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.

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A Study on the Disconnected Letters of the Qur’an

An article of mine has just been published in the Journal of Qur’anic Studies. In it, I explore the problematic history of Western scholarship on the meaning of “the disconnected letters” (al-ḥurūf al-muqaṭṭa’a) of the Qur’an before turning to the multitude of interpretations that have appeared across the historical Sunni tradition.

I first conceived of the study during my initial dissertation research on al-Qushayrī and his commentary of the Qur’an, Laṭā’if al-ishārāt. Once, I completed that work I immediately resumed my investigation of the disconnected letters and eventually produced the present study. Two acknowledgements, which are regrettably absent from the published version of the article, are in order. First, I presented an earlier version of this work at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion and would like to thank my colleagues in attendance for their helpful advice and insights. Second, I shared this piece again in a departmental seminar at Fairfield University where I benefited immensely from the inquiries and comments of my fellow faculty members.

Further details of the study can be found on The Disconnected Letters project page. The article appears in the Journal of Qur’anic Studies, vol. 14 no. 2 (2012), pp. 1-28. A copy of the article can also be accessed here.

Arabic Manuscript Reference Works

For those working with Arabic manuscripts I wanted to draw attention to three works that have recently been published in a more accessible format for the individual scholar. This is especially relevant as the fall conference season draws closer and book buying stratagems begin to percolate in scheming scholarly minds. The works in question are all by Adam Gacek, the head of the Islamic Studies Library at McGill University, and have been previously published in 2001, 2008, and 2009.

Adam Gacek. 2001. The Arabic Manuscript Tradition: A Glossary of Technical Terms and Bibliography. Leiden: Brill.

Adam Gacek. 2008. The Arabic Manuscript Tradition: A Glossary of Technical Terms and Bibliography – Supplement. Leiden: Brill.

Adam Gacek. 2009. The Arabic Manuscript Tradition: A Vadecum for Readers. Leiden: Brill.

As the preceding bibliographic listings indicate these three works were previously published by Brill, which generally prices its titles for institutional purchase and hence beyond the typical means of the sole researcher. However, last year Brill began to publish a number of its highly sought after titles in a more reasonably priced paperback edition. 2012 now sees the release of these three important works in such a state. Scholars working with manuscripts from the Islamicate world and those entertaining to undertake such vital research, will find these reference works invaluable. The Vadecum alone serves as a useful introduction for the uninitiated and is certainly a valuable resource for those already invested.

Several other paperback volumes that will be of interest to scholars of Islam include:

Jonathan Brown. 2011. The Canonization of al-Bukhārī and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunnī Ḥadith Canon. Leiden: Brill.

Alexander Knysh. 2000. Islamic Mysticism: A Short History. Leiden: Brill.

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.

US Army Guide to Calcutta, circa 1945

At this summer’s Westport Public Library Book Sale I came across a guide to Calcutta, India prepared by the Information and Education Branch of the United States Army Forces during World War II.

The Calcutta Key

The small pamphlet provides both cultural information and advice on living abroad in the city. Brigadier General Robert Reese Neyland provides the following introduction:

“TEEK-HAI”

Once I knew a man who grew up in Philadelphia but never visited Independence Hall located there. I know several New Yorkers who though they live in its shadow, have never visited the Statue of Liberty.

I hope it can never be said that you were in Calcutta and didn’t visit the Burning Ghats, the Kalighat Temple, and some of the other – equally famous – sights which Calcutta affords.

If you come here with an open mind you will find Calcutta is “Teek-Hai” (Okay). Of course, it’s just like visiting any big city back home: you can have a good time, or a bad time, depending on how well you take care of yourself.

Incidentally, the people here like us. They think we’re all right. Thanks to the good behavior of American soldiers who preceded you, a friendly welcome from these folks awaits you. If you behave equally as well, a similar welcome will await your buddies who follow you in here.

“Teek-hai?”

Br. Gen. R. R. Neyland

Calcutta, 1945.

