A Discussion with Imam Mohamed Magid, Executive Imam of All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center
January 27, 2022
Background: Imam Magid, a contemporary Islamic scholar and activist based in northern Virginia, works incessantly to bridge divides in today’s polarized worlds. From a base at the large ADAMS Center, he serves his congregation, for example urging universal vaccination against COVID-19, and travels the world promoting dialogue, peace, and respect for human rights. Imam Magid spoke to Katherine Marshall (by Zoom) on January 17, 2022 about his work, his vision of challenges and opportunities for peacebuilding, equity for women, and overcoming tensions and divides between West and East.
"If you are not understanding the context you are living in, then theology becomes a matter of the past. Thus you have to be able to apply the theology to the contemporary." - Imam Magid
To start, what brought you to your current role as Executive Imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS)?
It has been an interesting journey! Today in my mail I saw that a friend of mine, one of the imams in the area (Faizul Khan), has written a book about his own journey. I can relate to that because he's one of the early imams that my father and I met as he asked my father, God bless his soul, to give a sermon at the time in his mosque in Silver Spring.
When I came to the United States, how many years ago, in 1987 or the beginning of 1988, I did not imagine where I was going to be. Coming to America was not a part of my plan to begin with.
What was your plan? What were you going to do?
I was born in Sudan, in a village in the north of Sudan, on the Nile. It did not have electricity or running water. We used to get the water from the well, manually, with our hands. I would pump it and then get the water. Though it is remote and poor, many leaders have come out of the village: doctors, influential people. That’s because the people of the village valued education and they wanted their children to be educated.
My father grew up in the village, and then by luck went to Cairo to pursue his academic studies, middle and high school in Cairo and then university at Al Azhar. He was a true scholar and graduated as one of the top of his class. In his 20s, he married my mother who gave him five children. I'm the middle child; I don't know what that says about me!
Unfortunately, my mother passed away, in the city, when I was four years old. My father took us back to the village and he became a well-known preacher and teacher of Islam. He rose to high ranks of scholarship in Sudan, in charge of what's called the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs. We grew up in a household that was very engaged in theology, teaching, and service. Part of my father’s way of conveying Islam was working with people: he used to provide food and clothing to villages that were suffering and struggling. He spent a month or so in places that didn’t have even clean water, to make sure that they got the service they needed. Thus I was born in this kind of household. My father remarried. My stepmother is a wonderful lady, a professor of art with a PhD, very involved in teaching people, especially women, and encouraging them to pursue their education. I had two sisters, but one of them passed away in a power accident, electric shock. I have another sister and two brothers.
I was, believe it or not, pursuing a path to study law. Because I've seen injustice, I wanted to be a judge. I was active when I was young, doing social service, one of the leading people in something called “Planting a Million Trees” in Sudan. I participated in renovating hospitals. Thus I had a commitment to social services. But I never thought to leave Sudan; it was not in my plan at all.
So what brought you to the United States?
God has the best plan. My father got sick and therefore we came to the United States, for a kidney transplant. I was supposed to be the donor, but my tissues did not match the blood type. My father got a kidney here, in the Washington Hospital Center. He died in 1990, and I took his body back to bury him in Sudan. After that, I came back to the US and continued my studies. In 1996, I met my wife and in 1997 we get married. Now I have five daughters. The oldest is doing her PhD, in American culture at Michigan University. And the youngest are twins, 10th graders.
When I came to the United States, when I met my father’s doctor, Dr. Cohen, it was the first time in my life I had met a Jewish person. It was very wonderful to get to know him. He was fascinated that he was treating a Muslim clergy.
Where did you do most of your studies?
I studied in Sudan, mostly in Islamic studies. Here in the US I went to the University of Maryland, to study sociology and psychology. I wanted to combine theology with contemporary social sciences, to understand human behavior. In my Islamic studies in Sudan, my father had insisted that I and my brothers pursue contemporary matters alongside Islamic sciences. One thing that I learned from him is that you must apply text to context. If you are not understanding the context you are living in, then theology becomes a matter of the past. Thus you have to be able to apply the theology to the contemporary.
My father had given several sermons at the Islamic Center, Washington, DC and took some classes there when he was in America. When he passed away and I came back to the United States, I was offered a job to work in the Center and I worked there for some time. Then in 1997 I joined ADAMS Center 1997, the year that I got married. And I have been with the ADAMS Center since then.
