Awliya in America: Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

Here is a short piece in honor of Brother Malcolm on the anniversary of his passing 50 years ago.

On a cool fall morning in 2013 Martin and I visited Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County, New York. We walked between the unassuming headstones and stood humbly before the graves of Malcolm X, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz and Betty Shabazz.

2013-10-05 11.21.56

Here lies Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz

Ferncliff Cemetery is located in Hartsdale, Westchester County, New York. Malcolm X is interred in section Pinewood B, Grave 150. The map below outlines the approximate location of the grave.

Ferncliff Cemetery Map to Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz

Ferncliff Cemetery Map to the graves of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz; courtesy of Google Maps

Upon our visit we found comfort and hope in the words of Ossie Davis:

Eulogy delivered by Ossie Davis at the funeral of Malcolm X

Faith Temple Church Of God

February 27,1965

“Here – at this final hour, in this quiet place – Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes -extinguished now, and gone from us forever. For Harlem is where he worked and where he struggled and fought – his home of homes, where his heart was, and where his people are – and it is, therefore, most fitting that we meet once again – in Harlem – to share these last moments with him. For Harlem has ever been gracious to those who have loved her, have fought her, and have defended her honor even to the death.

It is not in the memory of man that this beleaguered, unfortunate, but nonetheless proud community has found a braver, more gallant young champion than this Afro-American who lies before us – unconquered still. I say the word again, as he would want me to : Afro-American – Afro-American Malcolm, who was a master, was most meticulous in his use of words. Nobody knew better than he the power words have over minds of men. Malcolm had stopped being a ‘Negro’ years ago. It had become too small, too puny, too weak a word for him. Malcolm was bigger than that. Malcolm had become an Afro-American and he wanted – so desperately – that we, that all his people, would become Afro-Americans too.

There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain – and we will smile. Many will say turn away – away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man – and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate – a fanatic, a racist – who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them : Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.

Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves. Last year, from Africa, he wrote these words to a friend: ‘My journey’, he says, ‘is almost ended, and I have a much broader scope than when I started out, which I believe will add new life and dimension to our struggle for freedom and honor and dignity in the States. I am writing these things so that you will know for a fact the tremendous sympathy and support we have among the African States for our Human Rights struggle. The main thing is that we keep a United Front wherein our most valuable time and energy will not be wasted fighting each other.’ However we may have differed with him – or with each other about him and his value as a man – let his going from us serve only to bring us together, now.

Consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that what we place in the ground is no more now a man – but a seed – which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us. And we will know him then for what he was and is – a Prince – our own black shining Prince! – who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”

 

Ossie Davis, “Eulogy Delivered by Ossie Davis at the Funeral of Malcolm X, Faith Temple Church of God, February 27, 1965” Malcolm X, last modified February 21, 2015, www.malcolmx.com/eulogy/

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Theology-in-Progress [2] A Muslim Theology of Prostration

The tentative title of my book-in-progress is “A Muslim Theology of Prostration.” I realize that the title may be perplexing for many at first blush. As a consequence I wrote the introduction to the book to address those questions and concerns. But I also believe that it serves as a suitable explanation of what it is I am doing here with the Theology-in-Progress blog series. What follows is an excerpt from the introduction taken from its beginning.

Introduction

A man of little understanding may perhaps say: “There is already a sufficient abundance of books, there is no benefit in compiling new ones in this age.” Such a man would be correct insofar as books are indeed abundant and should be sufficient; but not in saying that no benefit is to be gained from compiling further books now. People’s hearts are naturally attracted to everything new, and God gives them at each time knowledge clothed in the form best suited to the age.[1]

-Imam ʿAbd Allāh Ibn ʿAlawī al-Ḥaddād, The Book of Assistance

What is a Muslim theology of “prostration?” More than that, what is “Muslim” theology? And perhaps most pointedly of all, why “theology” at all?

This book, in its own way, works to answer these questions. Although the full breadth of this text is intended to answer these questions, something should be said now by way of introduction. And to do this, it would be best to address these three questions in reverse.

Why “theology” at all? With the many and overwhelming concerns of everyday life and the world pressing upon us, why would anyone, even a person of faith, turn to “theology” for respite, relief, or resolution? What does theology – this seemingly outmoded and overly complicated way of thinking – have to offer to a world on quickly shifting ground? If our hearts and minds cannot keep pace with the blur of the 24-hour news cycle, what can the plodding, methodical machine of theology hope to accomplish? Some would even say that theology is too antiquated and woefully ill-equipped to adequately respond to the sophisticated challenges that assail us today, whether it concerns science or sexuality, existential crises or systemic injustices, or perennial problems in new guises like sickness, suffering, and death. Why indeed would anyone turn to theology?

Though it may seem to fly in the face of all practical considerations, this book argues the contrary. It argues that “theology” is of incredible – if not the utmost – importance for us in the here and now. But what this book means by “theology” differs from commonplace expectations. As many often think of it within an Islamic context, theology is a scholastic exercise. Theology is nothing more than a dry, overly rationalistic field of learning that is more concerned with proofs, polemics, and apologetics than with fostering faith in even the darkest of places. But the reality is that there are times – incredibly many times – when what we need most is to have our faith fostered – not proven, argued, or meticulously explained. To foster faith is more fundamental. Theology, if it is truly to be theology, must see to this most basic of human needs or so the argument of this book will go. In light of this expectation, this book casts a wide net when speaking of theology. And why should it not? Without a doubt, other scholars have done likewise.[2] Theology is more than merely an intellectual enterprise. It is taken here to encompass a great many things. It encompasses matters of belief and doctrine. It encompasses ethics and spirituality (as impoverished a word as “spirituality” is).[3] It encompasses the practice of everyday life and life itself. So yes, theology is important. It is critically important. When this vast array that is theology is carefully attuned and marshaled it can serve as a foundation and bulwark for those seeking a life of faith or a more vibrant one. Though how all of this is so may not be immediately apparent. This book, from beginning to end, endeavors to make such a case and to make it clear.

But for whom is all of this important? This brings us to our second query about “Muslim” theology.

While this is a work abstractly intended for people of faith, it cannot be denied that a more concrete community is imagined. The ideas, narratives, and significations invoked throughout this book are unmistakably “Islamic” in character. So yes, this is a work of “Muslim” theology in that it was written for a particular community of faith. More precisely, this work was written for the ahl al-qibla, literally “the people of the direction of prayer.” The words of this book are for them, that community which is bound together by that most basic of acknowledgements: The ritual prayer, the ṣalāt, when observed, is offered in the direction of the Kaʿba, the house of God in Mecca, wherever one may be. We shall turn you to a direction of prayer (qibla) that is dear to you. So turn your face toward the sacred place of prostration (al-masjid al-ḥarām) (Q. 2:144). Although the Muslim community may differ over many things great and small with respect to faith, it is bound in common by its recognition that our prayers ought to be oriented towards the house of God in Mecca. This is not to imply that we all fastidiously pray or that we pray in the same way. God knows that our differences and difficulties are many. Whether we prayer regularly, irregularly, or not at all (and let us recognize with honesty that prayer is a perennial struggle), we, the ahl al-qibla, agree that our prayers are oriented towards that divinely established qibla. Thus, to avoid more particularistic and potentially divisive designations for our community, this book is written simply for the ahl al-qibla, a community in search of God through prayer.

Yet as generous as this intended audience is, particularisms cannot be entirely avoided. I recognize that during the course of this work that I cite certain sources and not others and that I invoke some names and not others. These choices say much about to whom this work is directed and the memories and histories in which this Muslim theology is rooted. Furthermore, I recognize that works of theology very often bear the traces of the autobiographical. This may not always be the case, but it is true of this book. And as its author I can attest that elements of the autobiographical mark this work. Just as the works of past scholars reveal traces of the lives of their authors, this work most assuredly bears the markings of my own. Indeed the theology that this book presents is born out of my own experiences: my experience as a person of color born and raised in a country so indelibly colored by race, my experience as a child of immigrants who has only ever called this land of colonization his home, my experience as a beneficiary of a largely secular (but not entirely) Western education, my experience as a Asian-American man, husband, and father from a blue-collar suburban family living in a time when identifiers such as these are important to foreground, and my experience as a person of faith who came to faith out of reverence, love, and awe amidst an English-speaking Muslim community. And perhaps most important of all, this book emerges from my experience as a person of faith for whom faith is a perpetual, lifelong struggle. That is to say, the words and ideas expressed herein reflect where I have been and where I hope to go. So while I may broadly address the imagined ahl al-qibla, I also acknowledge that this work of theology emerges from a particular horizon of life that some, but not all, may share or be able to appreciate. Yet in the end horizons of understanding are forged for whom God wills. This is merely my address to you.

