Mosques are struggling

St. Louis Post-Dispatch/February 19, 2006
By Tim Townsend

The African-American Muslim experience is a mystery to most Americans, black and white. When they think about African-American Islam at all, many people think immediately of Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. What they don't think much about are the thousands (some claim millions) of black Americans, most in inner cities, who practice the more mainstream, traditional Sunni Islam followed by nearly a billion people throughout the world.

Islam has been a presence in the city for at least a century. Like many U.S. cities today, St. Louis presents several different faces of Islam - Bosnian, south Asian, Arab - and even within the African-American Muslim experience there have been many strains of Islam, some more faithful to its teachings than others.

But black Muslims in the United States are struggling. According to the most recent national study of Muslim houses of prayer, done in 2000, African-American mosques are in more dire financial straits than their immigrant neighbors, with 71 percent saying they were having some financial problems, compared with 45 percent of south Asian (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi) mosques and 43 percent of Arab mosques.

And while many immigrant and African-American Muslims agree that they are all part of the umma - or world-wide community of Muslim believers - others say that ideal is unlike the reality, in which class and race divide the two communities.

In a recent report for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, called "America's Other Muslims," Boston College political science professor Peter Skerry said the divide was, indeed, very real in today's America.

"Relations between African-American and immigrant Muslims are strained at worst, wary at best," he wrote. "Aside from differences of language, culture and national origin, tensions have long been fueled by class disparities. Immigrant Muslims tend to be university-educated and comfortably situated. . . . African-American Muslims are likely to be neither."

Founded in 1957

Masjid al-Mu'minun was founded as part of the Nation of Islam in 1957. For the next 20 years, St. Louis Temple No. 28, as it was called then, served as the Nation's St. Louis headquarters. In 1975, the Nation of Islam's leader, Elijah Muhammad died, and his son, W. Deen Mohammed, took over and radically changed the direction of his father's organization.

The Nation was resurrected later by Farrakhan and others, but W. Deen Mohammed took many of his father's mosques and followers with him as he found his way back to mainstream Sunni Islam. St. Louis Temple No. 28 became Masjid al-Mu'minun under W. Deen Mohammed, and in 1988 it came under the local spiritual direction of Imam Samuel Ansari, now 57, a baker and partner in Hooper's Better Bakery on Shreve Avenue in north St. Louis.

Like at Masjid al-Mu'minun, at most African-American mosques the imam is a volunteer who holds a regular job as well, according to "The Mosque in America: A National Portrait," a 2001 study sponsored by several Muslim organizations, part of a larger study of religious congregations by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research.

Nearly two-thirds of mosques in the United States have one dominant ethnic group, and a quarter of those were African-American in 2000.

Other, smaller African-American organizations associated with Islam have dotted St. Louis's landscape since the 1920s, according to Edward E. Curtis, religious studies professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

In "Islam in Black St. Louis," a 1997 article in "Gateway Heritage," the quarterly magazine for the Missouri Historical Society, Curtis wrote that black St. Louisans joined a number of groups with Islamic orientations, including the Ahmadiyyah, the Islamic Brotherhood, the Fahamme Temple of Islam and Culture, and the Nation of Islam.

In the 1920s an Indian Muslim organization, the Ahmadiyyah, began converting African-Americans in inner-city St. Louis neighborhoods. In 1923 the movement appointed a black American, P. Nathaniel Johnson, as its local imam. "St. Louis was one of the few cities that had an African-American leading a multi-racial, multi-ethnic - whites, Syrians, Turks and blacks - congregation," Curtis said.

Though the Ahmadiyyah movement at that time was traditionally Muslim, Curtis said, since then it has wandered from the mainstream.

Imam Munir Ahmad, 80, a barber at Pyramid Barber Shop in north St. Louis, has been the spiritual leader of the Ahmadiyyah mosque for 50 years. He said that although many of the 200 members of his congregation are African-American, he still gets a diverse crowd with many south Asians. The group is planning to build a new mosque in the Walnut Park area next year.

