Serving Country, Serving Allah
Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad is a major and the first Muslim chaplain to serve in the U.S. Army.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad grew up in Buffalo, New York, surrounded by Methodists and Baptists. In the 1960s, he became inspired, like many young African-Americans, by figures like Muhammad Ali and especially Malcolm Shabazz, known as Malcolm X.
MAJOR ABDUL-RASHEED MUHAMMAD: He was certainly, as a figure, very instrumental in my looking further into what it was that made him who he was. And after reading several of his books, and of course back in those days listening to him on, as we say, wax, the old LPs, I became interested enough to read the Qur’an and was pretty interested in the program that the Nation of Islam was offering, probably the most noteworthy self-help program that was visible within the African-American community. That, for me, was pretty attractive.
MS. TIPPETT: Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad became Muslim in 1973 while he was an undergraduate studying anthropology. Like the vast majority of the 2.5 million African-American Muslims, one third of this country’s total Muslim population, his approach to Islam evolved after the 1970s. It became more gentle, orthodox, and tolerant, rejecting militant racial separatism. Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad studied Sunni Islam, the faith of most of the world’s Muslims, and became a prayer leader, or imam. He also received a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan. Major Muhammad spoke to me from Fort Hood, Texas, where he is currently based with the 1st Cavalry Division. He originally enlisted in the Army in 1982 in the wake of the Middle East oil crisis, hostilities between Iran and Iraq, and the ordeal of 94 Americans taken hostage inside the US embassy in Teheran. Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad originally signed up to be an assistant chaplain with the Army, but he told me that didn’t work out at first.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: I enlisted. As a matter of fact, my delayed entry into the Army was to become a chaplain assistant, but when I went to the chaplain assistant’s school, I actually, quite frankly, had some conflict of conscience.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, tell me about that.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Well, it was just a matter of, you know, I learned that, for example, a chaplain assistant would have to handle wine, you know, for the various Protestant and Catholic services. And though, of course, you wouldn’t always have to handle wine, sometimes you only had to handle grape juice, at times you had to handle wine. And so this, of course, was forbidden or prohibited in Islam, and I didn’t know this before accepting the military occupational specialty, or MOS. So I informed the people at the school that, you know, I can’t do this, this is a violation of my religious tenets, etc. They understood it, had no problem. So I ended up working in mental health the remainder of the time that I was on active duty for those three years.
MS. TIPPETT: How did you, then, come to be the first Muslim chaplain in the Army? How did that happen?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Well, quite frankly, in looking back at it now over 11 years, I’ve come to accept that it was all providential. I mean, everything that I’ve done prior to becoming a chaplain in the United States Army actually qualified me to be a chaplain in the Army. I mean, I have a master’s in social work from the University of Michigan, and a master’s in counseling from California State at San Diego, and, I mean, I’ve worked with children, adults, substance abusers. I did marital and family therapy. So all the kinds of things that chaplains do, you know, I was doing those things all along. In other words, I was being prepared for actually being an Army chaplain without being an Army chaplain.
MS. TIPPETT: But there was something special about your chaplaincy, and in the years in which–what was the year that you became a chaplain?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: I actually took the oath of office in December of 1993.
MS. TIPPETT: And even though we think of these post-9/11 years as the time in which Islam has become more visible in all kinds of ways, and there was a lot going on in the early ’90s as well.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Yes, ma’am.
MS. TIPPETT: So tell me about that. I mean, what was that like, and how much attention did it raise?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Well, of course, you know, even prior to the ’90s, I think the major shift in attention to the Middle East and to Muslim people was, of course, the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. I think that brought about the first level of awareness of Islam for the general American public. And then, of course, the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, in which we had some covert involvement, also brought into our living rooms every evening something about Islam and Muslim. But I think the major event that really brought it closer to home for us as Americans was, of course, the Gulf War, Desert Storm, and Desert Shield, where we had thousands of our soldiers from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, you know, that part of the desert region being exposed, perhaps, in the largest numbers in the history of our country. And so many people were, for the first time, influenced by and exposed to the culture of Arabs and of Muslims in general. And, of course, there were other allied countries that were not necessarily Arab but were also Muslims that our young soldiers and commanders were exposed to. So I think it was a series of events that began in ’79 but sort of culminated to a greater degree in 1990-1991.