With those words said, what then is a Muslim theology of prostration?

In order to answering this last query, something must be said about what I hope to accomplish during the course of this book. In that regard, this work of theology seeks to do many things, just as it encompasses many things. First, it argues that we must see theology in a new light. Our circumstances have changed and we have changed. As Imam al-Ḥaddād expresses above, every age has its own needs and challenges. Our understanding of theology, then, should adapt accordingly. Second, this work brings into relief those concepts that I consider key for developing a Muslim theology for today: tradition, revelation, and the religious imagination. I believe that we cannot effectively take up the task of theology without also taking into consideration these ideas that are intimately connected to its formulation. Third, this work presents the beginnings of a theology (I might even venture a systematic theology) directed at responding to the mounting challenges of our times.

This beginning, however, does not land us where some might expect. The trajectory of this work does not alight us upon some lofty height of self-realization or divine disclosure. My aims are not so ambitious or far-reaching. Other avenues are better suited for such ends, the foremost of which remain the Qur’an and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad. Rather, the arc of this book is patterned after the arc of ṣalāt, the obligatory ritual prayer, which has attained a special, iconic place across Muslim consciousness as well as within popular perceptions of the faith. And what posture is more emblematic of prayer and Islam itself than sajda, the prostration of head to earth. Where we are headed and where we will end with this book is not high above, but down below in that lowest of positions of the prayer, prostration. While profound questions will be asked about God and revelation and about ourselves and tradition, my ultimate aim is to bring us to a deep and meaningful understanding of the simple act of sajda. It seems an easy thing to do, to bow down our heads, but life has shown us time and again that that seemingly simple act can be incredibly difficult to do given the world in which we live. Do we not live in a world where materialism and worldly success are so much easier for us to imagine and strive for than an End Time and a Hereafter that never seem to arrive? Do we not live in a world where what we witness with our eyes and our rational minds is more compelling than faith in the Unseen? It should be no surprise then that an act as simple as prayer and a posture as humble as sajda has become a tribulation for us, the people of the qibla. This is a Muslim theology of prostration because sometimes it is better to address that which afflicts us on low so that we might fathom what hangs precipitously over our heads.

Moreover, this is a theology that asks what does it mean to perform the sajda in this present moment of ours. What does it mean to prostrate to God now given the state of the world in which we presently struggle and live?

It should be clear at this point with all that has been said so far that this book has much work to do and indeed the case to be made will require careful deliberation and the industry of our imaginations. To facilitate the way forward, I have divided the book into six chapters…

 

[1] Imam ‘Abdallah Ibn’Alawi Al-Haddad, The Book of Assistance, trans. Mostafa al-Badawi (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2003), 5.

[2] Tim Winter, in his edited volume on classical Islamic theology, states that his “book does not identify ‘theology’ as conterminous with this kalām tradition” and that “it acknowledges many issues which most readers will recognise as theological were treated by Muslim civilisation in a wide range of disciplines.” In the same volume, Oliver Leaman writes, “…there often exists no clear distinction between Islamic theology, in the sense of kalām, and the other Islamic and not so Islamic sciences, such as grammar, jurisprudence (fiqh), philosophy (falsafa/ḥikma), Sufism, and the even more specific activities of learning how to operate with the Traditions of the Prophet, and how to assess and rank the chains of narrators which differentiate their levels of reliability.  Islamic theologians did not usually strictly separate what they did from all these other activities, and so it is not easy to provide a neat account of precisely what is ‘theological’ and what is not.” Later, William Chittick describes Islamic theology as “God-talk in all its forms” and explains that it “is concerned with clarifying the reality of the Object of Worship, the Absolute Ḥaqq, so that people can relate to it in the right and appropriate manner.” Tim Winter, “Introduction” in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, edited by Tim Winter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 2; Oliver Leaman (Part I) & Sajjad Rizvi (Part II), “The Developed Kalām Tradition” in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, p.77; William Chittick, “Worship” in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, p. 221.

[3] Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005); Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford, 2012), pp. 97-102; Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality: A Brief History, Second Edition (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 3-6.

New York’s First Mosque [1] Revisited

Revisiting the Brooklyn Mosque on Powers Street

Revisiting the Brooklyn Mosque on Powers Street

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.

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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.

Powers Street Mosque 1937

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.

 

Theology-in-Progress [1] Beginnings

For the past two years I have been working on an book project that in some respects is a significant departure from my previous scholarship. At the same time, it is a natural extension of the work that I have been long doing. The project in question is a work of constructive Muslim theology. I began to seriously consider writing a work of theology — and not simply a study of theology — two years ago after a number of fruitful conversations with friends, family, and colleagues. But it was during Ramadan of 2012 that I resolved to move forward and begin writing.

With the arrival of Ramadan this year, I have completed the introduction and first four chapters of the book of a planned total of six. While I have been writing, I have had the opportunity to present my theology-in-progress at a number of venues. At the Contemplating the Qur’an (Tadabbur al-Qur’an) Conference at Howard Divinity School I presented “The Dialectic of Revelation: The Qur’an and Systematic Theology” and then at the Fifth Annual Meeting for the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics (SSME) I presented “Tradition and the Religious Imagination in Muslim Theology.” This might give you some idea of what this book is about. But as I work to complete the book, I plan to share —insha’Allah — aspects and excerpts here on Islamicana in a series entitled “Theology-in-Progress” because all theology, in truth, is a human work-in-progress.

As a way of beginning, here is an edited excerpt of a section entitled “Terms of the Conversation” from Chapter One:

Terms of the Conversation

I am approaching the work of Muslim theology by embracing the task fully within our “logosphere” of English. The choice of English is intentional. This book is written for those of us who live and struggle upon that linguistic horizon. But a logosphere is more than merely language. We are not just bound by a common spoken tongue. We are also bound by a common experience and a common faith. As stated by Mohammed Arkoun, “A logosphere is the linguistic mental space shared by those who use the same language with which to articulate their thoughts, their representations, their collective memory, and their knowledge according to the fundamental principles claimed by a unifying weltanschaung” (Arkoun, The Unthought, 12). Here is our common ground. We live within a logosphere of English accented and accentuated by the language of the Qur’an, the very speech of God. So it should be understood that the theological framework that I am presenting depends upon appreciating the conceptual genealogies of words as they are used across English-speaking Muslim horizons. English is not just a language. It is our language.

And why should this not be the case? Our community has come of age in the English logosphere. Perhaps no life better reflects this development for us than the life of Malcolm X. Near the end of his life (though he did not know it then, he could only suspect) Malcolm X described to Alex Haley part of the manner of his education in English:

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks. I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting. I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words—immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. (Malcolm X, Autobiography, 175)

From “aardvark” to the end, Malcolm came to patiently learn and live the English language word-by-word. The end result was a powerful mastery of the language, a distinction to which Malcolm’s later life amply attests and a distinction honored by Ossie Davis in his eulogy for Malcolm: “I say the word again, as he would want me to: Afro-American – Afro-American Malcolm, who was a master, was most meticulous in his use of words. Nobody knew better than he the power words have over minds of men.” This mastery of the word carried him from prison to the Nation of Islam to the holy vicinity of the Kaʿba itself. In both spoken and written form, Malcolm harnessed the English language in all its starkness and complexity that his words elevated us in powerful and unimagined ways. To be sure, his words, spoken with clarity and fierceness, elevate us still. Though uttered many decades ago, the words of Malcolm X – carefully cultivated from the copied pages of the English dictionary – have unquestionably made an indelible impression on our community. Malcolm has played no small part in our linguistic coming of age.

