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Volume 27, Number 6November/December 1976

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Islam In Iowa

Written by Philip Harsham
Photographed by Katrina Thomas

Cornfields dominate. Verdant and lush, their precise rows march on and on to the horizon. On the west is the wide Missouri and on the east the great Mississippi, two of North America's most majestic rivers. This is Iowa, early home of the Sioux, the Algonquin and the Iroquois, but whose rolling plains more often are described now as "the heartland of the United States" or "America's breadbasket." Iowa, 33 million acres of farmland. Producer in 1975 of a billion bushels of corn, of almost $7 billion worth of agricultural products. A landscape dotted with small towns, tree-lined streets and the white spires of churches. Where the American work ethic is alive and well. Where practically everybody, man, woman or child, sports what is known abroad as the "all-American look."

And where, five times a day, a tightly knit group of American Muslims faces Mecca for the prayers of Islam.

Anomalous? Of course. But consider that a few Muslims had found their way into the Cedar Rapids area as early as 1885, a year before the golden-domed Iowa capitol building was completed in Des Moines. Note that the first building on the North American continent to be designed and used exclusively as a mosque was constructed in Cedar Rapids. Note that there is in Cedar Rapids, too, the Muslim National Cemetery, with all graves facing Mecca, believed to be the only burial ground in the United States given over completely to those of the Islamic faith. And consider that at last count 13 Arab-Americans, among the 40 or 50 Arab-American families in Cedar Rapids, held the title of Hajji, meaning that they have made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's holiest city (See Aramco World, Nov-Dec, 1974).

Cedar Rapids is the home of Lebanese-American Abdallah Igram, the World War II Army veteran who in 1953 went to President Dwight D. Eisenhower with questions nobody had previously asked: Why don't the military services recognize the religion of American Muslims just as they recognize that of Protestants, Catholics and Jews? Why is there no symbol for the Islamic faith on a Muslim serviceman's identification tags so that he might be given fitting burial rites if he's killed in action? Good questions, answered the former supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, and at the Iowan's urging he pushed successfully to have the symbol "I"—for Islamic—stamped on the dog tags of American Muslim soldiers.

Cedar Rapids is also the home of the Mid-America Arabian Corporation, a young export company trying at the moment to adapt some Iowa dairy-farming methods to the needs of Saudi Arabia. "We've taken so much from the Middle East—our heritage, our religion," says the company's president, William Yahya Aossey, Jr., whose father was born in Lebanon. "We'd like now to go full cycle, to take something of great value from America back to the Middle East." Aossey is working toward a clear definition of that cycle. As this is written, he and a Lebanese-American associate, Hassane Aly Ghais, are setting up near Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, a pilot project to force-grow forage grasses in a controlled environment (See box). At the same time, a 16-year-old Saudi Arabian, Kassem Salah Abdul Azim, on his fourth visit from his native Jiddah, is improving his English as a guest in Aossey's Cedar Rapids home.

Christian Arabs came first. That was the pattern of Arab emigration in the 19th century, of course; Christians, often already exposed to Western ideas and finding their religion shared well beyond their homeland boundaries, were at first more ready than Muslims to seek acceptance abroad. Precisely who was the first to come to Iowa or why he happened to choose the American Midwest, nobody alive today is quite sure. It might have been Tom Bashara, a Syrian from the Damascus area. Or it might have been Lebanese brothers Charles and Sam Kacere. It is known that all arrived in Cedar Rapids in the 1880-1890 era, all did some peddling—tramping the countryside with dry goods and notions for farmwives, and all later established Cedar Rapids shops from which they supplied the Arab peddlers who came after them.

As to why they chose Cedar Rapids, it might have been simply their seeking of a new frontier. The first bridge to span the Mississippi River had been completed at Davenport and the first train from the East had moved into Iowa in 1856. Just beyond lay Cedar Rapids, site of abundant waterpower, a thriving milling center for both grain and lumber, fast becoming a trading center because of its proximity to riverport and railroad facilities—and a good jumping off place for the open lands of Minnesota and the Dakotas to the north and northwest.