MS. TIPPETT: And let me ask you this. I believe the estimates now are that there may be 4,000 Muslim soldiers in the U.S. Army, and possibly many more. I mean, you’ve been in the Army for a long time. I wonder, when you came in, do you think that the numbers were about the same or is that a percentage that’s grown in your years in the Army?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Well, I think that there’s been some increase. I’m not sure what the exact numbers are. You could certainly, I think, guess that the growth of Islam in the military would be somewhat on line with the growth of Islam in the United States.
MS. TIPPETT: Which has been very dramatic in those same years, I guess.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: You might say that.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Well, so, tell me, I’m curious about how your own family reacted, I’m curious about how your colleagues reacted when you became the first Muslim chaplain in the U.S. Army.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: My family, first of all, have always accepted me for who I am, who I’ve always been. And I think by accepting Islam and eventually becoming the first Islamic chaplain hasn’t really changed that a whole lot. Of course, they were very excited about having a family member making history. But I don’t think that really hit home initially. I think it was just like the opposite effect of having a tragedy, you know, it was kind of this feeling of exhilaration and shock. But I think, over the years, it’s kind of settled with them as something of some degree of importance, as I’ve gotten to meet quite a few people that have a lot of responsibility in the world. And I think that’s kind of helped to bring it home for them, as it has me.
MS. TIPPETT: And in the Army, you know, how did your colleagues react?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: I don’t know. That’s always been an interesting question. And I don’t think there’s the answer for that. I think that different people have responded differently. And I can say that the chaplaincy overall, I think, has been really excited to have Islam finally as a part of the system, as I said, particularly because of our exposure to cultures in the Middle East and our need to sort of learn more about that part of the world, and, you know…
MS. TIPPETT: And to be sensitive in that part of the world.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: And to be sensitive, absolutely. And I think that we continue to grow and continue to learn as we are now involved, of course, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, two Muslim countries, we continue to have a need for people who speak not only the languages but also to get expert–subject matter experts more on our side of the fence that understand the cultures of these people.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, and, you know, speaking the language, speaking also the religious vocabulary of those cultures.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Yes. Well, of course, in that part of the world there’s really not a great separation between the religion and the culture. Though sometimes, from a more extreme perspective, there are individuals who have in fact used religion as a sort of battering ram for sort of, you know, other kinds of cultural reasons.
MS. TIPPETT: Major and U.S. Army Chaplain Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad. While official estimates do count 4,000 Muslims serving in the U.S. military at present, Muslim organizations say that number could actually be as high as 15,000 and that many Muslims in the military keep their religious identity private. As a regular member of the Chaplaincy Corps of the Army, my guest, Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad, ministers to all soldiers, not just fellow Muslims. When the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred, he was stationed as a chaplain at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.
MS. TIPPETT: Now, on October 11th, 2001, actually, you participated in a memorial service at the Pentagon. You read from the Qur’an at the Pentagon a month after the terrorist attacks. And I suppose that’s a position you never expected to find yourself in.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: It was that, and it was also a position that I tried to get myself out of.
MS. TIPPETT: You did?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: But, no, it was an honor, obviously. But it was very challenging. It was a very difficult thing to do. But in hindsight, in reflection, it was definitely a privilege and an honor to be there among such an esteemed group of people.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder if your reaction to those events of September 11th, 2001 were any different because you were not only an American Muslim, but also an officer in the U.S. Army and a chaplain in the U.S. Army. Tell me something about how you responded to those events in all these roles you play.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Well, I was at Walter Reed at the time. I was in Washington, D.C.
MS. TIPPETT: You were a chaplain at the Walter Reed Hospital.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Yes, I was a chaplain at Walter Reed Hospital, that’s correct, and had a role, as we all did, from the hospital in going back and forth every day and ministering to our soldiers, who, of course, were responsible for doing a number of things, to include, you know, bringing the remains out of the Pentagon. Very difficult stuff. I was also responsible for conducting services right there at the Pentagon site; one week outside the Pentagon, the next week inside the Pentagon. I conducted our Friday’s worship service there. And that was quite interesting, because, yeah, you know, here you have a situation where you have all this trauma going on and a lot of feelings and emotions, and you have not a whole lot of Muslims there in the service, both inside or outside. But, still, being the one responsible for conducting services at this particular time was one that required a great deal of focus.