Thus, when speaking of theology it is not necessary for us to seek out a classical equivalent, Arabic or otherwise. We live our life of faith in this English logosphere. Is not our horizon of meaning covalent with Malcolm’s? Should it not be? Moreover, not all concepts pertinent to our discourse are easily or even possibly translatable. Consider the shifting amorphousness surrounding our ideas and usage of “theology” and “tradition.” They are cut from the same cloth. With respect to theology, I am not using the word as a substitute or translation for an Arabic term like ʿaqīda (“creed”), ʿilm al-kalām (“doctrinal theology”) or uṣūl al-dīn (“foundational principles of the religion”), though these important disciplines invariably figure into the conversation. What I mean by theology is greater than all these. The sense of theology that we are dealing with here and what I describe as “how we respond to God” has a genealogy and significance that is rooted to our English-speaking context. Furthermore, it has developed a meaning, or rather a range of meanings, that is specific to the concerns and understandings of our Muslim community. So taking into account these baseline considerations, when I say “theology” I mean theology. I mean that which literally is “discourse on God” and more generally refers to the human attempt to apprehend, make sense of, and find fulfillment in the transcendent reality of God. Theology asks us how do we talk about God? And more importantly, how do we talk to Him?

Mohammed Arkoun. 2002. The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought. London: Saqi Books.

Malcolm X & Alex Haley. 1964. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. New York: Ballantine Books. Thirty-fourth Printing, April 1993.

 

 

The Sahaba of Istanbul [5] The Ayvansaray Coast

South of Eyüp is the area of Ayvansaray. In this quiet residential neighborhood lie a number of tombs, but for this post we will focus on three noteworthy sites located by the Ayvansaray Coast along the waters of the Golden Horn. They are the tombs of Muḥammad al-Anṣārī (Muhammed el-Ensari), Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī (Ebuzer Gifari), and Jābir b. ‘Abd Allāh (Cabir bin Abdullah).

The Ayvansaray Coast before the Estuary Bridge over the Golden Horn

Yavedud Caddesi, a major thoroughfare, runs south out of Eyüp and passes beneath the towering Estuary (Haliç) Bridge. The road then becomes Ayvansaray Caddesi as it runs by the shrine complex in front of the old city walls, which we discussed in Part [4]. A block beyond the complex is a one-story building on the side of the street that houses the grave of Muhammad al-Anṣārī. The site can also be reached by ferry by disembarking from the Ayvansaray ferry station and cutting through the green space of Haliç Parkı.  The white stone building is just on the other side of Ayvansaray Caddesi. The grave can be seen through a large window and should be open to the public for visitations.

The stone building housing the grave of Muḥammad al-Anṣārī

The stone building housing the grave of Muḥammad al-Anṣārī

Like the previously discussed Abū Aḥmad al-Anṣārī and Ḥamīd Allāh al-Anṣārī, it is difficult to confirm the precise identity of Muḥammad al-Anṣārī given the fairly generic names provided. Nonetheless, one person of the many possible Companions of the Prophet presents himself as a strong candidate, Muḥammad b. Maslama al-Anṣārī (d. 43/663). He appears in numerous accounts as participating in many of the raids and campaigns of the early Muslim community and was personally sent by the Prophet on a number of occasions. Biographies consistently note his slaying of Ka’b b. al-Ashraf. After the Prophet’s death, Muḥammad b. Maslama appears to have served both the Caliphs ‘Umar and ‘Uthmān while avoiding the civil strife (fitna) that ensued afterwards.

The tomb of Muḥammad al-Anṣārī

The tomb of Muḥammad al-Anṣārī

There are conflicting reports, however, about the date of his death, although all the sources agree that he died in Medina rather than the Byzantine frontier. Al-Ṭabarī, under the year 43 AH, reports, “In Ṣafar of this year (May 15 – June 12, 663) Muḥammad b. Maslamah died in al-Madinah. Marwān b. al-Ḥakam led the prayers over him” (al-Ṭabarī, History, 18:32). Ibn Sa’d reports his death in Ṣafar of the year 46 AH and also states that Marwān b. al-Ḥakam led the funeral prayer (Ibn Saʿd, Kitāb al-Ṭabaqāt al-kabīr, 3:410). The sources agree that Muḥammad b. Maslama was 77 years old when he died. Finally, Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr reports both the preceding dates of death and then adds the year 47 AH as a third possibility (Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, al-Istīʿāb, 3:1377). Given his widely reported death in Medina, it is possible that another Muḥammad al-Anṣārī rests here.

Hazreti Ebuzer Gifari Camii

Hazreti Ebuzer Gifari Camii

Next, the mosque of Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī (d. 32/652-3), appropriately named Hazreti Ebuzer Gifari Camii, lies further inland. Several winding and uneven blocks away from Ayvansaray Caddesi where the tomb of Muḥammad al-Anṣārī lies sits this modest house of worship. Adorned with a single minaret, the mosque is enclosed by a low wall topped with an ironwork fence. The actual tomb rests outside of the mosque lying beneath the open sky and is easily visible from the sidewalk.

The tomb of Abū Dharr al-Ghiffārī visible from the street

The tomb of Abū Dharr al-Ghiffārī visible from the street

Concerning Abū Dharr’s life, J. Robson provides a summative overview in the second edition of Brill’s Encyclopaedia of Islam:

Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī, a Companion of Muḥammad. His name is commonly given as Djundub b. Djunāda, but other names are also mentioned. He is said to have worshipped one God before his conversion. When news of Muḥammad reached him he sent his brother to Mecca to make enquiries, and being dissatisfied with his report, he went himself. One story says he met Muḥammad with Abū Bakr at the Kaʿba, another that ʿAlī took him secretly to Muḥammad. He immediately believed, and is surprisingly claimed to have been the fifth (even the fourth) believer. He was sent home, where he stayed till he went to Medina after the battle of the Ditch (5/627). Later he lived in Syria till he was recalled by ʿUthmān because of a complaint against him by Muʿāwiya. He retired, or was sent, to al-Rabadha, where he died in 32/652-3, or 31. He was noted for humility and asceticism, in which respect he is said to have resembled Jesus. He was very religious and eager for knowledge, and is said to have matched Ibn Masʿūd in religious learning. He is credited with 281 traditions, of which al-Bukhārī and Muslim rendered 31 between them.

Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī was also given special recognition within the Sufi tradition, a point attested by his inclusion in John Renard’s Historical Dictionary of Sufism (2005), which has since been republished as The A to Z of Sufism (2009). Abū Dharr’s entry reads:

Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī (d. c. 32/653). Companion of the Prophet, ascetic, transmitter of Prophetic traditions, possibly one of the Helpers in Medina. His humility and simplicity were such that Sufis likened him to Jesus, who relied entirely on God. Tradition has it that a central theme in his public discourse was that those who have great wealth – indeed, any  wealth at all – and refuse to spend in the cause of God will be punished for their lack of generosity. His piety was such that he was said to have engaged in the ritual prayer several years before he even met the Prophet. Some sources emphasize his personal intimacy with the Prophet, and that relationship together with his renunciation of wealth commended him to Sufis as a model of piety. (Renard, The A to Z, 23)

Author AbdulWāhid Hāmid provides even greater detail in the first volume of Companions of the Prophet. For instance, he claims that, “Abū Dharr was the first person to greet the Prophet with the greeting of Islam. After that, the greeting spread and came into general use” (Hāmid, Companions, 1:128-9). A short, but illustrative series of tales also concludes his biographical entry in this work:

Once a man visited him [Abū Dharr] and began looking at the contents of his house but found it quite bare. He asked Abū Dharr:

“Where are your possessions?”

“We have a house yonder (meaning the Hereafter),” said Abū Dharr, “to which we send the best of our possessions.”

The man understood what he meant and said: “But you must have some possessions so long as you are in this abode.”

“The owner of this abode will not leave us in it,” replied Abū Dharr.

Abū Dharr persisted in his simple and frugal life to the end. Once the amīr of Syria sent three hundred dinars to Abū Dharr to meet his needs. He returned the money saying, “Does not the amīr of Syria find a servant more deserving of it than I?”

