The police arrived at the scene of the shooting shortly after 6 am, according to Fritz Frage, Newark’s public safety director.
It reported that the killer has been on the run and the motive for the killing is still unknown. As the Islamic call to prayer rang out across South Orange Avenue outside the mosque, hundreds of mourners gathered for a vigil in honour of Sharif.
Meanwhile, Newark’s mayor, Ras J. Baraka said the authorities would “bring the perpetrator to justice, no matter how long it takes.”
“Imam Hassan Sharif stood with the people of this city, and we will stand with him and his family,” Baraka added.
New Jersey’s attorney general, Matthew Platkin said at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon that there was no indication that the shooting was motivated by bias or that it was an act of terrorism, but he acknowledged the heightened sense of anxiety and fear among New Jersey’s Muslim population.
“We also know that Imam Sharif is just the latest casualty in the senseless gun violence epidemic that plagues our state and our country,” he said. “Tragedies like what we’ve experienced today, regardless of their motivation, should not happen.”
Gov. Philip D. Murphy acknowledged in a statement that an “increase of bias incidents and crimes” had many Muslims on edge and said that the state would work to keep residents safe, especially in and around houses of worship.
According to Wahy-ud Deen Shareef, the leader of the Council of Imams in New Jersey, Sharif, 52, was known for being a progressive leader who was deeply invested in his community and its well-being. Masjid Muhammad is one of the oldest mosques in New Jersey and was the nucleus of the religion’s growth in the region, Shareef said, describing it as the “birthplace” of his own experience with Islam.
The leader noted that Sharif was attending predawn prayers at the mosque when he was shot. “There are many evils that come out in the dark,” Shareef said.
Sharif was shot more than once, according to the acting Essex County prosecutor Theodore Stephens, and died from his injuries around 2 p.m. The Essex County sheriff, Armando Fontoura, said that a $25,000 reward was being offered to anyone with information regarding the shooting.
Sharif had been a transportation security officer at Newark Liberty International Airport since 2006, according to Lisa Farbstein, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, who said that the agency was “deeply saddened” by the shooting.
He had been the resident imam of Masjid Muhammad for over four years and was also an avid boxer, Shareef said.
In August, he said, Sharif was attacked at the mosque in a similar circumstance, as he was on his way to morning prayers. In a post on his Facebook page, Sharif had described the encounter as a “definite test” in which a man approached him after he got out of his car and put a gun to his head. Sharif was able to wrestle the gun away from the attacker, who fled the scene.
“Allah definitely showed mercy toward him this morning, and I pray he take heed of that mercy and turn his life around,” Sharif wrote of his assailant, adding: “I will die trying to see our people change in this world.”
Dina Sayedahmed, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called Sharif “a beacon of leadership in his community” and added: “We advise all mosques to keep their doors open but remain cautious especially given the recent spike in anti-Muslim bigotry.”
Many local residents stopped by the mosque on Wednesday, looking for information about the shooting. Lateef Murphy, 53, who sometimes prays there, said that the killing would have ripple effects throughout the Muslim community in Newark, The New York Times reported.
“It’s a shame, our religion is not about violence,” Murphy said. “It’s about how to live your life without hatred.”
Salahuddin Muhammad, a former New Jersey resident and member of Masjid Muhammad, drove from Philadelphia on Wednesday after he heard what had happened. He surveyed the scene with tears in his eyes.