MS. TIPPETT: I think that’s a striking image, that there were Islamic Friday prayers being conducted at the Pentagon, you know, in the aftermath of those events. I’m not sure that’s an image many people had or would have occurred to them that that was going on.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: I’m certain you’re right about that. And I mean, it didn’t really matter to me, but there wasn’t a lot of publicity on it, and I didn’t necessarily think about it one way or the other. But in hindsight, yeah, there wasn’t a whole lot of visibility of that. But there wasn’t any visibility of any services that were going on, necessarily, at that time. There were several, of course, politicians that were there back and forth at the site and visiting every day and so forth, which was good for the soldiers and good for the morale of the people who were there working on the site. But, you know, there wasn’t any particular attention given to any religious programs that were happening there at that time.
MS. TIPPETT: Can you remember, recall something for me, tell me something about what you were preaching and what you were praying in those days, in those weeks?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Oh, I don’t remember exactly, but I’m certain it would have had to have been something that had to do with healing and just gratitude for the fact that we’re here in this country, you know, just to try and do whatever we had to do to hold people together under very great difficult times.
MS. TIPPETT: Major Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad. This is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media.
Major Muhammad was the first Muslim chaplain in the U.S. Army.
MS. TIPPETT: As I’ve had conversations with Muslims and about Islam these last years, I think one thing that makes it hard for Muslims is that Islam is so much, as you kind of said when we began speaking, a faith of daily-lived piety. It’s not about talking, it’s about doing, which, I think, has been challenging for Muslims because there are some people who stand up and say `This is what Islam is,’ or others watching infer that’s what Islam is about. I mean, if someone should ask you to explain the fact that there is this terrorism in the world today that’s done in the name of Islam, I wonder what you might explain about your understanding of the core of Islam, that is, your response to that.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Yeah. Well, the basic tenets of Islam actually also relates to its practice because, as I said, there’s no real separation between the practice and the beliefs. And the beliefs basically are five basic principles, and that’s where it all starts from, you know, belief in one God, Muhammad being his last prophet. Prayer five times a day. The institution of charity, or zakat, which is an annual payment, or, also, a regular series of charity or charitable kinds of actions. Fasting in the month of Ramadan once a year for 29 or 30 days. And making the pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime. Those are the five basic tenets of the religion. You know, people who have chosen to do things other than outside of those particular tenets certainly will be responsible or held accountable for what they have chosen to do. But my challenge to not only Muslims but to others is to try and understand Islam for yourself. I mean, if someone calls someone else a subject matter expert, what does that really mean anyway? You know, the subject matter expert is the practitioner. And if a person is practicing on a regular basis what it is that they actually believe, then that’s what’s going to be the telltale at the end of the day. The majority of Muslims in the world do not espouse to extremist ideas or extremist actions, you know, no more than the majority of Catholics adhere to things that we’ve seen priests do or that we see happening in Northern Ireland. What I would really personally like to see more of is talking more to people in this country who are tax-paying citizens who pray five times a day who are part of organizations, many of whom are professionals. I mean we’re not hearing a whole lot from them, but we seem to have this tendency to want to almost associate Islam with people who are extreme in their views. And I don’t quite understand that.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I think it would be very interesting to know, you know, how you perceive the military. And, obviously, that’s, again, a large name for lots of different people. But, you know, have American soldiers been educated about Islam? Or is there a conversation about Islam?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Yeah. Well, you know, whoever’s in the military is the same individual that you find within the United States, so that’s where we come from.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. It’s a bunch of people. OK.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: It’s a bunch of people who come from small towns, big cities, wherever. And their views are oftentimes no different than anyone that you would stop on the street or see in a movie theater or anywhere else.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think, again, as we’ve noted in this conversation already, there are a growing number of Muslim citizens in this country and also serving in the U.S. Army.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Yes, absolutely. Serving in the United States Army, serving in school systems, serving in the business community, serving every place in this country.