In the year 32 AH, the self-denying Abū Dharr passed away. The Prophet, peace be upon him, had said of him: “The earth does not carry nor the heavens cover a man more true and faithful than Abū Dharr.” (Hāmid, Companions, 1:131-2)

While it appears that Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī died in al-Rabādha, a Muslim settlement in Western Arabia that later went into decline, it is clear that his religious significance continued to have great weight amongst the Ottomans of Istanbul to warrant a tomb there.

The grave of Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī

The grave of Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī

Swinging back towards the shores of the Golden Horn just two blocks away from Ebuzafer Camii and a block from Haliç Parkı is another mosque, Hazreti Cabir Camii. This small structure is easily recognized with its simple, white minaret and wood-paneled front. Inside the mosque and located off to the side in the main prayer space is the tomb of Jābir b. ‘Abd Allāh (d. 78/697). The grave lies hidden behind a dark green velvet curtain that is further barred by a golden gate.

Hazreti Cabir Camii

Hazreti Cabir Camii

‘Abd al-Ḥayy al-Lakhnawī provides a succinct account of Jābir’s life that draws upon a number of sometimes differing reports:

He went on expeditions with the Prophet nineteen times but he was not present at Badr. He died in Madīnah, but some say Makkah, in 78 AH, and others say 79 AH and even 74 AH. That is how it is in Is’āf al-mubaṭṭa’ of as-Suyūṭī. Jābir is Abū ‘Abdullāh Jābir ibn ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn Ḥarām ibn ‘Amr ibn Sawād ibn Salamah al-Anṣārī one of the most famous of the Companions. He was present at Badr – according to what is said – and what came after it. His father was one of the twelve leading men [to pledge allegiance at al-‘Aqabah]. Jābir became blind at the end of his life, and he died in Madīnah in 74 AH, but some say 77 or 78 AH, and he was the last of the Companions to die in Madīnah. Thus it is in Jāmi’ al-uṣūl. (al-Lakhnawi, Rijal, p. 82)

M.J. Kister’s entry in Brill’s Encyclopaedia of Islam provides more extensive information. Concerning Jābir’s death, Kister writes:

Djābir died at 78/697 at the age of 94 (other reports, however, give varying dates). He is said to have been the last survivor of the group of 70 Anṣār who attended the ʿAḳaba Meeting, thus fulfilling a prediction of the Prophet. The prayer over his grave was performed by the governor of Medina, Abān b. ʿUthmān, or according to another tradition, by al-Ḥadjdjādj b. Yūsuf when he came to Medina after his victory over ʿAbd Allāh b. al-Zubayr.

More intriguing is the rich Shī’ī remembrance of him:

In Shīʿī tradition, Djābir was granted an exceptionally high rank. The ḥadīths recorded in Shīʿī sources on his authority touch upon the fundamental tenets of Shīʿī belief: the mission of ʿAlī, his qualities, his authority over the believers, the graces granted him by God, the divine virtues of his descendants and the duties of allegiance and obedience incumbent upon the believers. It was the imām al-Bāḳir who asked Djābir about the Tablet which God sent down to Fāṭima and which Djābir got permission to copy. In this Tablet God named the imāms and established their order of succession. It is noteworthy that, according to some versions, the imām compared the copy of Djābir with the Tablet in his possession and stated that the copy is a reliable and accurate one. In another story, Djābir confirms the accuracy of the unusual report about the hidjra as told him by the imāmDjābir is credited with the ḥadīth about the appointment of ʿAlī as waṣī, which forms the base of the Shīʿī interpretation of Sūra LIII, 1-4. 

It appears that Jābir b. ‘Abd Allāh, like Muḥammad b. Maslama and Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī who preceded him, likely passed away far from the environs of Constantinople. Nevertheless, these modest grave sites scattered along the Ayvansaray Coast continue to attest to the sustained attention and devotion that the remembrance of these Companions command.

The secluded resting place of  Jābir b. 'Abd Allāh

The secluded resting place of Jābir b. ‘Abd Allāh

Hāmid, AbdulWāhid.1998. Companions of the Prophet, New Revised Edition. 2 vols. London: MELS.

Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr. 1992. al-Istīʿāb fī maʿrifat al-aṣḥāb, 1st edition, 4 vols. Beirut: Dār al-Jīl.

Kister, M. J.. “D̲j̲ābir b. ʿAbd Allāh.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online, 2013. Reference. Fairfield University. 24 June 2013 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com.libdb.fairfield.edu/entries/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2/djabir-b-abd-allah-SIM_8480>

al-Laknawī, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Ḥayy. 2004. Rijal: Narrators of the Muwatta al-Imam Muhammad. London: Ta-Ha Publishers, Ltd.

Muḥammad b. Saʿd al-Zuhrī. 2001. Kitāb al-Ṭabaqāt al-kabīr. 1st edition, 11 vols. Cairo: Maktabat al-Khānjī.

Renard, John. 2009. The A to Z of Sufism. Lanham, UK: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Robson, J. “Abū Ḏh̲arr.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online, 2013. Reference. Fairfield University. 24 June 2013 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com.libdb.fairfield.edu/entries/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2/abu-dharr-SIM_0173>

al-Ṭabarī, Muḥammad b. Jarīr. The History of al-Ṭabarī, Volume XVIII: Between Civil Wars: The Caliphate of Mu’āwiyah. Translated by Michael G. Morony. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

To access the other posts in the series:

The Sahaba of Istanbul [1] Abu Ayyub al-Ansari

The Sahaba of Istanbul [2] The Underground Mosque

The Sahaba of Istanbul [3] Eyup

The Sahaba of Istanbul [4] The City Walls of Leo and Heraclius

The Sahaba of Istanbul [6] Galata/Eminonu/Sultanahmet (forthcoming)

The Sahaba of Istanbul [4] The City Walls of Leo and Heraclius

The city walls of Istanbul stretch from the Marmara Sea in the south to the Haliç or Golden Horn in the north. It is at the foot of these walls that a large number of Companions are reportedly buried. In this fourth post we visit four graves collected together just outside of the section of the wall that is located by the waters of the Golden Horn in a shrine complex lying between the neighborhoods of Eyüp and Ayvansaray. The tombs therein are those of Abū Shayba al-Khudrī (Ebu Şeybet ül-Hudri), Abū Aḥmad al-Anṣārī (Ebu Ahmed el-Ensari), Ḥamīd Allāh al-Anṣārī (Hamidullah el-Ensari), and Ka’b (Kab). It is a brief 15-20 minute walk down from Eyüp or a single stop on the ferry, which runs up and down the Golden Horn.

Signposts to the companions buried in the shrine complex by the city walls

Signposts to the Companions buried in the shrine complex by the city walls of Leo and Heraclius

Two of these Companions and the previously discussed Abū Ayyub al-Anṣārī are mentioned by Roger Crowley in his account of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople:

The [Ottoman] men were reminded that they were following in the footsteps of the companions of the Prophet killed at the first Arab siege of Constantinople. Their names were passed from mouth to mouth: Hazret Hafiz, Ebu Seybet ul-Ensari, Hamd ul-Ensari, and above all Ayyub, whom the Turks called Eyüp. The holy men reminded their listeners, in hushed tones, that to them fell the honor of fulfilling the words of the Prophet himself:

The Prophet said to his disciples: “Have you heard of a city with land on one side and sea on the other two sides?” They replied: “Yes, O Messenger of God.” He spoke: “The last hour [of Judgement] will not dawn before it is taken by 70,000 sons of Isaac. When they reach it, they will not do battle with arms and catapults but with the words ‘There is no God but Allah, and Allah is great.’ Then the first sea wall will collapse, and the second time the second sea wall, and the third time the wall on the land side will collapse, and, rejoicing, they will enter in.” (Crowley, 1453, 194)

The shrine complex that presently hosts our four graves is in fact situated between two sets of walls, each respectively named after the Byzantine potentate who oversaw their construction, Heraclius (d. 641 CE) and Leo V (d. 820 CE). John Freely describes the area as follows:

The citadel between the walls of Leo and Heraclius is in its own peculiar way quite fascinating. At one end of the citadel there is a small Muslim graveyard which contains the graves of Ebu Şeybet ül-Hudri and Hamd ül-Ensari, two martyred Companions of the Prophet. (Sumner-Boyd and Freely, Strolling through Istanbul, 358)

City Walls by the Golden Horn

The city walls by the Golden Horn between Eyüp and Ayvansaray

Upon entering the gardened complex there is a separate stone building off to the right that shelters the grave of Ka’b. One can enter to see the tomb housed between an edifice of wood and glass. The tomb of Ka’b appears to have once been located inside Yavedud Camii, a nearby mosque, but was moved at some point to its present location in the shrine complex. As for the Ka’b resting therein, it is entirely unclear which Ka’b is intended.

