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New York City.

By:
Rosemary R. Corbett (Hicks)
Source:
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New York City.

New York is a city of iconic architecture and larger-than-life individuals. The energies of this economic, political, and cultural metropolis radiate out in all directions, exercising an influence far beyond what its square mileage would seem to merit. The history of Muslims in this city is in some ways no different, be it the many personas of Malcolm X or the headlines announcing constructions of Islamic centers over the decades. However, such high-profile people and projects have sometimes obscured the longer and larger presence of Muslims in the five boroughs (Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Manhattan, and the Bronx), as well as the impact their lives have had around the country and around the world.

Muslims in Colonial New York.

The first Muslims to inhabit the area were probably West African slaves trafficked through the triangular trade routes that connected Africa, the Northeast, and Caribbean sugar islands. These Muslims left few traces and were considered so ignoble by their captors that, upon their deaths, their bodies were buried outside the city’s borders. At that time—eighteenth-century “New Amsterdam”—the northern border of the city stood in what is now downtown Manhattan, and the African burial ground discovered there in 1991 extended to within a block of the World Trade Center. Artifacts from burial ground excavations, including strings of blue beads possibly used in prayer, were stored in the World Trade Center and recovered after the attacks of 2001.

It was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that Muslim New Yorkers began to establish institutions other Americans would notice. The first of these was American diplomat and convert Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb’s American Islamic Propaganda. Webb formally converted to Islam in 1888 while serving in Manila as the U.S. consular representative to the Philippines, after reading the work of Indian reformer Mīrzā Ghulām Aḥmad (the founder of the Aḥmadīyah movement). Webb traveled to India and Muslim-majority countries to raise funds for missionary endeavors before settling in New York in 1892, where he established the American Moslem Brotherhood and the Moslem Publishing Company, which published his missionary journal, The Moslem World, on East Twenty-Third Street. In 1893, Webb also represented Islam at the Chicago Parliament of the World’s Religions. Despite these ambitious beginnings, Webb’s organizations and publishing company foundered within four years because of internal dissent (two of his American colleagues alleged misappropriation of funds) and external challenges (Webb maintained that little of the international financing he had been promised ever materialized).

Religious Eclecticism in Early Twentieth-Century Communities.

Although many middle-class Americans viewed Muslims with suspicion at the turn of the century, some felt drawn to what they considered the more poetic and mystical aspects of Islamic traditions. Enthusiastic audiences greeted Inayat Khan, an Indian musician, during his 1910 performances at Columbia University. Khan gained both wealthy patrons and affiliation with a touring dance group during his two years in the United States, and initiated several Americans into his Ṣūfī following. Khan returned to the United States to visit these disciples in 1923, after having founded the Sufi Order of the West in Geneva, Switzerland. Following his death in 1927, several of his followers created their own movements, most of which propagated aspects of Islamic teachings even though (like Khan) they did not identify Sufism strictly with Islam. Years later, Khan’s son, Vilayat Khan, transformed the Sufi Order of the West into the Sufi Order International.

Ṣūfī adepts were not the only New Yorkers to appropriate Islamic themes while distancing themselves from actual Muslims, or the only ones to leave a lasting impact on the city’s landscape. In 1923, members of the Ancient Arabic Order, Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (or “Shriners,” a segment of the Masonic fraternal organization, founded in 1870) financed construction of a meeting hall on Manhattan’s Fifty-Fifth Street. The elaborate Moorish design of the building’s facade reflected both the Orientalist architecture of the era and the Shriners’ own evocations of Islamic history. Following the Depression, the City of New York took possession of the Shriners’ “Mecca Temple,” preserved its grand theater and exterior, and turned it into the New York City Center for Music and Drama—a landmark to this day.

Freemasonry, combined with the influence of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, also spurred the creation of other religiously eclectic but Islamically related organizations, the most notable of which for New York history is the Nation of Islam (NOI), founded in 1930 by Wallace D. Fard, an initiated Mason. The NOI would not have a significant presence in New York until the 1950s. In the meantime, various Muslim immigrants settled in the metropolitan area and created institutions of their own.

Immigrants Establishing Religious Institutions.

In 1907, a group of Polish, Russian, and Lithuanian Muslims founded the American Mohammedan Society in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (also referred to as the Anglo-Mohammedan Association until its name change to the Moslem Mosque in the 1960s). Like many other late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century male immigrants, these Muslims initially arrived in the United States alone, having made the journey for the sake of economic opportunity and not necessarily intending to establish roots in the country. As time passed and migrants faced the need to be married or buried, they created more stable religious institutions.