MS. TIPPETT: Now, you did something very interesting and, it seems to me, probably pretty courageous after September 11th, 2001. I think in October of that year. You requested–and tell me if I don’t have the details of this right–you requested from Islamic jurists, from legal authorities in the Muslim world, a ruling, a fatwa or decree, on whether it was just and ethical for Islamic-Americans to fight in the U.S. Army. Tell me about that.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Well, you know, that was attributed to me, and it was never really true. But the truth of the matter is, is that, in a very sort of offline conversation with me and my former endorser, I asked…
MS. TIPPETT: What do you mean, your endorser?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Yes, religious endorser from the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences. We just basically were having an offline conversation about many things, of which part of that conversation had to do with our role as Muslims in America and our defense of the United States, particularly under the circumstances after 9/11. So it was not a question that I was asking to get any direction as to what I needed to do, but…
MS. TIPPETT: You weren’t asking for permission to do your job.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Right. No. Because, I mean, personally, you know, chaplains don’t use weapons anyway. So I wasn’t in a position to ask this question as to what I needed to do. But what I was really asking my endorser was what would be perhaps the response that would be considered as the best response for young soldiers who may ask this question.
MS. TIPPETT: U.S. Army Major and Muslim Chaplain Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad. Here’s a reading from that fatwa, an Islamic legal ruling, on the question of whether it would be right for American Muslim soldiers to fight in a Muslim country–at at that time Afghanistan–in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
READER: “The Muslim soldier must perform his duty in this fight despite feelings of uneasiness. His intention must be to fight for defeating falsehood, to prevent aggression on innocence or to apprehend the perpetrators and bring them to justice. It’s not his concern that other consequences of the fighting might result in his personal discomfort, since he alone can neither control it nor prevent it. In addition, Muslim jurists have ruled that what a Muslim cannot control he cannot be held accountable for. The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said, `When I ask of you to do something, do it as much as you can.’ The Muslim here is a part of a whole. If he absconds, his departure will result in a greater harm, not only for him but also for the Muslim community in his country. And here, there are many millions of them. Moreover, even if fighting causes him discomfort spiritually or psychologically, this personal hardship must be endured for the greater public good. To sum it up, it’s acceptable–God willing–for the Muslim American military personnel to partake in the fighting in the upcoming battles against whomever their country decides has perpetrated terrorism against them. Keeping in mind to have the proper intentions so no doubts would be cast about their loyalty to their country or to prevent harm to befall them as might be expected. This is in accordance with the Islamic jurisprudence rules which state that necessities dictate exceptions as well as the rule that says `One may endure a small harm to avoid a much greater harm.'” From a 2001 fatwa, or Islamic legal opinion, about the participation of American Muslim soldiers in the war against terrorism in which they would be in combat against other Muslims.
MS. TIPPETT: Has that been useful? Have you had American soldiers who are Muslim who were concerned about this, who wrestled with their conscience?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Believe it or not, I have not. There has not been anyone that has come to me and had any wrestling of conscience with this. I think what has happened a lot of times is that individuals have had some concern about whether or not they would be accepted within the Islamic framework, you know, at mosques and so forth.
MS. TIPPETT: I see. Having fought in these wars. OK.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Exactly. You know, in other words, `How would I be accepted if I were to continue with something like this?’ And the answer that I always give to soldiers is, is that `God gave you a conscience and, you know, it is your responsibility to be responsible for your own conscience. It is not the responsibility of anyone in a matter like that–that would be like me telling you who to marry or telling you, you know, where to live, or whether or not you should go to college.’ I mean, I’m talking about in an absolute sense. So there are certain things that people have to decide for themselves. And to make a decision about whether or not you should fight for your country. First of all, you know, do you look at country A as being your country? And if you identify with that particular place as your country, then to what degree would you be willing to safeguard and make the ultimate sacrifice for that country? And I think that most Americans, especially Muslims, consider the United States as their country.
MS. TIPPETT: And why do you say especially Muslims?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Well, I say “especially Muslims” because I think oftentimes people seem to think that there is a difference between, or there should be this distinction between being a Muslim and being an American. And I’ve never seen that. I have never bought into the idea that if you, you know, in order to be an American, you cannot be a Muslim. Or in order to be a good Muslim, you can’t possibly be an American.