(Information and Education Branch, The Calcutta Key,  3)

Illustration for “That Minor Sport – Bargaining”

Unfortunately, Islam and Muslims are rarely mentioned in the publication. Nevertheless, there are a few notices. Under the section “People in Calcutta” we find the following:

The Local Man. Being a Bengal he usually has no headdress. Of the Bengalis only the Muslim wears a fez, and even then he does not wear one all the time. The Bengali is the chap who wears a sheet-like cloth which you will see draped about his waist and legs, with the ends of the cloth tucked between the legs – sometimes winding up in a flowing, folded end that hangs in front. The shirt-like garment is worn outside the lower one. (Remember those jitter-bugs back home who thought they were starting a new fad by allowing their shirttails to hang outside their trousers?)

(The Calcutta Key, 7)

Mention is also made of “the Nakhoda Mosque which is the largest Mohammaden mosque in Calcutta” under the “American Red Cross Daily Tours” as part of the second of such excursions (The Calcutta Key, 45).

On a more general note, we find the following interesting description under the section “Our Allies”:

You Look At The Indian. You look at the Indian daily, you pass him on the streets, his life touches yours constantly. But do you actually see him, do you get a picture of what makes him tick, or do you brush him off in your mind as “That darn native who….”? (He is an Indian, not a native, by the way – and you, being a non-Asiatic in a country where all such visitors are for convenience classed as Europeans, you are a ‘European’) You do see that the Indian is different from yourself. Granted. But – do you see that the difference between the two of you does not give you a reason to criticise the Indian? Do you try to realize that the Indian’s dress is not strange for India? Rather, it fits the climate here. The Indian thinks his turban to be sacred and does not want it touched. Is that silly to you? Okay, soldier, how’d you like to be back in the United States sporting a new light-grey snap-brim felt and have some stranger come along and casually reach up to finger it? When the stranger had picked himself up…! Many Indian women object to hands being touched even in a friendly handshake. Perhaps you may feel the same way about the French custom of kissing you on both cheeks. Kissing you, the nerve of the guy! Everywhere, in streams, ponds, or under public fountains, you will see Indians taking baths by pouring water on themselves; although they have their own standards and their own instincts for cleanliness, a great number of Indians consider a bathtub to be dirty. Queer of them, isn’t it? Ha, ha! Some of our own States once outlawed the use of bathtubs as being immoral. To repeat, yes, the Indian is different. But instead of merely noticing that difference and judging it hastily, suppose we take a good long second look and attempt to understand the fellow’s customs and ways of living. Remember, it is an age-old failure to laugh at things that you do not understand.

(The Calcutta Key, 11-12)

Illustration for “What To Do and Where To Go”

Finally, some concise guidelines:

TRY THESE “DO’S” FOR SIZE

1. Avoid political discussions.

2. Act here with the same common courtesy you use at home.

3. Guide the other fellow’s conduct; ‘breaks’ reflect on all.

4. Replace, “Hey, you!” with “Bhai!” or “Brother!”

5. Discuss Indian customs out of their sight and hearing.

6. You’re in Rome. Keep your ways; let the Romans have theirs.

7. Keep your temper; the Indian will keep his.

8. An attitude of respect leads to ‘breaks’ being forgiven.

9. Take pictures only of the laboring classes (and them only if they cnnsent [sic]); upper-class Indians don’t like to be photographed.

10. Look at passing British and Indian women without tossing remarks at them. Four out of five women over here are offended by “yoo-hoos.”

(The Calcutta Key, 16-17)

The publication page of “The Calcutta Key”

Now, a bonus excerpt:

Women. (whoops, here we go again! But we don’t mind knocking ourselves out if you guys don’t mind listening.) Those of you who have already made up your minds to abstain, kindly turn to the next movie section and decide what show you want to go to tonight. That eliminates part of the audience – we hope. To go on: As in any port city in the Orient, Calcutta is riddled with venereal diseases. Studies show that professional prostitutes are 150% infected (half have one and the other half have two). Even in the native population the rate is well over 50%. That good-looking amateur whom you think you convinced by your personal charm may be just the baby to hand you a gift package – unwrapped.

(The Calcutta Key, 75)

The final illustration in “The Calcutta Key” pamphlet

Information and Education Branch, United States Army Forces in India-Burma. The Calcutta Key. Calcutta: The Indian Press Limited, n.d. [ca. 1945].

The Sahaba of Istanbul [2] The Underground Mosque

For the second post of this series (Part 1) we turn momentarily from Eyüp to cover perhaps the best known tombs after that of Abū Ayyub al-Anṣārī. The site is located in Galata in the Yeraltı Camii or the Underground Mosque, a site previously mentioned in our treatment of Strolling Through Istanbul.

