It was a coincidence that Mayor Martin J. Walsh picked Friday to fulfill a promise to attend a prayer service at New England’s largest mosque, but the symbolism of the timing was not lost on the mayor or the thousand worshipers seated elbow-to-elbow on the carpeting.
With coordinated anti-Islam rallies planned elsewhere this weekend, Walsh joined leaders of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in distancing Boston from the so-called Global Rally for Humanity.
“There’s a lot of demonstrations going on around the world and in the United States, but it is important for all of you to understand that your city supports you,” Walsh said, as applause filled the sunlit sanctuary.
A call came up in Arabic from a corner of the room: “Takbir!” — Arabic for “praise God.”
“Allahu Akbar!” the crowd replied. “God is greatest.”
“We in Boston stand together,” said Walsh, clad in a suit, tie, and navy-and-turquoise dress socks, his cap-toe dress shoes respectfully stashed in the corner.
He had visited as a candidate in 2013, participating in a forum organized by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, and met the new imam, Shaykh Yasir F. Fahmy , at a recent at a recent school opening. When Walsh’s senior public safety adviser, Daniel Mulhern, addressed the congregation a few months ago, he promised he would return with the mayor soon.
They had picked this particular Friday — the Muslim sabbath, when the midday prayer and sermon at the mosque can draw 1,400 people — long before they knew about the rallies planned for the weekend.
“It’s pretty impressive and speaks to the values of Boston that on a day when there are anti-Muslim rallies happening across America, that today we have our mayor coming to us,” said Yusufi Vali the center’s executive director, introducing Walsh.
The mayor met privately with leaders of the mosque and community center, then slipped into a corner of the sanctuary behind most of the worshipers, listening to the prayers and Fahmy's 20-minute sermon.
The imam spoke about the importance of serving others — shoveling neighbors’ driveways, giving to charity, helping those in need stand on their own two feet — in “what it means to be a good Muslim,” in addition to praying, fasting, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca.
He also addressed the Islamophobic rallies. “I look at these people and I feel bad for them, because they’re ignorant. They have an idea of Islam that is misinformed,” he said. “The duty of the Muslim community is to really become the prophetic, merciful presence in society.”
When Walsh stepped forward, he greeted the congregants with “As-salaam Alaikim” — “peace to you” — and said he was proud of their new young leadership. Vali, a Princeton-educated former political and community organizer, and Fahmy, a New Jersey native who worked in finance before studying Islam at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, are both in their early 30s.
Walsh said it was his first Islamic prayer service but that it reminded him of the Catholic Mass he attended regularly with his mother as a child, and he spoke of the importance of interfaith understanding. “Boston is really a city that’s been built on diversity,” he said.
After listening for 40 minutes and speaking for three, it took Walsh 27 minutes to make his way through the crowd, with corner-store clerks and crisply dressed consultants, wide-eyed children and beaming grandmothers pressing in close for handshakes, hugs, and selfies.
“Thank you, Mr. Mayor!” they called. “Mayor Walsh, here! . . . Once more if you don’t mind!”
Abdulai Wanu, a 26-year-old security guard with dreams of becoming a pilot, stood in front of the pack, raising his phone to capture not just the mayor and himself but the entire fulsome scene.
“It’s really meaningful,” said Wanu, who moved to Boston nine years ago from Sierra Leone, and never expected to meet his mayor at the mosque. “I appreciate the fact that he came and was going to be a part of us, and see what we do. He’s always welcome.”
A woman in a pink head scarf told the mayor she had just moved from New York and enjoyed hearing him on the radio. “Welcome to Boston,” he said, extending a hand.
Eventually, Walsh reached the wall of shoes, then banked toward the door. As the mayor’s retinue tried to usher him to his SUV, he paused for one more selfie with curly haired Rayan Haoud, a 7-year-old student at the center’s Islamic elementary school, and then another with Rayan's mother, Laila Alaoui.
“It’s a big thing that he’s here,” said Alaoui, a Morocco native who lives in Watertown, as Walsh headed out. “It’s a really powerful statement for Boston.”