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Imam Ali Ahmed Mukasa

on December 1, 2012

As-salamu Alaykum (Peace be upon you)!” Lighthouse Mosque leader Imam Ali Ahmed Mukasa said as he greeted attendees at the study session, part of a series focused on understanding Islam. Mukasa welcomed everyone, inquiring about how they were doing. “How was your Thanksgiving? Did all your family members make it?” he asked a member of the mosque who just migrated with his family from Mauritius.

Mukasa has been an imam at Lighthouse Mosque for eight years. His classes are meant to help believers understand the underlying meaning of their faith. “I don’t believe anyone of us at this point doesn’t know the meaning of Islam. However, for purposes of learning, I will explain it again—Islam means peace, purity, submission, and obedience. In our case, Islam means submission to the will of God and obedience to His will,” he said to about a dozen people attending the session.

Classes happen in the main auditorium. People are seated according to gender, with men sitting in the front row while women occupy the back. On a typical prayer day, a curtain is drawn between the congregation to divide women from men. During the teaching sessions, though, the rules are less strict, and attendees are separated by a space of two feet. In the Islamic faith, women typically dress in long, body-covering garments. Women wear pants or full-length skirts or dresses with long sleeves and headscarves, while men wear long pants.

During the class, Mukasa covered the history of the religion. “Islam dates back to the age of Adam, and its message has been conveyed to man by God’s prophets and messengers,” he told the class. These include Abraham, Moses (who received the Ten Commandments on Mountain Sinai) and Jesus. “The message of Islam has been restored and reinforced in the last stage of the religious evolution by God’s last messenger, Muhammad,” he emphasized.

“The laws are simple: obedience to God and submission to his law; they’re principles of Islam. Man has the qualities of intelligence and choice; thus, he is to submit to the will of God and obey His law,” he said.

But Mukasa teaches his students to accept people from different faiths. “Brothers in Islam, always be tolerant, listen and let others speak,” he said.

Mukasa was born in Uganda in 1964. He said his mother was 16 years old when he was born, and his father was only 15 years old at the time. “I’m not certain about my mother’s origin. All I know is she was Indian, from a former slave-trading family that settled in Bagamoyo,” said Mukasa. (Bagamoyo was a slaveholding town on the east coast of Tanzania.)

Mukasa said he never knew his father—he migrated to Congo before his son was born. And three months after Mukasa was born, his mother was given to a 56-year-old man to be his wife. She went on to have 11 other children. So, when Mukasa was born, he was dropped off at his maternal grandmother’s house on the outskirts of Kampala in a small town called Katwe. His grandmother raised him in a Muslim family. He went to Muslim-founded schools. While his memory of all the schools he attended is faint, he remembers Katwe Primary School, where he did both general and religious education. He later transferred to Aga Khan Secondary School for his high school.

“My quest for Islamic knowledge started way back when I was a child. At age 14, I befriended a classmate; I think he was from the Middle East. I remember his name as Mohsen. Mohsen was a shabby student who couldn’t do any sports because of his weight. He utilized his sports time to read his Quran. As a friend, he let me read his Quran since I couldn’t afford my own. From then on, I developed an interest to know more about Allah,” said Mukasa.

After high school, Mukasa never went to college. He instead joined Masjid Noor, a mosque where he attended prayers and studied religious teachings under the mosque’s scholars. “Those scholars grounded me in the knowledge of Allah,” he said. “After going through various trainings and reading of my own and understanding Islam and Islamic law, the body of mullahs confirmed me as a cleric.” (In the Islamic faith, mullahs are the interpreters of doctrine.)

As a cleric, Mukasa taught and led prayers. “I think, if I recall very well, I have been a cleric since the age of maybe 19. I taught and led Jumu’ah prayers, organized seminars. Serving Allah is all I have done,” he said. (Jumu’ah prayers happen on Fridays.)

