Filming in a Mosque with Yasir Qadhi

We were nervous. Yasir Qadhi’s interview was approaching rapidly, and we didn’t have much information. Our researchers in India strove to provide the material, but there was little to be found. From the Ark Media offices, most of our promising leads withered into disappointment. Some suggested postponing the interview. We just needed more time, they argued. There was no more time to be had.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Interviews Yasir Qadhi for Finding Your Roots

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Interviews Yasir Qadhi for Finding Your Roots

Our location – the Islamic Cultural Center of New York – is modern and minimalist compared with the dynastic mosques of Damascus and Cairo. It lacks the sprawling courtyards of the Jama’a Mosque in Dehli. The Center clearly does not belong in an ancient city of Islamic heritage but a metropolis. The blocky minaret fits squarely between New York’s towering apartment buildings.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Interviews Yasir Qadhi for Finding Your Roots

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Interviews Yasir Qadhi for Finding Your Roots

Filming in a mosque was a unique experience for our production team. Out of respect for Islamic customs, we made sure that our catering was halal certified. The female members of our crew wore hijab to cover their hair. All shoes were removed when we entered the building.

One worshipper, curious about our work, approached me with a standard Arabic greeting. Thanks to my years of studying Arabic and my experiences living in Egypt and the West Bank, I was prepared with an appropriate response. Although I encounter Arabic speaking people daily in New York, I rarely engage in conversation. I usually find myself too shy to betray myself as an Arabic speaker. Ahmad’s introduction was an opportunity to practice, and to show off a little to the production team. Ahmad was an insightful person who lamented the political turmoil in his native Yemen. He had also heard of Yasir Qadhi and was interested in the premise of “Finding Your Roots.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Interviews Yasir Qadhi for Finding Your Roots

Yasir Qadhi, Professor Gates and our field crew arrived at the mosque after lunch. They had been filming at the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan, and were eager to get out of the cold fall weather. Qadhi and Gates took a seat and went to work under the lights. The conversation wove a narrative of Qadhi’s life as the son of immigrant parents in Houston, Texas who emerged as an influential Islamic scholar. Qadhi spoke about his experience studying in the famous Islamic seminaries of Saudi Arabia as an American with little knowledge of the Arabic language. He also spoke about raising a Muslim child in post-9/11 America.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Interviews Yasir Qadhi for Finding Your Roots

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Interviews Yasir Qadhi for Finding Your Roots

This interview proved one of the most frustrating with respect to the genealogical research. In many cases, a paper trail simply does not exist. When we hire researchers in foreign countries to spearhead local research, they will often spend weeks tracking down a lead. Upon reaching a dead end, the prospect of forging definitive familial links becomes increasingly less likely. Genealogy is always a mixture of perseverance and luck. Although we uncovered little of Qadhi’s actual genealogy, our luck came in the form of the sheikh’s profound views about religion and Islam’s place in the modern world. I hope you are as moved by his insight as I was that day.

Watch the full Finding Your Roots episode: Rick Warren, Angela Buchdahl, and Yasir Qadhi.

About the Author:
Stephen Robinson is a Production Assistant for Finding Your Roots.

Photos Courtesy of Ark Media.