When I joined ADAMS, we had about 200 congregants on Fridays. Now we have about 15,000, in the different branches.
How would you characterize your congregations? Are they mostly immigrants? From what part of the world? Are there clusters?
When I joined ADAMS Center, the majority of people were South Asian, but Arabs, white American converts, and African Americans were also part of the community. The number of people increased tremendously during the IT boom during the Clinton time, when many people from India, Bangladesh and so forth came to live in the Western Huntington area. All of a sudden we saw the numbers of attendees of our mosque increase. Then we started getting requests from various communities to establish a mosque in the neighborhood. We now have seven branches of the mosque. That's why I was talking about 15,000: 5,000 families, 15,000 people or more.
Most Friday sermons are now given by second generation people, born in America. We have to do 24 sermons every Friday: three of them in the main center and then each branch, about three sermons. I have had to train people to do the sermons: we have a list of 44 preacher teachers. Some of them are medical doctors, called in Christian or community terms a lay person. They are the ones who give the talks. The same is true for social services, where we have an army of volunteers.
Let’s take the COVID pandemic. What’s changed and what has the community done?
We have been off and on online. I had been teaching an online class on Wednesday nights before COVID. I taught it from different places. One time I taught the class from the Vatican, from Rome, one time from Mecca, once from Sudan. But after COVID, I had to learn more about the skills of Zooming. I had to increase my awareness of technology. I was trained by some young people, telling me what it means if Zoom fails, how to go to Google Meet and also to a different platform.
We have actually reached more people sometimes with Zoom than in person. My classes now have more people in them, because it’s very convenient for people. They go to the class and they go back to cooking their dinner or put the children to sleep. They don't have to drive anywhere. That's a benefit of COVID.
I was in Mecca with my family about two weeks ago and I was quarantined for one week because as we were coming back, I tested positive and therefore had to stay behind, quarantined for a week in Saudi Arabia. I didn't have symptoms, though. Thus I can tell people, in personal terms, that they need to be vaccinated and take a booster. Some people are not adhering to having their mask on and those kinds of things. Thus you must take this vaccine very seriously. Imagine if I had not been vaccinated.
You had to shift to online work and classes. What about the social services? What happened to your congregations? Who suffered the most? Where have you seen the pinch, the inequalities?
There are four things I realized during this time of COVID. One is that there are some families that don’t have access to technology. The children in those families, especially, have suffered. They become like a black hole: no information. When I realized that, I challenged my community: "What can we do? There are people who don't have Facebook." We used to have Facebook Live lectures. They suggested an ADAMS YouTube, but I realized that even if we did that, some families still don't have access to technology. We have to do something about that. Some children who are going to public school in my community are going to be behind because their parents may be immigrants and refugees who are not fluent in English and rely on the school system to teach their children. Now suddenly the school system depends on the parents to make sure the children come online and turn on their computer, those kinds of things.
The second group is elderly people who are not immigrants, and elderly parents who are not technology savvy. Maybe they don't have enough family around them. Those people suffer during COVID.
We have also come to know that when you have people coming together in congregation, you'll come to know who's sick, who's in need. They may apply for financial help, or they look to our social services to the community. We had to knock on doors to ask how everyone is doing, those kinds of things. We made a public announcement for food drives so that people can come and pick up their food and so forth.
I'm quite sure every clergy has this kind of moment where you think like, "Did I miss anyone? How many people did I miss, did not serve?" How many families have a loved one who has died, has no-one next to them? Missing having clergy near them? At the beginning of the pandemic, what broke my heart the most, was when a family called me and said, "We wish we were able to sit next to our loved one who's dying. I wish if you were with us.” Being there in the final moments was very limited as some of them died of COVID. One thing I think about all the time is those families who did not get to say the proper goodbye to their loved one.
But we did have also fun through marrying people on Zoom. When people got married on Zoom it was different. Of course some people wished they could be in the same hall. But one couple said to me, "I never thought that my wedding would be attended by 300 people." Because of Zoom, people joined the wedding from overseas, from everywhere. That’s a bright side of it.
Did you find you were organizing more food and clothing drives?
Oh yes. Our social service committee has served thousands and thousands of people in this pandemic. They brought big trucks to the parking lot with grocery bags and people would drive through to pick up their supplies. Many people lost their jobs, as small businesses went down. It breaks my heart to see several small businesses in my neighborhood that are not coming back. They're gone. Many people have suffered. When people came for groceries, we saw some people crying that they had to accept groceries themselves because they had never thought they would be at a point in their life that they have to take groceries from somebody else. They used to give but now they're taking, and that’s not an easy thing.
