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United States, Muslim Congregations in the

By:
Hussein Rashid
Source:
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

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United States, Muslim Congregations in the

In the United States, religious congregations are voluntary, local communities that gather for the purpose of religious activity. While the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of individual religious expression, U.S. law has also encouraged the formation of religious congregations by granting them, along with other philanthropic organizations, tax-exempt status. U.S. religious congregations have played vital roles as social organizations: they not only bring Americans together for the performance of religious rituals, they also establish parochial schools, encourage charitable giving, and nurture business and social networks, among other activities important to the functioning of U.S. society.

Muslim congregations in the United States are part of this general pattern. The mosque, or masjid, is the most popular form of religious congregation in the United States, but Muslim Americans also congregate in religious spaces such as the tekke, dargah, mazār, jamāʿat-khānah, and imāmbārgah. Many, if not most, of these religious congregations have been spaces for activities in addition to liturgical worship. They have also functioned as schools, lecture halls, and recreational facilities. Other Muslim institutions, including Muslim businesses and social-service agencies, have grown up around them. Numbering well over two thousand in the twenty-first century, Muslim religious congregations in the United States have become vital institutions in the U.S. religious tapestry.

The Mosque in the United States.

Although Muslims have been present in the United States since its founding, there is no evidence that physical structures devoted to communal religious activity existed before the late 1800s. Muslim slaves, who made up the earliest large communities of Muslims in the antebellum United States, may have gathered on occasion to pray together but did not establish formal religious congregations. By the late 1800s, immigrant Muslims also met to pray together, often in one another’s homes or apartments. When they began renting spaces for more regular meetings in various cities, many of them established so-called “storefront” mosques that blended in with their surroundings. One early such congregation, for example, was the late-nineteenth-century Muslim mission in the New York City borough of Manhattan established by the white convert Alexander Russell Webb.

It was not until the 1920s that mosque building began in earnest among Muslim Americans. Some of the first purpose-built mosques were located in the Highland Park neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, and in Ross, North Dakota, where Syrian and Lebanese sodbusters constructed a building that looked more like a granary or outbuilding than the fantastical oriental image then widely associated with mosques in the popular imagination. Neither of these two institutions exists today. The masjid with the longest history in service is the “Mother Mosque of America” (1934) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The number of mosques in the country probably numbered in the dozens until the 1960s, when approximately one hundred Muslim congregations were operated by the Nation of Islam, an African American religious movement that followed the American prophet Elijah Muhammad. Called either temples or mosques, these congregations became Sunnī Muslim in the 1970s when Elijah Muhammad’s son, W. D. Muhammad, aligned the group with majoritarian Islamic teachings.

Since then, the number of mosques in the United States has grown exponentially. This expansion is due primarily to the efforts of Muslims who arrived in the United States after immigration policy was reformed in 1965. Indian, Pakistani, Arab, Iranian, West African, Bosnian, and other Muslims built, purchased, or leased space for over a thousand mosques by the end of the twentieth century. Many of these mosques operated like other U.S. religious congregations in that a board of directors or some other consultative body oversaw their operation. Some congregations could afford to hire a full-time imam, or prayer leader, but the majority relied on volunteers or part-time leaders. Many of these leaders were self-taught or held seminary degrees from Islamic institutions abroad.

As Muslim communities began to build spaces for the express purpose of serving as a masjid after World War II, the architecture of such places also became an important consideration. A tension emerged between centers that sought design elements as a point of nostalgic reconstruction that potentially alienated the neighbors, and more contemporary designs that were representative of an American Muslim community. When the Islamic Cultural Center of New York (ICC-NY), on Ninety-Sixth Street and Third Avenue, was built, for example, the architect had two advisory committees: one composed of architects and historians of Islamic art and architecture, and another composed of members of the community. The latter sought more nostalgic elements from their countries of origin that were divorced from the current American context, whereas the former advocated a radical rethinking of design elements. The architect favored the approach of the academics and architects, but agreed to the inclusion of a dome and minaret.

