Imam Abdul Wajid is Accepting of All

Imam Abdul Wajid gives a presentation to a group of visitors at a March 19, 2017 open house at Oakland’s Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.

Imam Abdul Wajid gives a presentation to a group of visitors at a March 19, 2017 open house at Oakland’s Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.

words: Carolyn Conte

photos: Lauren Zawatski

After a hike up Bigelow Boulevard’s hill in the neighborhood of Oakland, near the University of Pittsburgh, Christopher Hackney arrives at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. Crunchy leaves and chirping birds sprinkle the yard of the building. As Hackney steps into the office, the new Imam greets him with a playful tease.

“Why are you wearing a Pirates shirt?” The 30-year-old bearded man, who Hackney had not met before, says as he puts his hands on his hips. “That better be a Pittsburgh Penguins shirt the next time I see you!”

Abdul Wajid, the Imam of Oakland’s Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, has more than once caught visitors off guard with his informal manner. Hackney, a student Wajid helped convert to Islam recently, describes this first impression of Wajid as a good example of his personality.

Like Hackney, Wajid is new to the center. He joined seven months ago after being interviewed by the office, community members and students. But before arriving at the modern edifice at 1400 Bigelow Blvd., Wajid had been practicing Islam since he was a child. He memorized the Quran in grade school and attained his master’s in ifta, which is the legal interpretation of the Quran.

Despite its spiritual mission to serve the Muslim community of Oakland, some people politicize the center — especially since the 2016 presidential campaign, when Donald Trump made profiling Muslims a major issue of his platform.

“I do encounter Islamophobia in Oakland. Of course, it is anywhere in the country,” Wajid says, “but that is not my daily life.”

When it does happen, Wajid says, the story is often the same.

“People usually come in here with an agenda, asking about Islamophobia and terrorism,” he says.

He prefers to focus on the positive aspects of the mosque, however. He believes that because Oakland is a diverse community, it is more accepting.

Whatever questions or points of view visitors bring to the center, Wajid’s warmth and disarming manner charms them.

When a reporter arrives for an interview and begins to remove her boots, Wajid waves his hand.

“Eh, keep your shoes on,” he says.

Office manager Hira Mustaq said Wajid’s accepting nature endeared him to the hiring committee.

“I think that’s one of the reasons we chose him,” Mustaq says. “He wasn’t the youngest option, yet he was still young and a comfortable, relatable person. He’s just a human.”

When he is not preaching, most of Wajid’s work is done in the office, which has a soothing atmosphere due to the aroma of incense and Arabian rugs. Besides sermons, Imam Wajid counsels, visits the sick, washes the deceased, performs marriages and holds weekly meetings. His main responsibility is to support the community and be an approachable religious presence in it.

In the end, though, Wajid doesn’t just support the community: He lives in it. Students might bump into Wajid anywhere. Just ask Suha Abdelbaqi, who encountered him at a sushi restaurant.

“I was just standing in line when I hear someone tell me to hurry up,” Abdelbaqi says. “I turn around, and there’s my Imam behind me!”

Wajid enjoys these relationships with the students and says that Oakland’s young population is part of what he loves about the mosque’s community.

“When I deal with kids, even taking religion out of it, I feel the most passionate,” he says.