Skip to comments.Islam in Boston, Massachusetts
Posted on 09/15/2001 11:31:21 AM PDT by vannrox
In Malcolm X Park in Dorchester on the morning of Eid al-Adha, the great festival held during the time of the pilgrimage to Makkah, nearly 1,000 Muslims from all over Boston gather for prayers, food, and celebration. There are women in traditional dress from East and West Africa, South Asia, and Malaysia. Fathers hold the hands of young sons dressed in little suits and bow ties. Teenage boys gather around a table with a large trophy in the center announcing a soccer league for Muslim youth. A group of men and women are busy arranging a table with literature detailing the plight of Bosnian Muslims. At another table, entrepreneurs are stacking books and tapes on Islam for sale along with Islamic insignia T-shirts. The organizers are setting up drink coolers, sweet cakes, and cookies for the breakfast which will follow prayers.
A huge plastic covering is stretched over most of center and left field, oriented toward Makkah where, on this day, Muslims from all over the world have converged as well. Students in jeans and sports shirts take off their shoes and walk onto this baseball field now marked for prayer. A high school teacher in a long white tunic greets people with "Assalamu 'alaykum," "Peace be with you." He hands out sheets printed with traditional Eid prayers transliterated from Arabic. People line up in straight rows as the prayers begin. A young Pakistani immigrant accountant is trying to teach his two little boys, flanking him on either side, the rituals of prayer. Beside him are an Euro-American convert to Islam and his Nigerian friend who work for the same computer company. Women in full hijab and teenage girls in jeans, scarves covering their heads, line up in the back section of the field for the cycles of prayers, kneeling and bowing fully to the ground. "We are not second-class citizens in Islam," one woman explains. "We are just modest, don't want to distract the men, and prefer to be at the back when we bow to the ground for our prayers."
It is currently estimated that there are over 10,000 Muslims actively participating in Islamic centers in the greater Boston area. This number includes "indigenous" Muslims of African-American or Euro-American descent, and "immigrant" Muslims who have come to the U.S. from other parts of the world. For events such as this Eid celebration in Malcolm X Park, Muslims from across the whole racial and cultural spectrum come together, visibly demonstrating the commitment to racial equality emphasized in Islam.
For African-Americans, Islam is part of the spiritual heritage of African ancestors brought as slaves. The faith identity of these slaves was largely, but not completely, suppressed until some Islamic traditions were said to have been "rediscovered," first by Noble Drew Ali, who started the Moorish Science Temple in 1913 and subsequently by W.D. Fard and Elijah Muhammad who launched the Nation of Islam in the 1930s. After the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, his son, Wallace (Warith) Deen Mohammed, led the majority of the Black Muslims along the path initiated by Malcolm X -- away from the separatism of Elijah Muhammad and toward closer relations with the larger international body of mainstream Muslims. Many of the Nation of Islam temples became Sunni mosques or Islamic centers, like the Masjid Al-Qur'an in Dorchester. Another group of indigenous Muslims is made up of a growing number of Euro-American converts to Islam. Indeed, a century ago it was a New England convert to Islam, Mohammed Russell Alexander Webb, who addressed the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago on the subject of Islam.
The immigration of Muslims to the United States began in the late nineteenth century. Most came from Lebanon and Syria and some of these immigrants, both Christian and Muslim, settled in the Boston area in the early 1900s. There were seven Muslim families who settled in Quincy Point and worked to maintain their Islamic faith and practice in Quincy. In 1934, these seven families joined with other Arabic-speaking Muslims in the area to form a cultural, social, and charitable organization called "The Arab American Banner Society." From 1937 to 1952, they met in an old house at 470 South Street in Quincy. Realizing that the second generation was growing up with little Islamic identity, the Society began organizing informal religious lessons as well as Jum'ah prayers on Friday noon and Eid prayers on the two big feast days. In 1962, the leaders decided to build a mosque, right there on South Street. The building was completed in 1964 and was served by Mohammed Omar Awad, a first-generation immigrant and self-taught imam. During these years, the officers of the Quincy mosque took on national leadership roles in the Federation of Islamic Associations and helped other communities to organize and build mosques.
The growth of the Muslim community in the Boston area called for the employment of a full-time, officially trained religious director and imam. In 1982, Talal Eid, educated in Lebanon and at the al-Azhar University in Cairo, came to Quincy, jointly sponsored by the mosque community and the Muslim World League. He has led the Islamic community in Quincy for over a decade, and is now leading the community in Sharon as well. He stimulated the growth of a religious education program which today has more than 300 children enrolled in weekend school programs. He has been active in Islamic affairs in the wider New England area as well as in interfaith dialogue and cooperation.
In 1965, a young African American convert to Islam, Shakir Mahmoud, came to the Quincy mosque to learn more about "orthodox" Islam. He had grown dissatisfied with the teachings of the Nation of Islam, especially after Malcolm X's break with the movement. When W.D. Mohammed began the process of steering the largely separatist Nation of Islam toward a more mainstream Islamic path, Shakir was called to teach Islamic studies at Temple #11 in Dorchester, which had once been led by Malcolm X and, later, by Minister Louis X, now Louis Farrakhan. Shakir became imam of the Dorchester mosque in 1977. Under his leadership, the community moved gradually toward the moderate and mainstream Islam espoused by W.D. Mohammed. In 1984, the name of the center was changed from Temple #11 to Masjid Al-Qur'an. Today, the mosque attracts Muslims from all parts of the world in addition to its core African American constituency.