The tomb of K'ab

The tomb of K’ab

The earliest possibility is Ka’b b. ‘Umayr al-Ghifārī (d. 8/629) who died before the Prophet Muhammad. It is reported of him:

Muḥammad bin ‘Abdullāh al-Ẓuhrī narrated. “The Messenger of Allāh (Ṣallallāhu ‘alaihi wa Sallam) sent Ka’b ibn ‘Umair al-Ghifārī (Raḍiallāhu ‘Anhu) along with fifteen persons [on a mission]. When these people reached Dhāt-Aṭlāh, a place on the border of Syria, they found a great assemblage of the people. They exhorted them towards Islam. But they showered arrows in reply. When the Companions of the Messenger of Allāh (Ṣallallāhu ‘alaihi wa Sallam) saw that, they fought desperately but all of them were martyred except one injured Companion who somehow escaped in the darkness of the night and returned to the Messenger of Allāh (Ṣallallāhu ‘alaihi wa Sallam). (Kandhlawi, Hayatus Sahabah, 245)

Alternatively, Ka’b al-Aḥbār b. Māti’ (d. ca. 32/652-3) was a Jewish convert to Islam to whom a great deal of Isrā’īliyyāt is attributed. Little in his life indicates that he ventured into Byzantine territory and the debates over the date of his death and his burial site all indicate places other than Constantinople like Homs, Damascus, Giza, and Medina. (al-Ṭabarī, History, 39:206-7; Ibn Saʿd, Kitāb al-Ṭabaqāt al-kabīr, 9:449; Schmitz, EI2)

The grave of Ka'b

The grave of Ka’b

The last two significant Companions known by the name Ka’b were both poets. Ka’b b. Mālik (d. 50/670 or 53/673) was one of the members of the tribe of al-Khazraj present at the second meeting of ‘Aqaba and later became known as one of the poets of the Prophet. His place of death is unknown, though like the two preceding personalities he too died before the first Arab siege of Constantinople. Ka’b b. Zuhayr was a Meccan antagonist known for his disparaging poetry against the Prophet who eventually converted and continued to compose poems but now in support and praise of the Muslims. While his date of death is uncertain, Basset vaguely reports that “he appears to have lived to a ripe old age.” (Basset, EI2)

At the opposite end of the shrine complex is another building set in front of a small cemetery. The building itself houses two tombs, the first of which belongs to Abū Shayba al-Khudrī. Brief mention is made of him in Ibn Ṣalāḥ al-Shahrazūrī’s (d. 643/1245) treatise on hadith Kitāb Maʿrifat al-anwāʾ ʿilm al-ḥadīth in the chapter on paidonymics:

Those who are known by their paidonymic [kunyā] and their names are not known and it is not known whether this appellation is their paidonymic or something else… Other examples from the Companions are… Abū Shayba al-Khuḍrī, who died in the siege of Constantinople and was buried there. (Ibn Ṣalāḥ al-Shahrazūrī, An Introduction to the Science of Ḥadīth, 250)

It appears then that Abū Shayba al-Khudrī was indeed amongst the Companions that came to and died before the city walls of Constantinople.

The grave of Abu Shayba al-Khudri

The tomb of Abu Shayba al-Khudri

He is also mentioned in al-Istīʿāb by Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (d. 463/1070) as follows:

Abū Shayba al-Khuḍrī heard the Prophet, may God’s prayers and peace be upon him, say, ‘Whoever says there is no god but God sincerely, he will enter Paradise.’ He died in the land of Rūm… Khalaf b. Qāsim transmitted to us that: al-Ḥasan b. Rashīq transmitted to us saying: Abū Bishr al-Dūlābī transmitted to us that: Yazīd b. ʿAbd al-Ṣamad transmitted to us saying: Ibn ʿĀʾidh transmitted to us saying: al-Walīd b. al-Ḥārith transmitted to us saying: Abū Dāwūd Sulaymān b. Mūsā al-Kūfī transmitted to us on the authority of Yūnus b. al-Ḥārith al-Thaqafī: I heard Mashras transmit on the authority of his father who said: Abū Shayba al-Khuḍrī the Companion of the Messenger of God, may God’s prayers and peace be upon him, passed away when we were at the siege of Constantinople. We buried him where he lay. (Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, al-Istīʿāb, 4:1690)

The tomb of Abu Ahmad al-Ansari

The grave of Abu Ahmad al-Ansari

Across from the tomb of Abu Shayba al-Khuḍrī and laying out in the open air is the grave of Abū Aḥmad al-Anṣārī. The grave is easily recognized given the great tree that grows forth from his resting place and the well marked sign hanging above. Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain any biographical information for Abū Aḥmad. Any assistance would be appreciated.

Just around the corner and in the same building containing the tomb of Abu Shayba al-Khuḍrī is another room with the tomb of Ḥamīd Allāh al-Anṣārī (the provided Turkish appellation of Hamidullah el-Ensari is somewhat ambiguous in terms of determining its Arabic equivalent). It is possible that the person meant is Ḥumayd b. Nāfiʿ. Ibn Saʿd (d. 230) mentions that he was a client (mawlā) of Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī adding, “He transmitted on the authority of Abū Ayyūb and went on Ḥajj with him” (Ibn Saʿd, Kitāb al-Ṭabaqāt al-kabīr, 7:300). Ḥumayd’s place of death, however, is not given.

The tomb of Hamid Allah al-Ansari

The tomb of Hamid Allah al-Ansari

Basset, R. ” Kaʿb b. Zuhayr.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2013. Reference. Fairfield University. 20 January 2013 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com.libdb.fairfield.edu/entries/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2/kab-b-zuhayr-SIM_3733>

Crowley, Roger. 2005. 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West. New York: Hyperion.

Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr. 1992. al-Istīʿāb fī maʿrifat al-aṣḥāb, 1st edition, 4 vols. Beirut: Dār al-Jīl.

Ibn Ṣalāḥ al-Shahrazūrī. 2006. An Introduction to the Science of Ḥadīth: Kitāb Maʿrifat al-anwāʾ ʿilm al-ḥadīth. Translated by Eerik Dickinson. Reading: Garnet Publishing.

Kandhlawi, Muhammad Yusuf. 1989. Hayatus Sahabah: The Lives of the Sahabah, 2nd edition, 2 vols. New Dehli: Idara Isha’at-e-Diniyat, Ltd.

Muḥammad b. Saʿd al-Zuhrī. 2001. Kitāb al-Ṭabaqāt al-kabīr. 1st edition, 11 vols. Cairo: Maktabat al-Khānjī.

Schmitz, M. ” Kaʿb al-Aḥbār.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2013. Reference. Fairfield University. 20 January 2013 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com.libdb.fairfield.edu/entries/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2/kab-al-ahbar-SIM_3734>

Sumner-Boyd, Hilary and John Freely. Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City. London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2010.

Watt, W. Montgomery. ” Kaʿb b. Mālik.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2013. Reference. Fairfield University. 20 January 2013 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com.libdb.fairfield.edu/entries/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2/kab-b-malik-SIM_3732>

To access the other posts in the series:

The Sahaba of Istanbul [1] Abu Ayyub al-Ansari

The Sahaba of Istanbul [2] The Underground Mosque

The Sahaba of Istanbul [3] Eyup

The Sahaba of Istanbul [5] The Ayvansaray Coast

The Sahaba of Istanbul [6] Galata/Eminonu/Sultanahmet (forthcoming)

New York’s First Mosque?

