As an eight-year-old kid in 1987, I still recall sitting in the back of my parents’ station wagon trekking back and forth some 150 miles round trip from our home in Oceanside, California to Chino, California. We were passing through long summer months, and my four siblings and I were rather oblivious to the purpose of our repeated family field trips.
My father wasn’t. He was the general secretary for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which at the time, consisted of some two dozen families scattered throughout southern California. He had his eyes set on a 5-acre parcel of land that lay in dairy country 30 miles east of Los Angeles. His mission — to obtain city and county approval for a new mosque in Chino. Week after week, public hearing after public hearing — my father would round up the family in the station wagon and rehearse his “talking points” for the public during the long drives up north.
I remember sitting by his side in the school auditoriums as he prepared to take the podium to make his pitch for the mosque. Cool, calm, methodical, logical — my father engaged with the community members as if he had known them all his life. “Why?” I’d sometimes ask him, “Why do you have to do so much to convince everyone in the city that we deserve our own mosque?” “Muhammad listened to his neighbors,” my father would tell me, “So we must listen to our neighbors.”
Fast forward decades later, another summer has now almost passed. Only this has been the “summer of Park 51” – an unrelenting media storm over an attempt to erect an Islamic prayer center a few blocks from Ground Zero. The controversy has ignited a national debate about the place of American Muslims in society. In now predictable fashion, we have seen extreme reactions to the controversy –Newt Gingrich compares Park 51 to a “Nazi sign next to a Holocaust museum,” a Taliban operative warns that “the more mosques [America] stops, the more jihadis [the Taliban] will recruit,” and a Muslim cab driver in New York is stabbed in an apparent hate crime fueled by Park 51 hysteria.
As I witness emotions on both sides of the Park 51 debate reach a fever pitch, I am reminded of my father’s efforts to build a mosque in Chino decades ago and more specifically of his words to me at the school auditorium. It is all too easy for those entrenched in their views on the Park 51 center to ignore the telling examples of the founder of Islam himself, the Prophet Muhammad. Having now reached an age and level of maturity in my life to finally appreciate my father’s frequent musings about who Muhammad was, I am reminded of one particular example my father would often share with me — an example that the Qur’an itself makes reference to.
Once during the early part of his calling, Muhammad was engaged in a deep discussion about his beliefs with a few tribal chiefs. During the course of this discussion, a poor blind man named Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum rashly interrupted him. Abdullah felt strongly that Muhammad was wasting his time and energy preaching to the chiefs and sought to pull him away from the gathering. Both Muhammad and the chiefs disliked the intrusion very much, and Muhammad grew visibly upset with Abdullah – a rare expression of displeasure on his part. But recognizing Abdullah’s tender susceptibilities (being poor and blind), Muhammad simply frowned and turned his face away from him without uttering a word of reproach. In this single act of restraint, he managed to express his frustration without even slightly offending Abdullah. He also set an example for the chiefs before him.
For me, Muhammad’s example offers a simple lesson for those embroiled in the Park 51 debate: learn to be sensitive. There are millions of people like Abdullah in the world. Some of those supporting Park 51 have good reason to vociferously defend their constitutional right to religious freedom, and can and should seek to defend their faith. But in so doing, they ignore the sublime acts of moral restraint exhibited by the very founder of Islam: Muhammad. Some of those opposed to Park 51 have good reason to be offended by some Muslims, and can and should seek to critique a militant perversion of Islam. But in so doing, they intend the critique to severely insult all Muslims. Surely, there are more sensible ways to express one’s offense without antagonizing one’s fellow human being.
I look back on the summer of 1987 and can’t help but reflect on what was at stake for my Ahmadi Muslim congregation. The city and county ultimately approved the mosque, Baitul Hameed, which now stands as a beautiful beacon of peace and center for over 1000 congregants — one of the oldest and largest mosques in southern California. At an inter-faith gathering at the mosque some months ago, I ran into some old neighbors and inquired in passing, “Do you remember the public hearings before this mosque was built?” One neighbor replied: “I don’t remember much from those days except your father’s smile and warm embrace.”
Muhammad would be pleased.