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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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.

 

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)

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.

ISNA and America’s Muslim Library

Entrance to the Library

Just beyond the city of Indianapolis, heading west on Interstate 70 is the small town of Plainfield, Indiana. It is here, flanked by cornfields, that the headquarters of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is located. ISNA has for many years represented itself as an umbrella organization to Muslim communities, a common hub for the exchange of ideas and resources. Today, ISNA’s vision is succinctly stated as “To be an exemplary and unifying Islamic Organization in North America that contributes to the betterment of the Muslim community and society at large.” However, it is perhaps best known for its annual convention in which tens of thousands of Muslims typically gather over Labor Day weekend.

Lesser known, however, is that ISNA once had intentions to house a library, and a fairly major one at that. We turn now to an August 1981 edition of Islamic Horizons (ISNA’s monthly publication):

With the wheels of the tractors clattering and the thud of the trees felled, MSA’s $3.4 million project for a mosque and library took off on an auspicious day of Ramadan 1, 1401.

The agreement signed between the MSA and the Delbert E. Wilsey Construction Company (Indianapolis) and the Dana Engineering Co., Inc., a Muslim architectural firm operating out of Chicago provides for an eight-corner mosque with a dome, though the dome will not be visible from the outside. It will also have a mezzanine, a kind of partial second floor for women. When completed the mosque will have a capacity for 500 people, with separate entrances and wadhu [sic] (ablution) areas for men and women.

The library, as envisaged in the plan, will contain films, slides, videotapes, and about 300,000 titles classical and contemporary Islamic writings in English as well as Arabic.

The proposed library is expected to be a storehouse of unbiased Islamic research and knowledge.

(Islamic Horizons 10.8, p. 1)

Library Assistance Program, image courtesy of ISNA 1984 Annual Report

Having grown up in Plainfield, my earliest memories of the headquarters were often of its unique library space. The main level of the mosque is divided into two large spaces, the first being the prayer hall, restrooms and lobby. The second space, for the library, was beyond the set of glass doors in the above photo. During the late ’80s and early ’90s I remember there being a large curved circulation and information desk, with a return slot and fully equipped. I also vaguely remember a hinged half door that separated the public reading area from what would have been the librarians’ offices and work space. A second set of inner doors led into the library proper. This ample space was crowded with bookshelves, card catalogs, and reading chairs. A section of the library space still opens up to the second floor allowing for a surrounding balcony to look down upon what was once a reading area with study carrels and what is now the main library stacks. Despite the careful measures that were taken to establish a library, I have no recollection of the library being heavily trafficked.To my memory, the library was often dark, the card catalogs empty, and the circulation desk vacant.

Today, all the remaining books have been consolidated into one compact area with the remaining library space having been converted into offices. There appear to be a number of useful works of either scholarly or historic value remaining, but a handlist or catalog that documents these works still needs to be made.

Beyond the in-house library, ISNA had also initiated a Library Assistance Program and a Film Loan Program.

Library Assistance Program: This program is designed to set up a library or augment the collection of existing Islamic libraries in local organizations. Over 237 books were donated to six Islamic centers or masjids during the period. A large set of books, pamphlets and other literature is in the process of being mailed to all MSA chapters and MCA affiliates.

The Film Loan Program: The Program did not add new films to its collection in 1984-1985. During this period it loaned 23 films to local organizations. An estimated number of 2,000 persons viewed these films. 

(ISNA 1984 Annual Report, p. 9)

In a recent visit to the ISNA headquarters we decided to photograph the library space as it stands now. We are hoping to obtain a grant in order to return and properly document the materials there.

For more images see the Gallery.

The ISNA library stacks as viewed from the balcony

Present entrance to the library stacks

Former location of the library circulation desk

Between the stacks

Classical Arabic books in the ISNA library collection

Islamic Society of North America. 1981. “MSA’s Project Finally Takes Off.” Islamic Horizons. 10.8 (1).

Islamic Society of North America. 1984. “Services and Resources.” 3rd Islamic Society of North America Annual Report. 9.

Annual report images taken from the Archive of Muslim American History and Life.

Mecca, Mahomet and Cairo in America

What’s in a name?

Spread across the United States, but especially in the Midwest, are several towns and cities bearing Middle Eastern, if not explicitly Islamic names: Mecca, Mahomet, Morocco, Cairo.

