soldiers — have made headlines by way of scandal and tragedy. Understandably, perhaps, Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad did not wish to speak this hour about some of the more difficult images coming out now about Islam and the U.S. military. Still, he presents a different voice and a different picture, one of everyday service, that gives me a larger perspective and context for hearing such stories. And he ended our conversation with a well-worn phrase that is nevertheless striking and memorable in his voice, spoken with gusto and grace: God Bless America.