The seaside entrance to the Yeraltı Camii with signpost to the tombs

The relevant excerpt from there reads:

Towards the rear of the mosque we find the tombs of two sainted martyrs, Abu Sufyan and Amiri Wahabi, both of whom are supposed to have died in the first Arab siege of the city in the seventh century. Their graves were revealed to a Nakşibendi dervish in a dream in 1640, whereupon Sultan Murat IV constructed a shrine on the site. (Sumner-Boyd and Freely, Strolling Through Istanbul, 412)

There appears to be some confusion as to the names of the persons buried here given that the signs currently posted throughout the Underground Mosque (Amr bin As, Vehb bin Hüşeyre, and Süfyan bin Üyeyne) differ from those given by Sumner-Boyd and Freely.  Hasluck, whose work appears in the 1920s, also uses different names in his interesting record:

The building seems to have been identified by the discovery in it of alleged Arab tombs, now attributed to saints named Amiri, Wahabi (left of entrance), and Sufian or Abu Sufian (right of entrance). The latter tomb is the most important of the group and occupies a separate compartment within a grille; it is evidently associated with Sufian, one of the Arab warriors who took part in the first Arab siege (672-7) by Moawiya. It is frequented as a pilgrimage by Turkish and Armenian, occasionally by Greek, women. For a small fee the guardian lays on the tomb a new garment of handkerchief, which, having remained there forty days, is an infallible love-charm, if worn by the man it is desired to attract. Women desirous of children wear round their waists a handkerchief which has been consecrate in a similar way. (Hasluck, Christianity and Islam Under the Sultans, 2:727)

It appears that Sumner-Boyd and Freely relied on Hasluck and confused “Amiri, Wahabi” as a single name when Hasluck rather intended to designate two different ones: Amiri and Wahabi. Furthermore, that one of the tombs might be called Abu Sufyān, rather than just Sufyān, is explained by Hasluck in a footnote which states, “Abu Sufian was the title of the caliph Moawiya.”

The Gated Enclosure to the Tombs of Wahb and ‘Amr b. al-‘Āṣ

Greater detail is given in Namık Erkal’s relatively recent architectural study of the mosque, which was once the Fort of Galata under the Byzantines and then a Leaded Magazine (Kurşulu Mahzen):

In the reign of Mahmud I (r. 1730-1754), it was by the prophecy of a Nakshibendi sheikh from Damascus that the relics of three martyrs from the siege were discovered by the wall of the Magazine in leaded coffins, to further elevate the Islamic connotation of the site -and bring a new reading on the term “leaded”. It was said that the relics were found buried on the side of a wall in a chamber the gate of which was “leaded” by the Umayyads during the siege… There were three coffins within the mosque, one of them being a separate tomb and two others within the Hall behind the rails. (Erkal, “The Corner of the Horn,” 215-6)

The footnote at the end of Erkal’s passage reads:

The relics are said to be of Vehb bin Huseyre (inside the rails, who joined the second Umayyad siege); Amr bin As who is the conqurer of Egypt and who was dead at the time of Umayyad sieges but is believed to visit his tomb within the mosque; Süfyan bin Uyeyne, resting in the Tomb was born in the 8th century and died in 814. The tomb has been constructed and restored several times. (Erkal, “The Corner of the Horn,” 216, fn. 105)

For the sake of this post, I will proceed as if the persons ascribed to the tombs in the Underground Mosque are in fact the ones designated in the presently found signs.

ʿAmr b. al-‘Āṣ (d. 43/663-4) and Wahb b. Hushayra

Near the back entrance of Underground Mosque and off to the side is a gated room bearing two side-by-side tombs bathed in green light. Supposedly therein lie ʿAmr b. al-‘Āṣ (Amr bin As, Turkish) and Wahb b. Husahyra (Vehb bin Hüşeyre, Turkish). ‘Amr b. al-‘Āṣ is best remembered for leading the Muslim conquest of Egypt. As al-Ṭabarī memorializes for “The Events of the Year 43 (April 15, 663 – April 2, 664)”, he also served for the remainder of his life as its governor:

