With years of anthropological scholarship and world travel behind him, in Salt Lake City it was the bathrooms that struck Akbar Ahmed most.
"I've never seen such clean restrooms," he said over lunch earlier this month. "The mark of a civilization is the standard of cleanliness of its restrooms."
Ahmed, whom the BBC dubbed "the world's leading authority on contemporary Islam," recently swung through Utah, where he gave a standing-room-only lecture for the University of Utah's Tanner Humanities Center. But his purpose for being here extended beyond the speaking engagement -- and the bathrooms. With him was an entourage of mostly 20-something Americans, his team in what he called a "voyage of discovery."
Since September, the Islamic Studies chairman at Washington, D.C.'s American University has been on sabbatical, hitting the road with his young guides. "Journey into America," which involves visits to 30 cities in six months, is a project to explore identity and specifically Muslims -- now with a U.S. population of about 7 million, Ahmed said -- within the context of American society.
Their documented travels, which include uploaded videos and blog entries, have taken them all over the map. They've withstood the winds at Plymouth Rock and on Ellis Island. They've joined those who walked in New York City's Muslim Day Parade and tuned into screams from anti-Muslim protesters on the sidelines. They've hung out with black Muslim rappers in Buffalo, N.Y., been blessed by a St. Louis rabbi and been challenged by recent converts in a Omaha mosque who didn't want the group reaching out to Jews and Christians.
The Salt Lake City trip was inspired by a missionary they met in Palmyra, N.Y., where Mormons believe LDS Church founder Joseph Smith received his visions. That missionary hooked them up with officials at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which explains why the group arrived at Sandy's Utah Islamic Center in a Temple Square van, with a church hosting director at the wheel.
Inside, Ahmed gave a guest sermon before he joined the crowd in Friday afternoon prayers.
He spoke of internal conflicts in the Muslim world and the need to remember what's most important. Quoting words from Prophet Muhammad, he said: "The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr."
This emphasis on learning, and teaching, falls on Muslims today who must take it upon themselves to explain Islam to others, he added later. In his U. lecture, Ahmed had emphasized the necessity for all people to understand Islam, saying that by the middle of this century Muslims will make up one-quarter of the world's population.
After prayers, the group engaged in dialogue with members of the community, asking the questions and distributing the questionnaires they're bringing to Muslims across the country.
"What does it mean to be an American?" they wanted to know.
"Expressing your opinions freely," Safi Safiullah offered.
Maysa Kergaye spoke of the contrast between what she heard growing up from relatives abroad vs. what she holds to be true today.
"Being an American means being void of morality," she recalled her grandmother in Jordan telling her. But Kergaye said to her it means "to be free to practice your religion, to be immoral or not -- as long as it's within the laws of the land."
They spoke of challenges within, the confluence of numerous cultures and the need to reach out to others and get involved in the broader community. One man mentioned, with a laugh, being told by a Utah driver to "go back home and drive your camel."
"I appreciate the plight you've been kind enough to share," said Ben Banks of the LDS Church. "Don't hesitate to be friends with your neighbors."
The journeying troop got a guided tour of the Family History Library, as well as the LDS Church's humanitarian and welfare centers. They visited Temple Square and Provo's Missionary Training Center. They were amazed by Mormon interest in foreign languages, the wealth of Middle East scholarship at Brigham Young University and the kindness of Latter-day Saints.
"It's like a lovefest," Hailey Woldt, 22, said.
Granted, she had said this before the group stumbled upon the 3,000-plus people who protested outside the Salt Lake LDS Temple after California's Proposition 8 passed.
Ahmed, a former Pakistan ambassador to Great Britain, conceived of the project as an offshoot of a previous endeavor. In 2006, he took students -- including some of the individuals who are traveling with him now -- on a trip to explore the Muslim world abroad, which was the basis for his book, Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization. But given the state of global affairs, and the inevitable need for people to understand Islamic culture, Ahmed felt it was time to look within the country he now calls his own.
During their time in Utah, the group also met with students at the University of Utah and made a stop at the Khadeeja Islamic Center in West Valley City. From Salt Lake, their first stop on their Western circuit, they jetted off to Las Vegas.
Jessica Ravitz writes about religion and spirituality. She can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8776.