By Mary Lahaj
I am an American Muslim. I grew up in the U.S. and both my parents were born here, so I never had the opportunity to travel to a Muslim country, i.e., where at least 90% of the population is Muslim. Accustomed to living as a religious minority, I was curious to know what it would be like to be part of a society where I was in the majority.
In 1993, the Religious Director (Imam) at our local mosque in Quincy, MA, told me about a teaching position in Bahrain. The Headmistress of a K-12 bilingual school was hiring American teachers and a vice principal. Dr. Layla was trained in the U.S. and wanted to establish an American curriculum to replace the old British system.
Since I had done some part-time teaching and was looking for a position, the Imam recommended me. This was an opportunity for me to work for a couple of years, save money, and expose my young son Julien to learn about a new culture. He was 11 years old at the time, and I thought it would be a broadening experience. Julien’s father, Robert, and I were divorced, but he did not stand in my way, even though he didn’t much like the idea. I sold everything we owned and after a tearful goodbye, Julien and I left for the island in the Persian Gulf.
Bahrain is a small country of 2 million people. In my research, I was mostly concerned about the status of women. I read that women were free to wear whatever they wanted, and they could drive. It was true. There was no real middle class in the country, but there were plenty of malls and beautiful things to buy.
But there is a bad sectarian situation in Bahrain, similar to Iraq. The majority of the country’s Muslims are Shias, more than 60%, just like in Iraq. The country is ruled by a handful of Sunni families who all claim to be related to the ruling Emir. At the time, the Bahraini Emir was also the cousin of the Emir ruling in Kuwait. The small ruling class has created apartheid conditions for the Shias. I observed that the Shia held the lowest paying, dirtiest jobs, such as driving rusted-out cabs and broken-down buses. They did construction work on the side of the road in the unbearably hot sun. Their social situation reminded me of the way African Americans lived in the South, in the 1930s. They were an oppressed and hated “minority,” with absolutely no social mobility. They even had segregated mosques.
By removing Saddam Hussain in Iraq, we breathed new life into ancient sectarian conflicts and gave hope to the Shias. To ensure their freedom from oppression, their Iranian neighbors (where the Shias are a self-ruling majority), and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon rushed into Iraq with reinforcements. In a nut shell, this is the basis for the endless civil wars in Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon.
On the last leg of our journey, Julien and I met two other American teachers. There was a Muslim woman, Soheir, who was African American from my hometown, Boston. The other teacher, Kathy, was from Florida. Kathy was a fair-skinned, beautiful blond and a practicing Christian. From the outset, Kathy’s skin color influenced the way the Bahrainis treated her. They adored her.
When we landed in the capital, Manama, we were met by Dr. Layla’s staff of Sri Lankans. They picked us up in a van and drove us directly to the school. Our meeting with Dr. Layla took place in her office, at 2 AM. She insisted that we each sign a 25-page contract, before she would let us go to our domiciles to bed. It was the first time we had seen the contract.
Blurry eyed, we were too exhausted to read it. But Dr. Layla insisted that it could not wait until tomorrow. We asked her to tell us what was in it. She mentioned a few things, proud of her cunning. As these conditions came to light, our eyes slowly widened.
For example, the vice principal’s job that interested me would not be available for another five years. The job was part of a 5-year plan to build an annex to the school. For the next five years, I would be teaching. We were all under the impression that we were here under a two-year contract. “Well. No,” she said. “That was completely wrong. Whoever told you that had it completely wrong. That’s not my fault,” she said.
Next, she explained about our pay. It was good pay, except that she would be holding back a substantial amount of money every week. If she was unhappy with our job performance and decided to send us back to the U.S., she would use that money to pay for our trip. If things worked out, at the end of the five years, she would give us the money she held back.
After 2 hours of Dr. Layla aggressively arguing and justifying each point in the contract, we saw the futility of disagreeing with her. We finally decided to sign the outrageous document and deal with the consequences later, just so we could get to bed.
“Negotiations” completed, Dr. Layla smiled wickedly and immediately demanded and collected our passports. She said it was the law in Bahrain, as per the Ministry of Work (where her cousin held a position). “As your employer, I will keep your passports, so you don’t travel the country, or leave without my permission.” She locked them in the safe and said she would give them back, as soon as she had sent them to the Ministry to be registered. Meanwhile, we had planned to go directly to the U.S. Embassy to let them know that we were living in Bahrain. But we couldn’t go there, not without our passports.
Dr. Layla loaded us back into the small van and issued directives to the tired workers (her “slaves” essentially) from Sri Lanka. They drove us to our digs, a dirty apartment with bugs on the pillows. By this time, we could not sleep. We stayed up for the rest of the night, plotting our rebellion. If necessary, we would just leave (if we could get our passports back). In the morning, we repacked our things in the van and informed Dr. Layla that we refused to get out of the van. We would return to the airport, unless she promised to find us another place immediately. Amused by our rebellion, Dr. Layla said she was planning to find us a better place, anyway. “If you insist,” she smirked, “I’ll see what I can do.”
She found us a nicer place that same week, but it was in the middle of a desert, with one road and no houses around it for miles. We each had a bedroom, except that Julien and I shared one large room. The only other people in the apartment complex were 15 men from the Philippines. They were working in Bahrain under a two-year contract, sending their wages home to their families. Since we were stranded in the desert, they drove us in their van to the market, to downtown, and the laundromat. They were such good people; they took Julien to catch crabs at dawn.
With Dr. Layla, we had to fight for everything, even basic necessities. Whether it was a stove, refrigerator, an armoire, sheets, or a telephone, we had to threaten her first, before the “negotiations” would begin. When she wanted something from us, she would threaten us first, and then, begin negotiating.
Dr. Layla told us proudly that her mother lived next door to the Emir. She identified with the ruler. In this case, we saw that Dr. Layla had the disposition of a dictator, and we, her subjects, were always at her mercy (a quality she severely lacked). We were dependent on the slaves for transportation to work and back. Dr. Layla dispatched them to pick us up at 6 AM and drive us home at 6 PM. We never got a telephone. To call home, we had to find time during the work day, get permission to use the office phone, and sacrifice our privacy.
I naively imagined I would fit into the Muslim majority society, being an Arab and a Muslim. But I didn’t. In fact, Dr. Layla treated everyone who wasn’t a member of her family like a slave. Our work schedule reflected our status. For example, we had one or two free periods. But we never had a break, because one or more of the teachers would be out sick, and the rest of us would have to divide up and teach their classes. I had hoped that one of the teachers might befriend me and invite me to her home. But I soon discovered that the teachers, who were mostly from Egypt and Palestine, were living under even more onerous conditions. Due to high unemployment in those countries, the women worked in Bahrain and sent money home, so their families could survive.
By 6 AM the temperature on the island was already 90 degrees and the humidity 100%. I taught English in grades two and four, and American history in grade ten. The classrooms had old desks and ancient air conditioners that rattled so loud, I had to scream to be heard. I carried six textbooks in my arms to the different classrooms, exacerbating my sciatica pain. The children, who were mostly cared for by nannies from other countries, were not well-behaved in school. One time, I came to a third-grade class, where they had blockaded the door to keep me out. They complained that I would not allow them to stand on their desks and sword fight with their rulers.
Although my situation was unbearable, Julien was having a pretty good time. He was enrolled in the 6th grade, unchallenged by the work. He made a few friends who invited him to play at their house. The biggest problem I had with Julien was the lice he gave me, which was an epidemic in that climate. He got lice twice, and since we slept in the same room, I got lice twice. To be rid of them, I had to wash everything in a giant trash can, pour in detergent, boil water on the stove, and stir the mixture with a broom.
It seemed like an eternity, but it had only been six weeks when I got word that Robert was coming for a week’s vacation. It was like him to want to be sure we were okay. My first thought was that it was time for us to leave; maybe Robert was our ticket home. But for more than a month, we had been asking for our passports so we could go to the U.S. embassy. Finally, Dr. Layla took them out of the safe and handed them to us, threatening some calamity if we didn’t give them back to her as soon as we were done. We got our passports back the day before Robert was coming.
Our host at the embassy was a young Indian woman with a British accent. She was very knowledgeable about the country and its “strange” ways. After seeing our drawn faces, she encouraged us to speak openly. I let her know that things were not going so well. I asked if it would be okay to leave with my son’s father when he came. She shook her head emphatically: No.
“You’re under contract right?”
“Yes,” I said, “But we were forced to sign it.”
Reading the concern on all our faces, the host lowered her voice and said, “If you really want to leave, the only way would be for you to keep your passports and leave in the middle of the night, without telling anyone.”
We were all flabbergasted. I thought about the other teachers who would have to teach all my classes, and cringed.
“Look,” she said. “Your employer, Dr. Layla, is known by everyone in this country. By law, she will have placed your name on a list of workers at the Ministry. I think she has a relative who works there. So, if your name shows up on the computer at the airport, they won’t let you leave.”
“What if I told Dr. Layla that I needed to leave, to get home to my sick mother? Wouldn’t she let me go?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No. If you even mention that you’re leaving, she will never let you go. And if you try to leave without telling her (in the middle of the night), be sure you don’t tell anyone.”
She paused, intent on making her point, “Let me be clear. When you get to the airport, if they see your name on the workers’ list, you could end up in jail. And, only Dr. Layla could have you released, into her custody, of course.”
After we left the embassy, the three of us agreed not to return our passports, until we could figure out what to do. We still had no phone to make plane reservations, and no transportation. If I decided to leave, Robert would be my one chance. But the idea of sneaking off in the middle of the night and burdening my co-workers with my classes was not the way I did things.
I had one week to decide between two bad choices. Of course, Robert was willing to help us leave. Still undecided near the end of the week, I called my mother from a pay phone in the city. Our conversation lasted less than 3 minutes. She said, “Come home, Mary,” and hung up. That was all I needed, to make up my mind.
Robert made the arrangements, and I started packing. I wrote a note and gave it to my two roommates to give to Dr. Layla when they arrived at work in the morning. I asked them to apologize for me to the other teachers. Robert picked us up with at 10 PM, and we checked into a hotel near the airport where we waited for our 1:00 AM flight.
At the airport, we were stopped a few times at the usual check points. The last stop, at the gate, was the one computer. While the man was looking at it, I tried to keep from shaking. He stared at the computer for a long time, checked our passports and looked back at the computer. And then, he let the three of us board.
I held my breath until we reached London, where we had a 10-hour layover. I will never forget the cool air and bright sunshine of that October day. Back home, Dr. Layla called the Imam at the mosque and told him that I had stolen money when I left. The Imam told her that if she could prove this, he would see that justice was done. Of course, it was a lie, for I had actually forfeited my whole paycheck.
That was October. By January, Kathy was fed up with Dr. Layla. To help her escape the island, she asked a soldier from one of the American bases. While she was in the air on her way back to Florida, Dr. Layla had called Kathy’s mother and commanded, “As soon as Kathy lands, you must tell her to get right back on the next plane. She cannot leave without my permission.” Without a word, Kathy’s mother stared at the phone for a moment and then hung up.
Dr. Layla never tried to hide her prejudice. During that one year, she fired Soheir. However, the school’s disappointed parents convinced Dr. Layla to hire her back. But at the end of the year, Dr. Layla fired her a second time. She used this as an excuse for not giving back the money she had withheld. Luckily, there were others in Bahrain, kind and generous, who came to Soheir’s defense and helped her to leave the country.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
…For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It seems that as early as 1807, Wordsworth complained of the world and the fast pace of life as a source of discontentment. I wonder what he would think, if he were alive today. What has changed?
As someone who glides through life, moving from task to task, I have felt that the world is too much with me; and despite all my cleverness, I too, have been beset by discontentment.
The topic of discontentment has been kicked around by ancient philosophers and religious leaders since time immemorial. Taoists call it imbalance. For example, the Qur’an calls it “a sickness of the heart” (2:10).
In the following quote, the famous Christian monk, St. Augustine, proposed a remedy: “[true contentment] is felt only in the presence of God … Our whole business then, in life, is to restore the heart to health so that God can be seen or felt.”
I embraced Augustine’s remedy and plotted a modest course of spiritual paths that would restore my heart to health and lead me to be in the presence of God. At first, thinking I might be better off to want less from the world, in exchange for more happiness, I considered the path of asceticism. But, I realized that such a life wasn’t for me, and set out to find a different path.
Unfamiliar with contemplative practices, I imagined contentment on the faces of two familiar spiritual leaders. I pictured Buddha, seemingly detached from the world, sitting peacefully under a tree and wearing an expression of serenity and peace. The other face was that of Christ, suspended above the world on a cross, being crucified and wearing a similar expression of peace. Neither of them had betrayed the pain or suffering caused by the world around them.
I had some experience with the practice of Transcendental Meditation, which led me to examine the basic elements of meditation and my own capabilities. The first is the importance of being self-disciplined. Since meditation must be practiced with regularity, being self-disciplined is crucial for meditation to be effective in life. Another feature of meditation is its demands on one’s time. Stepping away from the world to sit in the lotus position for hours is a sacrifice. Thus, one must be prepared for self-sacrifice on the path of contemplative practice.
Wanting to learn more about contemplative practices in my own tradition, Islam, I chose to analyze four of the five pillars familiar to every practicing Muslim. The pillars of faith have always been described as “obligations,” so I had never before stopped to think of their contemplative features, or compare them to Zen Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation.
The first pillar is the core belief in the Oneness of God− known as tawhid, in Arabic. Tawhid is the heightened awareness of God’s presence, in everything we do. To achieve that heightened awareness, tawhid demands that one enters into an exclusive relationship with Allah (God). The exclusive relationship blocks out anyone or anything, and prohibits any other relationship of similar importance. In other words, tawhid excludes what attracts us in the world and recognizes no other authority besides Allah−not parents, teachers, or friends.
In the hierarchy of contemplative practice in Islam this exclusive relationship with Allah is the foundation. In practice, being in that relationship, during prayer, or fasting, or acting with kindness and respect toward another living thing, can result in a deep sense of contentment.
The second pillar is praying five times a day. Islamic prayer is similar to meditation in defining the elements of contemplative practice. For instance, it demands your time. It requires that you disengage from the world around you −five times a day, every day. Similar to meditation, praying five times a day requires self-discipline and self-sacrifice.
How to pray five times a day? To begin the practice, I had to develop more self-discipline. But it was more complicated than that. I was paralyzed by my conflict of interests. Do I watch the rest of my favorite TV program? Do I end my phone conversation? Can I stop my work? Maybe, I should check my email or phone, one more time. Do I excuse myself from a fun-gathering of friends? Do I inform my boss that on my break, I will be praying? But then, these questions get to the heart of the spiritual quest for contentment. We must either stay the course, or stop the world I want to get off to commune with God.
At first, I tried and failed to pray five times a day because I was trying to squeeze my prayers into my busy, important life. At each intersection, my busy life would block me from crossing. My breakthrough came as a result of reading the oft-repeated command in the Qur’an that says “establish prayer” in your life. I had read this phrase in passages many times, but this time, I was able to derive a new meaning. I realized that in order to go to work, I had to arrange my life around the established commuter train schedule. Understanding this key word, I identified the prayer schedule, which follows the movement of the sun from dawn to evening, as the established schedule for me to arrange my life around.
I also had to think of my secular life overall. I learned that I would have to intentionally carve out a sacred space and time. At first, I could only find time for one prayer a day; but eventually, I was able to arrange my life around the five daily prayers. Yes, it meant going out to lunch with my sister after prayer time. And yes, it took some sacrifice to leave an engagement. But taking time out to commune with God five times a day has given me a deep sense of contentment that I have never felt before. Moreover, I have discovered that time out is addictive; and, like any time-honored, life-consuming addiction, doing it is easier than not doing it.
But the biggest challenge remained: how to keep the demands of the world at bay, during prayer or meditation? When I studied Transcendental Meditation in the early 1970s, the Yogi had devised a method to protect the meditation from worldly intrusions. He gave me a mantra (which cost $450) and warned me that the world would come as “thought bubbles,” and preoccupy the mind. To train my mind, I was told to repeat the mantra, and that would release the intruding thoughts into the air. I found this to be a constant battle that I never could win.
In Islamic prayer, it is also necessary to train the mind to protect it from worldly intrusions. The method is similar but different (and there is no charge for it). The method starts by reciting “Allah whoo Akbar” (god is great), at the beginning of the prayer. The gesture is a conscious effort to be in the exclusive relationship with God (tawhid). Next, the mind is kept engaged and busy, quietly reciting Arabic prayers from memory. The prayers are in Arabic because it is the language of the Qur’an. But for most people who do not understand Arabic, the sounds are really more like mantras than meaningful words. It is preferable to learn some translation of the prayer in English. Although, even with that, the flow of the Arabic recited from memory is still an effective barrier to the thought bubbles.
Performing prayer also requires a precise choreography, involving the body transitioning into three different positions. Keeping track of the physical movements and the flow of Arabic sounds, helps me to stay focused more often than not; the focus being, remembrance of God and keeping the world at bay. It is always a challenge. But when I have succeeded to pray five times in a day, I feel a sense of contentment and triumph. It’s not because I am praying for God’s sake. I am praying for my own sanity’s sake. And for that, there is no success in my life that holds a greater meaning.
When I asked myself if and when I had ever felt particularly close to God, I thought of the holy month of Ramadan, another pillar of Islam. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from before dawn to sunset. Christians and Jews are familiar with fasting and how it can change daily life. But for Muslims the fast is a long and difficult change. It lasts for a month and includes abstaining from food, water, and sex, during the daylight hours. Oftentimes, the person fasting is deprived of sleep as well.
In my experience, the suffering of extreme thirst and the depletion of energy sometimes overwhelms me in the late afternoon, when there are still 3 to 4 more hours left of daylight. When I feel this way, I can’t help but ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” I know it is a test of my relationship with Allah. How deep is my commitment and love? To past the test, I remind myself that I have chosen to fast and promised God I would complete the fast on this day. Once I have consciously reiterated my intentions (purifying intentions was taught by Jesus in the Gospel) and renewed my relationship with God, I experience a gratifying sense of closeness to God.
As I once heard a Methodist minister explain, it’s not the suffering that gives an act meaning; it’s that the relationship with God holds up under the suffering. In fact, it is that suffering and its consequence that I miss most, when the month of Ramadan is over.
Hajj is another pillar of Islam. Prior to my departure for the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj), I received a lot of advice. Experienced pilgrims told me, “It will be a test of your faith.” During an orientation program, our religious leader, the imam, said, “You will be out of your comfort zone.”
That was an understatement. Unlike Ramadan, when your life returns to normal each night, as you indulge in food and drink. On Hajj, there is no return to normal. The pilgrimage is two weeks of discomfort and relentless demands, both physical and mental. I compare it to a long-term illness that must be endured with incalculable patience and perseverance; one day at a time, and with no guarantees that it will heal you.
The Hajj was a prolonged test of leaving my loud, comfortable world and traveling to another loud but distant, foreign world. It was an adventure, where I awoke each day wondering, is this really me? I was challenged to relate to the land and the different people I met; and by the rituals that were beyond my mental comprehension and physical capacity; and, perhaps beyond my faith.
Every religion asks us to abandon comfort and familiar ways. We get up early to pray, we fast, hone our virtues, and purify our inner self, with the hope of achieving Divine union (taqwa). For the faithful, faith is diligence, without assurance; and such was the pilgrimage to Mecca. Like Abraham, we were asked to perform unparalleled tests of faith, without any assurances.
