Cat Stevens and the Nashville Mosque He Helped Build
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a small act of charity helped foster the modern diversity of Nashville.
Outside the Islamic Center of Nashville along 12th Street, two young girls in hijabs are shooting hoops in a parking lot, giggling as they watch the ball rattle into the rim. A handful of congregants gather inside for sunset prayers, led by Rashed Fakhruddin, the former president of the center.
Fakhruddin speaks of faith and football; he’s an avid fan of the Vanderbilt Commodores and the Tennessee Titans. And just a week before this October evening, the Muslim father of three performed a Cat Stevens song at a local concert in the park. “Oh baby, baby, it’s a wild world,” Fakhruddin sang, the song choice far from random. In fact, it was Stevens — the British singer-songwriter who now goes by Yusuf Islam — who was instrumental in the formation of this mosque, helping to jump-start the Muslim community here in the heart of the South.
Half a century ago, there were only a few Muslim families in Nashville, Fakhruddin recalls. His father, A.K.M. Fakhruddin, a psychologist, two uncles and an Egyptian immigrant, Zainab Elberry, started meeting in 1978 to discuss forming their own gathering place for the increasing number of transplants coming to Nashville. Over Friday night dinner table meetings, the group strategized how to raise funds. There were no crowdfunding sites, so they settled on the simplest solution: opening up the phone book and mailing donation requests to every Muslim-sounding name.
The tactic was a moonshot, but checks started to arrive by mail, Elberry remembers. And one day, the merry band received a nearly $2,000 check from a startling donor: Islam, the British star who, after years of spiritual reflection and a near-death experience, had decided to change his name and convert to Islam in December of 1977.
“They were screaming, surprised. I didn’t even know who Cat Stevens was,” Elberry says. Islam had heard about the fundraising drive while attending a nearby Nation of Islam event. The donation was particularly noteworthy because Islam had recently disappeared from public life, starting what would become a quarter-century hiatus from the music industry. A month later, the singer himself arrived in Nashville, driving around with them to scout out locations. He added another $15,000 to his original gift, which helped them buy the modest $29,000 building on 12th Street and an adjacent property for future expansion. The area was not the hip scene it’s become today. “It was just an older, not very expensive neighborhood,” Elberry says.
Despite its humble beginnings, the timing proved fortuitous. Nashville was changing. In the 1990s, refugees began flocking to the Tennessee state capital amid political unrest. Refugees from the Somalian civil war fled there, as did Kurdish immigrants, escaping uprisings in Iraq as America launched Operation Desert Storm in 1991. They formed what would become the largest Kurdish population outside of the Kurdistan region in the Middle East. And many of them were Muslim, finding a new home in the Islamic Center, which was rebuilt to accommodate its growing congregation.
For the first two decades of its existence, the Islamic Center was content to focus mostly on its own community. But that all changed after Sept. 11, 2001. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, organized by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda, thrust the center into the public eye. The Islamophobia that ensued was trying, Fakhruddin says, but it pushed the Islamic Center to engage with the broader community.
“People were wanting to know more about us, and we needed to be more proactive to build bridges of understanding,” he remembers. The reactions weren’t always positive: While Nashville was relatively welcoming, nearby Murfreesboro became a hotbed for controversy, with mosques getting defaced and protesters opposing their presence in Tennessee.
While the Islamic Center of Nashville was engaging more with the outside world, especially on issues of poverty and homelessness, Islam himself was grappling with his own choice to engage in public life. The singer immediately denounced the attacks, saying that “no right-thinking follower of Islam could possibly condone such an action.” He reportedly picked up a guitar for the first time after two decades, when his son brought one home for him a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks. And in 2006, he released his first new album, later telling Rolling Stone the decision was partly to show a positive image of a Muslim man to the world.
While Islam maintained a respectful distance from the center as it grew, the singer and the organization he helped build were united through serendipity years later. Fakhruddin saw Islam at Muhammad Ali’s funeral in June of 2016 and invited him to visit to see the fruits of his help. And in September of that same year, that opportunity arose when Islam was slated to play at the Ryman Auditorium. Before the show, Islam stopped by, providing a statement to the Tennessean, saying he had found there “a great openness to share [the] message of unity, love and peace which I had discovered.”
In many ways, it was a culmination of a journey that had begun four decades earlier. “It’s nice to have that backbone that Cat Stevens was part of, and it all makes sense,” Fakhruddin says. “What he sings about is what our faith teaches anyway.”