Muslim Mosque Inc. Brooklyn, NY

Muslim Mosque Inc. in Brooklyn, NYC

I recently stumbled upon a passage from an unpublished memoir in The New Yorker by Joseph Mitchell, a former writer for the magazine. Mitchell’s imagery and encounters in the city were fascinating, especially his musings on a Mosque in Brooklyn in the 1960s.

The following quote prefaces the article.

Joseph Mitchell was on the staff of this magazine from 1938 until his death, in 1996. Born in 1908 into a prosperous family of North Carolina cotton and tobacco growers, he came to New York City at the age of twenty-one, to pursue a career as a writer. Arriving jut as the Depression set in, he heeded the advice of one of his first editors, at the Herald Tribune: walk the city; get to know every side street and quirk and character. He did this, obsessively, for the rest of his life. Mitchell profiled the Mohawk steelworkers who erected many of Manhattan’s skyscrapers; and McSorley’s old Ale House, the city’s most venerable tavern; and George Hunter, the caretaker of a ramshackle African-American cemetery on Staten Island; and Lady Olga, the bearded lady in countless circus sideshows. What follows here is in the initial chapter of a planned memoir that Mitchell started in the late sixties and early seventies but, with other writings after 1964, never completed. 

Mitchell writes of being drawn towards places of worship, “specifically to old churches that have undergone a metamorphosis…” He goes on to write about two such buildings in which he would often find himself.

The other building is about a dozen blocks away, on Powers Street. It is much plainer. It is a steep-roofed, clapboard-sided, two-story building with tall wooden doors and tall, colored-glass windows. Except for one appendage, it closely resembles a New England town hall. It was built in 1885, and for many years it was in fact a public hall. Its first story was the clubhouse of the Democratic club of the Thirteenth Assembly District and its second story was a hall that was rented out for dances, parties, and wedding receptions, and for lodge and labor-union meetings. In the early thirties, a group of Muslims from all over the city got together and bought the building and turned it into a mosque. The only outward sign of this a minaret that has been constructed on the roof, straddling the ridgepole. It is a dummy minaret; no muezzin ever climbed up in it and cried out the call to prayer; it is wholly symbolic. It is a wooden minaret, it is octangular, it is louvred, and it is surmounted by an iron rod holding aloft a wooden crescent painted gold. In front of the building, in a narrow little dooryard, is a glass-fronted signbox containing a faded sign in which lines in Arabic and lines in English alternate. The lines in English read: “God is the Master of All. Muslim Mosque, Inc. There is No Other God But God. Muhammad is a Messenger of God.” The Muslims are Russians who came here from several parts of Russia and from Poland and Lithuania. Some are Tatars. Among themselves, they speak Russian, they use Arabic in their Services. People in the neighborhood call them “The Turks.” Just as the three-barred cross casts a Slavic aura over South Fifth Place, the golden crescent on the minaret up on the ridgepole of the mosque casts an Islamic aura, a Baghdadian aura, over the factories and wooden tenements and one-and two family houses and vacant lots of Powers Street. One spring day several years ago, during Lent, I was on the Driggs Avenue bus riding through Williamsburg and I remembered reading in a newspaper that in this particular year, Lent, both Roman and Eastern Orthodox, and Ramadan as well would all come around the same time, I got off the bus and walked over a couple blocks and looked in Holy Trinity and, just as I had hoped, a Lenten Mass or Liturgy was going on and I went in and attended it, and then I walked over to the mosque on Powers Street and looked in there, and just as I had hoped, a Ramadan service of some kind was going on and I took off my shoes and went in and attended it. 

We first heard mention of the origins of this mosque in New York Panorama (1938) – part of the WPA guide series. Our post on the Real Muslims of Lower Manhattan highlights passages from the guide. Here is a snippet on the Brooklyn mosque:

The Turks are exclusively Mohammedans. The only real mosque in the city, at 108 Powers Street in Brooklyn, claims most of the devout. Some belong to the Mohammedan Unity Society at 67 West 125th Street. (p. 117)

In our search for more details we were able to find a newspaper clipping from 1923 that announces the intention to build a mosque in New York City – we think it might be this very Brooklyn mosque. A transcription of the clipping follows the image.

The Afro American 27 July 1923

N.Y. To Have Mohammedan Mosque

(Crusader Service)

New York. July 28 – Mohammedans living in this city, led by Dr. Abdul Suleiman, native of Arabia, have started a drive to win Negroes [t]o their Mohammedan faith by stressing the fact of the absolute equality of races and genuine brotherhood under Mohammedanism, as in opposition to the well-known attitude of white Christians. A mosque is to be built in this city soon. 

Upon visiting the mosque we found the doors closed and the gates locked. A kind neighbor, likely suspicious of our curious behavior, told us that the building only opens occasionally for funerals. Additionally, he informed us that the caretaker lives next door. Unfortunately, the caretaker was away (or ignoring us) on the day of our visit. Muslim Mosque Inc. is located at 104 Powers St., Brooklyn, NY 11211. Additional images can be found in the Gallery.

While this site may indeed be the first formally registered mosque in New York City (the Harlem address remains to be investigated as well) it is probable that more informal musallas and prayer spaces were established by the earlier Muslim inhabitants of New York. Nevertheless, it’s remarkable that this Brooklyn mosque has endured down through the decades.

It should be noted, that though they share the same name, this mosque in Brooklyn is different from the Muslim Mosque Inc. established by Malcolm X in 1964.

We’re interested in learning more about this mosque’s history and the history of its congregants. If anyone has information on this mosque, please share it with us.

Mitchell, Joseph. 2013. “Street Life: Becoming part of the city.” The New Yorker, February 11 & 18. p. 66.

New York Panorama. 1938. New York: Ramdom House.

“N.Y. to Have Mohammedan Mosque.” The Afro American. 27 July 1923. http://www.afro.com/afroblackhistoryarchives/google.htm. (accessed 12 March 2013)

The Sahaba of Istanbul [3] Eyup

For the third post in the series we return to the area of Eyüp along the Golden Horn to visit three other tombs that lie in close proximity to the mosque complex of Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī (d. 52/672). The reported tombs belong to Abū Dardā’ (Ebu Derdaǧ), Adham (Edhem), and Khayr al-Dīn (Heyrettin).

The grave of Abū Dardā' (d. 32/652)

The grave of Abū Dardā’ (d. 32/652)

While I have discussed the importance of Eyüp in the first post of this series, John Freely provides a succinct summation that is worth recalling here:

Turks rank Eyüp as the third most sacred place in the Islamic world after Mecca and Jerusalem. This is because it is the reputed burial-place of Eyüp (Job) Ensari, the friend and standard-bearer of the Prophet Muhammad. Eyüp is said to have been among the leaders of the first Arab siege of Constantinople from 674 to 678 and to have been killed and buried somewhere outside the walls. The tomb of Eyüp was miraculously discovered during the Turkish siege of Constantinople, and after the Conquest Fatih built a külliye there. Thenceforth when a sultan came to the throne he was girded with the sword of Osman Gazi at Eyüp’s tomb – a ceremony equivalent to coronation, which continued down to the end of the Ottoman Empire. (Freely, Istanbul, 186-7)

The tombs of the three Companions of the Prophet with whom we are presently concerned can be reached in less than a ten minute walk from the Eyüp Sultan Mosque. Head south from the mosque complex down Zalpaşa Caddesi passing Zal Mahmut Paşa Camii on your left. Shortly thereafter, also on the left, you will find the gated garden tomb of Ebu Derdaǧ or Abū Dardā’ (d. 32/652).