In this year ‘Amr b. al-‘Āṣ died in Egypt on Yawm al-Fiṭr (January 6, 664). He has been its governor for ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb for four years, and for ‘Uthmān for four years minus two months, and for Mu’āwiyah for two years minus one month. (al-Ṭabarī, History, 18:32)

The tombs of Wahb and ‘Amr b. al-‘Āṣ

In his early life, ʿAmr b. al-‘Āṣ was among the Quraysh who opposed the Prophet Muhammad. He was famously sent with ‘Abd Allāh b. Abī Rabī’a to entreat the Negus of Abyssinia to send back the Muslim Emigrants who had fled there. After the Battle of the Trench but before the conquest of Mecca, ʿAmr b. al-‘Āṣ became Muslim. He relates the story of his conversion in Ibn Isḥāq’s biography of the Prophet:

Yazīd b. Abū Ḥabīb from Raṣhid client of Ḥabīb b. Abū Aus al-Thaqafī from Ḥabīb told me that ‘Amr b. al-‘Āṣ told him from his own mouth: When we came away from the trench with the mixed tribes I gathered some of Quraysh together, men who shared my opinion and would listen to me, and said: ‘You know that in my opinion this affair with Muhammad will go to unheard-of lengths and I should like to know what you think of my opinion. I think that we ought to go to the Negus and stay with him. If Muhammad conquers our people we shall be with the Negus and we should prefer to be subject to his authority rather than to Muhammad; on the other hand, if our people get the upper hand they know us and will treat us well.’ They thought that my suggestion was excellent so I told them to collect something that we could take as a present to him; as leather was a product of our land which he most valued we collected a large quantity and took it to him.

While we were with him who should come to him but ‘Amr b. Umayya al-Ḍamrī whom the apostle had sent concerning Ja’far and his companions. He had an audience with the Negus, and when he came out I said to my companions that if I were to go to the Negus and ask him to let me have him, he would give him to me and we could cut off his head; and when I had done that Quraysh would see that I had served them well in killing Muhammad’s messenger. So I went to the Negus and did obeisance as was my wont. He welcomed me as a friend and asked if I had brought anything from our country, and when I told him that I had brought a large quantity of leather and produced it he was greatly pleased and coveted it. Then I said, ‘O King, I have just seen a man leave your presence. He is the messenger of an enemy of ours, so let me have him that I may kill him, for he has killed some of our chiefs and best men.’ He was enraged, and stretching out his hand he gave his nose such a blow that I thought he would have broken it. If the earth had opened I would have gone into it to escape his anger. I said that had I known that my request would have been distasteful to him I would not have made it. He said, ‘Would you ask me to give you the messenger of a man to whom the great Nāmūs comes as he used to come to Moses, so that you might kill him!’ When I asked if he were really that great he said: ‘Woe to you, ‘Amr, obey me and follow him,  for by Allah he is right and will triumph over his adversaries as Moses triumphed over Pharaoh and his armies.’ I asked him if he would accept my allegiance to Muhammad in Islam, and he stretched out his hand and I gave my allegiance. When I went out to my companions I had entirely changed my mind, but I concealed my Islam from my companions.

Then I went off making for Muhammad to adopt Islam, and met Khālid b. al-Walīd coming from Mecca. This was a little while before the occupation of Mecca. I said, ‘Where are you going, Abū Sulaymān?’ He said: ‘The way has become clear. The man is certainly a prophet, and by Allah I’m going to be a Muslim. How much longer should I delay?’ I told him that I too was travelling with the same object in view, so we went to Medina to the apostle. Khālid got there first and accepted Islam and gave his allegiance. Then I came up and said, ‘O apostle, I will give you my allegiance on condition that my past faults are forgiven and no mention is made of what has gone before.’ He said, ‘Give allegiance ‘Amr, for Islam does away with all that preceded it, as does the hijra.’ So I gave my allegiance and went away. (Ibn Isḥāq, The Life of Muhammad, 484-5)

As for Wahb b. Hushayra (if the ascribed name is correct) he appears to have been a minor Companion who partook in one of the early Umayyad attacks on Constantinople. As I have fallen short on sources, I would appreciate any references to his life or a reliable identification.

