Stevens County has quite a few bearded men with interesting hats, but none quite like Dawud Ahmad Abdur-Rahman.
Ahmad, 53, and his wife, Raqeebah, and seven children constitute a large portion - if not the majority - of the county’s Muslim population. All American-born Caucasians, they and a few other families make up a small organization called Muslim America.
“I’m just like everybody else around here,” Ahmad said. “I’m just a bit different.”
The affable and articulate Dawud (pronounced “Dah-ood”) Ahmad dismisses himself as “a nobody” even though he claims the title of “sheikh,” an important Muslim religious leader.
Ahmad’s claim surprises Spokane Muslims from the Middle East. Several said they know of only a handful of men in North America who are qualified to interpret Islamic scriptures as sheikhs.
Although Ahmad generally wears American clothing, he occasionally is seen in a variety of Middle Eastern robes and headgear. He tells his sons to go to school in knitted skull caps, called kufis, to set themselves apart.
If other students knock off the caps, his sons are to turn the other cheek - which in Semitic tradition is the cheek of wrath, Ahmad said. But the family has encountered little religious prejudice in Stevens County, he said.
His eldest son, Jamal, 20, said he is “sometimes” bothered by the Muslim prohibition on dating.
No. 2 son Junaid, 16, said he hasn’t felt the loss: “If you grow up without eating grapes, you don’t miss anything by not eating a grape.”
Teasing by other kids has helped him choose better friends, he added.
He also is grateful for the stability of his parents’ marriage.
Ahmad, who was raised by a single mother, said he was less fortunate.
“My father was a drunk, and I still think I would have been better off growing up with him,” he said.
Ahmad and his family came to Springdale in July 1993. Before that, they lived briefly in Olympia and for 10 years in Eugene, Ore.
For several months in 1993, the family lived in tents on 40 acres of timber land they are buying 10 miles north of Springdale. They hope eventually to establish a retreat and summer camp at the site.
Now Ahmad and his family live in a modest house in Springdale that is the headquarters for Muslim America. The nerve center is a tiny, overstuffed office where Ahmad works on an ancient Commodore 64 computer.
Ahmad won’t say how many families belong to Muslim America because the Spokane Housing Authority wants that information.
He said the Housing Authority, which used to subsidize his rent, launched an inquiry after the property owner tried to evict him so the house could be sold. Ahmad has proven himself a capable do-it-yourself lawyer in the ongoing legal battle for control of the house.
He described himself in a court document last year as a disabled veteran who depended on several public-assistance programs. Now, he said, the family no longer receives Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
“He sounds very profound in talking with him,” Springdale Mayor Ernie Gehrke said. “He has a very good education, or at least he has a good command of the English language.”
Gehrke said Ahmad has done little to call attention to himself other than wearing unconventional hats.
“He’s kind of a unique character, really,” the mayor said. “He wears a full beard and looks kind of like a Hindu or something.”
Ahmad won’t tell the names with which he and his wife were born.
“I look back and that was another person,” he said of the young man who was born in Portland and grew up as a “pretty agnostic” teenager in California.
“I don’t know that guy.”
He said Allah led him to Islam in the late 1960s at a black mosque in “a Midwestern industrial city.” He mysteriously declined to name the city, but his wife said it was Chicago.
A “bright nerd” with a pocket protector full of pens as a youth, Ahmad said he entered the Army in the early ‘60s and acquired post-traumatic stress disorder in Korea. He was attracted to the anti-Vietnam War movement and studied political science and history at several colleges after leaving the Army in 1964.
“Like many people of that time, I was in some kind of search for truth and reality both,” he said.
By the time he met his future wife at a coffee shop in the Midwestern city he doesn’t want to name, he had already become disillusioned with campus radicalism.
A few months after meeting Raqeebah and shortly after an intriguing encounter with a Black Muslim, Ahmad said he walked into a black mosque and declared he was a Muslim.
Ahmad said the men who taught him were orthodox Muslims. They were not in the black-nationalist sect known then as the Black Muslims and now, under Louis Farrakhan, as the Nation of Islam.
He said he became a sheikh by studying for seven years under a black sheikh.
Traditional Sunni Muslims at the Spokane Islamic Center are skeptical that anyone can become a sheikh without memorizing the Koran and receiving advanced training at an Islamic college - as well as demonstrating his faith in the way he lives his life.
They doubt a sheikh would fail, as Ahmad did, to interrupt a six-hour newspaper interview to pray. Muslims are required to pray five times a day at regular intervals.
Ahmad thinks “Old World Muslims” generally find it difficult to believe anyone steeped in American culture can become a Muslim.
“If they can’t understand that we are Muslim, I’ll forgive them that,” he said.
Islam has no racial or national boundaries and many Americans are knowledgeable practitioners and leaders, members of the Spokane Islamic Center said.
“Why do we spend these millions to make translations of the Koran if we would not accept Americans?” said Islamic Center member Sultan Aldeghaither.
Alaa el din Aamer, president of the center, said Ahmad has visited the Spokane mosque only once, about two years ago.
“I’d like to see him join us in the mosque,” Aamer said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo