Early last year I happened to come across a passage from an unpublished memoir in the New Yorker by Joseph Mitchell, a former columnist for the magazine. Mitchell would wander New York, allowing the city to guide his steps. He was drawn to places of worship in particular. Sometime during Ramadan in the 1960s he found himself at the Muslim Mosque Inc. on Powers Street in Brooklyn. Read the original post here.
This piqued our interest and so began the search for more information. The bookshelves exhaled and crowded our desks with articles, books and news clippings. We suspected this to be New York’s first mosque. Martin and I visited and reported on the Muslim Mosque Inc. in March of 2013. Upon visiting we unfortunately found the mosque closed. Eager for more we concluded our post asking readers for more information.
We were recently contacted by Alyssa H. a board member of the mosque. Alyssa and her husband Pete reached out to us after reading our post and invited Martin and I to revisit the mosque. This time we were greeted by warm smiles and an open door. Alyssa graciously showed us the space and shared her knowledge on the history of the mosque and her own memories growing up in the Muslim Mosque Inc. community. Our conversation with Alyssa will be published in a forthcoming post.
The Powers Street mosque was originally constructed in 1885 and served as a Protestant church. It was later used as a public hall of the Democratic Club and was finally acquired and became a mosque in 1931. An article published in the Herald Tribune from 1937 details the early history of the mosque. A full transcript follows:
New York Herald Tribune, Sunday, September 5, 1937
Mahometans Refurbish Only Mosque in City for Holy Month of Ramadan Starting Nov. 5
Brooklyn Edifice Soon Will Hear Praises of Allah Again, as in Tartar Home
Weekly Service on Friday
Up to 200 Faithful Attend Usual Evening Prayer
By James G. Simonds
As repairs to the mosque at 108 Powers Street, Brooklyn, the only real mosque in New York near completion, the followers of the Prophet Mahomet are preparing to answer the call to prayers given by the Imam Hussain Rafikoff. The mosque does not have a minaret, as did the mosque of the little Tartar village of Iwje, near Vilna, in what was formerly Russia and is now Poland, from which the Imam came to the United States twenty-nine years ago.
Speaking of the services in the mosque, Imam Rafilowich said, “In the village I came from we used to have services five times a day. My uncle, who was Imam (prayer leader) of the village, would go up on the minaret and call the people of the village and they would all come to the mosque.”
One Service Held Weekly
In Brooklyn it is entirely different, the Imam said. The congregation consists of working people, who are unable to get away from their jobs to attend the prayer meetings. Services are held only once a week, on Friday evenings. Then the imam and his assistants enter the mosque, and give the call to prayers from the pulpit.
The mosque itself was originally built as a Protestant church. Later it became a Democratic club, and finally about six years ago it was purchased by a group of devout Mahometans.
The building has high iron steps leading to the front entrance on the second floor. It contains a large hall, with a pulpit opposite and to the east of the entrance, so that during the entire service the Mahometans face the direction of the Holy City of Mecca.
Many Races Represented
The group that answers the call to prayers on Friday evenings comes from all parts of the city, and represents many races belonging to the Mahometan religion. It includes Arabs, Tartars, Syrians, Egyptians, Turks, Afghans, East Indians, Albanians and Malayans, as well as several converted Christians.
Before coming to the mosque each of the Mahometans must wash himself thoroughly, and must do nothing which would impair what is known as his state of “legal purity” before the service. Entering the mosque, members of the congregation must leave their shoes outside the door.
The imam wears a flowing, dark-green robe with a high collar and wide sleeves, and a green fez trimmed with white to distinguish him from the congregation and his assistants. During the service he has one official helper, but certain members of the congregation help him lead some of the prayers.
Some Use Prayer Rugs
Each prayer service opens with the formula “Allah Akbar” (“Praise be to Allah”), which is repeated by the congregation. Then the imam recites the first chapter of the Koran, which is called the Fatiha. The Mahometans kneel facing him. Some of them have prayer rugs, but for the most part they kneel on a covering placed on the floor for that purpose.
There are two special services during the Mahometan year, one on the day ending the month of fasting, Ramadan, and the other on the tenth day of the month of Zu-l-Heggeh, which corresponds to the day on which those who are making the pilgrimage to the Holy City make their sacrifices in Mecca.
All services are conducted in Arabic, the language of the Koran, although the most numerous racial group attending the mosque is that of the Tartars, who come from what is present-day Poland.
These Tartars are descendants of the Tartar hordes of Tamerlane the Great. They entered Russia almost six centuries ago and became engaged in a war with the Lithuanians. After the war many of them settled on Lithuanian soil and have remained there since, although the country has changed masters many times.
At the usual evening prayer service about 100 to 200 Mahometans are present, but on special occasions many more attend. The devout Mahometans keep their heads covered during the entire service. It does not matter what kind of headdress they wear, so all types may be seen during the service.
They kneel facing the pulpit while praying, and then listen to the sermon of the Imam. On either side of the pulpit hang the American flag and the green banner of the Prophet. On one wall of the mosque is a silk drape with a quotation from the Koran.
During the month of fast, Ramadan, this year from November 5 to December 5, there will be prayers several times every week.
The fast is one of utmost importance to the Mahometans, for it is one of the five pillars, or absolute requirements, of the Islamic faith. It is supposedly during this month that the Koran was revealed.
The conclusion of the fast is marked by a celebration known as “Eed es-Sagheer” (the minor festival), which is supposed to be the most joyful occasion of the Mahometan year.
On the other of the two chief festivals of the Mahometan year, on the tenth day of the month of Zu-l-Heggeh, the last in the Mahometan calendar, there is a general celebration among the Mahometan population of New York. At the time of this celebration, known as “Eed-el-Kurban,” (the great festival), there are other services besides the one in the mosque. Nearly 1,000 other Mahometans usually gather, sometimes in the Royal Palace Hall, 18 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn.
The mosque is much the same today. The lower level serves as a multipurpose gathering space. The two staircases at the east end of the building lead up to the main prayer area. The exterior iron staircase is no longer used. The walls on both levels are adorned with decades of history, from donor plaques, to banners, and original artwork by the mosque attendees. Additional images can be found in the gallery.
Mitchell, Joseph. 2013. “Street Life: Becoming part of the city.” The New Yorker, February 11 & 18. p. 66.
Simonds, James G. 1937. “Mahometans Refurbish Only Mosque in City for Holy Month of Ramadan Starting Nov. 5.” The New York Herald Tribune, September 5.