Muslim missionaries also made their mark on the religious scene in New York. Sudanese native Satti Mājid, who was an advocate on behalf of stranded Muslim seamen after World War I, sought African American converts to Sunnī Islam throughout the 1920s. His most important student was musician and Granada immigrant David A. Donald, who became known as Daoud Ahmad Faisal. In 1939, he established a mosque on State Street in Brooklyn. Welcoming members of all ethnicities into this congregation, the Islamic Mission of America (as it was called) sat just one block from the center of Arab New York at that time: Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue. Shaykh Daoud Ahmad Faisal converted hundreds—perhaps thousands—of African American New Yorkers to Sunnī Islam and published introductory writings on Islamic faith and practice, some of which bore the imprint of his association with diplomats who had moved to New York to work at the United Nations. His Institute of Islam also offered daily classes in Arabic and Islamic studies from 1950 to 1965. During the 1960s and after, some of his followers broke away and formed their own organizations, such as Dar ul-Islam, another African American Sunnī group that similarly gave rise to separatist movements with social justice concerns.

In addition to worshiping at the State Street Mosque, some diplomats affiliated themselves with institutions established by communities that early twentieth-century Indian immigrants formed upon their arrival in New York. These primarily Bengali Muslims settled in the city and married members of local populations (often Latina and African American), thus creating extended kinship networks of multiple ethnicities. In 1947, the name of their birthplace changed from India to Pakistan—something their American institutions reflected. When the United Nations moved its headquarters to New York in 1952, several diplomats attended and even funded their Pakistani League of America’s Ramadan dinners at hotels throughout the city. That same year, delegates from Muslim-majority nations also formed the New York Mosque Foundation with the intention of founding a more permanent and prestigious Islamic center in the city. They established the Islamic Center of New York in 1955, housing it initially on East Sixty-Fifth Street at the home of the Pakistani delegation to the United Nations. It would be nearly four decades before the dome of their modernist New York Islamic Cultural Center was completed on East Ninety-Sixth Street, and in the intervening years the foundation moved to headquarters on Riverside Drive. During those decades, they recruited imams from al-Azhar University in Cairo, one of whom—Muḥammad Abdul Rauf—brought his son, Feisal, and other family members with him to Manhattan in 1965. Although Abdul Rauf left New York to assume the directorship of the Washington, D.C. Islamic Center in the 1970s, his son stayed in the area, graduated from Columbia University, and would eventually attempt to open his own Islamic Center in lower Manhattan.

Indigenous Muslims and Their Evolving Influence.

The mid-1960s were a time of great transformation in New York Muslim communities, partly because changes in immigration law in 1965 allowed greater numbers of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to enter the country. This change led to tremendous growth in Indian and Pakistani Muslim communities throughout the city, both Sunnī and Shīʿī, especially in Queens (where, in 1968, South Asian Muslims founded what would become a national religious and social organization, the Islamic Circle of North America), and in West African communities later in Harlem. Perhaps no group has since claimed public space as frequently as the Senegalese Murid Ṣūfī order, sponsors of and participants in the annual Cheikh Amadu Bamba Parade that winds through Harlem each summer and that culminates in international meetings—often in U.N. conference rooms.

Also in the 1960s, New York’s most visible Muslim figure, Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam, disaffiliated from the organization he had helped to make famous and established separate organizations of his own. Founded in Detroit, the NOI had established its New York Mosque #7 in 1946, initially housing it at the Harlem YMCA. Malcolm X arrived at Mosque #7 in 1954 and was based there until his personal and theological schism in 1964 with NOI leader Elijah Muhammad—a prophet, according to NOI beliefs, who had received revelation from the NOI founder many considered divine. As primary spokesperson for the NOI, Malcolm X was instrumental in the conversion of thousands of African Americans. He also established strong ties to Pan-Africanist activists seeking black liberation, and to Muslim leaders and Middle Eastern heads of state seeking Muslim allies in America.

