Profiles in Faith: Talib M. Shareef, Imam of Masjid Muhammad, the “Nation’s Mosque”
Talib M. Shareef is President and Imam of Masjid Muhammad, the historic “Nation’s Mosque,” in Washington, D.C. Established in 1935, it is the capital’s oldest Muslim community and among the oldest in the nation. In a July 2021 conference on Muslim-Christian relations in the 21st century, Shareef described the religious site as “a product of the struggle in America to see humanity free — the first house in all of America built by the descendants of enslaved Africans.”
He used his extensive interfaith leadership experience to help reform the military’s frequently fraught relationship with its Muslim personnel. With others, Shareef played a pioneering role in introducing Muslim chaplains in the U.S. armed forces. Besides being the first Muslim to serve as a chaplain for the FBI.
Shareef was a student of the late Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, a Nation of Islam leader and the son of the group’s founder Elijah Muhammad, who described himself as a “Muslim American Spokesman for Human Salvation” and was also known as “America’s Imam.”
Imam Shareef is a leading spokesperson for interfaith peacebuilding and is known for his efforts to counter and prevent religious extremism. Under his leadership, in 2018, Masjid Muhammad, which has often been the target of Islamophobic protests and assaults, launched the “American Muslims Against Terrorism and Extremism Initiative,” recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice as “the longest and most comprehensive de-radicalization program in the U.S.”
Imam Shareef has served as a spiritual guide in five cities in the United States and seven U.S. military bases around the world. He was the first imam with a military service background to open a session of the U.S. Congress with prayer, and was recognized for his service by President Barack Obama at the White House.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
“When I came to the military I joined as a Muslim, but I wasn’t— before coming to the military I wasn’t really living as a Muslim. I was committed but not necessarily with a lot of the practice. But when I came here [in the military], I began to practice a lot. I wanted to be a Muslim. But it was in 1979, which is to tell you that it wasn’t popular. They weren’t really ready for a whole lot of Muslims in the military.” — Imam Shareef, in a December 2016 interview with Slate magazine
https://twitter.com/WIN_DC/status/1268962713289609217/photo/1“I was in the military when 9/11 affected our life so tragically. In the military, because history reflects on society, so if we saw hate crimes and assaults and verbal attacks outside of the military, then certainly we’re going to see some of those things inside the military. A part of the mission that I was on was protecting soldiers, sailors, and marines who were right on the front line. And we had many of the nationals that were of Arab descent. Some were Muslims. Some weren’t even Muslims. They were just of Arab descent. But Arab was demonized. Muslim was demonized. And so some of the military people began to make disparaging comments. Began to make them feel uncomfortable in the environment.
“It affected them so much that their production began to go down. And this is why it’s dangerous even in our society to accept that, to allow that, because that means that every citizen can’t be healthy, to make the nation — the country that they love — better, because they’re not going to give their 100 percent.
“So the commander came to me … He said, ‘Shareef, do something about this.’ They knew I was engaged. They knew I was a Muslim … I decided to do an education campaign. This was to educate them on what Muslims were doing. How they have been serving this country that we love for so long. And I put a list together of people. This was a military environment, so I wanted to make sure I had a strong impact. At the top of the list, and this gives you an idea how the rest of it went, at the top of the list, the commander-in-chief for our military was President Bush at the time. The doctor, his No. 1 doctor, was a Muslim. A Muslim. And he just happened to be of immigrant descent. Our commander-in-chief had given his life to this person to protect it.” — Imam Shareef, in a December 2016 interview with Slate magazine
“This virus is not racist, although racial disparities have been evident in some of the data collected. This virus is not a culturist, although marginalized populations who live with poverty are under-resourced, experiencing health inequities and other burdens will undoubtedly suffer more [during] this pandemic. This virus is not a nationalist, although some nations are hit harder than others. It affects all. These are trying times, but we’ve been presented with challenges throughout history and like everything else, they are temporary. We have and will, with Almighty God’s help, overcome. As mentioned in a previous statement, the more the soul is challenged, the more the good potential in the soul is brought out as we endure and turn towards each other in the spirit of universal kinship. For our human souls are not black, white, red, etc., not ethnic, not national, etc., but human.” — Imam Shareef, in response to a question in May 2020 from the U.S. Embassy in Chad, Africa, about whether he has any “wisdom or advice” to share about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.
“Earth itself is 4.6 billion years old, but the humans as we know it … we came out of that matter and willingly obeyed the will of Almighty God. And that tells us that the nature that God put in us doesn’t want us to go against His will. If we go against His will, we will be going against our own nature.
“Out of the Creator’s will order and unity came into the chaos. Everything received His attention. Everything began to receive its respect … and was given its freedom … Only after that order and unity was established, there was peace.
