VIDEO: A visit with Tacoma imam Ahmad Saleh
Go looking for the Islamic Center of Tacoma and it’s easy enough to spot. A green-and-white lighted sign on the north end of University Place proclaims, “Peace be upon you,” at all hours to the traffic of Bridgeport Way West.
Five times daily, congregants — from a dozen to several hundred — stream in to recite prayers as mandated in the Quran, kneeling northward, the most direct path from Tacoma to Mecca. The door is open at many hours.
It’s just as easy to roll quickly past on the artery road, which lacks sidewalks, without ever noticing the worship center, especially for those more likely to refer to it by the English term “mosque” than by the Arabic, “masjid.”
A row of lush firs screens the white stone building from the street. This is not entirely unintentional. The congregation has favored keeping its profile low in recent years, several worshipers told a visitor, because of the cultural climate that surrounds their faith in much of modern America.
“When a Muslim does something, it’s all over the place,” said Waleed Alghzali, the center’s president. “When somebody else does something, it’s not.”
Occasionally, this has brought Tacoma’s Muslims attention few members of any religion might invite. After bombers and gunmen attacked Paris in November and members of the Islamic State claimed credit, a Gig Harbor man announced on Facebook that he would stage a vigil outside the center. Police were contacted, and the protest went elsewhere.
The center’s imam, Ahmad Saleh, shrugged when asked recently about that situation and similar ones. Speaking with visitors in the center’s library after leading more than 200 worshipers in a Friday prayer service, he described such encounters as opportunities.
“Sometimes when something bad happens, and they keep saying ‘Muslims’ or some people start to talk against Islam,” Saleh said, “it drives some other people to learn about this religion.”
Saleh, a stocky man with a full beard, declined to give his age, even after introducing journalists to his wife, son and daughter before a meal in his home.
He spoke effusively, across several interviews, of his experiences and goals as an Islamic spiritual leader in the Pacific Northwest, where the largely tolerant atmosphere is such that he proudly displayed a note of greeting from Rabbi Bruce Kadden of Tacoma’s Temple Beth-El.
Sometimes when something bad happens, and they keep saying ‘Muslims’ or some people start to talk against Islam, it drives some other people to learn about this religion.
Saleh describes his mosque as a place where a moderate strain of Islam is preached. Kadden, who is now on sabbatical, sees in this an opening between faith groups that, elsewhere, are often at extreme odds.
“The mosque has seemed to in the past have a pretty low profile in the area,” Kadden said. “But now I think that there’s more of an effort to connect with community, so I hope that will bring opportunities for us to do something new together.”
Saleh grew up in Egypt, where his theological studies at Al-Azhar University focused on teaching Islam in the English-speaking world. Saleh has been in the United States for six years, arriving in Tacoma a little more than year ago after stops in New York City and Kansas City.
Now he lives in a duplex across from a salon a few blocks from the Islamic Center with his wife, Sara, and two children, daughter Toka, 4, and son, Aslam, 1, who was born in Tacoma. The family might remain here permanently, he said, citing various factors from the region’s live-and-let-live mentality and cooperation in Tacoma between leaders of different religions to the University Place schools.
Even the weather, he says, has its virtues.
“For us Muslims, you know what? The raining and this stuff, we consider it as a blessing from God when he sends his grace,” Saleh said on a typically gray and misty January afternoon. “The water, the rain, for us it’s glad tidings to us. So we like this atmosphere. It’s blissful for this season, you know?”
At this latitude, each day of Saleh’s official service begins and ends in darkness. Ablutions, a ritual cleansing in water, precede morning’s prayers that start at 6:45 a.m., and the last come at 7 p.m., with weddings, funerals, spiritual counseling, and classes for young and old students mixed in.
Certain aspects of Islamic life are farther between in the Pacific Northwest than elsewhere in America, he noted. To obtain goat meat considered halal — i.e., permissible under Islamic law — he travels to a Sumner slaughterhouse, says a short prayer over the animal and puts his knife to its throat.
Sourcing proper ground beef is easier.
“They have it at Costco,” he said.
The Islamic Center of Tacoma is among the region’s oldest mosques and will turn 36 this year. Like the rest of the Puget Sound region’s population, the number of worshipers Saleh regularly sees is growing. Fridays are to Islam what Sundays are to Christianity. At certain Friday midday prayers, he said, the number of worshipers who crowd in is nearly more than the building, on a site that originally was a house, can handle.
“The number of Muslims is growing every day,” Saleh said, “so we are trying to either expand this masjid or to find a bigger place.”
Men and women worship on separate sides of a wooden wall, with the women watching Saleh via a televised simulcast.
Services, as at many American mosques, are conducted mostly in Arabic with English translations of the more conversational sermon provided by Saleh on the fly. Congregants remove their shoes, sit on the ground in rows kept straight by lines of string nailed into the floor and kneel and pray as one.
The Islamic Center of Tacoma is among the region’s oldest mosques and will turn 36 this year.
In a recent Friday midday sermon, Saleh told the 200-plus worshipers how their lives would fill with “peace and tolerance” the closer they followed the Quran’s teachings.
“Faith increases with obedience, with doing righteous and good deeds,” he preached, after saying it first in Arabic. “It decreases with disobedience. It decreases with bad deeds. So the more iman, the more faith, you have in your heart, the more good deeds you will be doing and offering.”
The congregation’s growth owes to several factors, the imam said, including Muslims coming into the region from elsewhere in the United States and converts to the faith.
He declined to discuss in depth several politically charged aspects of immigration. His own move to New York happened a year ahead of the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Asked about the consequences for his family and friends, he said only that “it affected the whole country economically, then on the social side.”
He also would not say how many emigrants from Syria and other troubled regions have joined or contacted the center, except that it is “a few, not many.”
“They come to the country, can’t speak the language,” he said. “We help them to find the place where they should learn.”
The center, he adds, works to feed several groups, including a monthly trip to bring meat to the homeless in downtown Tacoma. Some Friday and Saturday services also take on a potluck feel, with worshipers bringing dishes and desserts to feed others.
Part of this is a practical measure. Some worshipers with 9-to-5 jobs spend their entire Friday lunch break to attend midday service. It is, he said, also part of the Quran’s edict of hospitality, and he quotes a verse in Arabic from memory.
“This is what Islam tells,” Saleh said, “to be ideal with the neighbors, with those who are around you, with your friends, with your brothers, so people they come hear what Muhammad said and what people are doing.”
At the Islamic Center, among Saleh’s oldest congregants is Marotha Pasha, who is 80. He grew up in South Carolina, was raised Christian and converted to Islam in his 20s after studying Judaic, Buddhist and Hindu texts, and worked in human services before he retired.
Pasha moved to Tacoma from St. Croix in 1980 and has been rooted here ever since, which is long enough to have watched the Islamic Center grow from its beginnings. He said he wishes the general public would develop a stronger first-hand understanding of what the Muslim faith actually means.
“I think when we speak, I think it comes over like trying to put out a glossy picture,” Pasha said. “So I think it would do well for the public to invest some time, to go through to see what the basic foundation of Islam is, and the basic traditions.”