Every day, all that was familiar to me receded further into the past, to insignificance. Inexplicably, the further removed I became from my life, the closer I came to Allah. The one thing I remembered was that a few years ago, I had made a conscious choice to complete this once-in-a-lifetime obligation. But while on the pilgrimage, I had only one motivation in my heart, to help me to put one foot in front of the other, and it was to keep my promise to Allah.
There is no easy explanation, but in many ways, the suffering, the self-discipline, and the separation from my world, made the pilgrimage to Mecca the quintessential contemplative practice. I see now that I had chosen to be in relationship with my Beloved Creator, above all else. And now, when I recall my pilgrimage, I derive contentment from remembering the magnitude of this relationship in my life.
Finally, no discussion of contemplation in Islam is complete without some mention of Sufism. Steeped in the Islamic tradition, Sufism is a spiritual science that sits at the far end of the contemplative-practice continuum. By means of ‘turning,’ ‘whirling,’ praying, chanting, and fasting, the ascetic Sufis reach the goal of profound union with the Divine. While we eschew suffering and sacrifice in life to pursue the path of contentment, the Sufis accept that the path will be a difficult one.
In the following quote, America’s most beloved 13th century Persian poet and Islamic mystic, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, describes the path to contentment best:
“Do not imagine that the journey is short; and one must have the heart of a lion to follow the unusual road, for it is very long…. One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping…”
Building the First Mosque and Muslim Community in New England
© Mary Lahaj, 10th Edition, March, 2018
By 1989, I had finished my course work in Islamic Studies and Christian/Muslim Relations, at the Hartford Seminary, in Hartford, Connecticut. But I hadn’t chosen a topic of the thesis and final requirement for my master’s degree. Anticipating that it would take months to research and write, I wanted to select a topic that had meaning, for me personally. More artist than scholar, my labor needed inspiration. More servant than intellectual, I wanted my thesis to fulfill some purpose, perhaps a legacy.
The tragedy struck on March 30, 1990, during the holy month of Ramadan. A fire destroyed the interior of the Islamic Center of New England at Quincy Point, Quincy Massachusetts. The concrete exterior remained intact, but the damage was estimated at more than $500,000. The mosque fire was a big deal for the wider Muslim community of Greater Boston, but for my family, who were founders, it was personal. As soon as I heard about it, I arrived dutifully on the scene to assess the damage and report back to my mother (Mary Omar Hassan), one of the original founders.
The whole inside of the mosque would need to be gutted. The smell of smoke, ash, and water permeated the air, in the social hall, kitchen, and classrooms. But the prayer room, with its thick and ornate mahogany door had been spared. The wall to wall oriental rugs had retained the acrid smell, but they could be replaced. The prayer room seemed to be as peaceful as usual− tranquil−despite the heat of fire, the hatred of arson, or the heroism of the Quincy firemen who had spared the room any real water damage.
My cousin Zaida, office secretary, and one of the founding family members, asked me to check on some old boxes in a closet storage space hidden under the stairwell. She told me that these boxes held all the Center’s historical documents. What documents, I wondered?
When I opened the closet door, I stepped gingerly into a watery mix of ash on the floor. There were the boxes, covered by a thin layer of sooty ash. Standing in the water, I quickly glanced inside a few of them and could see brownish papers, neatly stacked, and many hand-written record books (secretary and treasurer notes), going back decades. One protruding document caught my eye, the “Arab American Banner Society, Certificate of Incorporation,” dated November 1937.
As I stared at this primary source of American history, I thought, what if these boxes had gone up in flames and been lost forever? Is history truly so fragile, as to be lost for being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Someone, I thought, should write a coherent history, using these primary sources. I suddenly realized that someone was going to be me, for I had stumbled on the topic for my thesis. I would rescue and preserve this history of the first Muslims and the first mosque in all of New England, for posterity’s sake. I already knew some of the story –the decades of hard work and the dream of two generations of eight Lebanese Muslim families who lived at Quincy Point, to build a mosque for their children.
I loaded 12 fragile, smelly boxes into my car and drove them home. I stacked them in my study, where I had my computer. They filled my whole apartment with a strong, smoky odor. In addition to these primary resources, I was related to nearly all eight of the founding families. This gave me access to the witnesses, so I could uncover the front story and the back story of how they did it− how they built the first mosque in all of New England, after 30 years of trying.
Built in 1964, the Islamic Center of New England at Quincy Point was the long-range dream of eight Lebanese families, who came to this country at the turn of the 20th Century, more than 100 years ago. Quincy Point is located near the Fore River Shipyard. The neighborhood is where the immigrant generation settled and the second generation of founders were born and married.
This history will show that one of the strongest forces motivating the founding families of the first American-born generation was to establish their religious identity as Muslims in America. They wanted their mosque to be seen as equal to the churches and synagogues, with a place of prominence on the American religious landscape. Modeling those religious institutions, the American-born founders set up a democratic administration system, copied fundraising events, imitated the way the churches were used for social purposes, and learned about the legal documentation necessary to build a house of worship in America.
Once built, the mosque would attract Muslims from all over the world. Thanks to the United States Immigration Act of 1965, the gates for new immigrants were reopened. The new Muslims who came were educated, skilled, and talented. Relieved, as much as surprised to find a mosque in America, the new immigrant families who settled in New England joined the Center, and were motivated to build a community for their children to grow up as practicing Muslims.
Diversity is one of the great features and challenges for the American Muslim community. In Quincy, for example, the community would eventually include people from more than 35 countries, far outnumbering the handful of Lebanese founders. Representing different cultures, races, ethnicities, genders, socio and educational backgrounds, the Muslims like other religionists, also held different religious views. The rich diversity gave new meaning to the statement of the Prophet Mohamed, Prophet of Islam, who said, “Diversity in my community is a blessing.”
One unifying fact about the Muslim community is the realization that Islamic and American values overlap seamlessly and form a solid basis on which to build and grow the community. These values include respect for law, justice, autonomy, family ties, equality, brotherhood/sisterhood, democracy, and love of neighbor.
The history begins with the immigrant generation of founders, at the turn of the 20th Century, and covers the first generation of American-born founders, through the years from 1931 to 1991. It also features the major contributions of the immigrant pioneers who joined and built the community from 1965 onward. Given that the first mosque in New England was built in one of the oldest and most celebrated cities in the country, Quincy, City of Presidents, by its residents, only enhances the relevance and significance of this first Muslim community.
THE IMMIGRANT GENERATION
Reasons for Migration
At the turn of the 20th Century, the Muslims who came from Syria to the U.S. were a part of the Ottoman Empire. During the 1920s, while Europeans were dissolving and dividing the Islamic Empire, the French were given a mandate to separate Mount Lebanon and the Bekka Valley from Syria. Syria never recognized the border change and continued to consider Mount Lebanon a part of Syria. This shift took place while the eight founding families were here in the U.S. Since the founders came originally from the areas north of Tripoli on Mount Lebanon, south of Beirut, and east in the Bekka Valley, they who were once Syrians became “Lebanese” overnight.
During one of the lowest points in history between Arabs and Turks, young Muslims fled Syria in the late 19th Century. One main reason for the exodus was that the Ottoman Turks would periodically swoop down on the villages, round up the young men, and consign them to military service, in order to quash uprisings against the Empire. In a taped interview, my grandfather and one of the founders, Mohamed Omar, explained that he had six uncles who went to fight in Yemen and never returned.
Modern-day Turks refer to the uprisings in Yemen as Turkey’s “Vietnam.” The recruitment of young men, in areas that now constitutes Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan, continued in spite of protests in Beirut. The Yemenese revolted in 1903 and in 1911, ultimately forcing the Turks into a compromise.  Historian George Antonius explains that the practice of recruiting troops from Syria to re-conquer the Arabs of Yemen, introduced in 1880, “opened a long and costly chapter of enmity between Turk and Arab.”
At the age of 22, Mohamed Omar told his father that he had no heart “to shoot anyone.” Dodging the violence he found so odious, he joined the first big wave of immigrants bound for America, in the years between 1875 and 1914. With his father’s blessings, Omar left his village (Imreen) in the mountainous area north of Tripoli for the Greek port Patras. There he waited for 15 days for the Martha Washington to sail into port, then bound for Ellis Island, New York.
In our interview, Omar described his harrowing voyage of 1914. After being at sea for several days, the ship extinguished all lights and continued its three-week voyage in complete darkness, lasting until it reached Ellis Island. It was frightening for passengers who had no idea of what was happening. Omar had met a Syrian woman travelling alone on the crossing. When she became seasick, he had helped her. She understood English and explained to Omar that the blackout was necessary because Germany had just declared war and the waters were unsafe. That ominous voyage was the last for the Martha Washington, until the end of World War I.
Omar continued to describe his experience. When they finally reached Ellis Island, he had to drop one of his three names: Mohamed Omar Awad. Awad was his clan name (larger, extended family), and he became Mohamed Omar. Next, the passengers had to take a physical and mental test. Omar knew about the physical test, and that he would pass it because his health was good. But since he spoke no English, he was worried about failing the mental test.
Nonverbal intelligence tests were invented in the early 1900s to facilitate psychological testing of non-English-speaking immigrants. These required no verbal responses from subjects. Howard Andrew Knox was a physician employed by the U.S. Public Health Service at the Ellis Island immigration station, during the early 1900s. He pioneered the “moron” test, which was a wooden puzzle test, first implemented in 1914, the same year that Omar arrived in New York (See “Howard Andrew Knox: Pioneer of Intelligence Testing at Ellis Island,” by John T. E. Richardson, Columbia University Press, 2011).
After passing the physical exam, Omar sat in a room at a table, anxiously awaiting the mental test. A clerk entered the room, and without exchanging a word, placed the pieces of a wooden puzzle on the table and left. It was the puzzle of a horse. Omar called it a “buzzle,” because there is no “p” in Arabic. In our interview, I had to ask him to repeat the word a few times, before I understood. Omar quickly put the buzzle together and was released into the wilderness of his new home America.
The Quincy Point Neighborhood
Most of the eight Lebanese families met for the first time in the Quincy Point neighborhood where they had settled. The families named in this history arrived in the following years: Mohamed Omar, 1914; the Abrahams-Abdullah Abraham, 1895; Sulimans – Mohammed Ameen, 1908; Derbes -Touffiq Hesine Derbes, 1909; the Hassans -two brothers, Ismael and Abduh, 1909; the El-Deebs -Ali Muhammed El-Deeb, 1912; and the Allies -Selman Allie, 1913.
Before settling in Quincy in 1931, Mr. Omar had traversed the country in search of a decent job. His first job was in Detroit Michigan, working for Henry Ford in an automobile factory. After a few years, he heard that Bethlehem Steel was hiring and training laborers to build ships at the Fore River Shipyard, located at Quincy Point. While in Detroit, Omar married and had two children, John and Mary. They came to live in the Quincy neighborhood, where he found a small group of Syrian immigrants, both Muslim and Christian, struggling economically to survive the Depression years. The Muslims were also frustrated by their inability to fulfill their Islamic obligations, such as praying in congregation, paying the zakah (annual obligatory charity), educating their children about the religion, and celebrating holidays together in a communal space.
The challenges facing the nascent community included illiteracy, poverty, the lack of any national religious support system, and the absence of any central Islamic authority. Mr. Omar observed that the poor conditions were eroding the fundamental religious identity of his neighbors and peers. He worried about the next generation and pushed for the group to get organized and build a mosque. Because he was one of only a few who was literate and had some knowledge (albeit self-taught) of the Qur’an, he was recognized early on, as a leader (imam) in the emerging community.
First Death in the Community
During this period, Mr. Omar made a personal friend of Dennis Sweeney, proprietor of Sweeney’s Funeral Home of Quincy, founded in 1917. In our interview, Mr. Omar described what happened, when the first Muslim in the Quincy community died and needed to be washed and buried. Joseph Hassan was accidentally killed by a trolley car, during a blinding snowstorm in February in 1939. It was the first time Mr. Omar was expected to serve the community in the Islamic tradition.
As in the Jewish tradition, Muslims are required to be buried within 24 hours of death, whenever possible. The tradition begins by washing the body, a task usually performed by the same gender, family, and/or friends. The body is shrouded in white cloth and placed into a modest coffin (or no coffin at all). In congregation, the community would pray funeral prayers (junnaza) for the deceased, and then, the imam (leader) would recite a prayer at the graveside.
In 1939, there was no place to wash the body, no mosque to hold the funeral prayer, and no Islamic cemetery where the deceased could be buried, facing east, towards Mecca. As a neighborly gesture, Mr. Sweeney allowed Mr. Omar to use his facility for the washing. After it was completed, Mr. Sweeney followed the custom of providing the deceased with a traditional Irish/American wake. He clothed the body and brought the coffin into the funeral “parlor” (Sweeney’s living room), for family and friends to pay their respects.
Grateful for the help, Mr. Omar tolerated the new custom. However, the next generation of American–born Muslims fully embraced the Irish/American wake as their own American custom. For one thing, they and their Muslim peers of the same generation had no traditions to relinquish or consider; and for another thing, all their friends who would come to pay their respects were Christians and Jews.
To confirm this story of the first death in the community, my research led me to Sweeney’s Funeral Home on Elm Street in Quincy. I was shown into the office by Mr. Dennis Sweeney –the third generation Sweeney and grandnephew of the original proprietor. Mr. Sweeney opened a deep desk drawer that contained a number of small books, about 5 x 4 inches in size, each embossed with a year on its cover. In less than five minutes, I found the “1939” book, turned to the pages dated in February, and discovered the record of Mr. Joseph Hassan’s death, precisely as Mr. Omar had described it.
This first death marked the beginning of a relationship between Sweeney’s Funeral Home and the Muslim community that has lasted for more than three generations. As decades passed, many other facilities have allowed the washing. At this writing, survivors of the first and second American-born Muslims (extended founding family members) still consider this hybrid Irish/American/ Muslim wake as their own tradition and prefer it to any other. They have since learned, however, to shroud the body after washing and keep the coffin closed at the wake.
At Quincy Point, the pool of marriageable Muslims among the eight families was small. In the immigrant generation, two men out of eight married outside their ethnic and religious group (marrying American Christians). Two men went back to Lebanon to find a Muslim bride. One man was married before he left and later sent for his wife from Lebanon, and three men married Muslim women they met in America. Regardless of the fact that two of the eight families were of the Shia tradition and six were Sunni Muslims, the immigrant generation, determined to preserve religious traditions for the next generation, either tolerated or ignored sectarian preferences. Thus, they arranged several marriages between the two American-born Muslim sects. This author has labeled the offspring of those unions as, “Sushis.”
Marriages of the first American–born generation, arranged in the Quincy neighborhood were, as follows: The Ameens married the Abrahams and Hassans; the Abrahams married the Allies; the Abduh Hassans married the Derbes and the Omars; the El-Deebs married the Ismael Hassans; and the Ismael Hassan’s married the Abrahams. In one case, an Omar married his second cousin from the Awad family clan. Approximately half of this first American–born generation married outside their faith. This was true for both men and women.
Without elaborating in this thesis, it is interesting to report on the marriage patterns of the second American-born generation. There were still no marriageable Muslims in the small, homogeneous community. In fact, the Americans were often “semi-related” individuals, since almost everyone was the product of two families who were interrelated by marriage. Given the pool, this generation preferred not to marry anyone who might be seen as even remotely related. Rather, this generation predominantly married outside their religious and ethnic group. It is noteworthy that the divorce rate is the highest for this group, with at least one divorce in every family, and in some families more than one or two. In some cases, divorces occurred in marriages between American-born Muslims and immigrant Muslims who came from different countries of origin.
The Sons of Lebanon
The majority of Lebanese who settled in Quincy Point were Christians of the Melkite tradition. During the period between 1880 and 1925, almost ninety percent of the Arab immigrants to America were Christians from Mount Lebanon.  In an interview, one American-born Lebanese Christian said that his father came in 1909 as a teenager because economic conditions were bad. Najeem had relations in Boston who sponsored him. He found work and married a Lebanese Christian. He moved to Quincy for the “fresh country air.”
Most of the Lebanese immigrants, Christian and Muslim, met for the first time in Quincy. Being an ethnic minority in America, they forged strong social ties along ethnic, cultural, and linguistic lines, to preserve the traditions of their former home in Lebanon. They shared the same values and a strong desire to keep abreast of what was happening in the “old country.” They formed a social club, the Sons of Lebanon, whose purpose was to teach the children the Arabic language, get together for special parties, collect funds for charity (to be sent overseas to the old country), and discuss common concerns, such as the international news.
The Christians arranged marriages between families and tended to be as endogamous as the Muslims. Thus, no marriages between Christian Lebanese and Muslim Lebanese took place that I knew of. The Lebanese neighbors continued their tradition of joint celebrations of each other’s religious holidays. Depending on the holiday, women would gather at one central home to prepare the Syrian food to serve large numbers of people.
By the 1950s, while friendships between the Christian and Muslim Arabs remained strong, the joint-holiday traditions had slowly died out. There were many reasons, though none should be misconstrued as having to do with religious wars or prejudice. For example, when the Lebanese Christians formed religious ties with the Quincy Roman Catholic community, joining St. Joseph’s parish on Washington Street, they observed that the Roman Catholics in Quincy had no prior history of sharing holiday celebrations with the Muslims. Thus, the Lebanese Christians slowly began to celebrate their holidays in the manner that was accepted by the custom and wider community of Christians.
A Tale of Two Lebanons
When it came time to select a flag for the Sons of Lebanon, a disagreement arose. The Christians, who were a majority, wanted to use the “new” Lebanese flag that pictured the Cedars of Lebanon. This flag had its origins in the French colonization and creation of Lebanon, which was a kind of liberation for Christians from the Ottoman rule. The Muslim minority wanted to use the “Arab” flag. Its colors of red, green, black, and white represented not a nation state, but rather, a revival of the Islamic Empire, led by the Arabs (and not the Turks). This was a dream that died hard for the Muslims, after the breakup of the Islamic Empire in 1924.
The downfall of the Ottoman Turks was seen by the Arabs as an opportunity to take back the seat of the Empire and return to the days of glory (as in the 7th and 8th Centuries). Meanwhile, the Christian Arabs, who identified with the French Christians, had no desire to be ruled by the Muslims ever again. At this time, the Empire was being divided up like a pie, between Europe and Russia. The French colonial mandate help to create two separate religious identities in Greater Lebanon in the 1920’s and 30s, and this was reflected by the Syrian/Lebanese people at Quincy Point. The history was complicated by rivaling political/geographic loyalties, but the conflict came down to whether to identify as, “Lebanese” or “Syrian Arab.”
Briefly, many powers had sought to rule the region of Mount Lebanon with its Christian enclaves, but Lebanon had always escaped overbearing tyranny of its internal affairs. Under Ottoman rule until 1924, Mount Lebanon’s Christian enclaves were considered a millah, or a “protected religious community,” with virtual autonomy in religious and social matters and a guarantee of religious freedom.  It was the Turkish/Islamic way of recognizing the status of religious minorities.
In the early 1920’s, under the League of Nations, the governing system in Lebanon was replaced by the French mandate. The frontiers of Lebanon (which had been a part of Syria) were extended and appropriated by the mandate from Syria. Under French rule, the Lebanese Maronite Christians enjoyed a separation from the rest of the “Arab” World. They embraced a new sense of self-determination and a new European (“Lebanese”) identity.
