Friday was an exceptionally busy day at the point where American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon nearly 15 years ago. There were more tour groups passing by, more families stepping inside the memorial attached to a chapel to touch the etched name a lost loved one and ceremonies nearby to remind the nation of a day it’s vowed to never forget.
But inside the Pentagon Memorial Chapel, which sits just feet from where the plane struck the building, there also was a solemn act of defiance of those attacks, as Muslim service members gathered for Friday congregational prayers, or jum’ah.
Their answer to the Islamic call to prayer was also an answer to the idea that being an American patriot and Muslim are mutually exclusive—all at the site of an attack that sought to place that idea in the American psyche.
A soldier took off the shiny black shoes that complete his uniform and slipped them under a pew so that he could walk to the front and pray. A female Army officer sat in the back to place her fitted veil over her hair and part of her uniform. An airman placed his combat boots to the side and stood to pray next to a sailor, their ranks as visible as their faith.
In all, roughly 25 worshippers attended the service. There 5,896 Muslims in the U.S. military, according to DoD statistics, or just 0.4 percent, even as Muslims make up about 1 percent of the overall population.
The memorial, built in 2002, is composed of two rooms—one for those killed in the attacks, which includes a black marble wall with the names of all those killed etched in, and the chapel. There are no crosses or stars of David or moons and crescents as the 100-seat chapel serves roughly 500 worshippers a week of all faiths.
Each faith gets an allotted time to use the facility. Before the Muslim services begin at 2 p.m., worshippers move the altar to a back room, push some of the pews back and lay out two large green carpets in front the American flag that is always there.
On Friday, as worshippers began to trickle in the silence was only broken by the quiet whispers of the prayers. “Bismillah al Rahman al Rahim,” each worshipper began.
The makeshift mosque is imbued with reminders of the evils done in the name of a radical, hijacked form of Islam, and of the Muslims who reject it. Friday’s worshippers turn leftward, toward the Saudi city of Mecca, as is required of Muslims. On the other side of them, just outside the chapel walls, is the Pentagon memorial—184 benches for the 125 Pentagon personnel and 64 passengers killed on 9/11.
In between, at the front of the chapel is a Pentagon-shaped stained glass memorial that reads, “United in memory, September 11, 2001.” Worshippers pray in front of that window.
As the room filled, Imam Nabil Samaan of Dar al Noor mosque in Woodbridge, Va., started the service by signaling to a worshipper to begin singing the call to prayer usually heard from loudspeakers over a mosque. As they then prayed, one could hear visitors to the memorial on the other side of the double doors recalling the events of 9/11.
This year, more than most, the notion of being a Muslim and an American has come to the fore, particularly in July when the father of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who died while serving in Iraq in 2004, appeared at the Democratic National Convention and held up the pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution that he keeps close to his heart, even as—or perhaps because—his son died defending that document.
Samaan, one of several imams contracted by the Pentagon to lead the sermon, offered one Friday titled “The Question of Evil.” Was he speaking about the attacks that happened on this site when he chose that sermon subject? No, he said, his 15-minute remarks were a reminder that “if we question everything, either good or bad, we will not understand the will of Allah.”
Samaan then led the group in prayer, calling out “Allahu Akbar” when it was time for the group to collectively bend forward, prostrate, and stand again.
Air Force Lt. Col. Jawad Farooq said members of the Pentagon’s Jewish community have invited him to Yom Kippur dinner, which he has accepted, even as the world outside says two faiths are not supposed to be agreeable.
Indeed, outside the chapel, parts of the military still struggle with embracing Muslim service members, even as 14 Muslims service members have been killed since 9/11. An internal Marine investigation released Thursday found that a drill instructor referred to a Muslim Marine recruit, Raheel Siddiqui, as a terrorist, and had hazed him. In March, Siddiqui committed suicide, leaping to his death from a balcony of a barracks after the drill instructor slapped him in front of other recruits, according to the report. Officials said up to 20 Marines could face criminal or administrative actions for their treatment of Siddiqui.
At the end of the service, members folded the carpets, put them in the back and placed the alter back. Farooq then reminded them to think of those who will be making the pilgrimage in Mecca to mark the end of Hajj this month. And he let them know that an Egyptian delegation will be visiting the building next week.
“For some of them [in the delegation], the highlight is to pray in the Pentagon,” Farooq told the fellow worshippers.