You have to look to the mental health aspect. There will come a time when people might look back and ask: "What kind of mental health crisis was created by COVID?" People feel lonely. People feel frustrated. Many people tell me their teenagers have expressed depressive behavior because they are not in school. So many things have happened this year, and it will be years before we see recovery.
What about vaccinations? You've been urging vaccination but also organized vaccination drives.
Yes, we have been able to vaccinate more than 20,000 people in our mosque. Before the pandemic, we had a free clinic that provides services to everyone (not for Muslims only, both workers and patients). That gave us a foundation to participate in vaccinations. When the initial vaccine came in, we were able to mobilize doctors and volunteers in our community to open our mosque as a center for vaccination, both in the main center and then the branches. We then formed a partnership with African American churches and synagogues, offering vaccinations together to the Jewish and Christian communities. In order for me to convince the community to vaccinate and not to have conspiracy theories, I took my vaccine on video and gave many sermons about it, as have other imams. We did a series of talks involving Muslim doctors, addressing the conspiracy ideas, for example that the vaccine would put a chip into your body or would make you not able to have children, all kind of things (poor Bill Gates, so many misconceptions about him!). You have to address all the issues. Now I see the challenge to convince families to vaccinate children, another round now of awareness that we have to work on
You have your life around the ADAMS Center, but you also have national and international roles. Can you tell us about them, starting with Senegal. I'm fascinated to know how you got into Senegal.
I got to Senegal because the first lady was in Virginia at the ADAMS Center. A friend (Abdul Aziz) was her close friend. I was invited to Senegal to meet the president. Later Mr. Gates and his foundation asked me to address the issue of polio in Africa, and I organized a conference in Senegal. President Macky Sall hosted the conference, with Minister Bibeau and various scholars. In Nigeria, with the Sultan of Sokoto we formed a committee to create awareness. They translated the Declaration into many languages. I have built a relationship with Senegal and have visited more than ten times. I know Senegal’s religious landscape. The majority are Muslims, but the first president was a Christian and the first ladies, before the current first lady, were Christians too. Madam Marieme Sall is the first Muslim first lady. I like how Senegalese accept others. Christians in Senegal will celebrate feasts and holidays with Muslims and the Muslims do the same; they send gifts to each other. There's a fascinating kind of a connection in Senegal between Muslims and Christians
From there I start working in Africa. We worked with UNDP to address violence, in East Africa, Uganda, and then in West Africa, with people in Mali and other places.
What about in the United States: you were the head of the Islamic Association of North America?
I volunteered in ISNA leadership for 16 years. First I was the East Zone representative. I represented that region in a council, then I became vice president, then president. ISNA in North America is one of the oldest Muslim organizations. The umbrella organization has many organizations within it, so that gave me an opportunity to work with many people across America, scholars, and activists. And that also brought me to work with our national government. And especially after 9/11, there was so much demand for Muslim leadership to get involved in interfaith or in government activities, to talk to government and officials and so forth and so on. We came to work with the White House, the State Department, Homeland Security, etc. ISNA has about 300 mosques affiliated with it, and at the time about 600 schools. It's a very large network.
What kind of schools?
Islamic schools, religious schools. There is a council for them, CISNA, that coordinates and shares curricula. They used to have an annual conference for all the educators. Islamic schools are like Catholic schools. They teach all the other subjects, math, science and everything, but they teach moral values and Islamic values as well. It's different from the Quranic schools, where people memorize the Quran only, They are regular schools with added to it religious education. They differ from, for example, Gulen schools, many of which are charter schools, which cannot teach Islamic education. Some communities have chosen to establish charter schools that serve both the Muslim and the larger community. The Islamic schools are private schools that are owned by different communities.
You are much involved in some very global issues, such as the conference we attended together recently in Abu Dhabi. How would you describe this work?
There are relationships between Islam in the West and Islam in the East that sometimes can be healthy and sometimes not. Let me be very open with you on this. First, it's not healthy when Eastern Islam tries to impose on Western Muslims lifestyles that look Eastern. That's why tension between identities can take place, especially among immigrants. For example, a community has been sponsored by Sudanese scholars from Sudan or Turkey or Saudi or whatever, and that community in their world views and understanding becomes very much in living the image of those Muslims who own that land. And that creates tensions. But there's a shift happening in the Muslim community in America. American Muslim institutions have become organically developed in America, even Muslim scholarship.