The tomb of Sufyān b. ‘Uyayna

Sufyān b. ‘Uyayna (d. 198/814)

Located in a separate room is a tomb bearing the name of Sufyān b. ‘Uyayna (Süfyan bin Üyeyne, Turkish). It is possible that the tomb has been misidentified since Sufyān b. ‘Uyayna’s years of life puts him later than the generation of the Companions. The actual person buried here may be another (Abū?) Sufyān. Nevertheless, Sufyān b. ‘Uyayna is a revered figure in the Islamic tradition. From Kufa, Sufyān was a noted hadith transmitter, exegete, and jurist. He studied with al-Zuhrī (d. 124/742) and went on to teach al-Shāfi’ī (d. 204/820). Al-Ṭabarī’s biographical entry on Sufyān states:

Sufyān b. ‘Uyayna b. Abī ‘Imrān. His kunyah was Abū Muḥammad; he was a client of the Banū ‘Abdallāh b. Ruwayhbah, [a clan of] the Banū Hilāl b. ‘Āmir b. Ṣa’ṣa’ah. Sufyān’s father, ‘Uyaynah, was a functionary of Khālid b. ‘Abdallāh al-Qasrī. When Khālid was dismissed from [his office as governor of] Iraq and replaced by Yūsuf b. ‘Umar al-Thaqafī, the latter pursued Khālid’s functionaries, so they fled from him. ‘Uyaynah b. Abī ‘Imrān went away and settled in Mecca.

According to Ibn Sa’d > Muḥammad b. ‘Umar [al-Wāqidī]: Sufyān b. ‘Uyaynah told me that he was born in the year 107 [725-6]. He had pursued knowledge at an early [age] and became a ḥāfiẓ. He lived a long life, until his peers died and he outlived them.

Sufyān related: I went to the Yemen in the years 150 [767-8] and 152 [769-70] while Ma’mar [b. Rāshid] was still alive. [Sufyān] al-Thawrī preceded me [there] by a year.

According to Ibn Sa’d > al-Ḥasan b. ‘Imrān b. ‘Uyaynah, Sufyān’s nephew: I was with my uncle on the last pilgrimage he made [to Mecca], in the year 197 [August 813]. When he was at Jam’, having prayed, he lay on his mat and said to me: “I have arrived at this place for seventy years, and each time I said ‘O Lord, do not make this the last time that I visit this place.’ I feel embarrassed before God about asking Him this so many times.” Sufyān returned [from his pilgrimage] and died the next year, on Saturday the 1st of Rajab 198/February 25, 814. He was buried at al-Ḥajūn. He was ninety-one years old [when he died]. (al-Ṭabarī, History, 39:265-6)

The back entrance to the Yeraltı Camii

Erkal, Namık. “The Corner of the Horn: An Architectural Review of the Leaded Magazine in Galata İstanbul.” Middle East Technical University (METU) Journal of the Faculty of Architecture 28.1 (2011): 197-227.

Hasluck, F.W. Christianity and Islam Under the Sultans, Volume I and II. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929.

Muḥammad b. Isḥāq b. Yasār. The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Isḥāq’s Sīrat Rasūl Allāh. Translated by A. Guillaume. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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

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.

al-Ṭabarī, Muḥammad b. Jarīr. The History of al-Ṭabarī, Volume XXXIX: Biographies of the Prophet’s Companions and Their Successors. Translated by Ella Landau-Tasseron. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

To access the other posts in the series:

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

The Sahaba of Istanbul [3] Eyup

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)

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

The city of Istanbul, once Constantinople, purportedly hosts the tombs of many Sahaba, the revered Companions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Though the city did not fall until 1453, when it was conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (d. 886/1481), Muslims forces campaigned against the city during the earliest decades of Islam’s irruption onto the world stage. The fifth Caliph Mu’āwiya (d. 60/680) directed a major campaign against Constantinople in the year 49/669, less than forty years after the Prophet’s death. In these earliest of days, it was often at the very walls of the city itself that some Companions of the Prophet reportedly breathed their last breath.

The present post is the first of a series that will document the lives and alleged burial sites of many of these Sahaba.* By some counts, more than thirty such tombs are spread across the city. During our last visit to the city in May of 2012 we visited many- but far from all- of these in order to properly locate and photo-document them. It is hoped that this series will facilitate the future visits of other travelers and to shed further light on Istanbul’s importance for the tradition.

