Ryan Schuessler

In Iowa, a lasting symbol of American Islam

Through 85 years and a devastating flood, Cedar Rapids' Mother Mosque of America endures

Religion, Spirituality & Ethics

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Nobody ever thought the water would get that high.

The building is in a quaint neighborhood of what locals call the 500 zone — the area the city has designated as being at risk for a flood every five centuries or so. Taha Tawil had heard the warnings before, but even the historic floods of 1993 hadn’t touched the mosque.

This day in 2008 was different.

After a wet spring, the Cedar River crested at 31 feet, setting a dramatic new record. Fourteen percent of the city was flooded — including the Mother Mosque of America.

Taha Tawil, the mosque's imam.
Ryan Schuessler

“We didn’t believe such tremendous, huge water would come,” Tawil, the mosque’s imam, said, slowly shaking his head.

Lost were the community’s oldest Qurans and prayer rugs their ancestors had brought from what was the Ottoman Empire, but what today is Lebanon and Syria. Diaries, poems, interviews, photos — “all (of) that was taken from us,” Tawil said.

The Mother Mosque and those pieces of history lost to the waters of the Cedar River represented some of Islam’s earliest roots in North America. The building is widely recognized as the continent’s oldest mosque, in the sense that it was the first structure to be built from the ground up specifically as a mosque.

“These people are so blessed,” Tawil said, referring to the flood. “They were blessed when they designed this place.”

The Mother Mosque took on 10 feet of water during the flood of 2008.
Courtesy of Mother Mosque of America

Rewind 74 years. Feb. 15, 1934 — the “Moslem Temple,” as it was called then, opened to the public. This small community had scraped money together from the depths of the Great Depression to build it. The basement has 12-foot ceilings, topped with beams that support the prayer area upstairs — where the electrical box is.

The 2008 flood filled the basement 10 feet high with water. The beams were untouched, and the upper floor was dry. The lights in the prayer area could still turn on when the rest of the neighborhood was dark. Artifacts and pieces of history were lost, but the structure itself would live to see another day — all because an architect decided to add a couple of more feet to the ceiling nearly a century ago.

“Miracles do happen,” Tawil said. “Really.”

Ryan Schuessler

“It was more dismay at the entire flood,” said Bill Aossey, a lifelong member of Cedar Rapids’ Muslim community. “Not just the shock of seeing the Mother Mosque. We knew the whole city was inundated and the tremendous loss the individual families, community and city had.”

Ryan Schuessler

On that day in 2008, his first concern was about the Somali immigrants his family was sponsoring, not a flooded basement. Aossey’s sentiments about the flood reflect the larger attitudes toward the Mother Mosque: It’s only a building. An important one, yes, but just a symbol. 

The true heart of this mosque lies in the people and their ancestors who not only carved out a community in this corner of Iowa, but also paved the way for generations of American Muslims to come.

Aossey was born in 1941. His father immigrated to Iowa in 1907, after his maternal grandparents in the late 1880s. The Aossey family has left its mark on this city as well as on American Islam.

In 1949, Bill’s father, Haj Yahya Aossey, donated several acres of land overlooking the city that became the first Islamic cemetery in North America.

“There were a number of young community members who went to fight in World War II, and some of their bodies were shipped home,” Aossey said. “And some of them weren’t. (My father) thought that these young men who were dedicating their life for the country … there should be a cemetery for them.”

A plaque marks the entrance to the Muslim cemetery on land donated by Bill Aossey's father.
Ryan Schuessler

All the graves face Mecca. Aossey added, “He wanted the cemetery at the highest hill in the city.”

It was from Cedar Rapids that yet another contribution to American Islam arose.

Fatima Smejkal, like many of her generation, is the daughter of a veteran. Her father, Abdullah Igram, of Cedar Rapids was sent to fight the Japanese in New Guinea during World War II. She recalled the story when he was asked what letter he wanted on his dog tags: “P” for Protestant, “C” for Catholic or “J” for Jewish, in case he died and would have to be buried.

He was told he could not have an “M.”

On his way to war, she said, he prayed to God that if he lived, he would make it so any man or woman would be able to have an “M” on their dog tag if they wanted one. He did live, and he eventually wrote to President Eisenhower. He got a letter back. There would be an “M.”

“I told that story at the Mother Mosque last year,” Smejkal said. “When I was finished, (a young man) stood up in the back of the room, held up his own dog tags and said, ‘And that is why I have an “M” on mine.’”

“I think it’s just wonderful,” she added. 

Ryan Schuessler

One of Hassan Igram’s earliest memories of the Mother Mosque was memorizing the Quran with other children. Born in Cedar Rapids in 1955, he recalls the day he was brought to the front of the community and asked to lead prayers.

“It was as important then as it is now for young students to memorize as much of the Quran as possible,” Igram, a relative of Smejkal, said. “I remember how important it was for my mother to make sure we got there every week.”

It was Igram’s grandfather, his namesake, who immigrated to Cedar Rapids in the early 1900s by way of Ohio. He opened a grocery store and was known in the community for giving credit to those who couldn’t afford groceries during the Depression.

“I remember hearing when I grew up ... people talking about that,” he said. “How much that was never forgotten.”

In the early years, Cedar Rapids’ Muslims raised money to help their Arab Christian counterparts build St. George Orthodox Church in the city, which celebrates its centennial this year. They were good neighbors during hard times, worked the land alongside Czech, Slovak and German farmers who had also immigrated to Iowa, and served in every war since World War I.

“They are American,” Tawil said. “They are proud to be American. They are fourth, fifth generation. They speak with authority. They speak as genuine American citizens.”

And the rest of the community has acknowledged that. 

Bill Aossey.
Courtesy photo

In the days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when backlash against Muslim communities swept across the U.S., Tawil remembers finding flowers on the steps of the Mother Mosque and hundreds of supportive messages on the answering machine. The mayor of Cedar Rapids sent extra police to patrol the neighborhood around the mosque, and the attorney general drove in from Des Moines to offer the community his support.

“This mosque will always be a lighthouse,” Tawil said.

Cedar Rapids’ Muslim community prays somewhere else now — it grew so large due to an influx of new immigrant groups that in the 1970s a larger mosque was built in another part of town. For many years the building changed hands before the Aossey family bought it back.

“They know this is where our family grew up,” Smejkal said of her children and grandchildren, who recently visited the Mother Mosque with her. 

Expansion plans for the Mother Mosque and an adjacent museum and office.
Ryan Schuessler

Today the mosque is renovated and serves more as a historical site than anything else. In addition to church groups, tourists, and even a “pilgrim” or two, the Mother Mosque receives dignitaries from around the Muslim world who are visiting the U.S. on government or other business.

But it was those days after the flood that demonstrated how much the Mother Mosque — which plans to build an adjacent museum and office — means to eastern Iowa. When the waters had subsided, the Muslim community put out a simple call: “The Mother Mosque needs help.”

Tawil can’t talk about what happened next without choking up.

“Buses of people — Jews, Buddhists, Christians, atheists, Muslims — all came,” he said, tears in his eyes, his voice cracking. “‘How can we help?’”