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Local Mosque Celebrates 70 Years

It doesn't really look like a mosque. The stodgy, red brick building on Cleveland's east side doesn't have a golden dome or slender towers reaching toward heaven. Looks can be deceiving, but there's no mistaking the sound that reverberates through the hallways.

About 50 men, women and children sit on the carpeted floor of a former gymnasium, where Slovak kids used to play basketball. This largely African American group has gathered in response to the traditional Muslim call to prayer. Once Jalal Akram has focused the attention of the worshipers, his brother Khalid begins the Friday service at the First Mosque of Cleveland.

Khalid Akram is filling in for First Mosque's official Imam, Abbas Ahmad, who is out of town. The role is an easy fit for a young man who has been coming to these services for as long as he can remember.

Khalid Akram: It was a great experience growing up in the Mosque because our family is so huge.

The Akram brothers are part of a family lineage that goes back decades, all the way to the founding of the First Mosque by their grandfather, Imam Wali Akram. There are now over 300 Akram descendants. Jalal says his faith is as natural as breathing, though he admits it hasn't always been easy.

Jalal Akram: We knew that we were kind of different, but we grew up watching Bugs Bunny and everything everyone else watched. We knew our names were different. You know, sometimes I was embarrassed when people would call me by my Muslim name.

Mahmoud Akram: The name stands out, I understand.

81-year-old Mahmoud Akram has some sympathy for the plight of a young Muslim caught between two cultures.

Mahmoud Akram: But, by the same token, the most common name of boys born in the world is "Mohammed". And that comes before "John", even. Everybody and his brother is named Mohammed.

Mahmoud's father, Wali Akram, was born as Walter Gregg in Bryan Texas, in 1904. He became intrigued with the teachings of Islam while attending a Nashville seminary school. He became a convert in 1923 and moved to Cleveland, soon after. In 1937, he founded and became the spiritual leader to what the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History calls the city's first official home to area Muslims. Aisha Samad says the story amazes her.

Aisha Samad: In 1937, to think of an African American man establishing a mosque in Cleveland, Ohio, when we know the condition of most people in the '30s. The Depression, and all those things.

The faces of Aisha Samad and her friend Loretta Kirk are framed by the traditional Muslim scarves, known as "hejabs". Their serious faces break into smiles when challenging the notion that Islamic dress codes are tools of oppression against women.

Aisha Samad: There are many looks. We dress, and we have wardrobes. [laughs] I mean, we're just like everyone else.

Loretta Kirk: [shares the laugh] Yes, we do have a wardrobe. I think it's important for the public to realize that… we're not strange people. We're just Muslims. We work every day. We're tax-paying people, we just have a different religion.

To help explain his religion, Mahmoud Akram quotes the holy book of another faith.

Mahmoud Akram: And that scripture says "What does the Lord require of thee? To love mercy... to do justly... and walk humbly with thy God." And I respect people's God, I don't care who he is or what he calls him. You have to respect another person's right to worship differently than you do.

The roots of Mahmoud Akram's faith are deep. They've been growing for over eight decades. He and other members of the First Cleveland Mosque hope that non-Muslims will come visit, take part in the 70th anniversary celebration... and maybe lose a few preconceptions along the way.

Mahmoud Akram: [completes the prayer:] And then, we say, "Amen", which means "So be it, Lord"

David C. Barnett, 90.3.