Abandoned Downtown Cairo, Illinois

George Stewart’s classic Names on the Land offers some explanation, but only for Cairo, Illinois. He writes:

Various imaginative people had not failed to compare the Mississippi with the Nile. Analogies were obvious enough. Both were great and muddy rivers, given to inundations, highways for travel. The hope was also expressed that a new and greater civilization, surpassing even that of ancient Egypt, might soon develop along this “Nile of America.” Such analogies and hopes soon suggested the transplanting of Egyptian names. In 1818 a St. Louis merchant laid out a town at the junction of the Ohio and the Mississippi, and incorporated it as Cairo. The site was unhealthy and bad luck dogged the town. Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit pilloried it as the City of Eden. It never rivaled its prototype, but the influence of its name was great. Because of Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro) all Southern Illinois came to be known as the Land of Egypt, or merely Egypt, and its inhabitants are Egyptians even to this day.

Farther down the river also, another town was laid out, shortly after Cairo. Its founders too cherished hopes for its greatness, and were conscious of the Nile of America. They remembered the great city of ancient Egypt, and called their new venture Memphis. (Stewart, Names on the Land, 238-9)

Nathaniel Deutsch more recently has addressed others of these names in his study of the “Tribe of Ishmael” in America. In one section, where he critically analyzes the “Islamic hypothesis” of Hugo Leaming (see the book for further details), Deutsch discusses Mahomet, Illinois and the towns of Morocco and Mecca in Indiana.

Local legends concerning the origins of Mahomet, Illinois and Morocco and Mecca, Indiana, reveal no links to the Tribe of Ishmael. In the case of Mecca, however, they do suggest a possible connection to Islam. According to one local story, in the 1890s a tile plant was built in the vicinity of the town, “and they needed cheap workers, so they sent over to the Near East and got these Moslems… When they got paid, they’d come to town and say it was almost like coming to Mecca, and so they called the town Mecca.” Another local tradition traced the genesis of the towns name to the 1880s, when Arab workers from the Middle East were supposedly brought in to train Arabian horses.

Even though the names of Midwestern towns like Mahomet, Morocco, and Mecca do not teach us anything about the Ishmaelites, they do teach us something important about the presence of Islam in Middle America. Such names should be seen as part of the broader flowering of romantic Orientalism in America’s heartland during the second half of the nineteenth century. Residents of towns like Morocco and Mecca were attracted to these names for the same reason that they joined the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, visited the simulated streets of Cairo at the Chicago’s world’s fair of 1893, and smoked cigarette brands called Camel, Mecca, and Medina. As formerly rugged places like Indiana and Illinois ceased to mark the American frontier, residents began to turn their gaze from the Middle West to the Middle East in search of a new frontier-one to be imagined and consumed rather than physically settled.

During the same period that Shriners with names like Johnson and Kelly were donning fezzes and meeting in places like the Mohammed Temple in Peoria, Illinois, Arab immigrants from the Middle East were beginning to arrive in significant numbers in the United States. In the 1880s and 1890s, Muslim, Christian, and Druze Arabs established substantial communities throughout the Midwest, both in large cities like Detroit and Chicago and in smaller towns like Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Spring Valley, Illinois. We will probably never know whether Mecca, Indiana, received its name form Muslim laborers who settled in the town during this period, but more importantly, the local legends that suggest such an origin for the name Mecca point to the broader phenomenon of Muslim settlement in rural towns across the Midwest. (Deutsch, Inventing America’s “Worst” Family, 166-7)

George R. Stewart. 2008. Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States. New York: New York Review Books.

Nathaniel Deutsch. 2009. Inventing America’s “Worst” Family: Eugenics, Islam, and the Fall and Rise of the Tribe of Ishmael. Berkeley: University of California Press.

When Elvis and Sinatra Played At The Mosque

In Richmond, Virginia there is “the Mosque” where for decades American music legends have played packed and rapt audiences. But it is “the Mosque” in name only and, in fact, it is no longer officially called that. Today it is known as the Landmark Theater, located in Monroe Park next to the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. It began as a Shriner Temple, hence its original romanticized appellation of the Mosque. And much like the previously covered Mecca Temple in NYC, it too bears a distinctive Moorish Revival architectural style; domes, minarets, and arabesque motifs adorn the edifice.