Students organized the first nationwide Islamic organization, the Muslim Students Association, in 1963. Since then many of those same young Muslims settled permanently in the U.S. after their professional or graduate education and started another nationwide organization, the Islamic Society of North America, now based in Plainfield, Indiana. During the 1960s, Boston witnessed an influx of students from predominantly Muslim countries. The Harvard Islamic Society was organized in 1958 by three students: an African American, a Sudanese, and a Palestinian. Today there are university Islamic societies active at Harvard, M.I.T., Boston University, Northeastern, Wentworth Institute, Suffolk, and Tufts. The Islamic Society of Boston was organized in 1982 as a loose association of the independent student Islamic societies to assist them in sponsoring lectures on the political, economic, and social aspects of their religious life. Their mosque, located in a recently-renovated Knights of Columbus Hall on Prospect Street in Cambridge, is today a striking and beautiful addition to the religious architecture of Greater Boston.
The 1970s and 1980s saw the establishment of many Islamic centers in the area. Sensing the need for an Islamic center more accessible to the immigrant professionals living in the western suburbs, Boston Muslims founded the Islamic Center of Boston in 1979 and purchased a house and acreage in Wayland in 1987. In 1992, the group opened a community center with a social hall and eight classrooms. The Islamic Society of Greater Worcester also organized in 1979 and eventually purchased a former Catholic church. Throughout New England this was a period of Islamic growth.
Now there are a number of active Islamic organizations in the New England area, bringing together Muslims from these various centers. The Islamic Council of New England, founded in 1984 and now including more than thirty centers, sponsors an annual conference on some aspect of Islamic life in the United States. Imam Eid of the Quincy mosque heads the New England Majlis as-Shura, a council made up of imams and other knowledgeable leaders from each local center which makes decisions about certain Islamic legal matters. The Council also provides materials for Islamic training and children's education, conducts youth programs, summer camps, and sports activities, and participates in interfaith dialogue events with the Massachusetts Council of Churches and the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
The New England Muslim Sisters Association (NEMSA) was formed in 1985 to promote "Islamic rights for women in political, economic, social and educational fields." NEMSA sponsors an annual conference to exchange information and resources among Muslim women in the region and assists in organizing women's events at the local level. The group also seeks to distribute accurate information about Islam and to respond to inaccurate representations of Muslims in the media.
The Islamic Council developed the Muslim Youth of New England program in 1990 in order to provide more educational and social opportunities for Muslim youth to interact with one another and to stay in touch with their religious and cultural base. Today teenagers whose parents were 1960s immigrants need structures such as summer camps and weekend conferences to enable them to meet other young Muslims and to learn the history and fundamental tenets of Islam. This emphasis on the education of the next generation has been the impulse for most of the creative organization in the Muslim community over the past three decades. The Muslim community is hopeful that they and their children can make a positive, valuable impact on American society.
The history of Islam in New England has not been without its setbacks. In March 1990, a three-alarm fire swept through the Quincy mosque causing an estimated $500,000 worth of damage. The investigation was inconclusive, but the experience was unsettling for the community. Within a year, the Islamic community had poured energy, time, and money into the complete restoration of the mosque. Even before the fire, the Quincy community had outgrown its facility and was looking for a larger home. In 1991, the leadership of the Islamic Center of New England negotiated for the purchase of a 7.25 acre property owned by a Roman Catholic religious order in Milton. Within a few months, however, as the Islamic community was finalizing its mortgage arrangements, a group of Milton residents purchased the property, locking the Muslims out. This again was a blow to the Islamic community. However, Muslim leaders made the critical decision not to raise an uproar over the lost opportunity in Milton, but rather to look toward the future and seek another property. Happily, the opportunity came to purchase a former horse-farm in Sharon, a small town of 15,500 residents, more than half of whom are Jewish. Dr. Mian Ashraf of the Islamic Center of New England first approached the residents of Sharon through the Sharon Clergy Association and found a spirit of openness and welcome. When the community broke ground for a new Islamic Center in Sharon in the spring of 1992, there were many rabbis, priests, and other representatives of the Jewish and Christian communities present to lift a shovel for the event.
The story of the Muslim community in the Boston area continues to unfold. A fellowship of Sufi followers of Pir Bawa Muhaiyaddeen meets regularly in Cambridge, an Ismaili community gathers in an office building in Allston, and a Tabligh Jamaat group meets each weekend at M.I.T. The Islamic Society of Boston is planning to build a large Masjid in Roxbury which will accomodate some 1600 worshippers. There are nascent political, professional, and social groups which meet virtually every night of the week. While each organization has its particular emphasis and goals, each recognizes that most important is daily prayer and Islamic practice.
Five times a day -- in private living rooms, in business offices, in dormitories, and in Islamic centers fashioned from remodeled churches and transformed U-Haul dealerships -- the Muslims of New England bow in prayer. They face Makkah, but the path of shariah, the "straight path" of Islam, leads them day by day through the streets of Boston.
Is flight training and box cutters part of the straight path?
We know that moslems can declare a "Fatwa". Bin Laden and Arafat have promulgated and used terror, and killed innocent men, women, and children. If in fact their religion rejects such acts, when will a fatwa be declared against these vermin? Surely, their actions besmirch Islam to a far greater extent than did the novelist Salman Rushdie - who was rewarded with a death sentence in a fatwa.
Unless, of course, all of Islam doesn't really object to murderous terrorists....