By 1905, at any rate, Bashara and the Kaceres had made their presence in Cedar Rapids well enough known that Abdul Aossey heard about them while on a ship outbound from Brazil. Young Abdul had set out from his home in Nabatiya, Lebanon, for New York initially, but misadventures, spawned by his inability to read, write or speak any language but Arabic, led him to South America. Continuing on toward New York after a sojourn in Brazil, he was befriended by an American who commented that he'd run across few Arabs in his extensive travels; he had, however, met some brothers named Kacere in, of all places, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. As Abdul Aossey told the story much later to his sons Anace and David, who with their mother still live in Cedar Rapids, he took a train for Iowa as soon as his ship reached New York. There he found not two but eight Kaceres, the early arrivals having sent money back to Lebanon to finance voyages for their brothers. Using their Cedar Rapids general merchandise shop as a supply base, the Kaceres peddled throughout the area, often ranging well into Minnesota. Christians all, they'd had little difficulty in finding acceptance with their largely Protestant customers.

They welcomed their fellow countryman and staked the Muslim Abdul to his first peddler's pack.

As did most immigrant peddlers, Abdul Aossey started with cases of needles, thread, lace and other small notions, walking nine or ten miles a day, spending nights in barns, churches, schools, occasionally being invited to sleep in a farmer's home. He soon graduated from needles and lace to more profitable yard goods, linens and prints. As had the Kaceres, he sent for one of his brothers, Sam. Within three years they'd brought over three more Aossey brothers, Yahya (who became William Yahya Aossey, Sr.), Daoud (David) and Muhammad. And the roots of a Muslim community were embedded.

By the time he reached Cedar Rapids in 1914, says Hassan Igram, now 78 and a retired grocer, there were perhaps 45 Muslims in the area. They were for the most part single men who hoped to earn enough to return to the Middle East to find wives. There were only two families—those of Sam Allick and James De-Hook. But the pace of emigration from the Middle East—particularly from the militarist Ottoman Empire that Turkey had forged—was picking up. And it was not long before there was a full-fledged Muslim community giving prominence to the family names of Sheronick, Kallel, Habhab, Bedra, Hamed and Omar among others. Most of the newcomers began the same way, as pack peddlers. As they earned, they became more the traveling salesman, adding horses and buggies to their capital holdings and greater variety to their product lines.

By 1914 a few had acquired small trucks; given this greater mobility some began buying from, as well as selling to, Iowa's scattered farmers, and they became important providers of fresh eggs and butter to the city folk. Typically, the peddler evolved eventually into the small shop owner. By the mid-1920's Arab grocers and shopkeepers could be found in Fort Dodge and Gilbertsville; in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Michigan City, Fort Wayne and Terre Haute, Indiana; and scattered through Minnesota and Nebraska. Cedar Rapids alone could claim more than 50 shops and grocery stores owned and operated by Arabs. And it was Cedar Rapids that attracted the greatest Muslim contingent.

Few Iowans drew a distinction between the Muslims and the far greater number of Christians, especially in the early days. Non-Arabs tended to lump them together as "the Syrian peddlers," most of them having come from Lebanon before that country was partitioned from Syria. After 1914, however, religion was accorded greater emphasis. One reason is that the Arab Christians in 1914 completed their own Cedar Rapids church, St. George Syrian Orthodox—now St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church. Another is that the Turkish Ottoman Empire had aligned itself with the Axis powers in World War I, the Turks were synonymous in the minds of Americans with Muslims, and, well, there were some of those right there in River City. Not surprisingly, more than a few peddlers were sent packing by outraged farmwives crying "Turk!" And present-day Aosseys recall that one of their forebears was chased away at gunpoint when he innocently revealed his religion to a Turk-hating farmer whose dinner he'd been sharing.

We had no organized worship then," says H. K. Igram, now 82, who reached Cedar Rapids in 1919 by way of Nebraska. "Even then there were only 10 or 15 actual Muslim families here—most of us were still single men; but we met in homes for Friday prayers."

By 1920 the little band of Muslims had converted a rented hall into a mosque. By 1925 they'd formed the Rose of Fraternity Lodge to promote the social and cultural, as well as religious, aspects of their heritage. An Islamic pride was developing, and in 1929 plans for a true Cedar Rapids mosque were set into motion—just as the United States was entering the Great Depression.

