During the week, Elsayed Mogahed trained the next generation of engineers as a professor at UW-Madison. On weekends, he helped mold the next generation of Muslim leaders as the volunteer principal at the Islamic Center of Madison.
Mogahed, who died Sunday at 74 after falling and hitting his head, seemed born to teach, said several of those who knew him.
“Whenever I came into the mosque he was always there, and he always felt like a sanctuary,” said Tariq Saqqaf, who emigrated to the United States at the age of 2. “He felt like an incredibly safe space. There was no ego about him, no judgment. He was just there accepting me as I was, supporting me, encouraging me.”
Mogahed was key in forming a cohesive Muslim community in Madison irrespective of national origin, race and language, said Saad Khalifa, who connected with him because they were both immigrants from Egypt.
The children Mogahed taught in the 1980s now have their own children enrolled in the Sunday school he founded at the center, Khalifa said.
“The kids go away and come back and help the community be better,” Khalifa said. “That’s because of Elsayed.”
In recent years, Mogahed, who also served as the center’s director, taught calculus classes at the center to help high school students with their schoolwork. Longtime friend Ibrahim Saeed said Mogahed was a factor in his son’s decision to enroll at UW-Madison.
“We (Muslims) believe in education; there is no better tool to bring people together than education,” Khalifa said. “And education was his everything. Give children the tool of education … that was always his focus.”
Mogahed didn’t just teach about religion, but about culture — and American culture — as well, Saqqaf said. It was Mogahed who helped Saqqaf understand he could be Muslim, a child of immigrants and own his ethnic heritage, all while remaining an American, he said.
“The story of my experience with the Muslim community has been one with a certain level of confusion,” Saqqaf said. “There’s always been a level of confusion with immigrant and multicultural kids: Where do we belong? Where do we fit in? … But he was really able to support the kids that were growing up here.”
‘Ellis Island of Madison’
Mogahed’s daughter, Dalia, said her father felt passionately about embracing Muslims new to America.
“Growing up, our home was like the Ellis Island of Madison,” she said. “It was where people stayed when they had just gotten here and didn’t have a place to stay.”
An Islamic scholar, Dalia Mogahed was an adviser to former President Barack Obama. Her sister, Yasmin Mogahed, is also an Islamic scholar.
Like his daughters, Mogahed has been involved with educating Americans and the Madison community, specifically on the Muslim community.
In November 2001, months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he presented at an open house at the Islamic Center, answering the Madison community’s questions about Islam.
“The environment in the early 2000s was very hostile to Muslims,” said Adel Talaat, who worked with Mogahed at the Islamic Center. “He was very effective in communicating with the Madison community and making sure we had open channels.”
At the time, Mogahed said, he wanted to convey that “Muslims are peaceful people.”
“He has had so much impact on the Downtown mosque and the Muslim community at large in Madison,” Khalifa said. “So many people growing up now are indebted to him because of the community he made.”