The Muslims, on the other hand, were not so eager to embrace the new political and geographical reality. They viewed the alliance between the Christians and French as an obstacle to Arab unity.  Although the Christians had once sown the seeds of Arab nationalism (in the mid-19th century), by the turn of the century, they were no longer advocating for it. A.H. Hourani explains the tension between the two faith traditions at the critical time when the Ottoman Empire was about to collapse in the early 1920s:
“For them (Lebanese Christians) the ideal in the political as in other spheres is that Lebanon should be self-subsistent, but if that is impossible they would wish her to be dependent upon a Christian European State [France] rather than be part of a Moslem Arab State. … Among some of the Christian minorities there is a further tendency to regard the West as their spiritual home, to which they can belong in a way in which they could never belong to the Arab-Islamic world to whose fringes they have so long clung …“
For these reasons, economic inequality between the Christians and Muslims had been determined long before the civil war in Lebanon (1970s). For example, when the French wanted to build a bank, school, railroad, or invest in an industry, the Christians were the preferred business partner. As the French built up the country, the Muslims increased in population, but not in the halls of power, nor in economic standing, because in these areas, Muslims were marginalized. Given the history, this researcher would argue that the civil war in Lebanon was a conflict between the haves and the have-nots, rather than a war based on religious differences, as some scholars and political pundits have claimed.
The vast majority of Lebanese in the first big wave of immigration to the U.S. were unskilled and uneducated. Because of these handicaps, both Muslims and Christians made slow progress adjusting to American life. However, the religious orientation of the Lebanese Christians suggests that their integration into American society was easier than it was for the Muslims. For example, the Christians had several churches that provided fundamental life support. At Quincy Point, there was St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, and in Boston, there were two Eastern orthodox churches: Our Lady of the Cedars (Maronite) and Our Lady of the Annunciation (Melkite), both founded early in the 20th Century. When the Christians joined these churches, they were given support to learn English, find jobs and homes, and pursue education.
The Arab American Banner Society
Muslims observed their Christian Lebanese neighbors advancing rapidly in the society. They were being folded into the religious majority and gaining support from the churches. The Muslims, on the other hand, had no mosque or community to support them. This motivated them to form their own social club and charitable organization, a precursor to the Islamic Center of New England.
The flag for the newly formed Arab American Banner Society was designed and hand-sewn by Mr. Omar’s American Protestant wife from Nebraska, Genevieve. It was white satin with gold fringe, red embroidered writing, with an embroidered green scale, under which were two gold crossed swords with black handles. The words read: “Arab American Banner Society, Quincy, 1934.”
Since none of the original members of the Society were alive to explain the choice of name, I asked one historian in the Quincy community, originally from Lebanon, to speculate. According to Talal Eid, the Arab Banner, or “Ar-Raya Arabiyya,” was popular after the downfall of the Ottomans. The crossed swords were a common emblem of the Arab-ruled Islamic Empire, harkening back to the days of glory.
On November 9, 1937, under the provisions of the Business Corporation Law of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the club’s charter was submitted to the state. Charter members included: Eassa Ali, Mohamed Omar, Toffee Derbes, Joseph Hassan, Fauthal (Fadl) Hassan, Ali El-Deeb, Mohamed Kerdy, Mohamed Mohriez, Mohammed Kedar, and Aziz Abraham. 
Fadl Hassan and Aziz Abraham were American-born founders. They signed the charter because state law required signatures of at least two citizens. The other signers were immigrants from Syria/Lebanon, except for Eassa Ali (first president of the club) who was from Palestine, and Mohamed Mohriez from Yemen. Joseph Hassan, mentioned earlier as the first death in the community (1939), was also a signature.
Significantly, the Society’s constitution of 1937 made no references to religion. Rather, the language of Arab nationalism dominated the constitution. Abdullah Abraham, the eldest founder, enlisted a Christian Lebanese lawyer to assist in the wording.  The following excerpts from the first constitution reflect the group’s pining for a national and ethnic identity:
Article II Section I: “The privilege of membership was extended to all those who desire independence for the Arab countries.”
Article I Section 2: “The purpose of the Society shall be the preservation of the racial identity among the Arabs in the United States and its development in accordance with the highest principles and traditions of American life and education; and to aid the Arabic countries in the fields of politics, education, and economics.”
Evidencing the possibility of integrating Arab/Islamic and American values, Article V Section 3 states:
“The Society shall endeavor to conduct a school to teach the Arabic language and to educate our youths in the fundamentals of American Democracy.”
Article IX: “The Oath of Fidelity: I solemnly swear in the name of God, patriotism and my honor to bear true loyalty, faith and fidelity to the Arab American Banner Society…” 
In 1937, the Society purchased a house badly in need of repairs, located at 470 South Street (the current address of the Islamic Center of New England). The immigrants gathered there after work in the Shipyard to socialize, discuss the international news, and listen to recitations of the Qur’an, or original poetry about the life of the Prophet Mohammad. The meetings of the Arab American Banner Society were also held at the Fore River Club and at Ma’s Lunch. These meetings were the main activities of the founding families from 1937 until 1952, and each meeting required members to donate one dollar dues for the mosque.
In summary, the earliest efforts of the Christian and Muslim immigrants of Quincy Point to preserve their ethnic identity, language, and culture, reflect an experience shared by most immigrants when they first arrive in America. For a critical time, neighborhood bonds strengthened ethnic identity and assuaged feelings of alienation. But in the face of increasing challenges for the immigrant families to survive, the importance of religious bonds proved to be more beneficial and accelerated the social integration for the Christian Arabs.
Thus, Christians and Muslims formed separate social and religious organizations, as they slowly reclaimed their religious identity. Significantly, in the next few decades and especially in the post WWII era, having a religious identity and a physical “church” would become one of the defining characteristics of what it meant to be an American. During the Second World War, frustrated by ever-waning interest in ethnicity and religion, the founders allowed their social club and fundraising activities to die out.
THE AMERICAN-BORN GENERATION
World War II Heroes and Heroines
When WWII broke out, the Muslim immigrants, like other Americans, joined the armed forces. Men and women from every one of the eight founding families served in that war and the wars that followed. Sam Hassan enlisted in the (Navy), as did his brothers Ali, Abdu, Moe, and Albert, and his sister, Zaida (Navy reserves). In the Ameen family, Joey, Michael, and Sam joined the Marines, and their two sisters, Lilly and Betty, enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Jimmy Abraham, Moe, and Simon Allie, the Derbes brothers, and the Abdu Hassans’ were among those men who also enlisted in the armed forces.
One man in this group came home with the Purple Heart for courage under fire: Mr. Omar’s son, my uncle, John Omar. John enlisted in the Army Air Corps, right after graduating with honors from Quincy High School in 1943. He served his country from 1943-1945. He was trained as the top turret gunner and flight engineer for a B-24 Liberator. The crew dubbed her, “She’s Our Gal.” John and crew were assigned to the 8th Air Force, 382nd Bomb Squadron 491st Bomb Group, and stationed in Pickingham Air Field in Norfolk, England.
It was early in the war, but that didn’t diminish the danger. Even before the crew started to fly missions, they had some close calls during their training, which included a difficult landing that broke the nose wheel. Another time, the hydraulics failed, prompting the pilot to call on “Omar” (the crew’s nickname for him) to crank the landing gear down manually for an emergency landing. The plane landed without the brakes and skidded to within a few feet from the end of the runway.
After completing the training, Omar and the crew were ready to face the enemy. It was during the Battle of the Bulge, when a heavy snowstorm at the start of one mission caused the plane to crash shortly after takeoff. Eleven of the 500-pound bombs aboard were jettisoned into a field below. When the plane hit the ground, the 12th bomb came crashing through the cockpit bulkhead with its nose a few feet from Omar’s back. Moments after they crashed, Omar heard the pilot screaming for help and was able to free him from the burning wreckage. They quickly escaped the plane, which could have exploded at any minute.
In another mission to Magdeburg, Germany, as they were approaching the target, Omar and the crew encountered a heavy barrage of anti-aircraft flak. The plane lost the #3 engine and the rudder cable was severed by a bullet. With the hydraulics system damaged, the crew was unable to open the bomb bay doors to release the bombs it carried. Omar quickly disconnected his heated flight suit. To reach the cranks that opened the bomb bay doors, he had to straddle the 9″ catwalk that ran from the cockpit to the waste door. In 42 below-zero temperatures, clinging precariously to the struts of the catwalk − the only thing between him and the earth below – Omar used herculean strength to manually crank open the doors, so the bombs could be released. Meanwhile, shrapnel wounded his right foot.
Once the bombs were released, Omar turned his attention to repairing the severed rudder cables so that the plane could be turned around. With the #3 engine out, the plane kept losing altitude. As they were leaving Germany, they sent out a “May Day” call, and someone gave the pilot a heading. With no gas showing in the tanks, they miraculously made the landing on a very short runway. Upon examination, the plane’s fuselage had been hit 44 times. For his courageous actions on that mission, Omar was promoted to Sargent and awarded the Purple Heart. During his stint, before the war ended, he flew a total of 29 missions.
The Post War Years
After the war, the first American-born generation re-activated the Arab American Banner Society. This generation was more educated than its parents, took up professions, became entrepreneurs, and enjoyed increased economic and social status. Like other immigrants and the first American-born generation, the Lebanese were motivated by sheer pride to succeed. Their success became their love of America and America loved them for their success. It all worked perfectly together to make them good citizens, good neighbors, and in some cases, wealthy Americans.
For example, the Abduh Hassans operated a parking lot in the neighborhood for the Shipyard workers. Their cousins, the Ismael Hassans, operated a restaurant for the workers, Ma’s Lunch. The Hassan brothers learned the trade of auto mechanic and would eventually acquire a Nash Rambler automobile franchise in Quincy. Founder Fatima Allie became an elementary school teacher and eventually principal of the Squantum Elementary School in Quincy. Aziz Abraham trained to be an accountant
The only thing that remained beyond their reach was their dream to build a mosque. Decades had elapsed, but multiple hurdles were still present. Raising their own children, the American Muslims realized that much of what their immigrant parents had instilled in them was missing. They spoke Arabic, and had a sense of heritage, community, and ethnic pride. The American Muslims hadn’t taught their children Arabic, or visited Lebanon, didn’t know how to read the Qur’an very well, or exactly how to pray in their own tradition. All they knew how to do was fast, during Ramadan, which they did. They were concerned that their children would be cut off from their roots.
Their dream withstanding, none of the American Muslims had ever seen or been inside a mosque. The one exception was Mr. Sam Hassan, who had visited the grand mosque in Washington DC, while he was in the Navy. It was built in the late 1940s, during the term of President Harry S. Truman, for Muslim diplomats, and dedicated in 1957 by President Eisenhower.
Another obstacle faced by the American Muslims. They felt the impact of leaving their parent’s home. Marrying and moving their families out of the Quincy neighborhood to surrounding towns, losing their religious and ethnic center, and living as a religious minority, meant that their children would surely marry outside the religion and ethnic group. This prediction is precisely what happened to their children and the future generations of founding family members. Eventually, greater than 98% would never learn about their religion, and discontinue all religious practices, in favor of total assimilation. Significantly, without education, community, or practice, these generations stopped identifying as Muslims.
During the 1950s, when the American Muslims were raising their children, the desire to build a mosque had not diminished. In fact, it felt more urgent. Belonging to a church or synagogue was synonymous with being American. This motivated them. They saw their religion as equal to the other faith institutions. One first American-born founder explained:
“I think this generation wanted to relate to a church. When people asked us what church do you go to? It would be embarrassing to say, `we don’t have a church.’ The kids would come home and say to their parents: `How come we don’t have a church?’“10
Motivated to preserve their children’s ethnic and religious identity, the American Muslims resolved to reinvigorate the dream of building a mosque. They sought to reunite the founding families and form an ethno-religious community. In the background, there was one man who had never given up that dream, Mohamed Omar. He supported this generation in their quest to build a mosque; for as it often happens, people of different generations feel strongly about the same goal, but aspire for different reasons.
Rebirth of the Arab American Banner Society
In 1952, the founders elected new officers for the Arab American Banner Society. Regular meetings resumed twice a month, with an average of 6-12 members in attendance. Members paid $1.00 each. Congregational prayers, holiday and funeral prayers were held in private homes, at the Fore River clubhouse, or at Ma’s Lunch. Oftentimes, these gatherings were followed by informal religious lessons, evidencing a new level of interest in religion. 
In the pre-building phase, from 1957-1963, the core community leaders worked hard to raise money and draw attention to their group. For example, the Arabic secretary Mr. Omar promoted the Society in two Arabic/English newspapers circulating in America: As-Sameer, a daily Arabic newspaper and the “largest in the New World, Est. 1929, Brooklyn, New York;” and Nahdat Al-Arab, of Detroit, Michigan.  The publicity about the group building the “first mosque in New England” generated donations from organizations, such as the American Moslem Society of Dearborn, Michigan (1963). It attracted famous scholars, such as Ahmed Sakr and Mahmoud Ayoub. It caught the attention of dignitaries from Kuwait, Sudan, and the United Arab Republic (the brief political union −1958-1961− between Egypt and Syria).
As part of their annual religious obligation (zakat), the Arab American Banner Society made charitable contributions globally to the victims of floods in Bangladesh and Jordan, earthquakes in Iran, and a tornado in Pakistan. In 1957, in response to the Sinai War, the Society donated $1500 to displaced Egyptian refugees and orphans. After receipt of that donation, Gamal Abd al-Nasir, President of Egypt, sent a letter of thanks (Islamic Center Archives, Secretary’s Minutes, Decade Files, 1957-1963).
In 1961, King Saud came to Boston for an eye operation. The Massachusetts State Legislature invited the Society to send representatives to the King’s State House reception. Later, during the King’s recuperation, members paid him a visit in the hospital. Mr. Omar wrote a poem for the occasion, and the King asked him to read it aloud. Holiday cards were exchanged in the upcoming holidays. In February of 1962, King Saud donated $5000 to the Society for the future mosque.  The King’s donation was the first substantial donation they had ever received.
Over the years, the American Muslim founders had established businesses, professions, and trades. With so few Muslims in the area, the founders regarded the non-Muslim majority as essential for the survival of their dream. They relied on donations from their friends, business associates, customers, lawyers, doctors, priests, rabbis, clients, and neighbors. Through these alliances and transactions with Christians and Jews, the founders sought advice about fundraising activities, administration, and legal advice. They organized activities, such as picnics, raffles, auctions, dances, whist (card game) parties, rummage sales, toy sales, and cosmetic sales. Naturally, they invited their friends and donors to enjoy and participate in these public events. They also attended fundraising events held by the Sons of Lebanon. They even formed a bowling team to play in an interfaith league.
For decades, the Society’s annual summer picnic (maharrajan) was the largest fundraiser. It was a celebration of ethnic proportions for the Arabs, both Christians and Muslims. It evolved out of their common ethnic and cultural ties, such as foods, music, language, and dancing. Its outdoor venue in a nearby public park signaled it was open to all people, such as the local Italians and Greeks. The small group of Turks and Albanians, who lived northwest of Boston, came by bus every year with families and friends and pledged money towards the mosque.
Most of the money raised (approximately $2000) from the picnic was placed in the zakat fund, to be distributed every year to overseas charities. Despite Mr. Omar’s objections, a smaller amount was set aside for building the mosque. A self-taught Islamic scholar, Mr. Omar was uncertain about the lawful (Islamic law) uses of the zakat funds. Was the building fund considered a charity? Was the fundraiser itself lawful (halal)? No one knew enough Islamic law to say definitely yes or no. The discussion between the two generations of founders came up every year.
Profiles of Leadership
By the early 1960s, the leadership of American Muslims formed a small but committed group. With no other Muslims to mentor and no mosque to model, the American Muslims often felt their dream slipping away. As one founder put it, “We were working towards something invisible.”
In the immigrant generation, Mr. Omar was still recognized as the Imam of the community, based on his piety, and knowledge of the Qur’an and religious history, albeit self-taught. When asked where he studied, he would say, “I studied under my walnut tree [in Lebanon].”  He was humble about his limited knowledge and eager to learn more. In his role, the Imam was expected to site the moon, declare the beginning and end of Ramadan; counsel and perform marriages; wash the dead and pray at burials; and read and write correspondence in Arabic, for the letters sent back and forth to the “old” country. After the mosque was built, Mr. Omar continued to serve as the first imam until 1982. He died in 1987, well into his 90s.
Among the American Muslims, there were some visionaries serving the community. For example, founding member Aziz Abraham served as president of the Arab American Banner Society for many years, during the 1950s. Once the Center was built, he was elected president of the Board of Directors for at least nine years, off and on. Much later in his life, Mr. Abraham made the pilgrimage to Mecca and became a Hajj. Mr. Abraham was an accountant by profession, trusted and liked by everyone. He considered himself a “diplomat” and understood the workings of American politics. Thus, for the sake of his community, he was ever-present at important political activities at the State House. He secured an invitation each year to the inauguration of the Mayor of Quincy and the City Council.  More importantly, Mr. Abraham kept the community meetings focused and acted as a peacemaker, especially during endless and heated debates. He could be counted on to playfully diffuse an argument between members, before relationships were damaged.
Another long-time leader and pillar of the community was founding member Sam Hassan. An early proponent of interfaith activities, Sam made news in the Quincy Patriot Ledger for attending an event called, “Meet Our Neighbor Night,” organized by the Congregation Adas Shalom brotherhood in Quincy (1966). The main speaker was Lt. Governor Francis W. Sargent whose speech was entitled, “Brotherhood and Public Service.” 
Sam Hassan was elected president of the Board of Directors of the Center for nine years and treasurer for six years, alternating with Mr. Abraham. He was a strong leader, well-respected and trusted within the community. He united the core group of founders who were often discouraged, or mired in disagreements. It was Sam Hassan who held steadfast to the goal of building a mosque, and those who cared as much as he did, held steadfast with him. Decades later, at Sam Hassan’s funeral, a Christian Lebanese friend eulogized him, describing him as a person who had the faith of Abraham, the wisdom of Moses, and the love of Jesus.
Another founding member, active from the very beginning with the Arab American Banner Society, was Ms. Fatima Allie. Ms. Allie was a teacher and administrator for many years, until she was appointed the principal of the Squantum Elementary School in Quincy. She served the nascent Muslim community as treasurer for ten years and secretary for ten years. Ms. Allie’s copious notes and meticulous records included the earliest treasury reports, minutes of the earliest meetings held at Ma’s Lunch, minutes of the first Board meetings held at the mosque, and details of the by-laws and constitutions for both the Society and eventually the Center. After she retired from her profession as principal in the early 1990s, Ms. Allie initiated and presided over the first full-time Islamic school in the Quincy Point mosque and also in its other location in Sharon, MA.
Fatima Allie was a respected educator, honored in Squantum by her peers. Within the Muslim community, she was relied upon for her intelligence, and especially her implementation of the Robert’s Rules of Order, which held sway at business meetings where emotions always ran high. Ms. Allie’s contribution to the community was more than professionalism. She nurtured the community as it grew into a religious institution. Without her dedication, strong will, and precise record-keeping, this groundbreaking history could never have been written.
To Build or Not to Build
In 1961, the founders had reached an impasse: Should they construct a new building, or buy an existing one? Should they start to build using what little money they had saved, or wait and save more money to finance the whole project? After long hours of debate, they reached the ambitious decision to construct a new building and raze the small house, located at 470 South Street, whose land had been donated. At the time, they had saved $5000. 
The challenges they faced the following year were financial and beset by continuous disagreements. The founders finally agreed to hire the local architect and personal friend of Turk Hassan (Abduh), Joseph Donahue. Like Turk, Mr. Donahue was a golfer and member of the Wollaston Country Club, which he built. Mr. Donahue was also renowned for building Quincy City Hospital and the Quincy Court House.
