SCHWETZINGEN, Germany — The preacher in the pulpit is talking about justice and truth and an all-knowing God while a barefoot little girl clad in bright yellow and green gleefully gallops across a prayer rug.
It’s a Friday afternoon at Tompkins Barracks in Schwetzingen, and the longest-serving imam in the U.S. military is addressing a dozen of the faithful in a second-floor room above the Army and Air Force Exchange Service shoppette. The prayer center is one of two the U.S. military operates in Europe.
The girl, her head covered in a simple white scarf, isn’t interested in what Army Chaplain (Maj.) Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad has to say. She’s too busy exploring. But her dad, Spc. Rakhmatulla Asatov, and two other soldiers listen intently during the prayer service as Muhammad espouses the need to lead an honest life.
"There is no space that is large enough, no space dark enough to hide from Allah," Muhammad says from the pulpit, or minbar, as it is known in Arabic.
Next month, Muhammad will leave Europe after a three-year stint, the last two as the Family Life chaplain for U.S. Army Garrison Baden-Württemberg and Installation Management Command-Europe. The 55-year-old chaplain will teach at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School in Fort Jackson, S.C.
His departure will leave the Army without a Muslim chaplain in Europe, though an imam in Air Force blue is due in soon. According to Muhammad, there are five Muslim chaplains in the Army and two each in the Navy and Air Force.
Muslim chaplains in the U.S. military "are so important these days," said Army Sgt. Tommy Morales, who converted to Islam four years ago.
From an educational standpoint alone, he believes adding more Muslim chaplains to the ranks would help soldiers better understand the neighborhood. With politicians and analysts talking of the American military "maybe going into Iran or Africa," Morales said, "having five Muslim chaplains (in the Army) is ludicrous. It doesn’t make any sense."
Muhammad said he would like to see more imams in the military, but that is for his superiors back home to decide. He remembers a time when there were none. A prior enlisted soldier from Buffalo, N.Y., Muhammad broke the barrier in 1994.
"It’s really been a privilege for me," Muhammad said earlier this month. "I love what I do."
Currently, there are more than 4,000 Muslims in the U.S. military, based on Muhammad’s count and remarks by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England. . .
But this current crop of servicemembers has had more contact with Muslims because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Muhammad served in Iraq in 2004-2005 and found it to be a unique experience. Many Iraqiswere genuinely surprised to learn there are imams in the U.S. military. Most American soldiers, on the other hand, viewed Muhammad first and foremost as a military chaplain, a person to turn to for counsel, no matter the faith. Muslims in the U.S. military "didn’t just start reaching out," he said. "We’ve been reaching out since before 9/11."