Built in 1926 the Mosque was meant to serve as the main temple of the Acca Shriners, the local Richmond branch of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. While the Acca Shriners are still active today, they lost the Mosque in 1935 because of financial difficulties and the city of Richmond eventually bought the property five years later in 1940. In the 1990s concerns from local Muslims prompted the city to change the name from the Mosque to the Landmark Theater.  According to the Hampton Roads, VA newspaper Daily Press:

The city officially closed the building for renovation in 1994. And in 1995 the Mosque moniker was changed to Richmond’s Landmark Theater after area Muslims petitioned the City Council. They said mosque means “place of worship,” an inappropriate name for a building devoted to entertainment. (Pernell Watson and Elizabeth Joines, Daily Press, 14 April 1997)

For its many years of service the Mosque was a prime venue for touring performers and has hosted such artists as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Duke Ellington, and Bruce Springsteen. In fact Sinatra, near the end of his life and career, suffered a fall on stage while at the Mosque (more information on all these performances can be found here). At present the Mosque/Landmark Theater is closed, but according to a recent article (John Reid Blackwell, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 12 July 2012) the space is currently undergoing major renovations and is slated to reopen as the Altria Theater in October 2013. The name change to Altria is due to the sponsorship of Altria Group, Inc. (formerly Philip Morris Companies, Inc., the parent company of the Virginia tobacco company Philip Morris).

Notably, the building does not appear to have a plaque or sign designating it as a historic landmark. Perhaps this was an oversight on our part. In any case, let us hope the renovations do not dramatically change the distinctive designs adorning the building’s interior and exterior. More images of The Mosque can be found over on the appropriate gallery page.

Mecca Temple in NYC

An imposing domed building called Mecca Temple lies on 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in the very heart of Manhattan. Or at least it was once called that.

Today the building is known as the New York City Center and is a theater with 2,750 seats. When it was first built in 1923, however, it was christened Mecca Temple and served as a meeting hall for its builders the Shriners, more bombastically known as the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. And what a shrine Mecca Temple must have been for these noble gentlemen of New York with its immense green dome (now red tile) and its profuse Islamic and Arabesque motifs. Though the building is now hidden by its towering neighbors, it was once (see vintage postcard below) an imposing structure in its own right.

We can revisit our 1939 New York City Guide for a more historic perspective on Mecca Temple as it once was. It succinctly reports:

MECCA TEMPLE, the largest Masonic Shrine in the city, is at 135 West Fifty-fifth Street. The mosque-like façade is framed with shallow-arched recesses in blue, green, and orange mosaic. The hall itself, which seats 3,500, is crowned by a tiled dome surmounted by the Scimitar and Crescent. (p. 180)

The architecture style seen here is known as Moorish Revival and reflects a Western fascination with a mysterious/mystified orient, particularly with romanticized Ottoman and Andalusian elements. Such fanciful imaginings of course, extended beyond building design and is equally evident in the habit and customs of the Shriners themselves, their most notable piece of apparel being the red fez.

More images of Mecca Temple can be found over on the appropriate gallery page. Of course, if you are ever in town I encourage you to see it for yourself. It’s worth a visit.

Ernest Goes to (Post-)Ottoman Istanbul, 1924-26

In less than two weeks time I’ll be journeying to Istanbul yet again. In anticipation of that I wanted to share a wonderful reminiscence of Istanbul from a fellow American, Ernest Gerber,* at the beginning of the 20th century.  What you’ll find are Ernest’s striking readings of a number of subjects including Muslim tolerance, Laylat al-qadr, and what I presume to be a Sufi dhikr (rather than Tarawih prayer). But before I begin, a bit of background is in order.

Kiran’s earlier post on The Real Muslims of Lower Manhattan introduced us to the fount of historical information that was gathered and compiled by FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), specifically the Federal Writers’ Project, from 1936 to 1940. The efforts of these writers, however, extended beyond American guide books like our New York City Guide (1939) and New York Panorama (1938). Spread across the country, the writers of the WPA were well positioned to collect the local history and cultural color of many of the America’s oft-overlooked communities and hidden corners.  In effect, these writers became the country’s first collective of oral historians. In fact, counted among the hundreds who worked for the WPA was Studs Terkel, who arguably went on to become America’s greatest oral historian.

Kiran and I have searched and continue to search through the rich collection of WPA material for other bits of “Islamicana.” Particularly helpful has been the website maintained by the Library of Congress: American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940. The piece that I wish to share now is just one of our discoveries and seemed exceedingly relevant given my own imminent departure to Istanbul. Not only does the Library of Congress provide a rough transcription of the typed interviews, or “life sketches” as they were sometimes called, it also provides digital scans of the original reports.