Mr. Abraham consulted his friend, Dimitri Homsy to study the constitution and by-laws of the Arab American Banner Society. Mr. Homsy (who donated his services) was a Christian Arab lawyer, and member of the original Sons of Lebanon. He returned that a new corporation would have to be formed for the mosque building, with new by-laws and a constitution.
In keeping with Mr. Abraham’s grand vision, it was decided to name the mosque the Islamic Center of New England. It was organized administratively along the lines of the churches and synagogues, with a Board of eight directors, four officers, and a Religious Director or Imam (Mr. Omar). Its meetings were conducted according to Robert’s Rules of Order. As a side note, scholars estimated that at this time, there were only about three or four mosques built in the entire U.S. 
The Society’s fundraising efforts gained momentum. By March 1963, as the result of pledges and donations, the bank balance had risen to nearly $20,000. There were 44 members.  Due to the size of the contractor’s bid and a revised higher cost of the building ($50,000), the idea of taking out a small mortgage was proposed, but resisted because of the interest (riba), something forbidden in Islam.
In his role as imam, Mr. Omar would try to steer the group clear of what he knew was forbidden in Islam. However, when the work started on the building in the spring of 1963,  the American Muslims were under pressure to make payments promised to the contractor. They reluctantly agreed to take out a mortgage in the exact amount that was owed to the contractor at the time (approx. $10,000). By February 1964, the work was completed.
As reported by the Patriot Ledger, the list of guests invited to the building dedication ceremony on October 18, 1964 included Mayor Amelio Della Chiesa, Board President Aziz Abraham, the Lebanese Consul of Boston, Ambassador from the United Arab Republic, several Imams from Detroit, the Reverend Philip Muth of the Quincy Council of Churches, and the Director of the Islamic Associations of the United States and Canada. The main speaker was Sheik Mohamad Jawad Chirri, Director of the Islamic Center of Detroit, Michigan.  After the ceremony, the pressing goal for the founders was to pay off the mortgage as soon as possible.
The Center Of Attention
Almost immediately, the Center was inundated with requests for financial aid from other Islamic groups in the country trying to build a local mosque, including Springfield, Lowell, Boston, and as far away as Houston. Traveling to New Jersey and Connecticut, the leaders of the Center at the time, Sam Hassan and Aziz Abraham, gave speeches about how to build a mosque in America. They also collected donations.
Seeking support for the new mosque, Mr. Abraham reached out to the few Islamic organizations that existed in America. The Center joined the Federation of Islamic Associations in the U.S. and Canada (FIA). From 1963-1981, the Board sent delegates to the annual FIA convention.  The FIA, founded in 1952 by Lebanese Americans from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, consisted of nearly 220 Muslim-related groups throughout the country.  The FIA kept the Muslims abreast of the growth of Islam in America, sponsored youth camps, established full-time accredited schools, and monitored the media.
Mr. Dawud Assad, president of the FIA from 1975-1977, relied heavily on the membership of pioneering communities like the Islamic Center of New England. He befriended Sam Hassan and together they served as first and second vice presidents of FIA in 1967. When Mr. Assad was president in 1977, Mr. Abraham became treasurer of the FIA. Mr. Assad’s relationship with the Quincy group culminated years later, when he was Director of the Muslim World League (MWL), a non-governmental organization representing nearly 50 Muslim countries at the United Nations, funded by Saudi Arabia. Each year, the MWL sponsored trained imams for Islamic organizations in the U.S. and Canada, and paid the mosque a small stipend to support the imam. During this period, the MWL had sponsored 22 full-time imams in the U.S. and 11 in Canada.  In 1982, Mr. Assad would direct his friends toward the leader he thought would serve the community best, Imam Talal Eid.
Americanization of the Mosque
The founding families brought their children to the new mosque. Initial programs centered around American traditions and holidays, but with an Islamic component. For example, on May 2, 1965, to celebrate the Islamic New Year, children were given May baskets (May Day is celebrated in America on May 1st). On Memorial Day that same year, the Center held funeral (junaaza) prayers for all its deceased members. Halloween parties and Record Hops were organized with the hope of re-capturing the interest of the teenagers. 
Sadly, efforts to interest the youth in Islam in the mosque, or in each other failed completely. For this second American-born generation, the community held no prospective marriage partners, especially given that most of the members were related to each other in some fashion. The youth rejected any notion of an arranged marriage, or marriage to a distant relative, viewing it as “unhealthy,” and “un-American.” On the other hand, interfaith and interethnic marriages were easily within their reach. By the mid-1960s, barriers to interfaith marriages were dissolving. The dominant social forces in America had changed to become “countercultural.” Certain politics, economics, and organized religion in general were tainted as “establishment” and rejected. The younger generation of the 1960s fled the churches and synagogues.
Influence of the Muslim Students
The next big wave of immigration to America from Asia happened in 1965. During that decade, Muslim students entered the U.S. to study at colleges and universities. They brought with them, or had access to, Islamic educational materials translated for the first time into English.  The newly formed Muslim Student Association (MSA-1963) published educational books and pamphlets written by Muslim scholars for English-speaking people and distributed them freely in America and Canada. This new interpretation of Islam was being provided by Saudi Arabia and funded by petro dollars. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in Indianapolis, IN, currently one of the largest Islamic organizations in the U.S. and Canada, evolved out of the MSA.
The Quincy Point mosque joined the MSA in its founding year, 1963. Given the close proximity of Cambridge and Boston, the Muslim students came to Quincy to help organize community events, such as holiday celebrations (Eids), Friday prayers, and the Prophet Mohamed’s birthday celebration (Mawlid an-Nabi). They helped collect the obligatory charity paid at the end of the holy month of Ramadan (zakat-ul-fitr), and used phonetics to teach the Arabic language and prayers to adults and children.  The books and pamphlets they supplied seemed like legitimate publications from authoritative sources (scholars) in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and India. These were received eagerly by the isolated American Muslims, starved for knowledge about Islam. The founders and leaders I interviewed agreed that the Muslim students encouraged learning, and that their increased knowledge had deepened their faith.
With the leadership advertising in local papers, airports and hotels, more and more Muslims discovered the Center, and its membership tripled from 1964-1974. The mosque community was rapidly becoming a diverse mix of transient and permanent immigrants who hailed from more than 25 different countries. Indigenous African American Muslims living in Boston in the 1960s, who had recently converted to mainstream Islam, also played an important role in the development of the Quincy Point community. Those men drawn to the Center for brotherhood and emerging as leaders included Imam Abdul Faaruuq, current leader of the Mosque for the Praising of Allah, and Imam Taalib, current leader of the Masjid Al Qur’an in Dorchester.
Earlier, another African American leader had emerged and came to Quincy to learn more about Islam and the mosque organization. Imam Shakir Mahmoud, who had converted to Islam in 1964, was one of the first leaders to follow Imam Wallace Deen Muhammad in the late 1970s. At this time, Wallace Deen broke away from the “Black Muslim” organization, known as the Nation of Islam, which was started by his father, Elijah Muhammad.
In his interview, Imam Shakir Mahmoud admitted being caught up in the racial unrest of the times, when he was younger. With some reservations, he had observed and admired the response of Elijah Muhammad’s organization to racial injustice. Of particular interest to him was a certain member, Malcolm X (Abdul Malik al-Shabazz), who he had known from Boston since 1953. Shakir Mahmoud was influenced by the life of Malcolm X. He followed Malcolm’s lead and embraced a more “orthodox” Islam. Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca was a turning point in his life, resulting in his split with the Nation of Islam. Shortly thereafter, in February 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated.
Imam Shakir’s decision in the 1970s to learn more about orthodox Islam led him to Quincy Point. He first heard about the group of Muslims in 1961, after reading in the newspaper that King Saud had donated $5000 to the building fund. In 1973, Imam Shakir became a member and was elected to the Board of Directors, serving from 1977 to 1978. He also served in many education-related activities.
After the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, Imam Wallace Deen Muhammad began the difficult process of dismantling the Nation of Islam and introducing the basics of mainstream Islam to its 20,000 followers.  Shakir renewed his relationship with Wallace Deen, meeting him in Chicago and telling him about his involvement at the Quincy mosque. Wallace Deen was impressed by Shakir’s knowledge and all he had learned.
In 1976, Imam Wallace Deen (who changed his name to “Warith Deen” in 1980) realized his need for capable leadership and asked Shakir Mahmoud to start teaching at Temple #11 in Dorchester. Temple #11 was also named, “Muhammad’s mosque #11,” and had once been assigned to Malcolm X. In 1977, Shakir was elected by the community as Imam. In 1985, the Temple changed its name to the Masjid al-Qur’an.
Imam Mahmoud Shakir followed W.D. Muhammed into the “mainstream” of Islamic practice and became the first Imam of the Masjid al-Qur’an. He rewrote the mosque constitution and established a Board of seven permanent members, with himself as president and Imam. The Masjid al-Qur’an was a core member of the Islamic Council.  It also established the first full-time Muslim school, Sister Clara Muhammad School, founded in the early 1980s and sponsored by the American Muslim Mission, which was founded by W.D. Muhammed.
Initially, the community in Dorchester was comprised of approximately 95% African-American converts. But over the years, Imam Shakir described it as a “rainbow community,” because Muslims from many countries joined. By the early 1990s, the core community had about 25 active families, mostly professionals, about 25% blue-collar workers, and a large population of Muslim students from all over the world. Imam Shakir’s sermons (khutbat) often related to the American cultural milieu, and he warned of its moral and social influences on the community. To counter the threat, he advocated strong, Islamic values. For many years, Imam Shakir served as the part-time chaplain at two prisons in the area.
Another prominent African-American leader drawn to Quincy Point was Hajj Abu Nuri (AKA Thomas Ross), who helped organize the Harvard Islamic Society (1958), with two other students: Syed Nadwi (Pakistan) and Ahmed Osman (Sudan). Abu Nuri formed the initial relationship between Harvard and the Center. Students followed his lead and became members of the Center in the 1960s.  It is interesting to note that Ahmed Osman volunteered to wash and pray over Malcolm X, after his assassination in 1965. Osman’s volunteering was considered a brave gesture, given the odious violence of Malcolm’s death.
Raised in the Boston area, Abu Nuri (an award-winning speed ice skater) had converted to Islam in 1940, while serving in the Army. He was an active member of the Center for many decades, beginning in 1965. Abu Nuri served as Vice President of the Board of Directions in 1973, and Board member from 1978 to 1982. He also initiated and edited the Center’s newsletter for more than seven years.
In his interview, Abu Nuri observed that the Muslim students, especially those who remained transients, had a more “provincial” interpretation of Islam. He recognized that they tried to live in isolation, avoiding American cultural influences and maintaining “a purely Islamic” life, based on their country-of-origin cultural traditions. Their understanding of Islam often reflected the more conservative influences of countries such as Saudi Arabia, in the Gulf, and in certain areas of Pakistan.
Abu Nuri derived his understanding of Islam from his American values and ideals, such as the importance of pluralism, equality, and the universality of God. He actively worked to shape Islam in America, by promoting these values and encouraging assimilation over isolation. He often repeated the following advice, which I paraphrase: If you want others to learn about Islam, you have to mix with them and “drop the seed.”
In another interview, Dr. Imam Talal Eid (Religious Director, ICNE, 1982- 2005) stated that, in his experience in Quincy, the religious educational background of the Muslim students was an asset to the community. He made a distinction, however, between those students planning to live permanently in the U.S. and those who were transients. In his opinion, temporary residence gave the Muslim students a different perspective of life in a non-Muslim society. He objected to criticism about the practical choices and/or adjustments made by Muslims who were permanent residents, or indigenous. For example, one transient Muslim student stated that any “good” Muslim would never put his child in a public school, because public school did not teach the “high standards of Islamic ethics and morality.” While agreeing in principle, Imam Eid responded pragmatically, with six children of his own at the time: “Who can afford to send all their children to private school?” 
Fundraising Activities and Islamic Values
In 1967, leaders from the new group of immigrants took up positions on the Board and on committees. The building was expanded in 1968, doubling the size of the prayer room and social hall. During this decade, the ethnic diversity of the general membership outnumbered the handful of Lebanese founding members, who deliberately maintained control on the Board of Directors.
The Muslim students informed the Board that some fundraising activities, such as raffles, card games, and Chinese auctions were “un-Islamic.” The greatest offender, however, was the biggest fundraiser, the annual summer picnic. The students objected to the selling of alcohol at the picnic, and the (fully-clothed) belly dancer (daughter of one of the founding families), whose dance performances raised money. These objections had been previously voiced by Imam Omar. But they were overruled by the first American-born generation, who based their views on “generational” differences. The American Muslims defended the fundraising activities, arguing that if these were “unholy” activities, why would the churches and synagogues be allowed to do them?
The summer picnic was not only the largest fundraiser of the year, it was also cherished as a source of ethnic pride for the Arab Americans, whose rich culture and achievements had always been ignored in America. In addition to the belly dancer, other highlights of the picnic included ethnic music and participation in the group dance known as the dubkee and the sale of ethnic foods.
Discontinuing the Picnic
In his interview, Sam Hassan, Board president at the time, stated that there was pressure from the Muslim students and other recent immigrants to discontinue the offending, prohibited activities of the picnic. He informed the core leadership of founders who struggled with the dilemma. They wanted the mosque to do things “right,” and be seen as authentic in all ways, so as to attract more Muslims. And, they needed the money raised from the picnic’s activities. More importantly to the founders, the picnic represented the primary source of their ethnic pride and held the community together during the most difficult decades, even before the mosque was built.
Sam Hassan stood in the crosshairs, with the educated Muslim students on one side and the founding families on the other. In 1967, Sam took a leap of faith, “decreeing” that any activity considered by the new Muslims in the community to be un-Islamic would be discontinued. Essentially, it meant the end of the annual picnic. Some founding members reacted angrily and deserted the mosque community. They complained that foreigners who were just students … new to a country they knew nothing about… were trying to tell us how to practice our religion… What did they know about raising money? Certainly, these foreigners did not understand how to make money in America…
Losing some key supporters, who had been long-time members, was painfully divisive for the community. It meant more financial losses combined with future financial losses. There did not seem to be any obvious alternatives to raising the large sums of money needed to maintain the mosque. Certainly, there was no help from any national or international organizations, nor were the Muslim students in a position to help the Center pay its bills.
Finally, it was the ladies who hastily formed the Ladies’ Auxiliary and came to the rescue. They were members of all ages, ethnicities, and nationalities who joined forces and started brainstorming fundraising ideas. They produced a list of “lawful Islamic” fundraising activities, including luncheons, dinner parties, banquets, mystery rides, bake sales, and the international food fair and bazaar. While the ladies had always been included in mosque activities and decisions (like their Christian and Jewish counterparts), their role in the new, diverse community was still emerging. But seeing the Center’s financial predicament as an opportunity, the ladies stepped up.
Other American practices also came under the scrutiny of the Muslim students. For example, the two generations of founders had debated how to distribute the money collected for charity held in the zakat fund. The American Muslims wanted to use a portion of the money for the Center’s expenses. But the Imam and his generation were uncertain if this was Islamically lawful. They knew how Muslim majority countries supported a mosque, either funded by the government, or by an ongoing family philanthropy, called a waqf. To avoid doing anything wrong, they wanted to send all the money collected overseas, to less fortunate Muslims. The American Muslims argued that “we” need the money “right here,” to keep the mosque open. The debate went on for years. Finally, a trusted Islamic scholar who came to the Center was consulted to settle the matter. He said it was lawful to help support the mosque, and/or send the money overseas.
Islam and Cultural Integration
The spread of Islam is a history of Muslims passing religious knowledge to the people of a new land. The knowledge infused the isolated, indigenous American Muslims with a new identity. Furthermore, the Quincy Point Muslims understood for the first time that they were a much larger community, as part of a world religion.
Before the coming of the new immigrants, the American Muslims had accepted the Christians and Jews as their role models of religious community. The Qur’an upholds them as the “People of the Book,” because the one God sent revelation and prophets to them first. But as the American Muslims increased the knowledge of their own Prophet, Book, and Laws, it helped to distinguish them and strengthen their individual and collective religious identity, while still affirming their Christian and Jewish counterparts.
According to scholar W. Montgomery Watt, learning about Islamic concepts, beliefs, practices, etiquette, law, and history motivated a community to “reforming” activities. For instance, the indigenous Muslims recognized the importance of attending Friday congregational prayers, and wearing proper clothes in the prayer room. Simultaneously, Watt notes, the newcomers begin adjusting to the new society. Since many had come to America from Muslim majority societies, they had formed an indivisible religious and cultural identity. Living in a secular society as a religious minority would tend to influence their religious practice. How would their children’s religious practice be affected, growing up in such a society?
These two reforming activities occurred, as the community grew and coalesced. Through the compelling forces of integration, assimilation, and freedom of religion, one group was strengthening its religious identity, and the other was strengthening its American identity. The two groups were united by two basic elements: religion and the basic norms and values of American culture.
Given their familiarity with the “church” model, the American founders had knowledge to exchange with the new immigrants. It included a practical administrative organization, the necessity for a constitution and by-laws, and other aspects of the state’s legal requirements for a corporation. The church model included elections, membership dues, a Board of Directors, and a job description for a religious leader/director. For the most part, these concepts were unfamiliar to the immigrants. Montgomery Watt describes them as “indigenization activities.”
Indigenization activities are a good measure of a community’s level of social integration. This might involve assessing the position of women in a community. A typical indigenous activity/ or expression of the “American” way, was exemplified when the women at the mosque came forward to lead the Islamic fundraising activities. Making use of all its available resources, a community progresses, grows, and advances. Progress of a community is assured when women are seen as equal to men in a community, as an asset who contribute to a community, encouraged to attend Friday prayer, invited to teach in the Islamic school, and participate in the decision-making process at every level.
Forging a Common Islamic Identity
With the rapid influx of an international demographic, the nascent community grew in every respect and diversified. Some of the new immigrants I informally interviewed mentioned their reaction to finding a mosque in America. One man from Qatar said (to paraphrase) that finding the mosque was a “huge gift,” and that he was “surprised to see that Islam had spread to America.” He declared, “Seeing the mosque increased my faith,” for he had always been taught about the “universal appeal of Islam.” A Muslim woman from Trinidad stated the following, “Finding the Quincy mosque was like finding Mecca.”
At the core of the community, the Lebanese American-born founders had worked hard to remain united. They shared American cultural values, but even so, frequently disagreed. Their arguments revolved around generational, educational, and socio-economic differences. As the nascent community expanded to include new immigrants from other countries worldwide, the indigenous families found it more difficult to forge a common Islamic identity.
It seemed that each new immigrant practiced a unique expression of Islam, dominated by and indivisible from a particular culture, history, and society. This was true especially for those from majority Muslim countries, such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. It was soon evident that given the size and scope of the new multinational community, the idea of practicing one country’s expression of Islam over another would be divisive and unlikely. For the diverse group of immigrants and the indigenous members, the question became, whose “religion” would be practiced at the Quincy Point mosque? Eventually, all the members realized they would have to build a new religious community, one based on a common culture and society. They would be writing a new history and practicing only the most basic precepts and pillars of Islam (see Diana Eck’s book, A New Religious America, 2nd edition).
Another core challenge for the new immigrants, especially those from Muslim majority countries, was the new status of being in a religious minority, in a non-Muslim society. In his article, “A Lesson in Values Conflict: Issues in the Educational Formation of American Muslim Youth,” published in the Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs (1990), Theodore Pulcini analyzed the different responses to this new situation. He showed that immigrants would adjust in variety of ways. The responses he described are seen on a continuum, including an isolation/subcultural response, counter-cultural, integrative or accommodating, or total assimilation.