The tomb of Abū Dardā' (d. 32/652)

The tomb of Abū Dardā’ (d. 32/652)

‘Abd al-Ḥayy al-Laknawī in al-Ta’līq al-mumajjad states:

Abu’d-Dardā’ ‘Uwaymir ibn ‘Āmir, but some say ‘Āmir, of Banī Ka’b ibn al-Khazraj al-Anṣārī al-Khazrajī. There is considerable disagreement on his name and lineage, and he is most known by his kunyā, and ad-Dardā’ was his daughter. He was a faqīh and an ‘ālim, and was present at those battles after Uḥud. He resided in Shām and died in Damascus in 32 AH, but some say 31 AH, and some say 34 AH. It is thus in the book Jāmi’ al-uṣūl. (al-Lakhnawi, Rijal, p. 32)

A.J. Arberry’s entry in the second edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam states:

His name and genealogy are given as ʿUwaymir b. Zayd b. Ḳays b. ʿAʾis̲h̲a b. Umayya b. Mālik b. ʿAdī b. Kaʿb b. al-Ḵh̲azrad̲j̲ b. al-Ḥārit̲h̲ of the Balḥārit̲h̲ family of the Ḵh̲azrad̲j̲. Some sources give his name as ʿĀmir instead of ʿUwaymir, and for his father’s name instead of Zayd we find variously ʿĀmir, ʿAbd Allāh, Mālik or T̲h̲aʿlaba, while some give him the nisba al-Rahānī. He was a younger contemporary of Muḥammad who is generally listed among the Companions (Ṣaḥāba) though some sources raise doubts as to the legitimacy of this. He did not become a Muslim till after the battle of Badr and it is noted that he was the last of his family to become a convert to Islam. Some list him among those present at Uḥud. When Muḥammad established “brotherhoods” between the Emigrants and the people of Medina he was the “brother” chosen for Salmān al-Fārisī. A certain number of traditions are reported on his authority and are given in the Ḏhakhāʾir al-Mawārīḥ, iii, 158-62. The Ṣūfīs claimed him as one of the ahl al-ṣuffa [q.v.], quoting a number of sayings of an ascetic or pietistic character from him, which is probably the reason why in the biographical dictionaries he is called a zāhid and one to whom ʿilm was given. These sources also say that he became known as the sage (ḥakīm) of the early Muslim community. He is reported as having said that before Islam he was a merchant, but after his conversion found that business life interfered with strict attention to cult duties (ʿibāda) so he gave up business. His great reputation, however, was as an authority on the Ḳurʾān. He is listed as one of the few who collected (djamaʿa) revelations during the Prophet’s lifetime, and a small number of variant readings from him is recorded in the ḳirāʾāt books. During his stay in Damascus, where he was sent to serve as a ḳāḍī, he made it a practice to gather to the mosque groups to whom he taught the Ḳurʾān, thus becoming the true father of the Damascus School later headed by Ibn ʿĀmir [q.v.]. He died at Damascus in 32/652, or thereabouts, his tomb and that of his wife Umm al-Dardāʾ being shown there near one of the gates.

To reach the next tomb continue down Zalpaşa Caddesi until you reach a fork. Take the righthand road called Abdurrahman Şerefbey Caddesi a short way until you reach a stone building on the right that completely encloses the tomb of Edhem or Adham. The tomb building is located at the intersection of Abdurrahman Şerefbey Caddesi and Arapcı Hayrettin Sokak. The tomb lies behind a large piece of ironwork and glass window.

The tomb of Edhem

The tomb of Edhem

As for this tomb, there does not appear to be a Companion known by the name Adham. A sign in the window mentions a person by the name of Halid/Khālid and the year 46/666. Al-Ṭabarī mentions that ‘Abd al-Raḥmān, the son of the famous Khālid b. al-Walīd (d. 21/642), possibly led a campaign against the Byzantines in 46 before being killed by poison later that same year. (al-Ṭabarī, History, 18:88-9). Notably ‘Abd al-Raḥmān had led an earlier campaign into Byzantium in 44 as well (al-Ṭabarī, History, 18:71). The sign may have mistaken ‘Abd al-Raḥmān for his father Khālid who also reportedly participated in fighting against the Byzantines during his lifetime. Thus the tomb may have been thought by later Muslims to have belonged to a Companion who partook in the second campaign of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān. However, according to Haskan Mehmet Nermi it appears that the designation of the grave as a Companion’s burial site is entirely incorrect and that it properly belongs to an Ethem Baba who died in 1460 CE (Nermi, Eyüp Sultan Tarihi, p. 149).

Arapcı Hayrettin Camii

Arapcı Hayrettin Camii

At this same intersection but across the street is the Arapcı Haryettin Camii.  At the back of this mosque on the righthand side of Arapcı Haryettin Sokak is the tomb of Heyrettin or Khayr al-Dīn. This grave, like the tomb of Abū Dardā’, is outdoors and visible through an iron grill. Unfortunately I was unable to obtain any information concerning this last supposed gravesite of a Companion aside from its designation as such a place. The tomb appears to have been constructed in 890/1456, a few years after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (Nermi, Eyüp Sultan Tarihi, p. 32).

The tomb of Hayrettin

The tomb of Hayrettin

Freely, John. 1996. Istanbul: The Imperial City. New York, New York: Penguin Books.

Jeffery, A. ” Abu ’l-Dardāʾ.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2013. Reference. Fairfield University. 18 January 2013 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com.libdb.fairfield.edu/entries/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2/abu-l-darda-SIM_0171>

al-Laknawī, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Ḥayy. 2004. Rijal: Narrators of the Muwatta al-Imam Muhammad. London: Ta-Ha Publishers, Ltd.

Nermi, Haskan Mehmet. 1996. Eyüp Sultan Tarihi. Istanbul: Eyüpsultan Vakfı Yayınları.

al-Ṭabarī, Muḥammad b. Jarīr. The History of al-Ṭabarī, Volume XVIII: Between Civil Wars: The Caliphate of Mu’āwiyah. Translated by Michael G. Morony. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

The grave of Heyrettin

The grave of Heyrettin

To access the other posts in the series:

The Sahaba of Istanbul [1] Abu Ayyub al-Ansari

The Sahaba of Istanbul [2] The Underground Mosque

The Sahaba of Istanbul [4] The City Walls of Leo and Heraclius

The Sahaba of Istanbul [5] The Ayvansaray Coast

The Sahaba of Istanbul [6] Galata/Eminonu/Sultanahmet (forthcoming)

Harlem Treasures

We recently picked up a small booklet from the bookstore at The Ferguson Library called Harlem Treasures: A Unique Guide to Our Neighborhood, Treasures and Sights. While certainly not an antiquarian piece, being published in 2003, the booklet proved interesting for its extensive coverage of Harlem’s religious communities and mention of Malcolm X. Moreover, the publication appears to be a community project having been published by the Alliance for Community Enhancement at Columbia University, Inc.

Harlem Treasures

Harlem Treasures – A Unique Guide to Our Neighborhood, Treasures and Sights / 2003

Within its 114 pages this slim volume also covers subjects such as Harlem’s history, neighborhoods, restaurants and shops. The second chapter on “Religion in Harlem,” however, is indeed the longest. A page therein is dedicated to “Al-Islam” which reads:

Background

Islam is a major world religion founded by the Arabian prophet Mohammed in the seventh century. The central teaching of Islam is that there is one God (Allah) and all Muslims (followers of Islam) are equal before God, regardless of race, class or ethnic background. The five pillars of Islam described in the Qur’an (the holy book of Islam) are the essence of Islamic worship: the profession of faith (shahada), prayer (salat), almsgiving (zakat), fasting (sawm) and pilgrimage (hajj). These rituals constitute the core practices of the Islamic faith. The Muslim community currently numbers more than one billion followers worldwide and is one of the fastest growing religions in the United States, where there are an estimated six million followers.

Mosque Services

The social and intellectual centers for Muslim communities are mosques, where Muslims worship publicly. Traditionally, mosques were built to face Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, and are dome shaped, with a line marked on the interior wall connecting the center of the dome to the side of the building facing Mecca. Another important feature of mosques is a minaret, or tower, from which the crier (muezzin) calls Muslims to prayer five times a day. Due to the poverty of early Muslims (usually immigrant and African-Americans), most mosques in the United States are housed in buildings originally built for other purposes. U.S. mosques have some distinct characteristics – for example, most do not operate strictly as places of worship but also function as places of public gathering; therefore, many are called Islamic centers. They often house weekend Islamic schools, libraries, conference centers, recreation facilities, residential apartments or community halls.

Typically, everyone in an American Muslim family attends worship. Women usually have a separate space for prayers. (p. 44)

At the end of the book a directory is provided that lists information (relevant in 2003) for two mosques under “Al-Islam” on page 102:

Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood: 130 W. 113th Street / Imam Talib’Abdur Rashid (212) 662-4100 Sun., 6 P.M.