Another important architectural concern was the gendered nature of the mosque space. Traditionally speaking, men and women pray in separate spaces during the Friday congregational prayers. Though some congregations in the mid-twentieth century experimented with mixed-gender seating, mosques in the United States, like those abroad, most frequently separate men and women. In some cases, women have been asked to pray in a separate room or in a mosque basement, and this practice has led many Muslims, both men and women, to complain that such unequal treatment violates basic Islamic teachings, especially the practice of the Prophet Muhammad in his mosque in Medina, Arabia. Among those who encouraged mosques to provide better and more equal facilities was Dr. Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest para-mosque organization in the United States.

Another important issue that congregants have faced, especially after 9/11, has been a growing opposition movement to the building of mosques. Sometimes such opposition has appeared in the guise of complaints about parking and community disruption. More recently, there have been explicitly xenophobic protests against mosques. The best known of these has been the opposition to Park51, the so-called “Ground Zero” mosque. Protestors called it a “victory mosque,” celebrating 9/11, a sign that Muslims were taking over, and a potential center for terrorist activity. The anti-Muslim fervor generated by the protests spread throughout the country, resulting in an arson attack against the construction equipment being used to build a community center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and protests against an expansion to a mosque in Temecula, California. The Islamophobic attacks against mosques affected other Muslim religious congregations, resulting, for example, in a shooting at an Ismāʿīlī jamāʿat-khānah in Georgia, and in zoning controversies for a Muslim cemetery in New York.

Non-Mosque Religious Congregations.

The emphasis on masājid (mosques) in the United States sometimes obscures the congregational behavior, or lack thereof, of large portions of the American Muslim community. There are indications that many Muslims do not consider themselves “mosqued,” or serviced by a community center. This lack of mosque affiliation may not necessarily indicate a lack of ritual observance, however, since Muslims can visit whatever prayer space is nearest to them. In addition, ad hoc prayer spaces in hospitals and schools do not function like other religious congregations. As often transitory prayer spaces, they do not generally have regular members who engage one another in building a local community of believers.

In addition, not all practicing Muslims attend mosques. There are many other types of congregational spaces valued by Muslims in the United States, including the following.

Tekke.

The Albanian community of Detroit organized communal prayers as early as 1950. The collection of funds for the rental of a space was driven by the Albanian Muslim community, but also received support from the broader Albanian community, including many non-Muslims. Three years later, Baba Rexheb, a leader within the Bektāshī Ṣūfī order, came to the Detroit area. Like many Muslim communities, Bektāshī Muslims have extra-liturgical rituals, which they practice in a lodge known as a tekke. With the arrival of Rexheb, many Bektāshīs in Michigan wished to establish a tekke to complement the mosque. Within the Albanian Muslim community, there was a great deal of resistance because of fears that it would split the congregation; although the two centers are some distance apart now, the original intent was to have them in proximity to one another. Today some Muslims visit both the mosque and the lodge. The tekke, like many lodges, has a worship space, a library, a kitchen, rooms for permanent residents and for guests, and a room for the resident leader. Unlike a masjid, it is meant to be a full-time residence, both for the spiritual leader and for those who wish to enter into the spiritual life.

Dargah.

In New York City, there is a center of community for members of the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Ṣūfī order called the Dergah al-Farah. The dargah, or dergah, is a prayer center for the order. Although it is also called a masjid, because it is open for the Friday communal prayer, it is primarily a space for members of the order to perform their dhikr, or remembrance of God. Established in 1983 by Shaykh Nur al-Anwar Ashki al-Jerrahi (né Lex Hixon, d. 1995), it is currently run by Shaykha Fatima Fariha al-Jerrahi (née Phillipa de Menil Friedrich). The dargah functions as a small space for members of the order, but is open to members of the broader community, and offers educational and prisoner-transition resources. In 2010 it was embroiled in the controversy surrounding Park51, both because of its proximity to the site and because Feisal Abdul-Rauf, the name attached to the Park51 project, also served as an imam at the dargah. However, because of its ties to the surrounding community, it seems to have avoided much negative publicity.