Advocates of the isolation/subcultural response represent one end of the continuum, preferring a separate lifestyle, isolated from the dominant culture. In this way, they can preserve an “Islamic” identity and reduce the effects of any non-Muslim influences. This is a common response for many religious fundamentalists, the most well-known being the Amish, who maintain strict separation from the non-Amish world. To a lesser extent, some immigrant Muslims live in ethnic or religious ghettos, speak their native language whenever possible, wear only ethnic clothes, and have their children attend full-time Islamic schools.
At the opposite end of the continuum is the assimilationist response. This is exemplified by the majority of the founding family members and extended family members who grew up in America without a mosque or any means of religious education. In this 30-year history, only a handful of the eight founding family members remained to help build the community and learned more about Islam.
The majority of the family members thus became assimilationists. A watershed was when the Muslim students arrived at the Center and introduced “new” ideas about the religion. These indigenous family members regarded the Muslim students as isolationists, because their ideas of Islam conflicted with the American culture and society. They deflected from the community. Assimilationists are also motivated to deflect from the community by a heightened sensitivity toward their children. They insist that the majority culture remain the aspired norm for the children, and do not want them to be bound to a minority that might be seen as “inferior” to that norm. 
The counter-cultural response calls for “safeguarding distinctiveness” in the midst of the majority cultural mainstream. For example, because he is motivated to influence mainstream thinking about the differences of the Islamic tradition, the counterculturalist will attend public school, wearing a head cover, for instance, and emphasize the value and importance of diversity. A Muslim can maintain her Islamic identity as a non-conforming subset, in much the same way as an Orthodox Jew.
The accommodationist’s response favors interaction with non-Muslims, but de-emphasizes differences and distinctiveness, such as head covers or exotic names. Rather, the accommodationist emphasizes the commonalities shared between Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and other faith traditions. By choosing this less confrontational approach, the accommodationist reduces the tension of being different, aims to protect his children from prejudice, and avoids any negative experience that could result in his/her child resenting his religion, or giving it up.
The accommodationist is sometimes criticized for too much accommodating, which could strip the Islamic community of its distinguishing features altogether. To counter that, he teaches his children to hold their Muslim identity as “inviolable,” take pride in their religious heritage, support the mosque community, and eventual study a program of formal Islamic education. The goals of the accommodationist are similar to the Reformed Jewish community: maintain identity as a unique unit, while being accepted by the majority as part of the society.
What is a Liberal /Conservative Mosque?
As new mosques began to emerge in the mid-to late 1970s, some scholars tried to distinguish one mosque community from another, by applying terms such as a “liberal” or “conservative” mosque. This researcher posits that Pulcini’s responses to being a religious minority in America provide some insight that more accurately describes a mosque community.
For example, employing the categorical names of his four responses, a more liberal mosque would attract families who choose a more integrative and accommodating response to mainstream society. A conservative community would attract families more inclined toward a counter-cultural response, or even an isolationist response, preferring to shield their children from the influences of the dominant society, as well as emphasize a distinctive Islamic identity. Generally, the assimilationist does not attend a mosque and there are many.
One prominent American Muslim leader provides his perspective on labeling communities:
“I resist the temptation to categorize a community. We are shaping Islam in America, working together, and learning from each other in an effort to find and fashion our own middle way. What makes it impossible to categorize a certain community as “liberal” or “conservative” is that Islam itself is socially liberal, as exemplified by its concern for the welfare of all defenseless societal members, while it is simultaneously morally conservative.” 
In conclusion, the decade of the 1960s was a transitional period, during which the embryonic and homogeneous Muslim community underwent myriad changes. One main contributing factor was the Immigration Act of 1965, which opened the flood gates for the second large wave of immigrants to the United States. The new immigrants discovered the mosque and joined the community. It was their sacred place, a home away from home; and more than a place, it was a chance to build a new community for their own families.
When so many original and extended family members deserted the building project, the American founders had suffered diminished financial capacity. In addition to the cost of monthly maintenance of the mosque, they had also taken on a small, menacing mortgage. Knowing that the debt was forbidden, due to Islam’s prohibition against interest, they had hastily paid it off, within the first year. However, by doing so, they had dangerously strained their financial situation. Consequently, they welcomed the financial support of the new immigrants and formed an enduring partnership.
The founders gained knowledge about Islam and developed a stronger religious identity, all of which would increase their faith. The influx of members from different countries was the first time the isolated, indigenous Muslims connected to the world community of Muslims (umma). Meanwhile, the new immigrants, as well as the relative newcomers to orthodox Islam, the African Americans who also joined the community, were inspired by the Lebanese founders who had accomplished so much with so little.
No one could have imagined the precipitous growth of the Muslim community. But in the first two decades, more than 20 mosques in New England would be built, from this one “grandmother mosque.” Most of the new Islamic Centers had adopted the elements of the Quincy Point mosque, using its administration model, implementing a democratic system for leadership positions, and starting a part-time Sunday school.
In the next decade of the 1970s, the new immigrant pioneers would create and improve programs at Quincy Point, such as the Sunday school curriculum, public relations and outreach committees, an interfaith committee, international food fair, fundraising dinners and luncheons, and programs to teach the rituals of washing the dead. They would also purchase an Islamic cemetery and organize the first Islamic conference of New England.
THE NEW IMMIGRANT PIONEERS
Leadership in Cooperation
The American Muslims admired the new immigrants for maintaining their identity and Islamic traditions, despite the challenges of being a minority and living in the majority non-Muslim society. Forward-thinking leaders, like Muzammil Siddiqi, acted as new role models. In the early 1970s, Muzammil was a student from India studying Comparative Religion at the Harvard Divinity School and member of the Harvard Islamic Society. He had met the founders in 1962, in the pre-building period. After the Center was built, he returned to serve on the Board of Directors (1973-1976) and assist the elderly imam, Mohamad Omar.
It was agreed that the knowledge he shared made the community more attractive to all Muslims. The “islamization” activities he initiated included creating prayer schedules, wearing Islamic dress in the prayer room, forming funeral committees, building ablution (wudu) facilities, and organizing senior scholars and graduate students to give Friday sermons (khutbat) in both English and Arabic.
The founders, in cooperation with the new leaders, initiated “indigenization” activities, as well. These included the establishment of a scholarship fund for the youth, organization of a Boy Scout troop, and the hiring of an office secretary (founding family member Ramzieh Ameen Hassan). In 1974, to marry people in religion and in accordance with state law,  Muzammil and Imam Omar became licensed as Justices of the Peace.
Second Building Expansion
Due to overcrowding, the Board started to search for a new location for the Center. But that idea was abandoned, in favor of a second building expansion. The expansion included a library, office space, and a multi-colored dome. In March 1972, the indigenous leaders also purchased land near the building, to be used as a parking lot.
Other additions were suggested and contributed by the new international community of leaders. For example, money was donated to build a minaret, which is a traditional structure that looks like a tower and would be the tallest point of the mosque. It is climbed by a designated person (muezzin) who literally calls people to prayer. At the last minute, however, the Board decided to use the money for another suggestion: to build a minbar instead of a minaret. The minbar is a movable staircase, or raised speaker’s podium, used by an imam to deliver the Friday khutbah. The immigrant leaders suggested that the mosque also build a mihrab, or niche in the wall, which would indicate the direction of prayer, or the qiblah (towards Mecca). Efforts were abandoned, however, when the founders discovered that the niche would cause the wall to protrude, exceeding the limits of the Quincy building code.
Islamic Sunday School
After numerous failed attempts by the American Muslims to develop a Sunday school program that would include an Islamic curriculum and capable teachers, Dr. Abdul Karim Khudairi succeeded. Dr. Khudairi was a Biology professor originally from Iraq and schooled in this country. During his tenure on the Board starting in 1970, he taught Arabic and also designed the first Sunday school program. He was joined in his quest by American founder, Mr. John Omar, the first religion teacher at Quincy Point.
The basic Sunday school curriculum included four levels of development (grades) for children in four subjects: Qur’anic Arabic, Qur’an Recitation, History of the Prophet Muhammad, and Religion. Some variation of this same basic curriculum has since been implemented in nearly every Sunday school program in the American mosques, at least in the Greater Boston area. In Quincy, there were extra classes for adults to learn the interpretation of the Qur’an (tafsir).
The quality of Dr. Khudairi’s curriculum attracted families, growing the student body in leaps and bounds. By 1974, 75 children and 25 adults were enrolled. By 1975, because of the overflow, the leadership requested and received permission from the city of Quincy to use seven classrooms at a local elementary school. Ms. Fatima Allie’s eminently good standing in the Quincy public school organization furthered this request.
After a brief hiatus in Iraq, Dr. Khudairi returned to the Center in the 1980s, to serve as president of the Board, for more than five years (1984-1989). In 1982, a third building expansion added four new classrooms to the Center. An office for the Imam was also built and dedicated to Dr. Khudairi, with a gold plate on the door. In 1990, 140 children were registered in the Sunday school. By 1991, there were reportedly over 300 students registered.
The Islamic Cemetery
In September of 1977, the Board purchased land for an Islamic cemetery in Candia, New Hampshire. Due to zoning complications, the cemetery project never reached fruition and the land had to be sold.  In 1988, twelve cemetery plots were purchased in the Knollwood Cemetery in Canton, Massachusetts. It was reported in the minutes that Knollwood had agreed to give the Center access to 2,000 grave sites for the next 30 years (as of 1991), with an option to buy more. The Center also arranged rights to approximately 500 grave sites at the Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain. 
Who is a Member?
Modeling church programs, the founders tried to organize a system of membership with dues. As the community grew, the income would help fund operational costs. Members who paid their dues would be allowed to vote, to elect the Board of Directors. The membership committee, formed in April of 1977, created a list of membership privileges and established different rates of annual dues for individuals, students, and families.
Since the American founders had adopted this custom and paid dues to the Arab American Banner Society for more than 30 years, they were blindsided, initially, to the objections of the new immigrants. To the new immigrants, the concept of paying to become a “member” of a mosque was anathema. It contradicted the traditional Islamic concepts of brotherhood in Islam, and the right of every Muslim to belong to the worldwide religious community (ummah). As some new immigrants argued, “I don’t have to pay to be a Muslim.”
The counter argument that paying membership dues would help pay for the Center’s operational costs won over a few but not all people. In Muslim majority countries, the custom is for a mosque to be supported by a philanthropist’s long-term gift (waqif), or by the government, and not by its members.
At voting time, ascertaining membership eligibility and creating a list of members was problematic. It was complicated by cultural factors, as well as the misaligned view of other concepts. For example, some member understood partially what was expected of them, by registering as a member, but not paying the dues. Then, there were those who gladly paid, but did not register. They may have paid as a charitable donation and then expected to be able to vote without registering. The membership committee could never be 100 percent sure of a member’s status.
As it often happened, a member would make a donation to the Center, without stipulating where to apply it. This would leave the question of voting eligibility in the balance on the day of an election. Even worse, some donors insisted that they remain anonymous when they donated. Thus, without being able to identify the donor, or know how to apply the donation, the treasurer could not accurately manage the membership dues accounting, or establish a person’s status. Ironically, for all the confusion this program caused, the money collected from dues was estimated to be only 6% of the entire mosque income in 1990. 
Devising Systems to Measure Growth
Monitoring community growth became the domain for those who maintained the monthly newsletter and mailing list, which was started in the late 1970s by Farhat Husain and Abu Nuri. Anyone who provided an address to the office secretary could receive the newsletter. When the Religious Director began inserting prayer schedules into the newsletter in 1982, the demand for the newsletter increased sharply. As of November 1990, in a concerted effort to keep more accurate records, all addresses were entered into a computer system. As of August 16, 1991, the newsletter mailing list numbered 862 families. By contrast, the membership list (paid and unpaid registered members) numbered 589 families. 
Another attempt to measure the growth of the community was by physically counting the number of Muslims who attended the Holiday (Eid) prayer sessions. Like people of other faiths, some Muslims would only attend the mosque on the two major holidays. The “Eid” Muslims  would appear on the Eid-ul-Fitr (feast after a month of fasting during Ramadan), and the Eid-ul-Adhha (feast of the sacrifice, after the pilgrimage to Mecca or Hajj). The latter follows the former by 70 days, and both are based on an unmodified lunar calendar.
Estimates of Eid Muslims attendance are based on a system of manually counting rows of men and women in each room during each of two or three prayer sessions held throughout the designated holiday. In April 1990, the attendance for Eid-ul-Fitr was estimated to be over 4000.  Growth was also informally estimated by the amount of money collected for voluntary and obligatory donations paid at the end of Ramadan each year. From the above methods, it is safe to say that every year showed an increased number of Muslims using the mosque on holidays.
Developing an International Identity
The reason for building a mosque for the American founders was for their religion to be seen as an accepted part of the America’s religious landscape, for the sake of their children. They saw themselves as Americans, whose religion was Islam and practiced their religion as other Americans did. But once the community started to diversify, with members attending from all over New England, and from more than 25 different countries, the founders gained a new perspective on what they had achieved when they built that mosque.
Unlike their immigrant parents, whose country of origin was Lebanon, geopolitics did not hold much interest. The American Muslims had little connection to the Muslims in other parts of the world. The only Muslims they knew lived in the Quincy Point neighborhood, and a few other families who lived in Boston. Discovering that they were members of a larger, international community was a new identity and awareness for them. As one founder stated, “We used to think that we were building a mosque for our kids. But eventually, we realized we had built a mosque for the Muslims.”
The Islamic Revival
The American Muslims were open to gaining Islamic knowledge from the more educated immigrants, and open to the Islamic books, recently translated into English and supplied to the mosque for free from Saudi Arabia. The Islamic worldview was new and they were unaware of the effects of the “Islamic Revival,” which was a fast-spreading movement during the 1960s that spread for decades, across the continents of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
The Islamic Revival was a term coined to describe the panoramic reform movement that indoctrinated students to the interpretation of Islam founded by Arabia’s late 18th century reformer, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Wahhabism is an Islamic doctrine and religious movement that has been variously described as “ultraconservative,” “austere,” “fundamentalist,” or “puritanical.” It was originally conceived and zealously enforced to restore “pure monotheistic worship,” otherwise known as the religion followed by Islam’s world Sunni majority. Viewing any other interpretation of Islam as a distortion, the Saudis perpetuated this movement to thwart the “deviant sectarian movements” of its global opponents (such as Iran).
Saudi Arabia deliberately funded this “one way” educational movement, using its petro dollars to distribute books and build mosques and madrasas (schools attached to mosques) all over the world. It supplied the mosques and schools with free books and paid teachers. The teachers taught the “one way” of interpreting Islamic concepts and practices. It could be argued that the Saudis ambitiously sought to establish themselves as the leaders of all Muslims and promote their uniform and ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam above all others.
The American Muslims sought to learn more about Islam by reading the books written by the more educated Muslims and published by legitimate international publishers. Many of the indoctrinating books were authored by conservative, like-minded scholars and reformers, including the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, Sayed Qutb of Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood), and Abul Ala Maududi of India.
Little was known, however, about those international authors, who used religion to manipulate the masses. For example, both Maududi (in the 1930s) and Qutb (in the 1960s), wrote about Islam during the difficult times, when India and Egypt were in the thralls of overthrowing British colonialism. They appealed to the masses to rally, by interpreting Islam to suit the “just” cause, and by distorting terms like jihad. They made their followers believe that a violent jihad was justified as a pillar of the faith and an obligation for every Muslim, like prayer.
These scholars/reformers also distorted the role of women in Islam, because they deemed them as useless in the fight against colonialism. To help control the masses, they also promoted particularly harsh punishments, found in the Qur’an. The Arabic language of the Qur’an was translated into English by the popular British/Indian scholar (b. 1892) Abdullah Yusuf Ali, who encouraged readers to take the Words of God literally. These distortions of Islamic concepts, like jihad, are still being used to justify the war of terrorism against the Western invaders, as well as against any Muslim who has formed a different interpretation of Islam.
Although they retained influence on the Board of Directors, the Lebanese American founders had become the smallest demographic group within the mosque community. Given the circumstances, what happened next were two attempted “takeovers” (a term used by Yvonne Haddad in her co-authored book, “Islamic Values in the United States”). In this author’s opinion, it was a watershed in the history of Islam in America. For it would be the first time that the American Muslims, of the first mosque in New England, would encounter new interpretations of Islam, backed by powerful, conflicting Muslim countries. The first was a “sectarian” view held and promoted by a branch of Shia Muslims. The second was a “conservative” view promoted and held by Sunni Muslims, zealots of the Islamic Revival movement.
The First Takeover
Many of the new immigrants who joined the Quincy Point mosque came from countries with a history of colonialism, poverty, tyranny, oppression, political, and/or sectarian unrest. When the wave of Islamic Revival rolled in, many Muslims saw its positive effects, because it proposed resurrection of an Islamic identity that had been repressed and discarded by European colonization, or in some cases, devastated by serial civil wars. The Quincy Point community was similar to other religious communities, in that its diverse members held conflicting views about the interpretations of Qur’anic concepts and varied in their practice of the five pillars of Islam. But because this diversity was strenuous and novel, the nascent Muslim American community experienced the first serious threat to its unity.
The American founders viewed the new immigrants equitably, but were challenged to keep the peace when a newcomer would claim to hold the one and only “right” view on an Islamic matter. To maintain control and cohesion of the community, the Americans relied on the lawful avenues available to them. This translated into a constant review of the By-laws of the Center’s constitution, to determine if anything needed amending or modifying. In the Islamic tradition, the founders’ reliance on the law, although not precisely, was at least consistent with the Qur’an’s emphasis on the “law” as the most reliable guiding principle for adherents.
For example, in the original Bylaws (1962), Article V stated that a person could be elected to the Board after being a member for three months. The founders amended Article V in 1966 to read that a person had to be a member for four consecutive years, before being eligible for the Board.
Those interviewed in this study stated that the first takeover attempt started brewing in 1975, when one of the Board members, Dr. A, a physician from Iran, protested that the member eligibility requirements discouraged people from running for the Board. Dr. A had been a key member since 1971, serving faithfully on the Religious Committee. He was highly-respected and educated in the many Islamic schools of law, and his lectures on Islamic law and history were enlightening and well-received. The founders agreed that “board fatigue” was a reality, considered Dr. A’s suggestion seriously, but took no action. Their admiration and respect for Dr. A notwithstanding, the American founders did not act out of a fear of losing control of the Center.
In January of 1977, Dr. A was elected president of the Board of Directors. He asked the Board to revisit the Bylaws in committee. Meanwhile, the founders had a new fear, which was the possibility that Dr. A intended to fill the vacancies on the Board with all Shia members (like himself). This would create a sectarian divide within the community, which had been eschewed by its founding members, since the earliest days of the mosque.
Even though two of the founding families were of the Shia tradition, the small community American Muslims was united by its long struggle to build one mosque. Their families had intermarried. They also shared egalitarian American values and the burden of being a religious minority. More importantly, they were unencumbered by historical (and/or generational) sectarian differences that motivated global Islamic societies to treat the Shia minority as a second class group. The American Muslims were thus immunized and fortified against sectarian preferences.