Depression hardships at the same time heightened the Muslims' desire for their own house of worship and frustrated their efforts to complete it. Construction moved along, the men doing much of the work themselves, but it was not until 1934 that the mosque could be called completed. True to the anomaly of its location, the mosque bore little resemblance to any the immigrants might have known in the Middle East. It might have been a prairie-country schoolhouse, what with its stark lines and clapboard exterior, or a country church—except for one thing: sitting regally atop a protruding entrance foyer was a dome and from it extended a crescent-topped spire. Signs in both English and Arabic proclaimed this a Muslim place of worship.

"It was a true mosque, the first building ever constructed on this continent specifically for use as a mosque," says 52-year-old Abdallah Igram, Hassan's son. Abdallah and Hussein Sheronick in 1936 became the first Cedar Rapids-born Muslim boys to master the Koran in Arabic. "The building was a combination mosque and social hall," Igram says. "But the first floor was designed purely for prayers and that's all it was used for." William Yahya Aossey, Jr., who had a leading role in building the mosque's replacement almost 40 years later, calls the original hall "the mother mosque of North America," a name that has carried over to the present Cedar Rapids mosque.

Cedar Rapids Muslims had hired an imam—Imam Karoub—even before the mosque was built. Karoub, who arrived in 1929, served as the community's religious leader until 1932, when he was succeeded by Kamil al-Hind of Damascus. Imam al-Hind pushed for completion of the mosque and boasted in an interview given a Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter early in 1936 that the number of Muslims using it already exceeded 150.

Then came Imam Khalil al-Rauef. Urbane, charismatic, with connections to the Saudi royal family, al-Rauef reputedly came to the United States (carrying visa No. 1 from whatever diplomatic station he'd applied to) at the request of America's first lady, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Al-Rauef, Iowans remember, was an authority on Arabian horses and Eleanor Roosevelt at the time was in charge of a horse show that featured Arabians. Nobody remaining in the Cedar Rapids Muslim community remembers just why al-Rauef settled there. It's assumed that an educated and devout Muslim trying to find a niche for himself in a new country would gravitate toward the best organized Islamic community—and in the United States that was Cedar Rapids.

Nobody was sorry that he came. He stayed only through 1938, but he still was working in the community's behalf 30 years later, when plans to build a new mosque and Islamic center were set in motion. "He was back in Jiddah when I made my Hajj," H. K. Igram says. "I found him there and he arranged for me to have dinner with the late King Faisal." He grinned. "I told them we needed a little financial help over here to build a nice new mosque."

A few other Cedar Rapids Muslims passed that word, too, not only in Saudi Arabia, but to any Islamic nation that might listen. Though no financial aid was immediately forthcoming, they were undaunted. Community leaders obtained bank loans for the $120,000 structure and went right ahead with their mosque-building program.

The new Islamic Center, on Cedar Rapids' First Avenue, S.W., was completed early in 1972. Two years later, King Faisal forwarded a check for $45,000, a gift, he said, from the Saudi Arabian people. Soon thereafter the Government of Kuwait contributed $6,000 and Libya provided a supply of Korans. "They found that we were serious," says William Yahya Aossey, Jr. "We were the first group to have approached these governments for grants, be turned down and go ahead with our building anyway."

The little dome and crescent are gone from the original mosque now, and the building is known as the Robert Dotzauer Community Center. At the same time, religious activities have gained momentum at the new Islamic Center, and Muslim students attending nearby colleges have injected new blood into the community. "It certainly isn't Islam as we knew it at home," said a young Pakistani student. "The religion has adapted to American culture. But that is good. Islam is a religion that can adapt, despite its many ancient traditions."

Friday is the Islamic Sabbath in Cedar Rapids, as elsewhere. But because the American work week is geared to a Monday-through-Friday schedule, most working Muslims there observe the Sabbath on Sunday. Lay leaders are all-important to the Friday and Sunday prayer services, the mosque having no imam at the moment, and to the Arabic-school and Sunday-school programs. Women, too, have taken on active roles in mosque programs, and they attend prayers, kneeling along with the men on the mosque's bright blue carpeting, but at the rear of the room.