A similar Muslim strand in the African-American community is the Nation of Islam, founded in the 1930s in Detroit. W.D. Fard is given credit as the Nation's founder, but it was Fard's best student, Elijah Muhammad, who built the organization into a black separatist force by the late 1950s.

Just over half of U.S. mosques were affiliated with a Muslim organization in 2000. Slightly over a quarter had ties to the Islamic Society of North America - typically thought of as the organization that represents Muslims who are within a generation or two of being immigrants - and about 20 percent were affiliated with the Muslim American Society.

When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, W. Deen Mohammed pointed his father's ship back toward Mecca. He insisted that his followers observe the five pillars of Islam, and had pews taken out of his mosques so his congregations could pray in the traditional Muslim way, according to Curtis.

He encouraged those who could afford it to go on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and announced that whites could join the Nation of Islam. He also changed its name to the World Community of Al-Islam in the West. In 1978 Farrakhan left W. Deen Mohammed and resurrected the old Nation of Islam. The Nation itself has split into factions several times since.

A change in priorities

Imam Ansari said that when he got out of the armed forces in the 1960s, he was disillusioned with America and angry.

"I was searching for something, and nothing appealed to me as much as Elijah Muhammad," he said. "When I heard him say the white man is the devil, it hit home. We wanted white Americans to feel what we felt."

After W. Deen Mohammed took control of the organization, other priorities replaced separationism. "The Nation has every right to pursue what they feel are important to their interests," said Ansari. "But our focus is on education, economics and establishing community life."

To that end, Ansari is hoping one day to establish a true Muslim neighborhood in St. Louis, complete with Muslim businesses, homes and places of prayer. "Non-Muslims with our same values - cleanliness, respect and decency - would of course live there, too."

Scholars say one of the most important problems for American Islam is the gap between African-American Muslims and immigrant Muslims.

"You take someone from an American inner city and someone from the fields of Egypt and it's surprising that they have anything in common at all," said Ihsan Bagby, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky.

Bagby said that feeling of empathy some immigrant Muslims have for African-American Muslims "has increased markedly since Sept. 11th ... immigrants can visualize their own struggle in the same light as the African-American struggle."

Curtis does not agree.

"I'm not sure that's true," he said. "I'm not sure immigrants are any closer to understanding the African-American experience. ... There is a problem negotiating the racial divide in American Islam."

In his report on America's Other Muslims, Skerry wrote, "A still greater issue for immigrant Muslims is their perception that African-American Muslims lack a solid grounding in the Arabic language and Islamic texts and do not practice their faith rigorously." Many African-American Muslims cite a condescending attitude from immigrant Muslims who are better educated and wealthier.

Sheikh Mohammad Nur Abdullah, imam and director of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, said that notion was not completely true. He said his mosque worked with Ansari's mosque and raised funds to help Ansari's Sister Clara Muhammad school.

"Some people have that feeling, but I don't think it's right," he said. "Just as there are racist white people, there are racists in every culture - but that's just ignorance, it is not widespread."

Ansari agreed, for the most part.

"There's been an attempt on all parts to try to bridge that gap," he said. "A lot of times African-Americans spend too much time getting people to like us rather than respect us, and some immigrant Muslims have the perception that we should adapt to their culture. The majority of Muslims may still be operating from the old idea that African-Americans are inferior and not capable of leadership."

Ansari admits his congregation is challenged because it has not been able to attract members who can afford to support it financially.

"We're still dealing with a level of education and career that are not where they should be," he said. "We're still only pulling people in who are struggling, and they don't have the economic bracket or education level many of the immigrant mosques have.

"In the inner city the crime rate is high, the neighborhoods are devastated and people simply don't want to frequent (the mosque) because of where it is - it's depressing."

At the same time, there is life at Masjid al-Mu'minun. Friday prayers are well attended. There are 200-300 members of the mosque. The school has 25 children from kindergarten to seventh grade. There are Arabic lessons and teaching sessions on Sundays.

And women play a big role in the mosque - something that, depending on the community, is not always true.

"Women have a voice in all our decisions," said Ansari. "It's a community, and women are the first teachers of our children. How could we make decisions about our future without them?"

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