Mosque Masjid Malcolm Shabazz: 102 W. 116th Street / Imam Izak-El Mu’eed Pasha / (212) 662-2201/2 / Fri. 1 P.M.

The booklet also makes mention of Malcolm X on a number of occasions. Under the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) a section reads:

When Black activist Malcolm X was slain in 1965 and none of Harlem’s major churches would host his funeral, Bishop Childs allowed the service to take place at Faith Temple. In 1973, following the death of Bishop Childs, Bishop Norman Quick was installed as pastor of the Faith Temple Church. He changed the name of the church in 1974 to Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ in honor of its founder. (p. 51)

Then, under “Landmarks of Political or Social Note” the first entry is the Audubon Ballroom:

Audubon Ballroom (3940 Broadway (212) 928-6288) is where Malcolm X was murdered on February 21, 1965. He was both a loved and hated African-American leader. Shortly before his death, he had completed his autobiography, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which he wrote with the assistance of Alex Haley. It was published in 1965. (p. 73)

Finally, to close this post, under the history section, there is a lengthy, sidebar dedicated to Malcolm X, which is also the only place where the Nation of Islam is ever mentioned. The sidebar reads:

Malcolm X was one of the most influential Black nationalist leaders in the 1950s and 1960s. An outstanding orator and organizer, he was an outspoken critic of American racism. He advocated Black self-defense in the face of racist attacks and urged Black Americans to view the civil rights struggle in the international context of human rights.

Malcolm was born in 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, to parents Earl and Louis Little, who were active supporters of Marcus Garvey’s Harlem-based Black nationalist organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). In 1931 Earl Little was found dead – probably the victim of racist violence – and the Little family suffered in response. Malcolm was moved to various foster homes before eventually ending up in Boston to live with his half-sister Ella Collins in 1941.

Over the next five years Malcolm held a wide variety of jobs in both Boston and New York City. Known in the streets of Harlem as “Big Red” and “Detroit Red,” Malcolm entered the underground economy of the ghetto, running numbers, peddling bootleg liquor and selling illegal drugs. Malcolm’s life as a petty criminal caught up with him in 1946 when he was arrested and sentenced to prison for grand larceny and breaking and entering.

While in prison, Malcolm’s brother Reginald introduced him to the Nation of Islam (NOI), a Black nationalist Muslim movement that promoted ideals similar to Garvey’s UNIA, with an added religious dimension that affirmed Black humanity while radically repudiating white supremacy by referring to whites as “devils.” After being paroled from prison in 1952, Malcolm Little joined the NOI and became Malcolm X, with the “X” signifying the unknown true name of his African ancestors who had been enslaved.

Working closely under the NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm quickly rose through the NOI hierarchy, and in 1954 he became minister of the NOI’s Harlem Temple No. 7. The decade that followed saw Malcolm establish NOI temples throughout the country and gain notoriety as the national representative of Elijah Muhammad for his fiery speeches denouncing white racism.

By 1964, however, Malcolm had grown disillusioned with the leadership of Elijah Muhammad. That, in addition to internal power struggles as well as possible manipulation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which kept tight surveillance on Malcolm and the NOI, caused an embittered Malcolm to leave the NOI.

He abandoned the racialist teachings of the NOI and established his own Harlem-based Muslim Mosque, Inc. and Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), patterned after the Organization of African Unity – an organization of newly independent African states. Malcolm traveled widely throughout Africa and Asia, and he encouraged Black people in America to view their struggle in the context of the international struggle for human rights. He even announced plans to take the plight of Black Americans before the United Nations.

On February 21, 1965, while speaking at the Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm was assassinated at the young age of 39. Alleged NOI members were convicted for his assassination, but many argue that there exists a compelling case for involvement by others, including the FBI.

A year after his death, his autobiography was published, and it remains one of the most widely read books of the twentieth century that continues to inspire people from all walks of life to this day. (pp. 24-25)

Alliance for Community Engagement. 2003. Harlem Treasures: A Unique Guide to Our Neighborhood, Treasures and Sights. New York, NY: Alliance for Community Engagement at Columbia University, Inc. Co-produced by the Habitat Project.

Lonesome Road: One Woman’s Journey to the NOI

On a recent summer trip to Richmond, VA I came across Lonesome Road: Journey to Islam and Liberation by Dorothy Blake Fardan. I had almost dismissed Fardan’s memoir but soon realized I had stumbled upon a gem. In Lonesome Road Fardan recounts her life’s journey from her childhood growing up in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky to venturing a monastic path as a teenager and ultimately accepting Islam and becoming part of the Nation of Islam. However, what sets Fardan apart from other NOI members, is her race. Fardan is said to be the first white woman member of the NOI. This caused her to became a bit of a sensation. A 1976 article from the Chicago Tribune offers a brief biographical sketch of Fardan: “She said she was baptized a Catholic, entered a convent in Los Angeles to join the order of the Sisters of Social Service but was ‘radicalized’ by the student movement and her husband, Donald 12X Dorsey, a Muslim and former member of the Black Panther Party. Dr. Dorsey, who has a Ph.D in sociology and anthropology, said, ‘Around the late sixties while teaching on various college campuses, I became disenchanted and began searching for truth, something real that was not so hypocritical. I found that in Islam.'”

Though Fardan had accepted Islam it was several years before she and her husband (whom she calls “Piccolo”) could worship together in the same mosque. Below is an excerpt from her autobiography. Fardan recalls the day she tried to formally join the NOI:

The Honorable Elijah Muhammad had departed this world in February 1975, shortly before we left Canada for Jamaica. While in Jamaica, news filtered down that the Nation of Islam no longer would close its doors to caucasians or any other ethnic group. Elijah Muhammad’s son, Wallace D. Muhammad, stepped forward as the new leader. I had in fact already written a letter to the leadership in Chicago appealing for entrance into the Nation before the news of the open door policy broke in the New York Times.

After consulting with Piccolo, I immediately planned to go to the temple (mosque) in Kingston the following Sunday. And this I did, accompanied by Piccolo, Mackenzie and a cab full of visitors (called “fish” in the language of the Nation those days). But I could not enter that day. The brothers on post explained that they knew of the rumors about the new policy but had received no official word from Chicago at the time. I was near tears, but understood their decision and admired them for standing firm in the line of command. I knew in my heart that they were struggling with this logistical obstacle that separated us on the steps of the mosque that day. Years of teaching and policy were on trial. The Qur’an was not on trial, but the whole teaching of the “white devil” was.

I loved and respected the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, even though I never saw him in person or heard him teach. I understood the devil teaching and I understood the reality of white supremacy. I loved the fact that the Nation for forty years had preached Black pride in the streets of America’s ghettos. Even though not all Blacks in the Americas were Muslim, all had been impacted by the powerful message delivered by the Nation. By 1975, “Black is Beautiful” and “Black Liberation” were common terms in the Black Community.

I insisted that Piccolo and his visitors stay that day and I would take a cab back to the house where we lived. For days following Black Family Day and being turned away from the mosque, I felt a deep loneliness. Not that I ever felt lonely in the Universe, for all of my life the structure and beauty of the natural order had been my church and temple. I had indeed been a loner in many respects, but always found solace in nature. I thrived on solitude. But it was the loneliness of being without a people; a real community; some body of men and women with whom I held a common bond and aim. I felt a real affinity with revolutionary movements, and had moved in harmony with the peace movement and many of those identified as “hippies.” But after meeting Piccolo and Islam through him, I knew it was among the Muslims, the Nation of Islam, that I wanted to dedicate my service and loyalty. (p. 381-382)    

Fardan has authored several other books including, Yakub: and the Origin of White Supremacy and Cure: Reparations is the Cure for America’s Race Problems. Currently, Fardan, is a professor of Sociology/Anthropology at Bowie State University in Maryland.

Fardan, Dorothy Blake. 2009. Lonesome Road: Journey to Islam and Liberation. Drewryville, VA: UBUS Communications Systems.

Reynolds, Barbara. 1976. First White Woman Becomes a Muslim. Chicago Tribune, March 2, sec. C p. 12.