The community was not always so willing to bend. "I went to Arabic school for 13 years," says Abdallah Igram. "I'd come home from public school, then turn around and go to Arabic-language classes. We'd be at the mosque every weekday from 5 to 7 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with an hour out for lunch. For 13 years. And I worked nights in my father's grocery store, too, all that time." The regimen seems to have made Igram a stronger Cedar Rapidian as well as a stronger Muslim. He's credited by friends as having done as much as any man to gain acceptance for Islam in America. He and Cedar Rapids contemporaries in the early 1950's organized the Federation of Islamic Associations in the United States and Canada (F.I.A.) with the idea of creating greater Islamic cohesiveness in North America.

At the same time that Igram was promoting Islamic unity he was just as busily heading a drive to build a Young Men's Christian Association branch in Cedar Rapids. "I was president of the Islamic Federation and the Y.M.C.A. at the same time," he says. But since coexistence and tolerance are strong traditions within the histories of both Islam and America, perhaps that should not be so surprising coming from a Muslim from Iowa.

Philip Harsham is a veteran reporter and editor who has contributed to such publications as the New York Times, Time, Money and Medical Economics.

Iowa To Arabia

There is in central Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S.A., a company called the Mid-America Arabian Corporation, Ltd. It is headed by the three sons of the late Hajj William Yahya Aossey, Sr.—Joseph, 40, Albert, 37, and William Yahya, Jr., 34, each a Cedar Rapids native, each a pilgrim to Mecca, and each a devotee of things Arab as well as all things Iowan. Mid-America Arabian, one of six interlinked Aossey companies, classifies itself as an export firm, and its principal export—if all goes as planned—will be Iowa-style dairy production for Saudi Arabia.

In conjunction with a Jiddah firm the Aosseys hope to develop a model farm combining features of Iowa farms with some of those found in California and Arizona facilities which are suited to the climate, land and needs of the Middle East.

The primary effort at the moment is toward providing the green forage and fiber necessary to a milk-producing cow's diet. Using a concept already tried by others, William Aossey has developed an environmentally controlled grass-growing unit that will multiply up to eight times in eight days the food value of each grain seed used. That means that five pounds of seed can be converted to 40 pounds of green roughage—roughage intended to supplement the dry concentrates fed cattle—in eight days. And the protein and chemical content expand proportionately.

All this growth takes place in a trailerlike 10-by-24-foot unit complete with controlled light, humidity, temperature and water. Lining the unit's interior walls are stacks of shelves fitted with water-spraying devices. And on each shelf are rows of large plastic trays in which the food grasses are grown.

"Each unit will produce roughly two tons of animal feed a week, with minimal fertilization," William Aossey says. "With about 95 percent humidity, temperature controlled to about 70 degrees, and special lights that simulate sunlight 24 hours a day, the seed germinates within 24 hours." No pesticides are needed in the Utopian environment. Water—each eight-day crop takes only 250 gallons—is pumped from tanks at each end of the unit and constantly recycled so that the crop is grown with 93 percent water efficiency. There's no waste in the crop, either; at the end of each growing period the trays contain a thick seven- or eight-inch stand of succulent grass, a tangled mass of high-protein roots, and a residue of ungerminated seeds. The contents are dumped out, leaving clean trays, and every ounce becomes food. The grain used may be wheat, rye, barley, oats or any combination. Aossey says the cost of the resulting animal food totals out to $55 a ton, excluding depreciation on the equipment, whereas even American dairy-belt farmers expect to pay up to $190 a ton when drought conditions strike. He calculates that 14 of the units will provide ample supplemental forage for a 500-cow herd.

Meanwhile, Aossey is collaborating with agriculture experts at Iowa State University, with grain analysts, with water engineers, with packaging specialists. And he's commuting between Cedar Rapids and Jiddah. Nobody can say yet that this Iowa-born Muslim will be successful in transplanting Iowa dairy production to the Middle East. But William Aossey is betting he will be.

This article appeared on pages 30-36 of the November/December 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1976 images.