Mazār.

Just outside of Philadelphia, there is a mosque built by the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship in 1984. It sits on a farm, because the founder of the community, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (d. 1986), encouraged farming as part of spiritual practice. What makes this center unique is that it is a mazār, or shrine, a type of religious site common in Afro-Eurasia, but rare in the Americas. The mazār is the location where Bawa is buried, and is believed to be a locus of spiritual power. The community started with the arrival of Bawa in 1971, leading a group that was initially interested in the counter-cultural spiritual ethos of the late 1960s in America. However, as time progressed, Bawa established a traditional relationship between the Ṣūfī order and Islamic religious norms and practices as articulated in the Sharīʿah, or Islamic law and ethics. As a result, the mosque attracts a variety of Muslims, and the mazār functions as a pilgrimage site for numerous Muslims, including those of other orders.

Jamāʿat-khānah.

The jamāʿat-khānah, or congregation house, is a shared name among Nizārī Ismāʿīlīs, Mustali Ismāʿīlīs, and Chishtī Ṣūfīs for their respective spaces of ṭarīqah practices. This commonality in naming points to a shared cultural origin, and although many jamāʿat-khānahs do exist for all three communities, in the United States it is most closely associated with the Nizārī Ismāʿīlī community. These jamāʿat-khānahs are not built in association with masājid in the United States, but serve as spaces expressly for the purpose of spiritual practice and congregational activities for members of the Ismāʿīlī tariqah. The development of jamāʿat-khānahs mirrored that of the masājid among immigrant Muslims who came after the 1965 immigration reform. Ismāʿīlīs gathered in houses, then started renting spaces, then buying and converting spaces, ultimately building a jamāʿat-khānah in Houston in 2002. Since 1985 there has also been a move to create “Ismāʿīlī centers” that function both as a tariqah space and a larger community center, hosting public events. Although the Houston building is called a “jamāʿat-khānah and center,” an actual Ismāʿīlī center is being planned for the city, and another in Los Angeles.

Imāmbārgah.

One of the important events in Shīʿī history is the martyrdom of Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī, grandson of Muḥammad, in Karbala in 680. The event is commemorated by many Shīʿīs during the first ten days of the Islamic month of Muḥarram, a period known as ʿĀshūrāʾ. The commemorations take place in specialized structures, sometimes permanent and sometimes temporary, that have a variety of names depending on countries of origin. In certain South Asian regions, they are called imāmbārgah or imāmbārah. Other names for similar ritual sites are ḥusaynīyah, ashurkhana, maʾtam, and tekkiya. Although ḥusaynīyahs were probably first constructed by the Shīʿī Muslims who arrived from Syria and Lebanon before World War I, the establishment of the Islamic Center of America, a Shīʿī mosque in Dearborn, Michigan, may have been the first permanent home for the commemoration of Ḥusayn’s martyrdom in the United States.

Summary.

The formal organization of Muslim religious congregations occurred infrequently before the twentieth century; with some exceptions, it was during the 1920s that Muslim religious congregations, concentrated in the Midwest and along the East Coast, began to purchase or construct buildings. After 1965, Muslim congregations increased exponentially as over a million new Muslims came to the United States by 2000. This rapid development of Muslim congregations continued even in the aftermath of 9/11. As the U.S. public, politicians, the media, and scholars paid more attention to Muslim congregations than ever before, Muslims opened the doors of their congregations to visitors, sought partners in interfaith service and activism, and worked, like other U.S. congregations, to become more effective and efficient organizations. Muslim congregations have become an increasingly prominent part of the American religious landscape in the twenty-first century and, like other U.S. religious communities, have been a vital organ of civic engagement and public life for their members.

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