This morning I learned that my chief – an African chief of a Muslim people – died.  And while some of my co-religionists may frown upon the idea, tonight I shall say Kaddish – the Jewish prayer for the dead - in his honor. For he was not only my chief – he was the very embodiment of peace and tolerance to which every religious person should strive.  

Precisely half my life ago– twenty-seven years before, to be exact – I first appeared before Alhaji Harou Sarkin Fulani Mai-Gari da Mai-Guduma na Yardaje Zangon-Daura. At the time I had no idea what all those titles meant, only that he was the one who presided over the village in which I was hoping to live. Together, I eventually learned, those honorifics conveyed that he had already undertaken the prescribed pilgrimage to Mecca; that he was the chief not only of my desired village but over the surrounding territory, and that he was a royal of the nomadic tribe credited with leading a jihad in the region two centuries ago.  

 By agreeing to host me in his community Alhaji Harou became my chief. I have lost track of the number of times I returned to the village in Nigeria’s far Muslim north since that first year I spent there. When I happened to be back three months after 9/11, he extended condolences over what had happened to “my brothers” – that is, the people of America. Just one small example of how faith and compassion beat out tribalism and fanaticism. 

Ikon Allah - “Power of God” and Haka Fa - “That’s how it is” –– were my chief’s trademark expressions in the local language Hausa. So was his irrepressible chuckle. “Practice patience!” was another common phrase he used, especially when administering justice or reconciling quarreling couples. And he would rarely go three sentences without invoking lafiya – peace, well-being.

An Orthodox Muslim, one would be hard-pressed to describe my chief as a progressive. He had four wives – simultaneously – and more children than even he could in the end keep track of. But not only did he approve my mother’s and aunt’s funding of a shelter for blind women in his village, it was he who provided the precious plot of land right in the middle of it.

 I grew up less than twenty miles from the World Trade Center. I believe that if more people, when they heard the word “Muslim,” could evoke my chief’s gentle face, infectious laugh, and soothing words – rather than the sinister mug and murderous threats of a Bin Laden – than fewer people would automatically recoil at the idea of an Islamic center on sacred ground in a city we all share.

 And, as they say in Hausaland, “Amin.”  

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Bill Miles is the former Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern University, where he teaches in the political science department.