Mosque leader’s death is ruled suicide

October 5, 2012

After a 200-car procession to the Stafford County cemetery, the mourners stood politely in line in the oppressive July heat for a turn to shovel clay on the blue casket bearing Mohammad Mehboob’s body. But some did not want to wait for the shovel, so they grabbed at dirt to sprinkle it across the coffin, the dust swirling and then settling on their sweat- and tear-streaked faces.

The men who formed the lines and the women who maintained a respectful distance were relying on their faith to bring a semblance of order out of chaos. Mehboob’s body had been ritually bathed and wrapped in cotton; Muslim prayers for the dead had been murmured.

But the discomfitting mystery remained.

Could it be true that Mehboob, president of the Dar AlNoor mosque, or musjid, in Woodbridge and one of Northern Virginia’s most highly regarded Muslims, had committed suicide? Why would a faithful, beloved man known for his candor and grace commit this sin?

After a nearly 12-week investigation, Fairfax County police and the Virginia medical examiner’s office confirmed that Mehboob had killed himself by jumping off an overpass into the Occoquan River. The news has confounded his friends and family, and forced a tightknit religious community to try to reconcile the loving, generous, actively devout man they knew with the unholy act of someone in grave despair.

“For Muslims, we believe that life is very precious. Life is a gift from God. We are not to take anyone’s life, including ours,” said Rafi Ahmed, the current president of Dar AlNoor and a close friend. “Knowing the knowledge he had of the religion, knowing that something like this is not permissible, this is why I find it hard to believe.”

For many who knew Mehboob, the lingering religious question mingles with a deeply personal pain.

“He knew . . . how to talk directly to your heart,” said Cemal Gumus, the imam at Dar AlNoor.

On Thursday, June 28, Mehboob, 58, left his home about 3:30 a.m. The time of morning is not suspicious. Morning prayer starts at 4:15 a.m., and Mehboob was almost always early, unlocking the building and sitting with a book or praying as the sun rose.

But when he didn’t appear later that day, his family reported him missing. And when his old Lexus was found, several frantic hours later, on a bridge on Route 123 that crosses the Occoquan, friends and family gathered in dread. The site is several miles past Mehboob’s normal turnoff to go to Dar AlNoor.

Ahmed, who called Mehboob an “elder brother,” said that Meh­boob had just placed an order for his favorite cereal. In their frequent daily talks, nothing seemed amiss, he said. Others at the musjid echoed the same sentiment.

Relatives did not return calls for comment about the medical examiner’s determination. In earlier interviews, they declined to address the possibility of suicide.

Instead, they talked about the concept of sabr — the Islamic virtue of patience when dealing with obstacles. The word is also interpreted to mean patience with God’s plan.

“He was a slave of God and went back to him,” said Mehboob’s son, SherAfgan, 31. “It’s our belief it was his time, and we will make sabr.”

Carole Ahmed, a member of the musjid’s board of directors, said Mehboob was always a cheerful presence.

“Something made him feel overwhelmed,” she said. “I don’t think it’s anything evil. Maybe we didn’t measure up. Maybe we weren’t there for him. . . . He was always the rock standing for somebody else, and maybe nobody saw it.”

Gumus has said he will never believe that Mehboob committed suicide. “It’s difficult to . . . accept the facts,” he said.

Even in death, it seems, Mehboob continues to surprise. The man who was called Baba or Babajee by his family — an affectionate Urdu reference that means Papa — was so humble that even those closest to him knew little of the work he had done, that he had purchased copies of the Koran for prisoners or studied the Torah with a rabbi.

“We’ve been putting together the extent of his contributions,” his son said.

Immigration to U.S.

While Mehboob had grown up culturally conservative , his devotion to Islam came relatively late in life.

He was from Lahore, Pakistan, one of nine children from an upper-middle-class household. He completed his undergraduate studies in England and, soon after, returned to Pakistan, marrying Samia Mehboob in 1979 and working in management at a textile manufacturing company. The couple took a trip to the United States, and his enthusiasm for the country and for Americans’ friendly extroversion was palpable. So while much of his family had settled in the United Kingdom, he immigrated in 1992 to the United States. In Woodbridge, he bought a Lube Express off Smoketown Road.

In 1997, his daughter, Sehr Rana, was reading a book called “Muhammad,” by Martin Lings. He picked it up and, thus, began an academic and philosophical pursuit of religion and history that became part of his daily life. About the same time, family and friends say, Mehboob found his community at the nascent Dar AlNoor.

In those days, Dar AlNoor was Dar Alsalam, a small house near the Stafford County line that started around the early 1990s. The burgeoning Muslim community had outgrown the space, and Mehboob was instrumental in helping to build the 12,000-square-foot Dar AlNoor, at a cost of about $2 million. The new musjid opened in 2006.

While interfaith efforts were part of Dar AlNoor from its inception, Mehboob took those initiatives to heart.

Rabbi Jennifer Weiner of Temple Ner Shalom in Manassas began studying the Torah regularly with Mehboob at her synagogue this past year. “We had light bulb moments,” she said. “His eyes would just light up, and you would see this smile on his face.”

Weiner said that Mehboob’s knowledge of the Koran was intimate and meticulous. He could point to passages that were similar to the Torah and even noted similarities between Hebrew and Arabic. He focused on the commonalities in the texts.

“The fact is, our communities share Abraham,” Weiner said.

When Dar AlNoor opened its new mosque, the Rev. Bev Swayze of nearby Covenant Presbyterian Church said she received a lot of questions from her worried congregants. “There were concerns in living in a post 9/11 world,” she said. But after Mehboob and others reached out, attending dinners and other interfaith gatherings, the tension lifted. “Once people got to know each other, there were no more concerns.”

Some of Mehboob’s progressive views didn’t go over well with everyone at Dar AlNoor.

Mehboob preferred Western-style suits and a clean­shaven look, while some men at the musjid thought Muslim men should wear traditional beards. The same group also didn’t approve that two women sat on the governing board.

But while Mehboob liked to solve issues by winning over critics, he could also be unyielding.

“He had a natural way of calming people down and encouraging people to get along. But he had a certain firmness about him too,” said Carole Ahmed, who called Mehboob a strong proponent of women’s rights.

A daily remembrance

Gumus remembers that Mehboob is gone at the start of each day, when he comes to Dar AlNoor and finds the door to the mosque locked. Inside, the hallway is empty.

Muslims believe that on the Day of Judgement, God will question every moment in our lives and judge a person’s deeds, he explained. To determine which of seven levels of heaven — or hell — someone belongs in, He will count deeds good and bad, render judgment and then close the book on the person’s life. But for those who left behind things of community good, scholars who had “beneficial knowledge” and parents of pious children, God will continue to assess the impact of their life.

The faithful like Mehboob will continue their ascent in heaven, the imam said.

“His book, inshallah, will stay open.”

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