MS. TIPPETT: Army Major and Chaplain Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad. Here is an example of contemporary Muslim-American music by the group Native Deen.
[Excerpt of Native Deen musical selection]
MS. TIPPETT: After a short break, Chaplain Muhammad speaks about his experiences serving as a chaplain to non-Muslim soldiers and helping to renovate a mosque while on active duty in Iraq.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Most Iraqis had no idea that Muslims even exist in America, let alone being able to lead them as an American in prayer. In fact, I have Muhammad on my uniform in Arabic, and that was one of the things that captured their attention immediately. So it was sort of, you know, representing both worlds all at the same time.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Go to our website, speakingoffaith.org, to find an annotated guide to today’s program. The particulars section presents complementary images and details about all the references, readings, and music you’ve just heard. While you’re there, learn how to purchase MP3 downloads of each week’s program and sign up for our free weekly e-mail newsletter, which includes my journal on each week’s program, as well as previews and exclusives extras. That’s speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith from American Public Media, public radio’s conversation about belief, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. This hour, to honor Memorial Day, a conversation with the first Muslim chaplain in the U.S. Army, Major Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad. He led Islamic prayers at the Pentagon in the weeks following 9/11 and has just returned from 18 months of active duty in Iraq. He spoke to me from Fort Hood, Texas, where he is currently based with the 1st Cavalry Division. When Muslim soldiers have come into visibility in American culture in recent years, it’s been by way of extraordinary controversies. Major James Yee, a Muslim chaplain serving at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, was charged with espionage last year and resigned from the Army when those charges were later dropped. This year a Muslim soldier, Hasan Akbar, was sentenced to death in a military court for killing several of his fellow soldiers by grenade in Iraq. My guest, Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad, has been an Army chaplain since 1993. He did not wish to speak at length about recent controversies, but I did ask him to comment.
MS. TIPPETT: There has been this very tragic case that’s been in the news recently, Sergeant Hasan Akbar, who was sentenced to death, and part of his defense was that he had been the subject of racial and religious taunts. I mean, I just want to ask you about that. Do you experience an anti-Islamic strain within the culture of the U.S. military?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: No. I have not experienced anything even remotely close to what this young soldier had indicated. And it’s really a tragedy, you know, all the way around.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s a human tragedy.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Yes, very much so.
MS. TIPPETT: I want to move away a bit from some of these politicized issues and just talk to you as a spiritual leader, as a counselor, as a chaplain. And a chaplain is counseling people who are facing issues of life and death. I think this is probably a huge question, but, if you think about how you counsel people as a Muslim, is there something distinctive in what you are saying or the conversations or prayers you’re having with people because of that Islamic tradition and identity?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: No. Well, I don’t think so. I mean perhaps people who I prayed for, prayed with may be able to answer that better than I could. I basically, as far as the tradition is concerned, you know, if someone is Muslim or non-Muslim, I don’t have within myself that I’m praying to their God or to a different God. I always have the sense that I’m praying to the same God regardless of who the person is, or the group.
MS. TIPPETT: Do you end up acting in your role as a chaplain as often to soldiers who are not Muslim as much as to soldiers who are Muslim?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Oh, more so. I don’t interact with very many soldiers who are Muslim because there’s not proportionately as many soldiers who are non-Muslim than soldiers who are Muslim.
MS. TIPPETT: And how do they react? How do, say, Christian soldiers react to having you be the chaplain who is with them?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Again, you’re asking me an opinion about something that I’m not necessarily able to give you a definitive answer to. But my guess would be is that, yes, I think I’m accepted as a chaplain like any other chaplain has been accepted, or could be accepted.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I guess another layer to my question that I was asking, really, is about your theology. I mean, what do you think distinctively, as an imam, do you bring to these big subjects of life and death that soldiers are dealing with?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: I hope I bring humanity. It’s just basically that we’re all basically the same. You know, I think in America we’re just so into differences, you know. Everything is so racially charged, everything is so denominationally charged that we’ve gotten so lost into this stuff that we don’t see the common humanity anymore.