Eschewing any possibility of a sectarian divide, the founders tried to appease Dr. A, by amending the constitution and reducing the term of membership eligibility, from four years to two consecutive years. Dissatisfied with the compromise, however, Dr. A resigned from the Board in April of 1977 (endnote: Islamic Center Archives, Secretary’s Minutes, Decade Files, 1970-1979). Subsequently, he and his followers purchased a house in Cambridge, to build a new community. Those interviewed in this study estimated that the group lasted about three years, before splitting up. The property was sold and the money distributed among all of the mosques in the Greater Boston area. The Quincy Point mosque received $12,000 in October of 1983, with the stipulation that it be used for a library, which it was (endnote: Islamic Center Archives, Treasurer’s Report, Monthly Report, October, 1983).
The Second Takeover
The second takeover attempt began to percolate around 1976, when the Board hired a new Religious Director, M.S. Originally from India, M.S. was the younger brother of one of the Center’s oldest friends and came highly recommended. He came directly from Saudi Arabia where he had studied Islamic law and enrolled at Harvard Law School. He served as Religious Director for two years, assisting the elderly Imam (Mohamed Omar).
M.S. accomplished a great deal in the community, unburdening Imam Omar from the work he had been doing for many years, including weddings, funerals, leading prayers, and counseling families. However, it was the general consensus of those interviewed in this study (American founders in particular) that the community was “unaccustomed” to the new Director’s “leadership style.” The word “incompatible” came up several times independently in the interviews.
Realizing that deficiency in Islamic education characteristic of the isolated community (American founders in particular), M.S. applied his extensive knowledge of Islamic law and jurisprudence to justify changes in practice he expected the community to adopt. Assuming the authority granted him by the Board, he attempted to implement the new practices and reshape the community to reflect the knowledge he possessed. However, each of his “conservative” ideas was met with resistance, creating a new ambiance of controversy and divisiveness within the community.
For example, M.S. proposed that only men be allowed in the prayer room, and that women should pray separately in the adjacent library room. When that was resisted, he suggested that the women be separated by a curtain or partition, while in the prayer room. He also advocated for the separation of men and women in the social hall, during social events.
Despite their lack of Islamic law and knowledge, the founders unanimously rejected the separation of genders. When pushed to reconsider, they declared it more of a cultural carry over than religious edict or law. Given that gender separation was not a core value or practice of modern American society, they looked upon its practice within the mosque as hypocritical, at best. Most of the women at the Center, whether indigenous or immigrant, thought that removing women from the sacred prayer space was humiliating and offensive. At this time, the library was by far an inferior space. Mary Omar Hassan, one of the founders, an executive officer on the Board for many years, and this researcher’s mother, expressed the general outrage at the time, in these words:
“No way am I moving out of the prayer room. We worked too hard to get here. It took us 30 years to build this mosque, and I’m not moving out of that prayer room. … There will be no curtains or partitions either. I want to see the Imam when he talks!”
The American Muslim men agreed with the women. Their support and the support of other members built a greater consensus against any “foreign” ideas and practices. As tensions increased in the community, its cohesion weakened.
The Board did not want to confront the Religious Director, whose views they fully respected. They certainly couldn’t reproach him for his vast knowledge. But neither could they accept the imposition of his religious views or anyone else’s. To justify their objections, the founders questioned the degree of authority that the (any) Religious Director (or imam) should be allowed.
The founders were influenced by their core American values, falling back on their lifelong experience of the separation of church and state. In religious practice, they also looked to the model more apparent in the Protestant tradition. However, the relationship between the American clergy and the congregation was best described in the book, “Democracy in America,” by Alexis de Tocqueville, who stated: “Religion in America is a world apart in which the clergyman is supreme, but one which he is careful never to leave” (page 244).
The question of authority given to the Imam or Religious Director in the American mosque is an extremely critical one, as the founders had newly discovered. M.S. had frequently complained to the Board out of frustration, wanting to meet his responsibilities. He had asked the Board time and again to clarify the extent of his authority. The questions M.S. raised were legitimate. They included: “What is my title here, and what am I expected to do? Do I have authority throughout New England? Aren’t I the one in charge of religion at the Center?”
Needing to act, but wanting to avoid confrontation based on their limited knowledge, the founders decided to limit the Religious Director’s authority in the only way they knew how: by reducing his salary and limiting his geographical scope, confining it to Quincy Point. In this case study, the two different views of authority, i.e., knowledge and money, were reconciled. For the founders to reach any other solution, it would have behooved them to have a longer historical view of Islam in America. But none was available, at the time. In fact, they were writing that new history. Suffice it to say, the immediate solution did not satisfy the well-intentioned Religious Director.
In our interviews, the founders referred to this period in their history as the first time their community was ever divided. Early in 1978, with no obvious compromises, bedeviled by controversy, and weary of the constant dissension, the leadership acted to remove the Director from his position. According to the Bylaws, written in 1962 (Article X), such a move would require a majority vote of the General Membership. The Board agreed to honor the outcome of the vote.
On the day of the general membership meeting and election, M.S. surprised everyone by arranging for his supporters (who were not members at the time) to arrive in busloads, attend the general meeting, pay their membership dues, and vote for him. In the end, despite his extraordinary efforts, the majority in the community voted to dismiss M.S. Significantly, in the wake of this turn of events, the leadership amended the Bylaws, requiring that the membership dues be paid well in advance of the November elections (endnotes: Islamic Center Archives, Secretary’s Minutes, Decade Files, 1970-1979).
In 1979, M. S. organized a small group of members to establish a mosque of their own. They rented a public school in Cambridge and called their organization, the Islamic Center of Boston. Although M.S. left the area soon afterwards, the Islamic Center of Boston purchased a 12-room house and acreage in Wayland, MA, in 1986, and started a Sunday school. The fast-growing community planned to expand on the property acreage, by building a prayer space, community center, and 8-10 classrooms, to be completed by December 1991.
In summary, M.S’s legacy raised important new questions for the founders about the Islamic “legality” of certain aspects of their American way of life, formerly unchallenged. With this new knowledge, they wanted their mosque to be a respected institution that stayed within the “limits of Islamic law.” But without more knowledge, the American Muslims had no way to measure the authenticity of one interpretation of Islamic law over another; nor could they hope to resolve the complicated and continuous disputes of a rapidly growing and diverse community.
Their confidence eroded, the founders decided to hire an educated Sunni Imam from Lebanon. Their Lebanese background gave them a sense of connection to that country. They hoped that the connection would develop into a bond and create an ally who would help them in their struggle to learn about their religion and find the middle way of Islamic practice in America. Their experience with M.S. had taught the founders one very critical lesson: to limit the new Imam’s authority from the outset. They had also learned that someone who was “conservative,” would most likely want to hang a curtain in the prayer hall. This, they were certain to avoid.
During the 1970s, the founders also gained a greater appreciation for the challenges of building a diverse Islamic community in America. They wanted an imam who would strive to maintain the delicate balance of unity in the community, without favoring sectarianism. He should preserve the traditions of Islam, but also be progressive and promote the practice of an Islamic life within a modern American context. In 1982, they found all that and more in the leadership of Talal Eid.
THE COMING OF THE IMAM
The Imam’s Background
In 1982, the Muslim World League (a non-governmental agency, funded by the Saudis) sponsored ten trained imams to come to the U.S. from Lebanon. All were educated at Al-Azhar University, the oldest university in the world, in Cairo, Egypt. At this time, the Director of the Muslim World League in New York was Lebanese national Dawud Assad, a long-time supporter and friend of the Quincy Point mosque for nearly 20 years. Dawud recommended one imam in particular, Talal Eid.
From the time he was a young boy in Tripoli, Lebanon, Talal Eid was certain he wanted to become an imam. His father encouraged and enrolled him in Azhar of Lebanon in Beirut, a five-year private high school, where he earned a degree in Islamic law, ethics, and fiqh, the prerequisites required for entrance into Al-Azhar. The university curriculum included secular and Islamic sciences. In 1974, Eid had earned his degree from the School of Legislation and Law (Licensee), from the Faculty of Islamic Sciences and Law of Al-Azhar University.
After graduation, Talal Eid taught high school for a year and served as a half-time imam at a local mosque for two years. When he was finally appointed as a full-time Imam to a mosque in Tripoli, it was at the height of Lebanon’s civil war. He recalled his experience as painful. During his Friday sermons, he called for peace and brotherhood, but was denounced by those who demanded that he speak about the merits of fighting the jihad. Imam Eid acknowledged that most of the people had no interest in his “idealism.”
At age 30, Imam Talal Eid, his wife Hend (also a teacher), and their two small children arrived in Quincy Point. He was appointed Religious Director of the Islamic Center of New England. Given his outstanding credentials, reputation, and influence, the Imam’s presence and contributions may have increased the Center’s attendance, which grew five times more than it had in earlier years.
Imam Eid continued his education at Harvard University, in Cambridge, MA, earning a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) in 1992, and Th.D., in 2005. He served the ICNE community as Imam for 23 years. After retiring, he continued to work in his area of expertise of Islam and family relations, at the Islamic Institute of Boston, which he founded in 2002. His organization aimed to serve the wider community as a research institute, as well as provide social services, by advising and supporting those experiencing divorce, marital problems, with questions about inheritance, or in children’s custody disputes. In addition, Imam Eid served the Greater Boston community, working part-time as the first Muslim chaplain at Brandeis University, Mass General Hospital, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Responsibilities, Duties and Salary
Given their experience with previous Religious Directors, the founders took immediate steps to limit the authority of the new Imam. The initial guidelines for the duties and responsibilities of the Religious Director were worked out in committee by the Board.
Under Article V of the constitution (revisions made prior to 1983): “The Religious Director and the length of his tenure would be determined by the Board, with the approval of the general membership.” Under Powers and Duties, it reads: “shall lead or supervise all religious services of the corporation; “shall be an ex-officio, non-voting member of the Board of Directors; and “in his absence, his duties shall be performed by the religious committee.”
In accordance with a corporate governing format, the Board established the imam as a “salaried functionary” of the mosque. The Religious Director’s title and job description were carefully construed as a role in the “corporation,” with limits in the realm of religious matters and no administrative influence.
In our interview, Imam Eid described his job as follows (paraphrased here): Lead the prayer, teach (through school, lectures, and Friday khutbah), attend interfaith activities, perform burials, witness marriages, counsel families, and witness conversions. The formal title for his position was, Imam/Khatib (prayer leader/preacher).
The Center paid all the Imam’s expenses (health insurance, rent, etc.) and provided an annual cost of living increase and a car. The Imam preferred a contract arrangement, which was popular among some clergy in America. He received a nominal income from marriages that he divided by half with the Center.
From 1983 to July 11, 1991, the Imam had performed 450 marriages. The number of converts recorded from July 1983 to July 1991 was 229. Conversions as a result of marriage make up approximately 60-70% of this Muslim population, with the majority of converts being women. That is approximately 28 conversions per year, more than 2 conversions per month. The new convert would receive a document, signed by Imam Eid and two witnesses. The document was required by the Saudi government, for a convert to obtain a visa and permission to travel to Mecca for the pilgrimage. Note: The document has no basis in Islamic law.
The Imam and the Founding Families
Imam Eid was sensitive to the precautions taken by the founders to restrict his role and limit his authority. When he first arrived, he had attempted to hang a curtain in the prayer room to separate men and women. When the most of the men and women protested, the Imam dropped it. He stated the following:
“If imams try to change the people, confront them too often or press them too hard, they will alienate themselves from the community and become ineffectual.”
The Imam had learned to proceed with caution, when bringing Islamic knowledge to any community. For a new imam, he offered this following advice: “Find out what the people expect from you and not focus on what you expect from them.” 
Imam Eid accepted that the founders were set in their ways. For example, the washing of the deceased continued to take place at Sweeney’s Funeral Home. However, with the coming of the Imam, members learned to shroud the body and keep the casket closed, when it was brought upstairs for the wake. When a member did not attend the mosque, the Imam performed funeral prayers at the funeral home.
Another American practice involved the wedding of an extended family member, probably a second generation American Muslim, who was usually marrying a non-Muslim. The wedding would be modeled after an American “church” wedding, with the bride wearing a white dress, while friends and family gathered in the prayer room to observe the taking of the vows,  and rice being thrown at the couple outside the mosque. Dreams die hard, and this ritual had been held by some founding families, for their children’s sake, long before the mosque was built.
The Imam employed a good strategy. After his arrival in 1982, he honored the founders’ requests and allowed the church weddings to continue. His one request was that the wedding guests invited to sit in the prayer room would follow the rules of Islamic etiquette, in terms of dress code and cleanliness. The Imam also anticipated that as members became better educated about the use of the mosque and the core traditions of an Islamic marriage, such requests would decline and disappear. He was confident that the students taught by him and his wife would be a new generation, whose knowledge and strong Muslim identity would seek an Islamic alternative to the traditional church wedding.
Impact of the Imam on the Community
As noted earlier, it is likely that Imam Eid’s presence and impressive education motivated the steady increase in mosque attendance. From 1982 to 1986, the Center completed its fourth expansion, adding a duplex living quarters next door to the mosque (costing approximately $260,000). One side of the duplex functioned as a home for the Imam and his family. The other side was leased to another family to provide income for the Center, specifically for the Imam’s expenses.
In our interview, Imam Eid theorized that the growth and cohesion of a community would correspond to the degree of its knowledge. Furthermore, he stated, more knowledge would create better Muslims, and that the added knowledge would be carried forward to the next generation. Consequently, through his mentorship, education, and leadership, the Imam helped to create a more enlightened membership.
The reputation of Imam Eid, and his wife, Hend Ayoub, who also taught in the Sunday school, prompted new families to bring their young children to the mosque. While families were drawn to the Center, attracting young people remained an ongoing challenge for the community. To counter the waning interest of the youth in religion, members suggested and planned more social/recreational activities, including ski trips, sleep overs, and awarding merit-based scholarships to graduating high school students.
Religion and Politics
Imam Eid made sure his Friday sermons were free of politics, a standard set when he was an imam in Lebanon, during the civil war. Given that most American Muslim communities are comprised of members from many different nations, avoiding political speeches seemed like a wise strategy. For example, in the early 1990s, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the prayer room in the mosque was filled with Kuwaitis and Iraqis praying side by side. Imam Eid designed his sermons to inspire unity, brotherhood, peace, justice, and to enlighten congregants about Islamic history and the importance of interfaith relations.
The one political act Imam Eid allowed was joining other American clergy who favored the “politics of prayer and peace.” In this role, he would advocate for a more humanistic approach to world conflicts. Eid’s sermons also reflected many of the values shared by the interfaith community, including the value for human life, sympathy for its unnecessary loss, abhorrence for the killing of innocent people, peace with justice, compassion, tolerance, domestic harmony, freedom, and respect for all people.
Secular Society and Religion
In our interview, Imam Eid discussed the role and influence of secularism in America, as it affects religious practice, stating the following:
“People grow accustomed to thinking of the mosque as a place to pray once a week. It is not the priest or the rabbi who decides that the people will only worship one day a week. It is the law that decides. To this extent, secularism defines the religious community.”
Dr. Marston Speight defined secularism as “the result of a process by which religion loses its influence in society.” 
Despite these facts, however, the Christian origins of this country are still considerable and influential. The Christian congregational prayers on Sunday established the schedule for holding the Islamic Sunday school, which follows the Christian-based work schedule. Like other Americans, Muslims have fashioned their religious lives around this schedule. They bring their families to the mosque on Sundays and enroll children in the part-time Islamic school. Sunday school follows the regular school (Sept.-June) calendar, including holidays. At the end of Sunday school (by 1:00 PM), families will pray the mid-day prayer together, before leaving for home. There is no sermon (khutbah) on Sundays, since it is only given on the official Islamic congregational prayer day, which is on Fridays at mid-day.
Muslims Define a New Concept of Community
For Muslims, the two congregational prayer days are very different, because they form two different communities. For example, a family attends a particular mosque on Sunday, regardless of the distance, because the community and school are a good fit for its religious views. By attending every Sunday, the families form a community with other like-minded families. On Fridays, however, when people are generally at work at prayer time, the nearest mosque to their workplace is the only option. By the same token, people who attend that particular mosque every Friday, often during the lunch break, meet the same people and form another community. Moreover, these two communities are frequently linked by mutual friends, extended families, and a calendar of community events scheduled to take place within the greater New England region.
When there was only one mosque in New England, this kind of opportunity was not possible. But as more mosques were built in the 1970s and 80s, people started to attend prayers at preferred mosques on Fridays and Sundays, building uniquely strong communities.
THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE CALL
For most Americans, their first impression of Islam and the Muslims was on the television news, during the Iranian Revolution (1979-80), when pictures of protestors were shown, as American hostages were abducted from the U.S. Embassy. The provocative pictures of women dressed in black chadors, waving signs with the message, “Death to the Great Satan,” discharged directly into American living rooms, left an indelible mark. It was a poor first impression, but a watershed in American history. This criminal act marked an unprecedented era of relations between Muslims and Americans. As a result, every American household learned a new word, “Islam,” and linked “Muslims” with an action hateful to the West.
This chaotic period was followed by the 1980s, the decade that married the religion of Islam to acts of terrorism. The cause, which went unnoticed, as it grew out of control, was the oppression and cruelty with impunity that characterized the Arab/Israeli conflict − a malignant, untreated cancerous growth that would eventually (over many decades) consume and destroy the healthy cells of the entire Middle East. In reaction, terrorists started to hijack airplanes and ships, and kill innocent people. Fighting this cancer with terrorism was both overkill and underkill – like using heavy doses of chemotherapy to cure injustice and oppression.
The growing community at Quincy Point was international, with people from no less than 30 different countries. Regardless of reason, warning, or relevance, the mosque, which stood more as a symbol than an actual player, was drawn onto the international stage. Like other Americans, the mosque community had to ride out the waves of violence that began in Palestine, spread like wildfire to Iran, and bounced back to Palestine in the 1988 Intifada.
The media targeted the Center, demanding that its leaders explain the violence executed by Muslims throughout the world. These demands linked the mosque to the international political arena and the heinous crimes taking place worldwide. To manage the angry, unsolicited attention, the leadership formed a public relations committee. To avoid making matters worse, they invited media specialists to instruct designated spokespersons how to respond to unwanted media attention and speak in 30-second sound bites. Long before 9/11, the leadership understood that this was a brave new world for American Muslims.
As the office secretary at Quincy Point, from 1984 to 1988, this researcher can testify to the shifting perceptions of its neighbors. Despite the fact that the mosque had been in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, and the founding families were well-known Quincy residents for more than 50 years (before the mosque was built), the neighbors became mistrustful. Vandalizing the mosque became problematic, for the first time.
Oddly, the Center also received a steady stream of phone calls from schools, civic organizations, churches, and synagogues, inviting the mosque to send a speaker to talk about the religion of Islam. While some callers would scream, “Go home,” and hang up, the vast majority sought to gain a better understanding of Islam, or perhaps, learn more about what they were up against. The Boy Scouts, for instance, requested a tour of the mosque.
Questions about the “terrorists,” and the meaning of the word, jihad, were not uncommon. Did Islam condone terrorism and jihad? The public relations committee was responsible for filling speaker requests by finding educated speakers who could answer these questions. But it was difficult to find someone (a volunteer) in the Muslim community in America who could meet the qualifications of an “educated” speaker, for several reasons. The more educated Muslims were immigrants; English was not their first language. Even an educated person with fair linguistic skills would also need an interest in public speaking and have free time during the day to travel to speaking locations.