“Therein, my respected brothers and sisters, is a universal logic for human life and progress. Almighty God, the Creator, has given us a picture of what should and must be done on this Earth. And we see in this relationship now, this alliance that is starting, this coming together upon peace.
“And we have to respect each other. And we know that when we respect each other, we respect ourselves, we respect differences, and Almighty God begins to establish some sense of cooperation. And the same God that brought peace to the Heavens … can bring peace certainly to our nations — can certainly bring peace to our nations and to our souls. And really, peace is the hope of every human soul.” — Imam Talib Shareef, speaking at a July 13, 2021, conference “God Needs No Defense: Reimagining Muslim-Christian Relations in the 21st Century,” held at Masjid Muhammad, The Nation’s Mosque, in Washington, D.C.
“Who is inheriting this world? It’s our children. And they don’t come here with all these identities that we have. They come here human. They come here pure, innocent, loving, ready to receive, love, care and help. And they’re ready to give help. That’s their nature… That’s the nature of the human being. So this tells us this is how … If you want to get movement toward reconciliation, this is how our spirit has to be. This is how our nature has to be.
“There’s the book The Secret of Bees. There is a statement there that I think represents a statement of cultural diplomacy … If you need something from somebody, always give that person a way to hand it to you.
“Let me end this with a story. This story is called ‘The Mystical Pebbles’ and it goes back in to the desert. One night, a group of Bedouins were preparing to retire for the evening, when suddenly, they were surrounded by a great light. They knew they were in the presence of a celestial being.
“With great anticipation, they awaited for this heavenly message that they thought would be of great importance and it was just for them. So they were waiting, and finally the voice spoke. And the voice said, ‘Gather as many pebbles as you can. Put them in your saddlebags. Travel a day’s journey, and your destination tomorrow night will find you glad — and will find you sad.’
“So after hearing this story, and then the light departed, the Bedouins, they began to share their disappointment. They began to share their anger. They had expected some revelation, some great universal truth in terms of how they could create wealth and health and purpose for humanity.
“They began to travel … and they picked up a couple of pebbles, and they kicked some around. They picked up a few and put them in their saddlebags. And they traveled a day’s journey. And then that night, while making their camp, they reached into their saddlebags and then they discovered every single pebble they picked up had become a diamond.
“They were glad they had diamonds. But they were sad they had not gathered more pebbles.
“So we should trust what we are receiving from the light, from within… There’s a light in every human being that we see in that newborn, in that child as they’re growing… Trust the light. It stays with us. It’s all around us. It’s communicating. Some don’t trust it, so we don’t get far. It’s the best aspirations from your nature — the best aspirations in yourselves. We’re supposed to listen. It’s showing you what you need to change … to become better, to have better attitudes about establishing and building and bridging relationships.
“These were the diamonds — of cultural diplomacy. And if you use them, if you use them first, this element … you’ll be glad. And if you don’t, you’ll be sad.” — Imam Shareef, in a December 10, 2013, speech hosted by the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, based in Berlin
“We were successful in showing that our form of democracy is not something that Muslims have to be afraid of. In fact, it may be closer to what we have as Islamic justice for society than any other political ideology existing in the world today. Justice is an idea. The Constitution of the U.S. is based upon an idea that Muslims can accept. It is well documented that Thomas Jefferson and others, who designed our Constitution, were acquainted with the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad.” — Imam Shareef, in a June 25, 2020 testimony to the U.S. Department of Justice
THE STORIES OTHERS TELL
“On my way to Masjid Muhammad D.C., which calls itself the ‘nation’s mosque,’ a slogan coined by the Department of Homeland Security came to mind: ‘If you see something, say something.’ And in the blink of an eye, I was on the lookout for odd and out-of-the-ordinary goings-on.
“I had driven past the mosque many times but hadn’t noticed that the street where it was located, the 1500 block of Fourth Street NW, had been renamed Islamic Way. In 1992, as it turned out. And—here’s the odd part — no one had ever tried to change it back. Or even taken down the Islamic Way signs.
“In many parts of the country, those signs would have been obliterated the moment they went up. An armed group of outsiders called the Oath Keepers had targeted Masjid Muhammad for a protest in October, hoping to show that Muslims were violent. Residents in the neighborhood responded by putting up fliers that said ‘Hate Free Zone.’
“At the mosque, Imam Talib Shareef told me, ‘What’s happening in D.C., with neighbors standing up for peace, should be happening across the world.’ Instead, Islamophobia is rampant. Jihadists, or at least the TV drama show version, have come to personify all Muslims in the misinformed American mind.” — Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, in April 2016 article “If You See Nothing Suspicious at a Mosque, Maybe That’s Normal.”