Following his defection from the NOI, Malcolm X founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc., and undertook a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, where, as he recounted in letters home, he experienced Islam as a tradition of racial equality. This was a strong contrast to the message of the NOI at that time. Prior to his assassination in February 1965, in northern Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom (where he had previously announced the creation of his human rights group, the Organization for Afro-American Unity), Malcolm adopted Sunnī Islam and the new name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabbaz. Although the Muslim Mosque, Inc., did not last long after his death, several of its members established other Sunnī communities, such as the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem. Incorporated in 1967 by Shaykh Ahamad Tawfiq, who studied theology and law at al-Azhar University in Cairo after Malcolm’s death, the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood provided religious education and social programs for Harlem’s growing Muslim community and ran small businesses. Its second leader, Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid, is—along with Imam Siraj Wahhaj of the hugely popular Masjid At-Taqwa in Brooklyn—a founding member of the Muslim Alliance of North America (MANA). MANA is a national network of mosques and organizations dedicated to addressing the pressing economic and social needs of Muslims in urban communities in the United States. Siraj Wahhaj was, until 1975, a member of the Nation of Islam, known as Jeffrey 12X. Following the death of NOI leader Elijah Muhammad in 1975 and the organization’s transition—led by W. D. Muhammad (Elijah Muhammad’s son)—to Sunnī Islam, Jeffrey 12X became Siraj Wahhaj and founded his own mosque. In 1991, Wahhaj was the first Muslim ever to offer an opening prayer in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Malcolm X and Jeffrey 12X were not the only New Yorkers to defect from the NOI and create separate organizations. In 1964, Clarence 13X founded the Nation of Gods and Earths, also known as the Five Percent Nation, or “Five Percenters,” after their belief that only five percent of the world’s population both understands the truth and seeks to spread it to others. Until the 1980s, the Five Percenters—who proclaimed all people to be gods—remained a relatively small, though national, Harlem-based youth movement. The movement grew exponentially after rap and hip-hop artists such as Big Daddy Kane, Erik B. & Rakim, and—most notably—Busta Rhymes, the Wu Tang Clan, and Public Enemy used Five Percenter terminology in their lyrics. Some of these artists later converted to Sunnī Islam, but not before popularizing Five Percenter teachings among a generation of American and international youth.

Islam grew increasingly popular among other ethnic groups, also, during the late twentieth century. Some of these established their own institutions in the 1990s, such as LADO (Latino American Dawah Organization), founded in 1997 to promote missionary outreach. The presence of converts among Latino communities in New York City has expanded dramatically since the 1950s era of Puerto Rican conversion to the NOI, as greater portions of these groups find resonance in Islamic teachings and communal continuity with the history of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain). Prior to LADO, the Alianza Islamica, headquartered in the South Bronx, also met the needs of urban Muslims by offering social programs ranging from after-school tutoring to Islam-awareness counseling for the NYPD.

Contemporary Concerns: Rights Inside and Outside the Mosque.

Female Muslim New Yorkers have also had an impact on Islamic practice and American culture. In 1983, Khadijah Abelmoty, a Puerto Rican convert who had moved to the city, founded PIEDAD (Propagación Islámica para la Educación de la Devoción a Alá el Divino) to address the needs of Latina Muslims. Then, in 1992, Aisha al-Adawiya founded the multi-ethnic educational and advocacy group, Women in Islam, Inc., which published a booklet in 2005—co-sponsored and subsequently adopted by multiple national Muslim organizations—titled Women Friendly Mosques and Islamic Centers. Al-Adawiya did not participate in the contentious woman-led-prayer event of 2005, when scholar and religious leader Amina Wadud led a mixed-gender audience in Friday prayers at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights and drew commentary from Muslims around the world. Nor did Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which Khan and her husband, Feisal Abdul Rauf, founded as a Ṣūfī group in 1997, and which has come to advocate training Muslim women as legal authorities. In 2009, Abdul Rauf and Khan also became the subject of international commentary when they announced plans to open a thirteen-story Islamic Community Center in a property located a few blocks from the former World Trade Center site and owned by members of Abdul Rauf’s Ṣūfī group. Although Manhattan’s Community Board One approved the plans, conservative politicians decried the center and labeled it a “Victory Mosque” for the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Controversy raged nationwide throughout the summer of 2010 and after, and Muslim communities from Staten Island to California became the victims of vandalism and hate crimes. In the meantime, “Park51” (as the center came to be called) opened as a much smaller mosque and community center atop the land where some of the first Muslims in America—African slaves—were buried. Local dynamics in New York exercised influence over groups and individuals far outside the area’s boundaries during that controversy as, once again, Muslims fought for recognition and inclusion within the very borders of the city.

Bibliography

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