The call, "Takbir," is shouted by one member of the audience in exaltation, in celebration. It literally means "aggrandizement."
The response, "Allahu akbar," is shouted by the entire congregation to signify rejoice, approval and praise. It literally means "Allah is great."
Maryam Funches could not stop smiling. She had come to the end of a long road, and she was glad for it; she was glowing. She also was a little tired.
"I think I need a break," she said Saturday before joining 13 of her classmates in a large, nondescript conference room. With family and friends looking on, they became the first students to receive diplomas from the School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Leesburg--the only graduate school of its kind in the United States.
The road began three years ago when two dozen ambitious Muslim scholars walked through the school's doors. The first class consisted of students from around the world who had come for reasons as diverse as they themselves. Some had come to study their religion in an academic setting, others to become military chaplains or imams--Muslim spiritual leaders. Most said they learned even more than they had anticipated.
"This school has done a tremendous job of exposing me to other cultures," said Abdul-Rahman Yaki. Wearing a costume of his native Ghana--a white gown with gold trim called a babanriga and a matching hulla on his head--he, too, was all smiles as he readied himself to accept his diploma.
Yaki, 32, was a teacher and researcher in an Islamic center before coming to Leesburg, and he will return to Ghana to continue teaching and researching what he has learned. What impressed him most about the school was the way it taught--even embraced--Western values alongside of Islamic religious law, known as Shari'a. "Let's sit down with other faiths peacefully" to learn from one another, he said.
The school's founder and president, Taha Jabir Alalwani, said that is the school's mission.
"The main message," said Alalwani, who has taught in Saudi Arabia and Cairo and written several books on Shari'a, "is to build a bridge between Islam and the West . . . to understand the values of the founders of this beautiful country."
Instead of teaching only the religious aspects of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, Alalwani also emphasizes the historic and social context of the origins of Islamic notions of jurisprudence. He said he wants his students to learn about other cultures and other faiths and sums up his goal in a simple slogan: "Understanding to avoid extremism."
Addressing the graduates Saturday, he said, "Our goal is integration . . . between Islamic civilization and Islamic culture with Western civilization and Western culture . . . [by] building a sense of critique in the student's mind to critique them both."
In the audience someone calls "Takbir" in celebration of the students' accomplishment. The response bounces back in affirmation, "Allahu akbar."
The school is bridging gaps in other ways, too. Its first valedictorian, Iraqi-born Zainab Alwani, said that at school, she found herself "side by side with men, carrying the same responsibility, the same mission."
Alwani, 32, studied Shari'a, which traditionally has been interpreted to emphasize women's subservience to men. At school, she said, the classes were "not a struggle for superiority." The students were there "to complete each other, not to fight," she said. "We are seeking only the truth." As she reads the Koran, she said, "that's what it's supposed to be."
Having moved to Sterling from Herndon three years ago with her husband and four children, Alwani, 37, is deciding what to do next. Maybe she will try to publish her thesis, maybe she will continue her studies with an eye to teaching or writing.
Funches, 40-plus, was raised Christian and converted to Islam more than 20 years ago. She said she will continue working toward a doctorate in education and wants to counsel other Muslim women.
"I'm not trying to be an imam," which is not an option for women, she said, but other Muslim "women can be open and they can be free" in talking to her "in a way they can't necessarily with imams or men."
Alalwani told the graduation audience about the time he was asked to teach a class of women by speaking to a closed-circuit camera while the women watched on a monitor in another room. "I can't" teach that way, he said.
The call: "Takbir."
The response: "Allahu akbar!"
"This school helps you understand your humanity rather than your small differences," Dawud Agbere said.
Agbere, 32, also from Ghana, wasn't wearing a babanriga or a hulla. He was wearing the uniform of an officer of the U.S. Army. Like half of this first graduating class, he is going on to be a Muslim chaplain for this country's armed forces.
In this respect, the school is filling a void and bridging gaps: the Defense Department has a contract with the school to provide it with much needed Muslim chaplains. A new agreement with the Justice Department means that some of next fall's incoming students will become chaplains for the U.S. prison system.
Despite his important assignment, Agbere said the last two years have been "a family affair, more personal than normal studies." And he said Leesburg became home because people were so friendly. "I love Leesburg very, very well," he said. "If I get the opportunity, I'm coming back."
Alalwani beamed like a proud father as his students marched down the aisle to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance played on an old boombox. He said he hopes his students have learned to view the world with a critical mind--to take the best and leave the worst of every society.
"Globalism now becomes real," he told his school's first-ever graduating class, the last of this millennium.
The call: "Takbir."
The response: "Allahu akbar!"
CAPTION: Ibraheem Abdur Raheem, left, hugs fellow graduate Abdullah A. Hulwe before graduation ceremony Saturday.
CAPTION: Mohammed Mokarram Hossain sets up a video camera to film the graduation ceremony.
CAPTION: Hossain's 6-year-old daughter, Mustabin, leans on her father's back as she waits for the graduation ceremony at the School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Leesburg to begin.