Around 1985, Mukasa became an imam at Masjid Noor, and then later led different mosques in Uganda. An imam is the head of a mosque and oversees its doctrine and all Islamic teachings. An imam is also responsible for the day-to-day operations of the mosque.In his work as an imam, Mukasa has visited countries including Libya, Nigeria, Jordan, Oman and Saudi Arabia. “I have been to Saudi Arabia many times for Hajj and Umrah,” he said. Umrah is the required pilgrimage made by Muslims to Mecca. Hijah refers to the twelfth month on the Islamic calendar when the holy pilgrimage occurs.

Mukasa began his involvement with the Lighthouse Mosque thanks to his wife, Amina Nakalema, who is originally from Uganda but migrated to the United States. The couple has been married for seven years, but they have been together for over a decade.

Nakalema moved to the United States over 15 years ago and settled in Oakland. After she moved to Oakland, Mukasa started visiting her. “During my visits to my wife, I always prayed at the Lighthouse Mosque. At some point, I introduced myself. I said I was an imam from Uganda. To my astonishment, the leadership by then asked me if I could lead prayers someday. Since then, everything changed,” he said.

For six years, the imam has visited the United States on a visitor’s visa to see his wife. The United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) issues these temporary visas through U.S embassies. The U.S embassy in Kampala issued him a two-year renewable visa. Although the visa is valid for two years, at the point of entry, U.S Customs and Border Patrol determines how long one stays. And in Mukasa’s case, he has always been allowed to stay for six months.

That means, to stay in compliance, Mukasa must leave the country every six months. However, since the beginning of 2018, Mukasa’s status has changed. His wife, who is now an American citizen, has petitioned for him to receive permanent residency through marriage. At their future interview with USCIS officials, Mukasa and his wife will have to prove that they’re legitimately married by presenting evidence including a marriage certificate, communication such as texts, shared bills and addresses, proof of financial income, and demonstrating that they know each other well. If satisfied that they are indeed married, an immigration official will issue papers that will allow Mukasa a Permanent Resident Card, also known as a “green card.” It will be valid for up to ten years. However, after five years, a green card holder may opt to become a U.S citizen.

“Waiting for an immigration interview is like waiting for a blind date. You never know when it will be and how it will be. Sawf yatim Allah—God’s will be done,” he said.

During his time in Oakland, one of his main achievements has been helping the Lighthouse congregation buy their building. Mukasa said that the original Lighthouse Mosque did not have a place of their own. Today, they own a permanent building along Martin Luther King Junior Way. They purchased it two years ago, having bought it from a church. Mukasa led the fundraising campaign that raised $600,000 to buy the property. Though the interior of the mosque was remodeled to fit the Islamic standards of a prayer house, the exterior still looks like a regular building.

“We were in awe when we heard that the property was on sale. The mosque has been here for decades, and it’s kind of a new norm that in Oakland, all property is sold to outsiders. Lighthouse Mosque is indigenous to Oakland. It’s with pride we bought this property,” he said.

Mukasa’s vision for the mosque is to eventually build a permanent, more beautiful structure. He also thinks the issue of homelessness in Oakland is appalling, and he wants to do something to help the members of his congregation. “We have members of our mosque that have nowhere to live. It’s my prayer that as Muslims, we raise funds at some point and invest in affordable housing,” said Mukasa.

Mukasa says his reception in Oakland has been a warm one. “I have been thrilled by the warmth and hospitality of my Muslim brothers in Oakland. People have a quest to know the teachings of Allah,” he said.

His students praise him as a teacher. “I didn’t know much about my faith. But since I started listening to this man, my understanding of Allah changed,” said Asad Zarif, a member of the mosque.

“I have been coming to Lighthouse for many years and I have seen many imams here. Imam Mukasa is humble and listens to anyone. May Allah help him through his immigration process,” said congregant Ismail Abdullah, an immigrant from Sudan.

Mukasa is proud that the mosque’s congregation comes from all over the world. “This is a unique place; people who come to worship here are from all over the world—Nigeria, Turkey, Mauritius, East Africa, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and some other places,” said Mukasa.

“Look here, brother, this mosque is very diverse. Everyone is welcome here,” he said, pointing at two men praying in the corner. “Those are originally from Turkey. And as you now know, I’m the imam, I’m from Uganda. Isn’t Oakland amazing?”

Return to the main page to read stories of other East Bay immigrants.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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