MS. TIPPETT: And what you’re saying is that, for you, that really is the central piece of Islamic theology.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Well, you know, there’s no God but one God. And if there’s only one God and he’s responsible for sending all of the prophets, then I don’t know what else we need to look for in terms of the commonality, the common essence, the common denominator to what binds us all together.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. Let me just throw this at you. I mean, I think if a Christian made that kind of statement, it might–and, again, this may get at American dynamics and American pathologies–you know, someone listening might feel that they were being proselytized and preached at and that what that person wanted was for them to convert. Do you know what I’m saying?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Yeah. I mean, simply in Islam, the Qur’an says… (Arabic spoken.) What this means is, is that there is no compulsion in religion. The right way stands out clearly from the wrong way. So even before we are taught right from wrong from our mothers, our fathers, our school teachers and others, we have an inherent sense of what is right from what is wrong that is built in all of us. So, you know, what society is here for us to do, is to reinforce that, not to necessarily teach us all the rights from the wrongs. I mean, I don’t need my mother or father to tell me not to do certain things with my brothers and my sisters. You understand what I’m saying? I mean, we don’t necessarily need to have everybody to tell us everything.
MS. TIPPETT: But do you know what I’m saying? That it’s a more kind of common sense theology than a lot of what you hear in American culture.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: That’s correct.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s very practical.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: That’s correct. That’s exactly what I’m saying. And when it ceases to be that, that’s when we start to have problems.
MS. TIPPETT: U.S. Army Chaplain Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad. He has just returned from 18 months active duty in Iraq with the 1st Cavalry Division.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder if you’d talk to me about what it was like to be a chaplain in Iraq now, how that was special because you were a Muslim and fighting in an Islamic country.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Yeah. Well, it certainly was a very great challenge. It was very special having an opportunity, first of all, to serve with our soldiers in a part of the world where the majority of them didn’t really understand a whole lot of what they were experiencing.
MS. TIPPETT: The soldiers.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Yes, our American soldiers. But having the opportunity to be there with them and to work through a lot of the things that we had to deal with from failed technology to being able to sit and cry with each other after losing someone, you know, to just being away from your loved ones at times when you really needed them, those things are very special and, at some times, very hard. But I think God has a purpose for all of us. And the fact that we’ve had the opportunity to be there, to help the Iraqis, I see it as a very special thing.
MS. TIPPETT: What was it like for you to be in an Islamic country? You’ve always been in this country where you belong to a religion that’s very much in the minority. What was that like for you?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Well, I can tell you this, we established a mosque there where we were in Taji. MS. TIPPETT: Really? The military established a mosque?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Well, no, it was actually–yeah, myself and one Iraqi gentleman, a businessman who was working on our base, he actually put up the money to renovate this mosque that was used on this Iraqi base for many years, and it was pretty desolate and unoccupied for quite some time, you could tell that. But after about three months and a lot of hard work, and most of the labor was done from Iraqis on the outside that came into our fob every day and helped us to re-establish the place, helped with this mosque. And it was almost like a dream, after all these years, praying in a mosque on my watch.
MS. TIPPETT: Were you leading prayers in this mosque in Iraq?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Oh, yes, absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: Wow.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Absolutely. And had the good pleasure of having my commander and our assistant division commander for support also worship with us or came to at least observe the worship during our, you know, Eid Al-Adha, which comes during the Hajj.
MS. TIPPETT: Who would have been worshipped there? Were there also local Iraqis?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: A few local Iraqis, but primarily the workers from other parts of the world who were there as contractors.
MS. TIPPETT: I see.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Pakistan, India, Jordan, Egypt, the Sudan, you know, these were the brothers who I was leading in prayer. And it was a fascinating thing.
MS. TIPPETT: Tell me other memories that you have, important events for you, or moments.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Well, that was certainly one of the big events for me. But, you know, just having the opportunity to fly over Baghdad regularly in helicopters and just seeing the mosques from the air, the date groves, the miles and miles of date groves, seeing the people on the ground, you know, those memories will be imprinted in my mind for the rest of my life. I’ll never forget that. If I never go back, I’ll always remember the opportunities that I had also to work with just the common Iraqis, you know, who were there making no more than five dollars a day, but were very grateful, very satisfied people with the little that they had.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder if there’s anything different in the way you felt and reacted being in Iraq, to Iraq and the Iraqis, because you were a Muslim that might have been different from your fellow officers or soldiers who were non-Muslims.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Oh, I’m certain. I mean, just the fact that Muslims pray the same way regardless of whether you’re Iraqi or American or Egyptian or whatever. And just being there and, you know, the fact that most Iraqis had no idea that Muslims even exist in America, let alone being able to lead them as an American in prayer.