Eyüp Sultan Camii

Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī

Just beyond the city walls and alongside the Golden Horn is the district of Eyüp, named after the tomb and mosque complex built around the burial site of Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī (d. 52/672). Our guide to the city John Freely reports:

The mosque of Eyüp is the holiest in Istanbul; indeed after Mecca and Jerusalem it is perhaps the most sacred place of pilgrimage in the Islamic world. This is because it is the reputed burial place of Eyüp (Job) Ensari, the friend and standard-bearer of the Prophet Muhammed. Long after the Prophet’s death, Eyüp is said to have been one of the leaders of the first Arab siege of Constantinople from 674 to 678 and to have been killed and buried somewhere outside the walls. When some eight centuries later Fatih Mehmet besieged the city, he and his advisors, as Evliya Çelebi writes,

“spent seven whole days searching for the tomb. At last Akşemsettin (the Şeyh-ül Islam) exclaimed, ‘Good news, my Prince, of Eyüp’s tomb!’ Thus saying he began to pray and then fell asleep. Some interpreted this sleep as a veil cast by shame over his ignorance of the tomb; but after some time he raised his head, his eyes became bloodshot, the sweat ran from his forehead, and he said to the Sultan, ‘Eyüp’s tomb is on the very spot where I spread the carpet for prayer.’ Upon this, three of his attendants together with the Şeyh and the Sultan began to dig up the ground, when at a depth of three yards they found a square stone of verd antique on which was written in Cufic letters: ‘This is the tomb of Eba Eyüp.’ They lifted the stone and found below it the body of Eyüp wrapped up in a saffron-coloured shroud, with a brazen play-ball in his hand, fresh and well-preserved. They replaced the stone, formed a little mound of the earth they had dug up, and laid the foundations of the mausoleum amidst the prayers of the whole army.”

This pleasant story, though still current and recounted in one form or another by the guides and guidebooks, seems rather unlikely – apart from its supernatural elements – because it appears that the tomb had always been known and respected even by the Byzantines. Various Arab historians note that it was made a condition of peace, after the first Arab siege, that the tomb should be preserved. An Arab traveller during the reign of Manuel I Comnenus (r. 1143-80) mentions it as still existing in his day, while another traveller, Zakariya al-Kazwini (ca. 1203-83), relates that “this tomb is now venerated among them (the Byzantines) and they open it when they pray for rain in times of drought; and rain is granted them.” If the tomb was still extant in early Palaeologan times [dynasty begins 1259], it seems improbable that it should so completely have disappeared before the Turkish conquest. Probably, Fatih restored or rebuilt it on a grander scale. (Sumner-Boyd and Freely, Strolling Through Istanbul, 363-4) 

Remarkably, the early historian al-Ṭabarī (d. 311/923) corroborates Freely’s account of Byzantine Christians visiting the tomb of Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī. Furthermore, al-Ṭabarī’s attestation forwards the popular phenomenon to the early 4th/10th century:

It was reported that the Greeks frequent his grave, renovate it, and pray there for rain in times of drought. (al-Ṭabarī, The History of al-Ṭabarī, 39:40)

Philip K. Hitti provides a slightly different account than Freely of the burial place’s discovery as well as offering some details concerning Abū Ayyūb’s final campaign:

Tradition asserts that in the course of the siege abu-Ayyūb  died of dysentery and was buried before the walls of Constantinople. His legendary tomb soon became a shrine even for the Christian Greeks, who made pilgrimages to it in times of drought to pray for rain. During the siege of Constantinople in 1453 by the Turks, the tomb was miraculously discovered by rays of light… and a mosque was built on the site. Thus did the Madīnese gentleman become a saint for three nations. (Hitti, History of the Arabs, 201-2)

The Courtyard of Eyüp Sultan Camii. The tomb of Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī lies in an alcove just behind the tree.

