A folded cardboard box serves as a prayer mat as airport skycap Shaheed Muhammad prays in a secluded alcove while on break at Jackson-Evers International Airport in Jackson on Thursday. Shaheed is Imam of Jackson’s Masjid Muhammad.
Everyday around noon, Shaheed Muhammad, a 55-year-old African American, finds a private area inside the Jackson-Evers International Airport, lays a small rug on the floor and begins to pray.
At the same time, Turkish-born Sabri Agachan, 27, performs an identical ritual inside his office at Jackson State University.
Muhammad and Agachan represent the metro area’s diverse and growing Muslim community, which some observers estimate to include between 2,000 to 4,000 people.
“It verifies Islam to me,” said Muhammad, a skycap at the airport for 17 years. “There are people from every corner of the globe.”
The region’s Muslims will gather early next week to celebrate Eid ul-Adha, the Muslim holy day commemorating the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
Drawing some 800 people last year, Jackson’s Eid celebration reveals the global nature of Islam. Local believers from countries including Pakistan, India, Morocco, Egypt, Senegal, the Sudan, Turkey and the United States transcend cultural differences through their common beliefs.
“God says in the Quran that he made us different tribes and nations so that we may know one another,” Muhammad said. “When I attend the mosque, it’s a reminder of the universal oneness of mankind.”
The two largest mosques in the metro area are Masjid Muhammad in north Jackson and Masjid Omar in the southern part of the city.
Founded in the early 1970s, Masjid Muhammad got its start when Islam began attracting more African Americans.
Once located in inner-city Jackson, the mosque first affiliated with the Nation of Islam, a movement that combines Islam with black nationalism.
“The history of the African-American Islamic movement here began as more of a social movement,” said Okolo Rashid, co-founder and executive director of the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson.
But after the movement’s leader Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, Masjid Muhammad’s leadership voted to join the American Muslim Mission, which teaches orthodox Islam.
The mosque’s membership has historically been African American, but it started a formal push in 2000 to attract members from the faith’s international community.
“It was always our desire as we learn more about the religion to make it more reflective of the diversity of Islam,” Rashid said. “We openly established a policy to be inclusive.”
It now includes members from close to 10 different cultural groups including Arabs, American blacks and whites and people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Sudan.
“The whole idea was to put into practice this idea of Islamic brotherhood,” Rashid said.
The second oldest mosque in Jackson is Masjid Omar, founded in 1978 in southeast Jackson. Since 1991, a converted home housed the mosque, but the mostly Arab and Indo-Pakistani congregation recently built a larger facility.
“We’ve seen people moving from different states to Mississippi,” said Azzam Abumirshid, president of the Mississippi Muslim Association and an environmental engineer.
Abumirshid, a Palestinian who has lived in the United States for 17 years, attributes some of the growth in the region’s Muslim community to the communications boom of the 1990s, which attracted Muslim professionals to the state. Jackson’s hospitals, colleges and universities also have drawn Muslim doctors and professors, he said.
One of Jackson’s newest mosques is Masjid Al-Muminum, located near Jackson State University. The congregation got its start in 2003, said Imam William Sabree, the mosque’s prayer leader.
“We just saw the need,” Sabree said about starting a mosque in downtown Jackson. “We had one in the extreme north and the extreme south.”
Along with its growing congregations, the region’s Muslims have shown their economic heft with the founding of the International Museum of Muslim Cultures.
Established in 2001 as a companion exhibit to the Mississippi Museum of Art’s Majesty of Spain exhibition, the museum raised two-thirds of its $400,000 founding budget from local Muslims, Rashid said.
Still, she credits the institution’s success to the support it gets from both Muslims and non-Muslims.
“It had to be more than just an interest of the Muslims,” Rashid said. “We had to know whether the community would support such a project.”
That support was most evident after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — five months after the museum opened.
Unlike other cities where people attacked some Muslims, Jackson saw little backlash against Muslims. In fact, Rashid said, college students, ministers and community members knocked on the museum’s doors to lend their support.
“That speaks volumes for this community,” she said.
Despite being a religious minority, many Mississippi Muslims say they feel accepted by the larger community.
But ignorance about the faith still persists, said Muhammad, who converted from Christianity to Islam in the 1970s.
“There’s definitely a lot of curiosity and a lot of discrimination,” he said. “Often times it’s from people of different faiths and even family members.”
Muhammad said his airport co-workers or passengers question him about his religion almost daily.
“A lot of passengers see my name and ask me ‘Why are you a Muslim? Don’t you love Jesus?’ ” he said.
Rather than criticizing people who challenge his beliefs, Muhammad said he follows the example of the prophet Muhammad to engage in a respectful dialogue.
“We have to be extremely careful of not being as critical of them as they are of us,” he said. “If we do, that will drive them even farther away.”
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