MS. TIPPETT: Did you surprise people? Did you have experiences where they learned that from you?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, I have Muhammad on my uniform in Arabic, and that was one of the things that captured their attention immediately. So just as an icon, just having that on my uniform, and I had to explain this oftentimes to many of our soldiers because, you know, when they didn’t–they thought it perhaps meant something else in Arabic, and I said, `No, this is my name.’ But to an American, what was important was my name spelt out in English. But to an Arab, what was important was what was spelled in Arabic. So it was sort of representing both worlds all at the same time, and I thought it had a great deal of significance. As you know, my religious symbol is a crescent, but over there this symbol means that you’re a doctor. So oftentimes many of them thought that I was a doctor. And still, unfortunately, many times when I run into our soldiers who are not from my unit, they don’t know what I am.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m sure you set them straight.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Well, hopefully in the most kind manner.
MS. TIPPETT: Major Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Major Muhammad became Muslim while an undergraduate in the 1970s, and he first enlisted in the U.S. military in 1982.
MS. TIPPETT: I understand that you have made your pilgrimage to Mecca. You made the Hajj.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: I have.
MS. TIPPETT: When was that? Tell me about that.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: First time in 1994, May. Second time, February of 2001.
MS. TIPPETT: 2001.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: That’s correct.
MS. TIPPETT: And what is most important to you about having done that?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Well, Hajj is, as it is intended to be, a once in a lifetime experience. I mean, if you can imagine being in quarters of about maybe no more than 10 or 12 square miles with over two and a half million people all coming from every culture imaginable, speaking every language on the planet, all doing the same things for the same purpose, knowing that this event is basically designed in and of itself to set you straight with your Lord. It’s an activity that is beyond words. And I think that National Geographic, CNN, and others have captured that fairly well on film, but even in watching it on film, it doesn’t do justice to what the individual subtly and actually experiences while going through that. It’s incredible.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, it just occurs to me, in a way we’ve circled back from where we started, your interest in Islam early on from the story of Malcolm X, and it was also on Hajj that he also was very clear about what you’ve said is a really central part of Islamic faith for you, which is a sense of the oneness of shared humanity.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Oh, yes.
READER: An excerpt from Malcolm X’s 1964 “Letter From Mecca,” in which he describes his profound change of heart about the nature of Islam and the problem of racism. “Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and the overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as practiced by people of all colors and races here in this ancient holy land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad, and all other prophets of the holy scriptures. For the past week I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors. “There were tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same rituals, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white. “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met people who, in America, would have been considered white, but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color. “You may be shocked by these words coming from me, but on this pilgrimage, what I have seen and experienced has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth. “During the past 11 days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed or on the same rug while praying to the same God with fellow Muslims. And in the same words and in the actions and in the deeds of the `white’ Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan, and Ghana. “All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of all the worlds. “Sincerely, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Malcolm X.”
MS. TIPPETT: It’s pretty basic, but I somehow just, as you described Mecca and Hajj, I also understood a really powerful source of that sensibility in Islam.
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Well, it’s really the opportunity to actually see the religion in its fullness. Because practically all the rituals take place there, to include fasting. You can also fast there optionally if you miss certain things or if you don’t have monies to pay for the qurbani, which is, you know, the slaughtering of the animals, you can fast. You know, you make the prayers throughout–you’re already on the pilgrimage, you make the sacrifice in money, so you pay in zakat. So all of the five pillars are actually there at work all at the same time. And you’re doing these things with people all over the world. I mean, it’s absolutely fascinating.