Allow me at last to share with you some excerpts from one remarkable interview entitled “From Around the World to a Georgia Farm.” Rather than being about some aspect of Islam in America, these words have more to do with an American abroad.

A WPA writer named A. O. Berie met with a Swiss-American neighbor named Ernst Gerber on the latter’s farm just north of the Chattahoochee River in Marietta, Georgia. Locals also called Ernest “Chief” and “Doc” as the writer does in the following life sketch. The interview was conducted on 25 February 1939, but the story that Ernest related covered nearly his entire life.

Berie opens by providing an interesting description of Ernest’s home, part of which reads:

The chest which holds the camp stove also serves as a kitchen table, holding the few dishes and accessories necessary for his simple meals. A few inches above them, and extending nearly across the wall from door to window, is a fine example of Turkish tapestry about 18 inches in width, and immediately above the center of this is a small but excellent water color portraying the murdering of a Sultan’s favorite by the Eunuch and his helpers. (The Chief says she probably waved her handkerchief out the window at some Yankee sailor). Flanking the picture is a pair of wrought brass candlesticks (from Turkey) representing two puff adders. Above each of these is a small framed excerpt, in Arabic, from the Koran. Above these, in the center of the wall is a beautiful prayer rug depicting the mosque of Little St. Sofia. Scattered about the other walls are pictures of Mohammedans in native garb and a couple of fine tapestries. Two small taborets of exquisite inlay workmanship stand near a large oil-cloth covered table which serves as a writing desk and also accommodates the typewriter and a few books and datalogues. (pp. 5-6)

With that our stage is set and Berie then hands over the course of the life sketch directly to Ernest’s own words. And so we learn from Ernest himself that in 1917 he joined the Hospital Corp of the US Navy and then, began in 1920 to visit Istanbul, or Constantinople as he called it. Here is some of what Ernest had to say about a two-year stay in Istanbul that began in early 1924:

Well, magazines have carried pictures and fine descriptions of the beautiful mosques and palaces in Turkey and nothing I could say would make them more beautiful or interesting. I do say, though, that the so called Christianized people who are always talking about the Turks or Mohammedans being so terribly intolerant, don’t know what they are talking about. They always cite the fact that the beautiful mosaics in the mosque of St. Sofia have been covered with ochre. Well, did you ever see a picture of the Virgin Mary in a Presbyterian or other protestant church? I have been in St. Sofia many times and the thought came to me the first time that if these people were so intolerant, why didn’t they destroy the mosaics? A Yankee boy with a handful of stones could spoil one in a few good throws. And in many cases the only part of the picture covered is the face, and some of these are not even painted over but covered with a gold star. In the same Mosque, on either side of the opening in the hall-way where the faithful enter the inner temple there is a beautiful statue which could have been destroyed with a blow of a hammer; instead they are enclosed in cabinets which are closed up during religious ceremonials, and can be opened to the view of the public at other times.

I had a little adventure in connection with this mosque which might be worth telling about. It was built by The Emperor Justinian I as a Catholic shrine, and is considered the third most holy mosque in Turkey. For that reason it was, at that time at least, closely guarded, and no one was allowed to carry anything inside which might desecrate it. I had tried for nearly a year to get permission to photograph some of the interior but was always refused permission. Well, one day I got acquainted with a shepherd who tended his flock not far from there and after I had visited him many times I told him what I wanted. He finally told me of a way to get in through a narrow opening between the bastions in the rear which was covered with bushes. I sneaked through the opening and not seeing the guard inside I set up my tripod and camera and got two good pictures. Just as I was hurriedly taking down the outfit the guard entered and saw me. He raised his long barreled rifle and was about to drill me when the shepherd rushed in with his hands up, shouting the Arabic word for “immunity.” This was my cue and I dug out my embassy assignment card and handed it to him. Of course he didn’t know what it said but as we were immune from about everything else he thought I hadn’t got a picture yet he finally got friendly and was very courteous from then on.

One day I heard that some prominent man had died and his funeral was to be held at the Mosque of Ayoub [Eyup], on the Golden Horn. Hiking out there I joined the crowd lining the street and waited for the ceremonial procession. I noticed a young man in European clothes standing next to me and spoke to him in Arabic. He answered me in better English than I ever spoke and we immediately became friends. He was highly educated in English and other languages, was a graduate of one of our own famous universities, and was the personal secretary of the Sheik El Islam, the spiritual head of the Church in that part of the empire. He did me many favors during the rest of my stay and helped me to learn more of the Mohammedans and their customs.

