In Washington about now the visitors are beginning to arrive. Spring has come, soft and green, and with it the first of the season's tourists. By road, rail and air, they're pouring into the city, now by the thousands, later by the tens of thousands, all intent on seeing this, the capital of the United States.
Some will head quickly for the famous monuments and buildings that commemorate so much of American history—the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial. Some will go immediately to the grave of John F. Kennedy, where a flame flickers in the wind. Others will stroll leisurely through the center of the capital, savoring the flavor that is Washington's own, the flavor of wide, shady avenues, open vistas of green lawn near great marble buildings and tiny, unexpected parks, each with its statue in bronze to some fragment of history. And still others will look for places that are unusual or piquant—places like the mosque on Massachusetts Avenue.
It is surprising, somehow, to find a mosque in Washington. It's as if the arched façade by the wide sidewalk, and the single minaret pointing upward from the flank of that broad and busy boulevard, belong somewhere else, back in time, perhaps, when pennants flew over the golden domes and slim spires of a Baghdad, an Istanbul or a Cordova. Which might be precisely why the mosque on Massachusetts Avenue is such an irresistible attraction to visitors—it draws up to 1,000 individuals a day in the spring and summer months—and why it remains high on the list of memorable places seen by those who come to the capital.
The novel aspect of the mosque, of course, is irrelevant. Its significance to Washington is much deeper than that. It is a house of worship for some 3,000 Muslims in Washington. It is a center of study and scholarship for those who seek to know more about the East. It is a religious fountainhead for all of North America and its approximately 32,600 Muslims. Above all, it is a symbol of the universality of Islam, a statement in stone of the strong faith of the Muslims who, 20 years ago, began to lay plans for its construction.
At that time—1945—there was no mosque in Washington. Muslims assigned to the capital—indeed, to almost anywhere in the United States—were forced to either rent halls or to use embassies and consulates for religious observances. But that year the Ambassador from Turkey died unexpectedly and the Muslim community was mortified at the lack of suitable quarters to mourn the death of this important man and to receive the representatives of the world's diplomatic corps who came to pay their respects. Because of that embarrassment two men—Mahmud Hassan, then an Egyptian envoy to the United States, and A. Joseph Howar, a Muslim contractor in Washington—were encouraged to revive a proposal that they had put forward previously with little success: construction of a great center of culture and religion for all of North America. This time the Muslim world was ready.
In some ways the planning and construction of the mosque was a formidable undertaking. It meant that 21 nations, many linked by ties of language and religion, but divided by disagreements, would have to put aside their differences and pool their ideas, skills and funds in the common cause. That many did so is a measure of the spirit of reverence and cooperation that infused the project.
Thorough planning, of course, was essential to success and it took four years before those charged with designing the mosque could come up with blueprints architecturally faithful to the spirit of Islam and comparable in grace and beauty to other great mosques of the world. Proper workmanship was also essential, to insure that all decorative and religious motifs would be authentic in every detail, and the contractors actually brought craftsmen from the Middle East to Washington to make such things as the intricate molds for the ornamental plaster art of the large arches over the columns. Other craftsmen went off to quarries to supervise the selection and cutting of the Alabama white stone from which the mosque was to be constructed. In the Middle East itself patient hands were at work in many regions and in time the products of their skilled labors took shape and went off to Washington: tiles from Turkey, in basic tones of blue and white, to enrich the walls, and the columns beneath the arches; several huge and colorful rugs from Iran, each measuring about 20 by 40 feet, to swathe the floors and corridors in soft textures and rich colors; a brilliant two-ton copper and bronze chandelier from Egypt, to hang from the central dome and throw light throughout the mosque from its 80 bulbs; some 12,000 tiny slivers of ebony and other precious woods, also from Egypt, to adorn the minbar (pulpit). Other countries, like Saudi Arabia, helped finance the project.
Nor were contributions restricted to the Muslim world. The Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) and other oil companies made contributions of money and Mr. Howar gave numerous gifts, including the fountains in the courtyard. A particularly important contribution was made by an American named Wellman Chamberlin. Mr. Chamberlin, a cartographer for the National Geographic Society, was asked to ascertain the exact direction of the site on Massachusetts Avenue with respect to Mecca, the holy city of Islam and the place toward which Muslims face when they pray. After painstaking calculations Mr. Chamberlin announced that to face Mecca the mosque would have to point 56 degrees 35 minutes and 15 seconds east of true north, an angle that was not at all in accordance with the building line of Massachusetts Avenue. That led to a feature that has, for visitors, a particular charm. The frontal arcade of the mosque and the two wings of the Islamic Center are parallel to the street, but the main body slants off at a slight angle so that worshippers, when they kneel or stand within the mosque to recite their prayers, are facing exactly toward the holy city, 8,000 miles away in Saudi Arabia.
To organize such a variety of contributions required many years of patient effort and negotiation. And adding to the difficulties was the need to raise money for construction—which alone cost $1,250,000—and commitments for future maintenance, from among the nations and rulers of the Muslim world. In time, however, after four years of preparation and seven years of construction, the slim silhouette of a minaret pushed up into the Washington skyline and on June 28, 1957, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower on hand to preside at the ceremonies, it was dedicated and opened.
Since then the mosque and the attached Islamic Center have begun to play an important role in the lives of Muslims everywhere and in the cultural life of Washington. The mosque, of course, is what the inscription over the door calls it, a house of worship, "... which God has allowed to be raised up and His name to be commemorated therein." Its central function is the worship of God. And so, five times a day, each day, its doors swing open to admit the faithful to prayer. So too, each Friday—the Muslim equivalent of the Western Sunday—the crowds come to Jum'ah, the "Friday Prayer," as, overhead, the recorded voice of a muezzin cries out, across the roar of traffic, "this perfect summons" to the faithful. Yet, important as the mosque is, it is the Islamic Center that has had the wider impact. With its library of 5,000 volumes of history, religion, philosophy, and modern writing, and a dedicated staff of teachers, librarians and guides, able and eager to explain, to teach, to convince, the center has taken important steps toward achieving its purposes. Those purposes are summed up by Acting Director Hassan Hosny this way: "...to make known the principles of Islam, its culture, philosophy and the universality of the message of the Prophet Muhammad."
This aspect, of course, is not apparent to all visitors who come to the mosque. To many it is merely a strikingly different building that excites curiosity and passing interest, a somewhat unusual temple where one must remove one's shoes and walk in silence across layers of rich Eastern carpets, a place where the daily register lists the names of American Boy Scouts and Sunday School pupils on the same pages with leaders of the Muslim world. But there are also some who see the mosque and the center in a more appreciative light, who realize that here, on Massachusetts Avenue, in the midst of the modern Western world, is a statement of belief in an ancient Eastern faith, a statement at once proud and firm. For those who built the mosque and those who worship there, this is enough.
William Geerhold, reporter, columnist and editor on the Laconia Citizen, Laconia, N.H., is a graduate of the University of Southern California and a former reporter for the Providence Journal, Providence, R.I.