MS. TIPPETT: I guess I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you this hard question. I mean, there is what is called Islamic insurgency in Iraq that is the source of so much violence right now. How did that affect your thinking about global Islam, about the state of your religion in the world?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Oftentimes, it made me very sad, because the way I’ve described it is it’s almost like all my life I’ve been searching for something that would enable me total freedom, and when I discovered Islam I felt like I found it. So it was kind of like this unraveling of this big ball of yarn, only to find several years later individuals with various extreme views and ideas to the extent of killing innocent people for whatever reasons, making that ball of yarn bigger and bigger and bigger. And so it’s sad. It’s just a sad commentary on the fact that if people truly, in fact, believe that they have a right or an obligation to resort to these kinds of extreme measures to gain land or territory or freedom or whatever it is that they think that they’re doing this for, that this is exactly the opposite of what God gave Adam all the way to Muhammad–prayers and peace be upon all the prophets–that never would the Creator give us any sense that, you know, to take the life of an innocent person will somehow gain His favor.
MS. TIPPETT: So I want to ask you, in closing, what is most challenging and what is most rewarding for you in being a Muslim chaplain in the U.S. military at this moment in time?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: Well, I would have to say probably the most rewarding is having the opportunity to serve our country at a time when people are really confused about what service really means. And I say that because, you know, we have a lot of soldiers who’ve made a lot of sacrifices. And those guys, I tell you, I love them to death, they’ve given everything, and many of them are willing to go right back and give some more. And to be amongst a group of people who have that type of conviction for a nation is unparalleled. It matters not about the politics and what we think and all the rest of it, we are soldiers, and I’m just glad to be a part of that group. That, to me, is probably the greatest part of it as an American-Muslim. As an American-Muslim, you know, to be a part of that, to me, is outstanding. The challenge, at the same time, is to exist within that environment and trying to give people the understanding that things are not always the way they appear to be.
MS. TIPPETT: And what are you thinking of, specifically, when you say that?
MAJ. MUHAMMAD: I’ll let your audience draw their own conclusions. Quite frankly, for me what that means is that, you know, to be able to, for example, this past Christmas, have people send hundreds of boxes to soldiers with all kinds of things in them, almost 50 came to me alone in my name. Now, I know many of those people probably had a pretty general idea that, even though I was the brigade chaplain from my unit, I probably wasn’t celebrating Christmas as Mohammad. Maybe some of them didn’t know that. But that didn’t matter. They sent them anyway because they trusted in their own faith, in their own tradition that this was the time that you’re supposed to give. And what is so wrong with that? So that may not seem like a challenge to some people, but, for me, to be able to put that in the right perspective. You know, even if I think that, man, there’s a lot of Americans out there that hate Islam and hate Muslims, when you have something like that happen, even if it’s once a year, it puts the humanity back in you. So God bless America.
MS. TIPPETT: Chaplain Major Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad is stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. In an era in which experts often predict escalating cultural and military clashes between the West and the Islamic world, the idea of a Muslim officer in American uniform might seem surprising to some. How many of us knew that Muslim prayers were said routinely at the Pentagon in the days and weeks after 9/11? How many of us heard about an Iraqi mosque renovated by American servicemen? Such images stand in sharp contrast to the most disturbing juxtapositions of Islam and the U.S. military in recent weeks. Given such news headlines, I am even more encouraged to imagine Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad displaying his name tag to average Iraqis and expanding their imagination about who Americans are. Major Muhammad does not present himself as a preacher or theologian. He is a man who walks the walk of his faith. He did not wish to speak with me about scandals or address 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 integrity and service, that gives me a larger perspective for hearing such news in the future.
On our website this week, that’s speakingoffaith.org, you can listen to a special Web exclusive conversation with author Yvonne Latty. She has chronicled another little-known slice of American military history and present, the stories of African-American soldiers from World War II through the war on terror. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject. At speakingoffaith.org, you’ll find a link to write to us. There you’ll also find an annotated guide to today’s program. There’s a program particulars section that presents complementary images and details about all the references, readings, and music you’ve just heard. While you’re there, learn how to purchase MP3 downloads of this program and sign up for our free e-mail newsletter, which includes my thoughts on each topic, as well as previews and exclusive extras. That’s speakingoffaith.org. This program was produced by Kate Moos, Mitch Hanley, Colleen Scheck and Jody Abramson. Our web producer is Trent Gilliss. The managing producer of Speaking of Faith is Marge Ostroushko. Our executive producer is Bill Buzenberg. And I’m Krista Tippett.
Next week, the philosophies of the original cynics and skeptics, and the contribution of the world’s other great doubters with historian and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht. Please join us.