“When Imam Talib Shareef started his military career 35 years ago in intelligence, there was no chaplain, no mosque, no pause for Friday prayers and no break from rigorous training even during the month of fasting for Ramadan for the Muslims serving in the U.S. military. At the time, it was a challenge for him to balance his religious observance and his professional duties.
“He recalled, ‘We did not have any mosques or musallah (prayer rugs) at the base. Now they are all over America.’ — August 2016 article in The Oklahoman, titled, “What It’s Like to be Muslim in America: Imam Shareef”
A LIFE IN BRIEF
Talib Shareef was born in New York. He was around 4 years old when his father was killed in a violent incident, prompting Shareef’s mother to move to North Carolina, where he spent his formative years. Shareef’s mother remarried in North Carolina. He was barely 5 or 6 years old when his mother became a victim of domestic violence. Matters took a serious turn when her husband tried to kill her one night. An uncle of Shareef, who was a teenager at the time, saved her life.
His uncle, who became Shareef’s role model, enlisted in the U.S. Army and earned a Purple Heart for combat in Vietnam.
When the uncle joined the Nation of Islam, so did Shareef, and they became involved in the Nation’s Mosque in Washington, D.C.
“Nobody was a Muslim at that time in the family,” Shareef told Slate magazine in a 2016 interview. “We were Christians.”
In 1979, Shareef followed in his uncle’s footsteps and joined the U.S. Air Force, where he became deeply involved in interfaith activities.
Throughout his 30 years in the Air Force, the Nation of Islam community in Washington, D.C. followed his career. They saw how much he improved conditions for Muslims in the military.
As it happened, his retirement from the Air Force in 2010 coincided with the departure of the imam at the Nation’s Mosque. “So the community thought it was a sign that they’d bring me back here to lead this community,” Shareef said in a Slate interview.
“Islamophobia hit, too,” he said, referring to the post-9/11 escalation in anti-Muslim sentiment. “So, when my life had been on the line, and partially to give it for our nation for 30 years, they thought it was important for me to come back and be a demonstration of the loyalty and the sacrifices that Muslims have made and will continue to make.”
ACHIEVEMENTS WE’LL REMEMBER
• Talib Shareef has served as imam in five U.S. cities and seven military locations around the world. He has also served as Convener of the Georgia State Association of Imams.
• Imam Shareef is a graduate of the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Arabic and Middle East Studies.
• Imam Shareef is the recipient of the Kingdom of Morocco’s highest Royal Medal for his exceptional interfaith leadership.
• Imam Shareef’s interfaith leadership was recognized by President Barack Obama at the White House in 2011.
• Talib Shareef is the first imam with a military background to open a session of the U.S. Congress with prayer.
• Imam Shareef offered the opening prayer on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in a 2013 ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March of Washington.
• Imam Shareef served on the Mayor’s Interfaith Council in Washington, D.C., where he was a voting member from July 2015 to July 2021.
IMAM SSHAREEF’S RELIGION
Imam Shareef is a devotee of Islam, the world’s second-largest religion, with some 1.9 billion followers.
Like other monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Judaism, Islam has deep historical roots, although scholars date its creation to the 7th century in Mecca, in present-day Saudi Arabia. Followers of Islam believe the angel Gabriel revealed their faith to the Prophet Muhammad, who lived from 570-632.
“Islam” is an Arabic word that means “submission to God.” The faith teaches that a Muslim is one who surrenders unconditionally to the will of Allah, or God — “as if he or she were a feather on the breath of God,” the Prophet said.
Muslims believe that several Prophets came down to Earth to teach Allah’s law. Islam respects some of the same Prophets revered by Jews and Christians, including Abraham, Moses, Noah and Jesus. Muhammad, Muslims believe, was the last Prophet.
Observant Muslims pray five times a day and practice their faith by reading and reciting Islam’s holy book, the Quran. They believe in a Day of Judgment and in life after death.
MORE PROFILES IN FAITH:
Talib M. Shareef, Imam of Masjid Muhammad (Sept. 24, 2021)
Rabbi David Nathan Saperstein (September 5, 2021)
Neville Callam, Baptist World Alliance (August 23, 2021)
Patriarch Bartholomew Bridges East-West Christian Divide (August 12, 2021)
Wilton Cardinal Gregory: First African American Cardinal (July 21, 2021)
Hindu Guru Mata Amritanandamayi (July 8, 2021)
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (July 1, 2021)
Pope Francis (June 23, 2021)
Archbishop Desmond Tutu (June 16, 2021)
Episcopal Bishop Michael B. Curry (June 9, 2021)
Thich Nhat Hanh, Father of Engaged Buddhism (June 2, 2021)
Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Huseinni Al-Sistani (May 26, 2021)
Justin Welby, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury (May 19, 2021)