Muslim army chaplain at Pentagon site

First of faith ministers to soldiers working amid devastation

Terrorism Strikes America

The Healing Process

September 19, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Capt. Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad, the only Muslim chaplain ministering at the Pentagon crash site, felt the stares recently when he prepared to read from the Koran and kneel toward Mecca on the same devastated ground that suspected Islamic terrorists had attacked days earlier.

A half-dozen Muslim employees at the Pentagon also walked past the penetrating gaze of on lookers, crossing the secure perimeter to Muhammad's crash-site service in remembrance of 190 people presumed dead in the assault.

From a makeshift podium - Gatorade boxes covered by a white sheet - Muhammad presided in his khaki skullcap and read from a section of the Koran called the Snake, a series of reflections on the triumph of good over evil.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in The Sun last Wednesday about a Muslim chaplain at the Pentagon referred incorrectly to a chapter of the Quran he quoted in a service. The title of the chapter was "The Spider." The Sun regrets the error.

"There is something very powerful about prayer." said Muhammad, a soft-spoken man with a soulful face and an Islamic crescent on the collar of his U.S. Army fatigues.

"It is a release."

Prayers under security

But for Muhammad, his religion also marks him. Here, in a military preparing for a war against suspected terrorists who claim to represent his faith, Islam threatens to make him an outsider.

"We had an officer watching during our prayer, for security purposes, and I took some extra comfort in that." he said during a break yesterday from his duties at the attack site.

"Not like I was expecting anything like this, but it only takes one bullet to kill you."

But Muhammad says he has noticed little beyond the occasional long look as he tends to his duties of ministering, handling the emotional wounds inflicted when the military headquarters became a smoldering tomb.

The 48-year-old Landover resident is so fearful of an anti-Muslim backlash that since last week he has insisted that his wife go out in public only with one of their strapping sons at her side.

But so far, on military ground, he has felt surprised by the sense of acceptance surrounding him.

"I was wondering whether or not these people would be willing to talk to me, or if they'd suddenly find something else they had to do." he recalled of a recent counseling session he offered to Air Force security personnel working at the crash site.

"But they were very verbal, and they were very sincere in our conversation. If they thought some thing contrary to what I'd hope they"d think of me, they weren't obvious about it."

The crash site has become a place where faith blurs.

Rarely in the past week, Muhammad says, has he counseled Muslims. Instead, he and two dozen other chaplains of all religions offer comfort to any soldier who needs it.

Servicemen have sought on-the-spot spiritual guidance, quickly unburdening the images that haunt them before returning to collect the remains of the dead.

One soldier told Muhammad about finding a woman still at her desk, her arms shielding her face, preserved in that position and charred in her seat as a fireball rolled through and killed her.

Many more have complained about the lingering smell of jet fuel, which seems to soak through their bones as it has the building.

But the clergyman, one of only 12 Islamic chaplains worldwide in the U.S. military, is also concerned with the particular needs of Muslim soldiers, whose numbers have risen across the armed forces. Muslims say their numbers in the military have reached 10,000, though official estimates put the figure as low as 4,100.

Jarred into faith

In the past week, some Islamic servicemen have sought out Muhammad, treating him as a sort of father confessor. One Muslim on the Pentagon's mortuary team pulled him aside to apologize for not being devout enough. The scenes of the carnage, Muhammad said, had jarred the man into a new sense of faith.

"I think in an unconscious way he was trying to reconnect to his religion." Muhammad said. "He was reaching out - he didn't feel like he could go to the other chaplains. I think this attack made him feel displaced."

As he works 12-hour shifts near the gash in the building's side, Muhammad anoints himself with oils used in Islam - scents familiar in side a mosque - and adjusts his military compass to figure out the direction of Mecca, the birthplace of Islam in Saudi Arabia. When in the field, he unfurls a waterproof mat in camouflage colors and prays several times a day amid the debris created by the jet crash.

Muhammad became the military's first Muslim chaplain in 1993, after obtaining master's degrees in counseling from San Diego State University and social work from the University of Michigan and serving as a prison chaplain in upstate New York. He is known as an imam, a Muslim spiritual leader, though the military calls all its clergy chaplains regardless of their faith.

Muhammad, born Myron Maxwell, was the 10th of 11 children, raised in a Baptist family in a housing project in Buffalo, N.Y. He converted to Islam at the age of 20, motivated by the writings of Malcolm X and a sense that the faith of his parents lacked the strong connection for African-Americans that Islam brings.

Between visits to the Pentagon crash site, Muhammad works at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, ministering to ailing Muslim veterans. In the future, he expects to serve in war zones where Islam has long flourished.

"We're soldiers first"

'I believe I was a Muslim at birth." he said. "But Muslims in the armed forces are Americans. And we're soldiers first."

As he reports to work at the Pentagon, the scars of the last week are inescapable. Muhammad says he remembers his family - his wife, Saleemah, their seven children, his parents, his friends - standing at attention at the Defense Department headquarters for the historic ceremony that made him the first military chaplain of his faith.

"I looked at the building. These feelings of joy from that memory and the pain of what has just happened all ran together." he said. 'Standing at the Pentagon for my commissioning, it was one of the proudest moments of my life. And now it is a place of so much grief."

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