Now, the healthy relationship is that the scholarship of the East becomes very understanding of the American, Western context. Then, because the world is becoming like one village with global engagement, we begin looking to the expertise of Muslims as equals. You may have theologians from the East, but they rely on expertise coming from the West. Sometimes you have theologians from the West sharing ideas with people of the East. That kind of interaction becomes interdependency. Instead of depending on one, they depend on one another.
And different platforms become a global platform. I have attended conferences in many Muslim countries now about interfaith. In those gatherings are people from Europe, from the East, from the West, all sharing the stage, and there's no group of people on the receiving end. A setting, for example, where you speak, bringing a different perspective, would never have happened 20 or 15 or even five years ago. It used to be a one-way street: “We’re going to tell you what Islam is." But here it becomes the exchange of ideas. And the more that you level the playing field, and say, "Everyone has something to offer," the more they become healthier relationships.
We used to have Western arrogance, telling other parts of the world what it should look like. "We're going to teach you democracy. We're going to teach you this..." Now it is becoming an actual exchange of ideas. I hear other people's perspective and then we can come away with a common understanding of what’s unique on an issue. But the problem is that people still tend to talk in the abstract. We need more focus on what programs should be pursued, and what change is needed on the ground. The challenge is to ensure that out of our discussion or conference somebody will say, "We want to take this to the next level."
I always take the example of what America’s founding fathers brought with the American Constitution. Some of them did not live through those ideas themselves. But they knew the document would have an impact on many people and they wrote it in a remarkable way. The American Constitution is a very brilliant document that many people look up to. The document itself is so inclusive, so rich, and open to amendments.
The same thing applies to the declarations that we see today. I'm hoping that someone will use them to say, "But you as a Muslim, we as Muslims, are not living up to that. We need to challenge our communities." That's my hope with all the international connections, international engagements.
So that's why you spend your time focusing on these declarations. There are so many now: Marrakesh, Rabot, Fez, Abu Dhabi, etc.
Did you know that the Marrakesh Declaration was an American idea? Let me tell you what happened.
We initiated the process that resulted in the Marrakesh Declaration as American Muslims. I was in a meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, exploring what we could do. I suggested to hold a conference in the Middle East of Muslim scholars to discuss the rights of citizens who were not Muslims, in Muslim countries. And Sheikh Bin Bayah (a great Muslim scholar) and others adopted the idea. At first we planned to do it in Jordan but later moved it to Morocco. At the time I was the president of ISNA and we were able to fund some money. Georgetown University hosted the first step on the path to the Marrakesh Declaration, about seven or eight years ago. From Georgetown, we went to Mauritania, where we gathered Muslim scholars from North Africa and some from West Africa. We had the first concept paper. In Georgetown, he talked about the highlights, the issues that needed to be discussed. Bin Bayah created the framework and he wrote the concept paper.
We then took it to Tunisia, soon after Arab Spring. Those discussions have informed the Constitution of Tunisia. And we ended up in Morocco as the final stage. But the path to the Marrakesh Declaration started with Georgetown University.
Another meeting in Washington was for the Alliance of Virtue. And much later the Mecca Declaration.
The Alliance of Virtue was a gathering of clergy from three primary religions, to focus on the virtues that we agreed on, including the spirit of Marrakesh Declaration: what kinds of things can we work on? Hopefully the Alliance of Virtue will become an organization in America. Then you have the Caravan for Peace, which is evangelical Christians and Muslims, and the Jewish community has joined us. We met in Morocco and in UAE to commit ourselves to work in American cities: the Motivate Neighborhoods Network, with myself, Rabbi David Saperstein, and Bob Roberts, who have spent a lot of money and energy in forming that organization.
I was then invited to speak in Mecca and we have the Mecca Declaration, which has so many Muslim scholars:1200 Grand Mufti's and scholars met there. About 4,500 thinkers and so forth have signed on to it. And I said to myself, this is really a document that needs to be implemented. Therefore we did the forum here in Washington with Dr. Al-Issa, to think about implementation. Now we're creating the strategy of implementation of the Mecca Declaration.