It was impossible to stop, or even pause, the sensational momentum building in the media, which layered misperception upon misperception. With no way to fulfill or ignore the well-intentioned requests for education, the volunteer leadership was under a tremendous strain. Often they faced audiences that were frustrated, hostile, and afraid. Moreover, for the educated Muslim speaker who knew the meaning of the jihad, it was not the purview of an ordinary believer to explain the use of jihad to justify violence and terrorism. It soon became apparent that non-Muslim audiences were not interested in the normal, religious usage of word.
Like most Americans, the founders could only speculate as to what was fueling the hijackings and terrorism. With their limited education, most had never heard the word jihad before. The political acts of terror, killing of innocents, and suicide bombers − all done in the name of their religion, seemed to be a sidebar of history, one that included distorted religious concepts to justify criminal acts. Were these acts justified in any way, given the long-standing, smoldering global conflicts, deceptive international politics, and thoughtless foreign policies?
To keep abreast of the speaker invitations, the public relations committee arranged to form a speakers’ bureau that would train volunteer speakers. Comprehending that the demand for speakers was a national phenomenon for Muslims, the Quincy Point leadership invited progressive trainers from California to provide onsite speaker workshops. Hostilities did not abate. For example, after one terrorist hijacking, the Jewish Defense League (JDL) held a vigil across the street from the mosque and burned a picture in effigy, of the Ayatollah Khomeni of Iran. Despite there being no worldly connection between the Quincy Point mosque, the hijacking, or the Ayatollah, the JDL protested vigorously.
In addition to prank phone calls, protests, speaker requests, and vandalism, the leadership had to deal with the media, which demanded interviews. Since the mosque was run by volunteers, there were only two people onsite, on a daily basis. This researcher was one of them. As the paid, part-time office secretary, I was available. I also had an outgoing personality, but knew nothing about Islam, having grown up and left the area before the Center was built. Imam Eid from Lebanon was the other employee at the mosque, and he was by far the most knowledgeable. But since he had only been in the country for a few years, his English was limited and his accent difficult to understand. A third person was a dedicated volunteer who had made himself available, as much as possible. Dr. Karim Khudairi, originally from Iraq, was the president of the Board of Directors (1983-1989). Although he did not possess the same level of religious scholarship as the Imam, Dr. Khudairi, a retired biology professor, was well-versed in religious studies, and he spoke good, plain English.
Dr. Khudairi was a strong leader who acted to gain control of the situation. When he agreed to arrange a press conference, he asked this researcher and the Imam to sit on either side of him, at a long table. His speech to the assembled media was brief and invited no further questions:
“We are not a political organization. This is our church, where we come to pray. We have religious freedom in this country, as you know, and we have nothing to do with terrorism. Thank you all very much for coming.”
As requests for speakers from churches and synagogues continued, the public relations committee morphed into an “interfaith” committee, and became involved in a growing number of interfaith activities. These new requests led to more positive interaction between non-Muslims and Muslims, despite the continuous bad news. Dr. Karim Khudairi gave interfaith relations the highest priority. He joined the established interfaith organizations that formerly ignored Muslim representation, including the National Conference for Christians and Jews (1985). Eventually, Dr. Khudairi would form the first Islamic Interfaith Committee and led regular meetings with the clergy of the Massachusetts Council of Churches.
The Islamic Council of New England
Dr. Karim Khudairi’s other priority in the early1980s was to found the Islamic Council of New England. In this issue of the Islamic Forum (August 1991), he reiterates the purpose of the Council:
“To establish a forum in which each of the independent Islamic centers or societies from the New England area could come together and exchange views of common concerns, develop strategies and programs for achieving common goals, to strengthen the unity and harmony amongst the Muslims, to represent the Muslim community at the regional level with one united voice and force and much more.”
A $5000 donation had been held in escrow from 1975-1985, to support this organization. In 1985, Dr. Khudairi used it to organize the first Islamic Conference of New England, thereafter an annual event sponsored by the Islamic Council and attended by an average of 400-500 Muslims from New England. There were twelve charter members who joined the Council in 1983 and two more joined in 1985.  For the most part, the leaders and founders of these mosques were initially members of the Quincy Point mosque:
Original Council members included: The Islamic Center of New England, Quincy, MA; Islamic Center of Boston, Wayland, MA; Islamic Center of Connecticut, Hartford, CT; Islamic Center of Merrimac Valley, Salem, NH; Islamic Center of Rhode Island, Providence, RI; Islamic Society of Boston (Universities), Cambridge, MA; Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts, Holyoke, MA; Islamic Society of Greater Worcester, Worcester, MA; Masjid Al-Qur’an, Dorchester, MA; Masjid Ar-Razzaq, Providence, RI; Islamic Community of Fairfield County, Norwalk, CT; Mosque of New England, Seekonk, MA; Society of Islamic Brotherhood (Masjid al-humdollilah), Boston, MA; Islamic Center of University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT; Islamic Association of Greater Hartford, Hartford, CT; Islamic Society of Amherst Area, Amherst, MA; Masjid Muhammad, New Haven, CT; and the New England Muslim Sisters Association, Worcester, MA.
Organizing the Muslim Students
In 1982, an Egyptian engineer and member of the Islamic Center of New England, R. R., reorganized the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB), to unite the Muslim Student Associations (MSAs) that were already established at various area colleges. The early member schools with MSAs were Harvard, Boston University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). By the early 1990s, the organization expanded to include Northeastern University, Wentworth Institute, and Suffolk University, to name a few.
R.R. proposed to recognize each MSA as an independent unit, but encouraged students to participate jointly in providing religious education and celebrating holidays together, as one community. MSAs remained autonomous, but were loosely connected by their common ground, based on American laws and values, common concerns, core beliefs, and the events calendars that were shared in the Greater Boston area.
The ISB also performed certain functions that benefitted all MSAs. For example, it set up a schedule of speakers (khateeb) to give sermons at each university, for every Friday congregational prayer. On the Eid-ul-Adha in 1991, ISB organized all the students to pray the holiday prayer in a large park in Roxbury for the first time. Working closely with the Muslim Youth Association (MYA), ISB also sponsored Islamic scholars to lecture in the Boston area. Lecturers or key note speakers would usually be hosted by the Islamic Center of New England, or by the largest student association, which was at M.I.T. In September 1991, a professor of Arabic at Bethlehem University, in Palestine, Yasser al-Mallah, came to M.I.T. as a visiting scholar from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. He lectured on the Arabic language used in the Qur’an. Speakers like al-Mallah were made available once or twice a month to the Muslim community of Greater Boston, and all speeches were translated (live) into English.  Men and women were welcome to attend.
In summary, the 1980s began the struggle for Americans to view Islam as an extension of the Judaic-Christian tradition, which is what Muslims believe. The burden of proof was on the Muslim Americans, who fought to change public misconceptions about Islam through education, one person at a time. As emotional responses took root, the challenge for these educators was in knowing that facts about Islam could not trump fears. Grappling with guilt by association that affected their daily lives, Muslim Americans were drawn onto the international stage, where violence and global conflicts involving Muslims was increasingly degrading their faith.
Some scholars have argued that the prolonged suffering of those involved (Muslims, Christians, and Jews) in the intransigent Arab/Israeli conflict has led to the acceptance of violent extremism as the only solution. Was there any other solution? America’s status quo policy of ignoring the suffering, injustice, cold-blooded murder, and oppression of people living in Palestine has crushed the hope of a solution. As a result, cancer cells from this malignant conflict have spread throughout the world, growing into major political tumors. The history that has unfolded, as a result, includes the death of the godless Soviets; the rise of the Taliban, who were educated in the distorted madrassas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, built by Saudi Arabia; “uncontrollable” splinter groups who have nothing left to lose, but die fighting and killing for their freedom; the birth of a zealous, ultra-conservative Islamic Revival; and the endless escalation of violence throughout the world against Muslims, and by Muslims. By 1985, Muslims were already the largest population of refugees in the world.
Wary of international donations from Muslim countries that might insinuate unpopular political alliances the mosque relied heavily for financial support on the immigrant families who had joined in the 1970s and 1980s. The Center could not have survived without the generosity and indefatigable efforts of pioneer families, such as the Khudairis, the Hoseins, the Ashrafs, the Hussains, the Shaikhs, and the Butts, to name a few. These families built a strong, open, and enduring Islamic community, somewhat prepared for the decades of hardships to come.
THE ISLAMIC COMMUNITY/1990’S
Fire and Discrimination
On March 30, 1990 during the holy month of Ramadan, a fire destroyed the interior of the Islamic Center of New England. Although its concrete exterior remained intact, the damage was estimated at more than $500,000. Investigators have never determined if it was the work of an arsonist or not, but insurance money was available to cover the cost of repairs.  Significantly, an outpouring of sympathy and financial assistance came from the surrounding communities of Muslims and non-Muslims.
One year later, the president of the Board, Dr. Mian Ashraf (originally from Kashmir, India), and a celebrated cardiothoracic surgeon in the Boston area, represented the Center’s interest in purchasing a 7.5-acre lot and mansion in Milton, MA. Given that the maximum building codes in Quincy prevented further expansions, the aim of the leadership was to surmount the overcrowding problem at Quincy Point by expanding to a new location. The ambitious plan was to build a prayer room and social hall that would accommodate 1000 people and use the extra land in Milton to build a school and a youth camp.
Negotiations in Milton fell through in July 1991, when Milton residents of this prestigious neighborhood protested the purchase, claiming that the fast-growing Muslim community would cause an increase in traffic. The Board filed a suit, based on country of origin and religious discrimination. In the end, however, the Board decided not to pursue the case.  In the last report (November 1991), the Milton neighbors had purchased the land. Dr. Ashraf directed the search to other areas on the South Shore.  On December 24, 1991, the general body membership approved the Board’s purchase of 54 acres of farmland in Sharon, MA, at a cost of $1.15 million. 
The 50th anniversary of the Islamic Center of New England was celebrated in 2014, with a banquet, and more than 200 attendees. Several programs were planned to celebrate the fruition of a long-range dream to build the first mosque in New England. Founding families were remembered, and the pioneering families, who built the first beloved community, were honored.
The anniversary was a watershed in the history of the American Muslim community. After 50 years, I asked the question: What are the dreams and aspirations of Muslims living in America today?
Like their predecessors, Muslims aspire to be an integral part of American society, following in the monotheistic Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. They expect the freedom to express a diverse ethnic and religious heritage, like people of other faiths, without being stereotyped, marginalized, or feared. They want their contributions to be recognized without prejudice, denial, discount or dismissal. They want to pass on their beautiful religion to the next generation, free of guilt by association. They want to be free to retain as much or as little of their religious practices and cultural identities, as every American is, and every generation does; and still feel welcomed as an American. Most likely, the community will evolve within the framework of American society, in the same way Islam has evolved in historically in other societies, in other times.
A Personal Perspective: Post 9/11
Since the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, I have observed significant changes in America, in the way the Muslim community is treated and perceived, and in the Muslim community itself. My observations are based on two distinctly different experiences. One is from a unique historical perspective, growing up in New England, in an America before there was a mosque or community of Muslims. The other is from my first-hand experience as an active member of the Muslim community for more than 35 years.
The contrast of these two Americas is remarkable. The blue-collar town where I grew up, Weymouth, MA, in the 1950s and 60s is a good example. Hard to imagine, but being a Muslim back then was irrelevant to everyone, even to me. There was no way to identify a person who was a Muslim. If you identified yourself as such, people might wonder if that was a new zodiac sign. Like the religion, the word, “Islam,” was unheard of. I grew up never hearing the word mosque, or meeting another Muslim who wasn’t a relative, with no pesky head covers, and no mention of the Prophet Muhammed, or the holy Quran.
In the Weymouth library, there were no books about the Muslims, no movies in Hollywood, nothing in the news to hear, nothing in our school history books, and no terrorism. Of course, there were encyclopedias. But when you don’t hear a word spoken by anyone, you can’t look it up. In most junior and high school history books, there might have been one paragraph about Islam, with the picture of a camel at the top of the page. This paragraph would represent to every American student the utter insignificance of the religion (of one out of four people in the world). It wouldn’t describe the Golden Age of the Islamic Civilization, which was well-underway by the 9th and 10th Century, while Europe remained in the Dark Ages for another six or seven hundred years. It wouldn’t inform you that the Islamic Empire was the largest and longest-lasting empire in the world. Apparently, in America, none of that mattered to anyone.
Few knew that a Muslim was the follower of the religion, Islam. This hasn’t improved by much. But when it did change, it was in 1979, when the Iranian revolutionaries took the hostages. For most Americans watching the nightly news in their living rooms (including this researcher), this was Islam 101.
Fast forward to post 9/11. Sales of the Holy Qur’an topped the list of best-selling books. Newsweek devoted eight pages in its February 2001 issue to examining the Qur’an. USA Today, reported in, “People Want to Know, so Koran is Bestseller,” that there was intense interest in the Qur’an and sales had increased by five times. Penguin Books, one of the best-known publishers of the Qur’an in English, reported that it had printed 20,000 extra copies after 9/11.
I am reminded of the book, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), by Charles Dickens, who aptly describes the time: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” For those writing a new history of Islam in America, these facts are undeniable proof that it was the best of times. A new idea had risen out of the ashes of 9/11, and that idea was Islam. But for most Muslims, it is no reason to celebrate, because this idea of Islam is bogus.
Furthermore, when Islam is portrayed as an inherently “violent” religion, Americans are being deceived and manipulated by fear. Those who fear Islam would benefit greatly to know more about the history of Islam and Western relations; for it is not the first time that Westerners have been deceived. It is not the first time that fear of Islam has been exaggerated, or that the truth about Islam has been concealed and/or distorted. Of course, things have changed.
Meanwhile, there are the free-radical troublemakers of our times. The jihadi’s are on the warpath to perpetuate terror. They have stepped into a self-fulling prophecy to create terror and carve out a modern Western identity, an outward one that worships itself. They condemn and kill anyone who does not believe what they believe. They believe they are the new “prophets,” and will stop at nothing until every Muslim is serving in their brainless, soulless army of robots.
Prior to 9/11, whenever I was invited to give a speech about Islam, people asked me about the jihad, suicide bombers, and terrorism. After 9/11, I was asked, “why do they hate us.” Most times, it was impossible to pierce thru the fear, prejudice, and misconceptions. It was frustrating, for I had no knowledge of the perpetrators of these crimes, or their motivations. To find the answers, I met with Muslim scholars, but even they could only speculate. Thus, I could not provide honest or satisfactory answers. Certainly, since terrorism or the killing of innocent people is not taught in anyone’s religion, there were none to be found in my religion either.
I’ll never forget my first speech soon after 9/11, when I was invited to a church. After 45 minutes describing the beauty of Islam, its pillars, practices, and sacred precepts, the minister initiated the Q & A by asking: “Can you please explain why a religion teaches its followers to fly planes into buildings?”
After 9/11, Muslims in America were on alert. People who looked like Muslims were being shot and killed. Muslims in my community talked about being treated unfairly in the workplace, being viewed as a fifth column by the government, being afraid for their kids who were attacked and bullied in school, and feared being targeted by jihadi terrorists because they were not jihadis.
To exacerbate matters, a new racism, Islamophobia (and cottage industry), has developed to exploit American fears and prejudices. Institutionalized in the 21st Century, Islamophobia has been used to justify acts of vandalism, hostility, and even the killing of innocent Muslim women and children worldwide. Perhaps out of fear, many Muslims have reacted by moving toward a greater social conservativism and stronger religious observance.
However, I am predicting several positive outcomes, as the result of these difficult times. There are young Muslim Americans (and scholars) making an effort to take back Islam. They are rethinking and redefining Islamic concepts, within the framework of America; as opposed to those who are content to imitate their parents and ancient cultural traditions; or those who, like in any religion, take each word of scripture literally, without thinking.
It is also encouraging to know that there are more Christians, Jews, and other Americans who have learned a great deal over the years about the universality of Islam’s religious beliefs, practices, and values. The values and principles of Islam are upheld in the Qur’an and include brotherhood, love, peace, forgiveness, family values, justice, freedom, respect for the position of women and the law, and the charge for each of us to do unto others what we would like others do to us.
As a possible outcome, I would predict that the more Americans (including the Muslims) know about these commonalities, the safer and better our world will be. I feel confident that, after more than 1400 years of obscuring and distorting the truth about Islam, the time is nearer for a true understanding to come to light. Then, Islam will be understood as the completion of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and believers will renew their relationship with the One God. Another possible good outcome of more education would be that people will realize that the “Muslim world” is not some alien place, filled with alien people, somewhere−over there. It is here; we are here, in America to stay.
- George Antonius, The Arab Awakening, (New York: P. Putnam’s Sons, 1946), 88-123.
- Brent Ashabranner, An Ancient Heritage/The Arab-American Minority, (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991), 24.
- Earle H. Waugh, “Muslim Leadership and the Shaping of the Umma: Classical Tradition and Religious Tension in the North American Setting,” in The Muslim Community in North America, ed. Earle H. Waugh, Baha Abu-Laban, and Regula B. Qureshi, (Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 1983; paperback edition reprinted 1987), 22-23 (page references are to reprint edition).
- H. Hourani, Syria and Lebanon, 184.
- Imam Talal Eid interviewed by Mary Lahaj, July 11, 1991, Quincy, MA, cassette, Volume 2, Side 1.
- Islamic Center Archives, Arab American Banner Society, Certificate of Incorporation, The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Secretary of the Commonwealth, Frederic W. Cook, November 9, 1937.
- James Abraham interviewed by Mary Lahaj, 7/26/91, Quincy, MA, cassette, Volume I, Side 1.
- Islamic Center Archives, Constitution of the Arab American Banner Society, 1937.
- Fatima Allie interviewed by Mary Lahaj, July 16, 1991, Weymouth, MA, cassette, Volume I, Side 2.
- Islamic Center Archives, “Plan Prayer Service in Moslem Home,” Quincy Patriot Ledger, 8/62.
- Islamic Center Archives, “Quincy Mosque Rises,” American-Arab Message, editor’s note: `The preceding article was reprinted from the Patriot Ledger, Saturday, April 27th, 1963.’ English and Arabic used.
- Islamic Center Archives, “King Saud Cancels Swampscott Rest; No Reason Given,” Quincy Patriot Ledger, 1/27/62.
- Islamic Center Archives, “Quincy Point, Whist Party,” Quincy Patriot Ledger, 10/12/61.
- Mary Omar Hassan interviewed by Mary Lahaj, 8/14/91, Weymouth, MA. Notes.
- Islamic Center Archives, Secretary’s Minutes, 2/18/62 and 1/12/64.
- Islamic Center Archives, “Sergeant Addresses 4-Faith Dinner Meeting,” Quincy Patriot Ledger, date unknown, probably 1966 or 1967.
- John Omar interviewed by Mary Lahaj, 8/3/91, Kingston, MA. Notes.
- Islamic Center Archives, Mohamed Mirghani, “Mosque Is First In N.E.,” Quincy Patriot Ledger, 1962.
- Islamic Center Archives, Secretary’s Minutes, Decade File, 1963-1969.
- Islamic Center Archives, James J. Collins, “N.E. Islamic Center Builds Quincy Mosque,” Boston Sunday Globe, June 9, 1963.
- Islamic Center Archives, “Members Praised at Dedication of New Islamic Center in Quincy,” Quincy Patriot Ledger, 10/18/64.
- Islamic Center Archives, Secretary’s Minutes, Decade Files, 1963-1969 and 1970-1979. On 3/7/69, the Center pledged $500 to fund a Field Director and headquarters for the FIA. On 7/16/71, the Center had enlisted 41 members to join the FIA.