Not long after we met, the month of the Ramidan [Ramadan] began. During this period, which begins when the first sickle of the new moon appears after the Vernal Equinox, the faithful fast every day from sunrise to sundown, not even a drop of water reaching their lips. But you’d ought to see them eat and drink between sunset and sunrise! They sure do make up for lost time.

During this month there is one night set apart from the rest and called the Night of Power [Laylat al-qadr]. On this night the spirits are supposed to descend on each worshipper and give him the power to control his body and mind, in fact make them sort of supermen. That is, if they are able to get themselves wrought up to the proper pitch for the reception of the power. I had long wanted to witness one of these gatherings but it seemed I was doomed to disappointment, until I met my new friend and asked him if he could help me out. Well, through his influence with the Sheik I was permitted to attend, clothed in the proper robes and instructed how to act. I must say that I was not greatly impressed with the show. It was not nearly as wild as I had been led to believe; in fact, I’ve seen a lot crazier demonstrations of fanatical emotionalism right here at home at Holy Holler meetings. Very few of the worshipers went into contortions and for the most part it was more of a mass action, the robed figures swaying from side to side and forward and back in unison, me with the rest of them. Maybe its all hooey, but I know from close contact with them that they sure do know how to control their tempers, especially when some fool white man does something that would mean fight right now in any other country.

I sure enjoyed life there and sometimes wished I could have stayed there permanently, but all things must keep moving, so early in 1926 I was ordered to the USS Pittsburg, at Villefranche, France. And here began the long trip which finally landed me back in the States, on the last lap of my journey to Georgia. (pp. 28-30)

The interview continues beyond this and at the very end of the typed report is a brief note scrawled in an expedient cursive hand. It dispassionately states “The subject of this sketch died on Dec. 23-1940” (p. 40) meaning that Ernest Gerber passed away almost two years after having been interviewed.

*In memory of Ernest Gerber (12 January 1883 – 23 December 1940). Thank you Ernest for your memories, sincerity, and honesty and thank you to the men and women of the Federal Writers’ Project for saving so much that would have otherwise been lost.

For those still interested in reading more here is a bonus passage detailing his living accommodations and his observance of firefighting methods in Istanbul/Constantinople:

No, I didn’t find my old sweetheart in that port [Constantinople] but there was plenty of others. Now, I’m not going to spill a lot of hooey about the morals of sailors or make excuses, but what the folks call the immorality of the foreigners is a damn sight better than the same thing in some of the so-called civilized countries. Now, you take a man assigned to shore duty for a long stretch; he would have to spend most of his spare time on the ship, if he didn’t live on shore, and would have to be in at certain hours and put up with a lot of other regulations. Well, he can rent a good room and kitchenette for five dollars a month, get him a good looking girl, and live like a king. Yes, they do everything a wife would do and a lot more than most of them. And let me tell you, they are a darn sight more capable and economical in running a house than the girls here. They have it bred into them in those countries… They mend and press your clothes, buy the groceries, do the cooking, and they sure can cook, and keep the place spotlessly clean. And while you have her she is your woman and nobody else can touch her. Yes, as soon as you’re gone she will be looking for another man, but they got to live just like everyone else.

Since Kemal Attaturk began to reform the country I suppose there have been many changes, and things would be a lot different than when I was there, but my camera retained for me the things as I saw them, and bring back to my mind the incidents that happened at that time. Some things I didn’t photograph pop into my mind once in a while and I was just thinking of the time I saw the fire department go into motion. They didn’t have any waterworks then, just a well here and there, and there seemed to be two crews of firemen, one with red equipment and the other with green. The men wore helmets like the old Roman soldiers and a little short tunic, the rest of the body being bare. Their pump was a sort of barrel-shaped thing which was carried on the shoulders of six men, some extra men being in front and behind them to relieve if the trip was very far, and a number of men carried buckets. There wasn’t any signal system, but a watchman in a tower in some part of the city would cry out when he saw what looked like a fire maybe the word would get around to the firemen after a while. When they heard about a fire they would start running toward the spot and the first crew there might get the job of putting out the fire. If both crews got there about the same time, they would begin bidding on the job of putting out the fire. That’s what happened one day when I was lucky enough to be nearby, and damned if the building didn’t burn down before the owner decided which crew he would hire. (pp. 26-27)