Hundreds of local residents mourned the loss of Muhammad Shehadeh, imam for the Rocky Mount mosque, Wednesday as he was laid to rest.
The 73-year-old religious leader died Tuesday of heart failure. For more than two decades, he led hundreds of prayers a week at the Rocky Mount Islamic Center, which he helped found with members of the community and his brothers, Hassan and Mousa.
“This mosque was his life,” said Fazeh Shehadeh, Muhammad’s widow. “It was his whole life.”
Mousa Shehadeh said Muhammad Shehadeh went to an Islamic orphanage school in Jerusalem in 1948. With a sixth-grade education, he went on to study furniture making for four years before getting a full-time job in the industry to support his family. Around 1960, he came to the United States and got a job with a furniture company in Sharpsburg making lamp bases.
“He was a great man who started as just a refugee orphan with nothing,” Muhammad Shehadeh’s daughter, Halimeh, said. “He was the second Arab in this area and everything stemmed from him. He saved up and got his brothers here, then others moved to the area.”
Mousa and Muhammad Shehadeh worked for various furniture companies for nearly a decade before Muhammad Shehadeh became an assistant manager then manager at Golden Corral Steakhouse. Muhammad Shehadeh then helped teach cabinet making at Tri-County Industries before the Islamic Center was built. He served as the imam during his entire 28-year marriage to Fazeh Shehadeh, all the while striving to improve relations between Islamic residents and the rest of the community.
“He worked so hard to dispel the myths people had,” former Rocky Mount Human Relations Director Loretta Braswell said. “He strove to make people understand and respect each other. That was his life’s work, as I saw it.”
Braswell said Mousa and Muhammad Shehadeh invited members of the Human Relations Commission to attend prayers and hold meetings at the mosque. She said he always called and stopped by to see what issues the community was facing that Islamic residents could help with.
“He will be missed greatly, not just by the Islamic community, but by the majority of the community because everyone just loved and respected him,” Braswell said. “Everyone knew he was all about bringing peace and unity to the community.”
A new imam has not been named.
“God will send us someone,” Fazeh Shehadeh said.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Muhammad Shehadeh leaves behind four sons.
“I could write a book about him and never finish because he was such a great person,” Fazeh Shehadeh said. “I will never forget him for the rest of my life.”