Returning to the immense historical chronicle by al-Ṭabarī we find the following about Abū Ayyūb listed among “The Events of the Year 49 (February 9, 669-January 28, 670)”:

The raid of Yazīd b. Mu’āwiyah against the Byzantines occurred during this year. He reached Qusṭanṭīniyyah accompanied by Ibn ‘Abbās, Ibn ‘Umar, Ibn al-Zubayr, Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī. (al-Ṭabarī, History, 18:94)

Then later under “Those Who Died or Were Killed in the Year 52 (January 8, 672-December 26, 672)” al-Ṭabarī states:

Among them was Abū Ayyūb. His name was Khālid b. Zayd b. Kulayb b. Tha’labah b. ‘Abd b. ‘Awf b. Ghanm b. Mālik b. al-Najjār. All [the biographers] are unanimous that he was one of the seventy Anṣār who swore allegiance to the Prophet on the night of the ‘Aqabah meeting. The Prophet established the bound of brotherhood (mu’ākhāh) between Abū Ayyūb and Muṣ’ab b. ‘Umayr. Abū Ayyūb participated in [the battles of] Badr, Uḥud, and the Ditch and all the [other] events on the Prophet’s side.

Abū Ayyūb died when Yazid b. Mu’āwiyah raided Constantinople during the caliphate of his father, Mu’āwiyah. His grave is at the foot of the fortress in Constantinople, in the Byzantine territory. (al-Ṭabarī, History, 39:40)

As al-Ṭabarī has related, Abū Ayyūb was among the first Muslims of Medina. In fact, as Ibn Isḥāq and al-Balãdhūrī report, the Prophet took up residence with Abū Ayyūb when he first arrived in the city and stayed there until the mosque’s construction was completed (Ibn Isḥāq, The Life of Muhammad, 228-30; al-Balãdhūrī, The Origins of the Islamic State, 19).

More on the life of Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī can be found in a modern pietistic compilation by AbdulWāhid Hāmid. We will conclude this post with an excerpt from the end of his account given his appropriately memorializing tone of Abū Ayyūb:

The last campaign he took part in was the one prepared by Mu’āwiyah and led by his son Yazīd against Constantinople. Abū Ayyūb at that time was a very old man, almost eighty years old. But that did not prevent him from joining the army and crossing the seas as a ghāzī in the path of God. After only a short time engaged in battled, Abū Ayyūb fell ill and had to withdraw from fighting. Yazīd came to him and asked: “Do you need anything, Abū Ayyūb?” 

“Convey my salāms to the Muslim armies and say to them: ‘Abū Ayyūb urges you to penetrate deeply into the territory of the enemy as far as you can go, that you should carry him with you and that you should bury him under your feet at the walls of Constantinople.'” Then he breathed his last.

The Muslim army fulfilled the desire of the companion of the Messenger of God. They pushed back the enemy’s forces in attack after attack until they reached the walls of Constantinople. There they buried him. (Hāmid, Companions of the Prophet, 1:157-8)

Visitors and pilgrims gathered before the tomb of Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī.

*I say “alleged” simply because the history of such sites are more rich and complicated than they initially appear. Several of these sites, for example, were in fact places of veneration for the city’s Christians as well, well before the arrival of the Ottomans. Rather than wrestling with questions of historicity, the posts of this series will focus more on what the available narratives and sources have to report about the Companions supposedly buried in Istanbul. And to encourage more curious readers, I refer to English-language sources or English translations of primary sources wherever possible, though this may not always be maintained throughout the series. Finally, I try to provide dates both in the ḥijrī (Islamic calendar, AH) and Common Era (CE).

al-Balãdhūrī, Abū l-‘Abbās Aḥmad b. Jābir. The Origins of the Islamic State: Kitāb Futūḥ al-buldān. Translated by Philip Khūri Hitti. Beirut: Khayats, 1966.

Hāmid, AbdulWāhid. Companions of the Prophet, Book One, New Revised Edition. London: MELS, 1998, 153-8.

Hitti, Philip K. History of the Arabs. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Muḥammad b. Isḥāq b. Yasār. The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Isḥāq’s Sīrat Rasūl Allāh. Translated by A. Guillaume. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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

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.

al-Ṭabarī, Muḥammad b. Jarīr. The History of al-Ṭabarī, Volume XXXIX: Biographies of the Prophet’s Companions and Their Successors. Translated by Ella Landau-Tasseron. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

To access the other posts in the series:

The Sahaba of Istanbul [2] The Underground Mosque

The Sahaba of Istanbul [3] Eyup

The Sahaba of Istanbul [4] The City Wall Beside the Golden Horn 

The Sahaba of Istanbul [5] Ayvansaray Coast

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

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.