- Islamic Center Archives, “Quincy Islamic Center Observes Mosque Dedication Anniversary,” Quincy Patriot Ledger, November 6, 1967. Also see: “Muslim School Planned for Jersey,” by George Becker, The Muslim Star, (approximately 1977), page 3.
- Dawud Assad interviewed by Mary Lahaj, 11/2/91, telephone. Notes only.
- Islamic Center Archives, Secretary’s Minutes, Decade Files, 1963-1969.
- Imam Talal Eid interviewed by Mary Lahaj, 7/11/91, Quincy, MA, cassette, Volume II, Side 1.
- Fatima Allie interviewed by Mary Lahaj, July 16, 1991, Weymouth, MA, cassette, Volume I, Side 1.
- Eric Lincoln, “The American Muslim Mission in the Context of American Social History,” The Muslim Community in North America, 228; and an online article, “Keeping the faithful: After 50 years, this local mosque thrives but still faces challenges,” written in 2007 for boston.com.
- Haj Imam Shakir Mahmoud interviewed by Mary Lahaj, 7/24/91, telephone. Notes only.
- Ahmed Osman buried Malcolm X in New York after his assassination in 1965.
- Imam Talal Eid interviewed by Mary Lahaj, 7/11/91, Quincy, MA, cassette, Volume II, Side 1.
- (Haj) Sam Hassan, interviewed by Mary Lahaj, 8/6/91, Sandwich, MA, cassette, Volume I, Side 1.
- Theodore Pulcini, “A Lesson in Values Conflict: Issues in the Educational Formation of American Muslim Youth,” Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs, Volume II, #1, (January, 1990), 131-141.
- Liebkind, “The identity of a Minority,” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 10 (1989): 53; quoted in Theodore Pulcini, “A Lesson in Values Conflict: Issues in the Educational Formation of American Muslim Youth,” Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 2 (January 1990): 144-145.
- Cader Asmal interviewed by Mary Lahaj, 9/11/91, telephone. Notes only.
- Islamic Center Archives, Justice of the Peace Certification, May 23, 1963, Personal paper of Mohamed Omar.
- Islamic Center Archives, Secretary’s Minutes, Decade Files, 1970-1979.
- Peter Halesworth, “Islamic Center Looks at New Sites,” Quincy Patriot Ledger, August 22, 1991, 8.
- Islamic Center Archives, Secretary’s Minutes, General Membership Meeting, November 1990.
- Zaida Hassan, Office Secretary Islamic Center, interviewed by Mary Lahaj, telephone. August 16, 1991.
- Yvonne Haddad & Adair Lummis, Islamic Values in the United States, 33.
- Ann Doyle, “Mosque Determined to Rebuild from Ashes,” Quincy Patriot Ledger, May 12, 1990, 53.
- Imam Talal Eid interviewed by Mary Lahaj, 7/11/91, Quincy, MA, cassette, Volume I, Side 2.
- The first wedding to take place in the mosque was right after it was built in February, 1963, by the Derbes family, American born generation. Hesine (Robert) Derbes interviewed by Mary Lahaj, 8/12/91, Quincy, MA. Notes only.
- Marston Speight, “The Secular State: Promise or Threat?” in the Newsletter for Christian-Muslim Concerns, no.46, (September 1991): 1-2.
- Islamic Center Archives, Articles of Incorporation and By-Laws of the Islamic Council of New England, 1986.
- Ragab Rizk and Mustapha Abu Swai, past & present presidents of the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) interviewed by Mary Lahaj, 9/11/91, telephone. Notes only.
- Brian Carr, “Arsonist Hits Area Mosque,” Quincy Patriot Ledger, March 30, 1990, 11.
- Ellen Nakashima, “Muslims Sue, Property on Hold,” Quincy Patriot Ledger, October 4, 1991, 1-2.
- Ellen Nakashima, “Neighbors Buy Site Sought By Mosque,” Quincy Patriot Ledger, July 27, 1991.
- Stacy Wong, “Islamic Center approves buying farm in Sharon,” Quincy Patriot Ledger, December 24, 1991.
Primary Sources Consulted
Islamic Center Archives
Articles of Incorporation of Arab American Banner Society, 1937
Constitution of Arab American Banner Society, 1937
Secretary’s Reports 1952-1990
Bill Receipts 1950-1960s
Treasurer’s Reports 1952-1987
Constitution and By-Laws of the Islamic Center of New England, 1962-1983
Articles of Incorporation and By-Laws, Islamic Council of New England, 1986
Religious Director’s Reports, 1985-1990
Incoming and Outgoing Mail, 1981-1986
Membership Lists, 1952-1976
Building Plans and Public Relations Material, 1970-1980
Photo Albums, Scrap Books, Guest Books, and Programs
Sweeney’s Funeral Home Archives, March 1939
Newspaper Articles prior to 1990
Oral Interviews with 2nd generation founders and outstanding leaders in community
Taped Cassette Interview of Haj Mohamed Omar, first generation founder, 1983
Personal papers and banner
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One year ago, I gave this story a new title (thanks to my friend Kate T.).
In the year 2001, I came back from California to take care of my ailing mother. I moved into her condo and worked part-time.
I had been living with her for nearly ten years, when she died in July of 2010, at the age of 89. After so many years, living with my mother off and on and depending on her, I felt her loss deeply, as if she had been my spouse. Despite our differences, arguments, and unresolved issues, my mom stood up for me and gave me the best advice when I needed it. She was also the only person in my family who practiced my religion. I treasured that and will miss her for rest of my life.
When she died, I was 62 years old. Big changes were necessary, for me to continue my life. I would need a new place to live and a full-time, good-paying job to support myself. I couldn’t afford the condo, due to the high taxes and fees. My three siblings were kind and supportive. I could stay in the condo for as long as I needed. But without a career, any savings, or a husband to fall back on, I had few choices, and I was terrified. The only positive thing was that by selling the condo, we could divide the profit equally, which was our mother’s intended gift for the four of us.
I applied for teaching positions. I had taught religion and worked part-time for five years as an adjunct professor, teaching philosophy at a community college. But without a teaching certificate, opportunities were limited. Meanwhile, I sorted through mother’s possessions, consigned some of her furniture, and gave things away. Even though the economy was slow, we decided to put the condo up for sale in December, 2010. Since mom owned it outright, we set the highest asking-price we could, 275K.
By the end of February, 2011, no one had inquired about the condo, and no one had shown any interest in hiring me as a teacher. The one glimmer of hope was putting my name on a waiting list, that previous September., at a nice apartment complex nearby. They had actually called me twice since September, with an available apartment; but since we hadn’t sold the condo, I had to decline. I asked them to keep my name on their list, which they did.
On Friday, March 4th around 11:30 AM, the apartment complex called me again, with news of an available apartment. Again, I declined. That weekend, I had made plans to drive down to Yale for a chaplain’s conference. As I was checking my email one last time, at 11:45, I saw the email from our real estate agent and old family friend, Deb. She was on vacation in Aruba. She wrote, “Just received a serious offer for the condo, 260K.”
I immediately contacted my siblings. Donna and her husband Tom were on vacation in Florida. My two brothers, Mike and Richard, were together in Mexico. But first, I called back the apartment complex and arranged to see the apartment the next day. Maybe this was truly serious!
I called my sister on her cell. She was sitting on the beach, and I could hardly hear her voice over the wind, but she was excited, “That’s a good offer. Let’s take it [WIND WIND]… The economy is bad. Let’s just sell it! Hooray!”
Mike answered first, when I Skyped my brothers in Mexico. Not so eager to sell, he said, “I think we should counter with an offer, but keep it on the high side, since mom took such good care of the condo.” Richard’s advice was not to counter, but hold to our highest price.
As the self-appointed head of communications, anchored to the kitchen table on my laptop, I decided to go with Mike’s idea, and he and I agreed on a counter offer of 273K. Within half an hour, the buyer moved up from 260 to 268. I was relieved, because our other two siblings were complaining that we had ignored their advice. Objecting to our course of action, they expressed their fears and warnings: we don’t want to fall prey to greed and lose the sale; we don’t want to give the condo away at too low a price!
Deb asked me, “What do you want to do now? Take the 268 offer or not?” Mike and I were encouraged by the big jump in the buyer’s counter offer. The buyer may have tipped his hand and revealed how much he loved the condo. To assuage our grumbling siblings, Mike suggested that I email them (Deb included) a picture of mom mopping the floor, as another reminder that our mom took great care of the condo so that we could get a good price for it. We planned to follow up with a reasonable counter offer. Deb wisely stayed out of the ongoing family discussion.
Our beloved brother-in-law Tom joined the debate, in support of his wife. The discussion opened with, “It’s a bad economy, so we should take the current offer;” and descended to, “Let’s not get greedy;” and, “I know more about selling houses than you do;” And so on.
As the debate raged on, there was pressure building for Mike and I to accept the buyer’s 268 offer. But Mike and I agreed to a counter offer of 271K. Too cool the heated debate, Mike came up with another great idea. He proposed to Donna and Tom that if they were willing to pay the three of us the $3,000 difference, we would accept the 268K. His suggestion had the effect of instantly silencing the protests.
I canceled my plans to go to Yale and sat glued to the computer. By this time, negotiations and sibling rivalry had been ongoing for seven hours straight. At 7:30 PM, our 271 offer was still on the table, and Deb was waiting to see if the buyers would accept.
With everyone else on vacation, I was feeling sorry for myself, when my phone rang. It was an old friend I hadn’t spoken to for decades. Linda was calling me out of the blue, for second time in my life. The first time was in 1988, when she called me on behalf of the Arab American Institute. She was an Arab American activist, and Jim Zogby, president of the Institute, was in a key campaign position helping Jesse Jackson get elected. Jim wanted to enlist Arab American delegates for Jesse, for the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Sadly, Jesse lost the nomination, but Jim’s tireless efforts to empower Arab Americans were successful. In the 1984 election, there were 4 Arab American delegates. In 1988, there were 54, counting me.
Linda was primarily recruiting, and I don’t think I ever actually met her. But she was very persuasive and encouraging. She said, “You can get elected as a delegate. Don’t worry, Mary. You’re a shoe-in.” She was right.
Two years before this surprise March 4th phone call, Linda and I had accidentally discovered each other in an editor’s online email group. On the phone, she mentioned posting a job description to the editor’s group a few days earlier. I recalled it was something about a law firm. I told Linda I deleted the job post, because I didn’t know anything about the law and was looking for a teaching position.
Linda explained that she worked at a law firm, but that I didn’t need to know about the law. I just needed to know how to write. She said, “Why don’t you apply, Mary? You can do this job. Don’t worry. You’re a shoe-in.” She was right again.
Linda suggested that I rewrite my teaching resume and reinvent myself as a writer/editor. She offered to “eyeball” it first, before sending it to her boss.
After we hung up at 9:30 PM, Deb emailed me to say that the buyers had countered our offer of 271 and offered 270, up from 268. Would we accept? By now, it had been nine hours of negotiations. I called my siblings, and we accepted the offer without further dispute.
I spent the next two hours revising my resume. I sent it to Linda at 11:30 PM. Next morning, I went to see the available apartment and loved it. I could move in by April; I would start my new job at the law firm in April; and we would pass papers on the condo in May.
March 4th has become the day that I memorialize my mother’s passing. Was it divine intervention that everything I needed came to me on that one day? Or, was it just something we have to do in life, when our only choice is to march forth?
As a chaplain in a residency training program at an acute-care hospital in Boston, I was assigned several floors, one of which was the MICU (intensive care unit). As I passed through the MICU, looking in on patients, I stopped at the room where a woman lay gravely ill, unconscious. Though expected to die soon, she looked very peaceful. She was in her seventies, with fair skin and thick white hair to match.
After praying at the bedside, I came back into the pod and was immediately approached by an energetic older man. He introduced himself as the patient’s husband, “For more than 50 years.” In a loud, strong voice he announced, “I am Greek.” To my surprise, he was grinning broadly. I will call him Zeno.
At 70, Zeno was a good-looking man and vital for his age. He was neatly dressed in well-pressed shirt and dress slacks. He was about 5’ 10”, with a muscular build, and a head of salt and pepper hair that added inches to his height.
It didn’t take long for my radar to get the message from Zeno. He was making a pass at me. His intensity was almost unbearable. While his wife was taking her last breaths, only a few feet away, Zeno had me pinned against the wall in the pod. Pressing me to have a cup of coffee with him, he practically shouted, “How about somewhere? Right now?”
I escaped his invitation, saying I had to work. But the next day, when I returned for my routine visits, Zeno was there, waiting for me. “Was this a better time,” he wanted to know?
I felt like a mouse getting caught by a cat. Such was my default view of men: alley cats out for one thing and not to be trusted. I was attractive, but any man who showed me attention always made me feel that I should respond by playing the game of cat and mouse. And let the chase begin. In this particular case, my typical reaction to men held, only this man had disgusted me. However, I also felt torn. I was a pastoral caregiver and knew I should be feeling compassion and providing care. But all I wanted to do was run away from this man, as fast as my legs would carry me.
I put our coffee date off for another time, and went to report Zeno to my supervisor. I said I was disgusted by the attention I was getting. I felt the need to defend myself. I didn’t encourage him! I described Zeno as someone obviously out for one thing. I was distressed and asked, “What should I do?
My supervisor, Ron, was a man of few words, yet, he always seemed to see the whole picture. He ignored my “damsel in distress” routine. He smiled and shared with me the wisdom he had garnered from his countless years on the job. “Some men,” he said, “Don’t grieve after losing a partner. They just replace.” This information, shocking as it was, helped me to understand what was actually going on with Zeno.
I was sure that Zeno was a man in grieving, feeling the way most humans would. But I had been too blinded by my own prejudice and vanity to see him. The next time, I agreed to have coffee with Zeno. We rode down in the elevator together standing side by side. And I realized. I wasn’t playing the “afraid” game anymore. Instead, I was seeing Zeno and empathizing with his suffering. I focused on providing pastoral care and helping Zeno cope with this inevitable, devastating loss. I liked my job, because it allowed me that I could be the caring person I really am.
The story begins in the ninth month of my pregnancy, as I was reading a book entitled, Special Delivery. While reading the detailed instructions on how to have a home birth, my curiosity was piqued by the author’s sharing of a “personal touch.” She described it as her “Persian tradition,” and explained the importance of blessing a newborn. This was something I had never heard of in my whole life.
At the time, I was not a practicing Muslim, even though I had been raised by Muslims parents (and grandparents). Despite the fact that I was the second generation born in America, I grew up without a mosque, because there was none in all of New England, not until 1964. Moreover, I had never been a part of any Muslim community.
That meant there was no place for me (or my parents) to learn about my religion, Islam. Consequently, like most Americans, I knew very little. But, there was one word in the book that was familiar to me. From my upbringing, I recognized the word, “Allah,” the word for God in Arabic.
The author stated that most babies are blessed by an imam, or a man in the family, such as a father, grandfather, or husband. But since I was having my child as a single parent, isolated from my family, and had no knowledge of what an imam was or did, I immediately considered the difficulty of my situation in a new light.
As I read on, I realized that there was something urgent at stake here. The author explained that if the baby heard the call to prayer as soon as h/she was born, there would be an immediate recollection of having just been in the presence of God, before birth. By reinforcing this memory at birth, the child’s iman (faith) would be guaranteed for the rest of his life. The tradition and its aim were similar to a Christening. Knowing this, I began to covet the blessing for my child, trusting that he would grow up believing in the Creator, who had gifted this life to me.
I carefully read the author’s how-to instructions, to whisper in the baby’s right ear at birth, and learned the “call to prayer,” which was in italics in the book:
(Allah whoo Akbar) God is the great
I bear witness that there is no god but One God
I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God
Come to prayer
Come to success
God is the greatest
There is no god but One God
Unencumbered by cultural taboos or religious traditions, I decided to do the blessing myself. I wanted my child to hear this word, Allah, and thus, renew his relationship with God, a relationship that I had somehow neglected to develop during my childhood and early twenties.
The fact that this book came into my possession at the exact time I was preparing to give birth, seemed to be Divine intervention. This strengthened my faith when I needed it most. Imagine, I thought, to have missed a moment that comes but once in a lifetime.
The Importance of Blessing a Newborn: Carried forward 25 years later
One day, during my chaplaincy residency at Brigham & Women’s hospital, where I was studying to become a Muslim chaplain, I was called to the room of a young Muslim woman on the maternity floor. Asma was 20 years old, with a soft brown complexion and dark curly hair that framed a sweet, round face. When I walked in, she was sitting up in bed. Unlike most new mothers who had just given birth and are tired but radiant, Asma was just plain tired. Her beautiful face was marred by a deeply troubled expression. With no baby present and no visitors, the room was lonely, joyless, and dark.
Asma asked me to arrange for the imam in the hospital to bless her newborn baby. I went downstairs and proceeded to check the imam’s schedule, only to learn that the patient would be leaving the hospital before he came on duty.
On my way back to tell Asma about the scheduling problem, I was intercepted by her social worker outside the room. She informed me that Asma was not married, and that she was in physical danger from her boyfriend. The social worker had just been advising Asma not to move in with the boy, once discharged from the hospital, because he had been violent on several occasions in the past. My colleague let me know that Asma would be better off moving in with her grandmother, who had offered a room for her and the baby, and that this was her best choice right now, even if it was only temporary.
As we parted, my thoughts turned to my own life, long ago: a single mother, a new baby, a lonely and difficult situation, and the book, Special Delivery. I knocked and entered the room, finding Asma sitting up in bed, her face still absent of joy or relief, and with no baby present once again. I explained that the imam was unable to do the blessing due to the scheduling conflict. I asked if she knew anyone else in her family who could do it; maybe a father or brother, another imam?
Asma started to cry silently and spoke in a small voice, “No. There isn’t anyone.” Pausing to dry her eyes, “But I want it done. It’s important to me. Can you do it?”
I had done the blessing before, at the request of new parents. And, I would have done it for Asma, if the baby had been present, and if my own schedule had permitted it. But I had no time either. Asma was scheduled to be discharged within the hour. Then, I had a better idea.
I said, “Asma, I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to do the blessing because my shift is almost over. But, let me tell you something. I think you should do it yourself.”
This elicited a big negative reaction, “But I can’t do it. I don’t know how to. I can’t do it. She pleaded with me, “Can’t you do it, please?”
“Asma, do you plan to raise this child to be a Muslim?”
“Absolutely,” she said, listening now.
“Okay, then. Since this is your child, your responsibility, and you are planning to raise her as a Muslim, you can take the responsibility. As her mother, you will always be the most important person in her life, and as the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, ‘the mother is a child’s first teacher.’” You can do the blessing yourself, right here and now.
Tentatively, Asma acquiesced, “Yes… but… will you show me how to do it?”
“Asma,” I said, looking into her frightened eyes, “I will show you how to do it. You, Asma, will give your child this most important blessing. Are you ready to learn?”
Asma paused, thoughtfully, and when she finally spoke, it was with a new resolve,
“Okay. I mean, yes, I’m ready. I want to do it.”
After explaining how the blessing was done, I asked Asma where she was planning to go when she left the hospital. I noticed that she had perceptibly changed, perhaps empowered by the simple idea that she could bless her own baby.
Without hesitating, she said, “I think I’m going to my grandmother’s house. It’s really nice there, and I love my grandmother. I’ll only stay for the first few weeks, so she can help me with my baby. She paused to restate her decision, “Yeah. I can’t wait to go there.”
Upon seeing her beautiful face, wearing a smile for the first time, I affirmed, “That sounds like a great idea, Asma. I’m sure you’re going to be a wonderful mother.”
We say, Inshallah to that!