That’s a bewildering array of different documents. Some maintain that they're addressing different sets of issues: for example, the treatment of minorities, both within Islam, but also Islam and other traditions.
Somebody suggested that we do something we call the Dialogue of the Declarations that would highlight what the declaration have in common. You have the Common Word, that Amman Declaration, the Marrakesh Declaration, the Mecca Declaration, the Alliance of Virtue Declaration.
And now Human Fraternity.
Yes. And now we have Inclusive Citizenship.
You say that they frame the ideals so that you can hold people accountable?
There have been issues around women's roles, even in the United States, within Muslim communities, including I think at ADAMS at one point. How do you approach that? You say you have sisters who are eminent scholars and I'm sure are feisty and independent, given your personality. How are those issues framed in your community? Domestic violence, early marriage, FGC, all of the usual array?
I'm very passionate about addressing equity and women's participation in our community. My daughters are looking up to me to see, am I really doing my best on this? I'm doing it for them and for the other daughters in all my communities.
Three things bother me, and three things I am hopeful for.
One thing that bothers me is that still we have clergy who will justify the lack of participation or not allow anyone to participate fully in our mosque. Theologically, they try to defend it. That's number one.
Number two, people look at behavior of some Muslims regarding women and see that as if Islam is endorsing it. They thus point fingers to the whole religion in Islam, not considering human behavior.
The third thing that bothers me is that empowerment of women is not happening at the level I want to see in terms of female scholarship in Islam, which is something very crucial, very important to me. In order for us to make any change in our communities, we have to have more female scholarship.
Those are the three things that concern me. The thing that I'm hopeful for is someone like my daughter, who's in her PhD in American Culture program, focused on Islam, and many other female scholars like Dr. Mattson. I was her vice president and learned a lot from her leadership. She was the first female president of ISNA, but now ISNA has many women in the leadership and the vice president is a female. In our mosque, in the beginning there was not much participation, but now women are participating in the mosque and we have resident scholars and people who are teaching equally in our classes and so forth. The problem is that sometimes you see a wave of immigrants who have been raised in Sudan, Afghanistan, or Somalia, who are not used to it. We have to reeducate them so they readjust to the mosque where there's no barrier between men and women as they pray in the same room.
The second thing I'm hopeful for is the leadership of activists who want to end all of the issues of concern regarding women, whether FGM or forced marriages. Thank God for social media and others; there's a lot of awareness and pressure for the community to change. Many leaders are young women and other women in our community who take the leadership in pushing the envelope and making sure that transformation and change take place.
The third thing that gives me hope is that I see a number of emerging Muslim intellectuals. They used to be outside of the mosque, but now are within the mosque itself. They are not talking only about women’s issues, but about all kind of topics. The men and young men in our community admire their leadership. But there's so much still to be done.
That's true of the whole society.
I still go to conferences and the majority of speakers are men.
As you look to 2022, what are your great hopes or plans for this year?
What I'm looking forward to see happening in America is a really sincere effort to evaluate where are we in terms of accepting others. With what happened in November last year and January 2021, and all the tense polarization in America, my hope is to have in every major city, a real dialogue and understanding, and a clarity on how to address this polarization in America. Millions of people have tensions now in the United States. This issue of antisemitism, for example: why did this guy in Texas choose a synagogue to give a political message? Why the Jewish community? That's really troubling to me and I could not sleep well for the past two days, putting myself in that rabbi's shoes. What did I do? Nothing. He was talking about somebody in prison and you come to me to my community? Why? Why us? That issue has bothered me, because I can imagine that happening to an imam, or me—somebody just walks in because he's upset about something happening in the Middle East and they come to our mosque and hold me hostage. My hope is to have opportunities to talk to people that they don't agree with all the time, maybe have suspicions about us, misunderstandings, to have that shift in our approach in just talking to people who are not just like us.
I'm excited about something fun happening in my community. We established the first cafe in this area, inside the mosque. This cafe is full of so much energy. If you come to ADAMS Center, you're invited for a coffee. Those guys made the best decoration, they decorated the place so it is cozy. It’s all led by the youth. They created a youth center that you can see online. Therefore, I'm looking forward to seeing more young people come to the mosque, play basketball, hang out in the cafe and those kinds of things.
What's your next trip?
My next trip in March is to Texas, a gathering of Muslims and Christians. Dr. Azza [Karam] will be there. The next one will be to Ghana, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Hopefully COVID will slow down by then!
Thank you so much!