The official history of the Islamic Center of New England, oldest mosque in New England
BY © MARY LAHAJ, May, 1992
HARTFORD SEMINARY, Hartford, Connecticut
A THESIS SUBMITTED IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF ARTS, CONCENTRATION IN ISLAM AND CHRISTIAN/MUSLIM RELATIONS
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PART I. THE IMMIGRANT GENERATION
Chapter 1. Origins
Reasons for Migration
Chapter 2. Ethnic America
A Death in the Community
The Sons of Lebanon
Chapter 3. A Tale of Two Lebanons
Chapter 4. The Arab American Banner Society
PART II. THE AMERICAN BORN GENERATION
Chapter 5. Why Mosque?
Chapter 6. Early Attempts at Organization
Profiles of Leadership
To Build or Not to Build
The Center of Attention
Chapter 7. Influence of the Muslim Students
Re-Examining Fund Raising Activities
Islam and Cultural Integration
PART III. THE ISLAMIC COMMUNITY/1970s
Chapter 8. Leadership in Cooperation
Islamic Sunday School
Who is a Member?
Devising Systems of Measurement
Chapter 9. Leadership Threatened
The First Takeover
The Second Takeover
PART IV. THE COMING OF THE IMAM
Chapter 10. The Imam’s Background
Chapter 11. Responsibilities, Duties, & Salary
Chapter 12. The Imam and the American Community
PART V. THE ISLAMIC COMMUNITY/1980s
Chapter 13. Interfaith Activities
Chapter 14. The Islamic Council
Training Islamic Leaders
Organizing the Muslim Students
PART VI. THE ISLAMIC COMMUNITY/1990s
Chapter 15. Fire & Discrimination
PART I-THE IMMIGRANT GENERATION, CHAPTER 1: Origins
The Islamic Center of New England was a long range dream of seven Lebanese Muslim families whose history began in the early 1900’s when the first generation of immigrants settled in Quincy Point, Quincy, MA. They were among the first wave of Muslim immigrants to enter America from the Middle East, in the years from about 1875 to 1912.
The eight families in this study responsible for founding the Center are: the Ameens (Sleimans), the Derbes, the El-Deebs, the Abrahams, the Allies, the Hassans (two brothers, Ismael and `Abduh), and the Omars (Awad).
Abdullah Abraham came to America in 1895. Selman Allie arrived in 1911, stayed for ten years, went back for a bride and returned to America in 1925. Mohamed Omar (Awad) arrived in 1914. Ameen Mohamed Sleiman(Suliman) arrived in 1908, went back for a bride and returned in 1913. Ali Muhammed El-Deeb arrived in 1912. `Abduh and Ismael Hassan arrived in 1909. Touffiq Hesine Derbes came to this country in 1909.
Two of the eight Muslim families in this study were of the Shia tradition, while the others were Sunni Muslims. All of the Muslims, both Shia and Sunni, came from the areas north of Tripoli, south of Beirut, or from the east in the Bekka Valley.
Reasons for Migration
To understand the reasons for their migration, it is useful to look at the example of one of the founders, a Sunni Muslim, Mohamed Omar Awad. At the age of 22, Mr. Omar left his village in the mountainous area north of Tripoli. He waited for fifteen days at the Greek port, Patras, until the Martha Washington arrived to take him to Ellis Island, New York.
Like other immigrants from rural areas of what now constitutes Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan, Mr. Omar was fleeing the long arm of the Turkish army. He stated that there was no reason for him to leave his home but for the threat of having to fight for the Turks in Yemen. He had six uncles who had gone to fight and never came back.
Historian, George Antonius, explains that the practice of recruiting troops from Syria to reconquer the Arabs of Yemen, introduced in 1880,”opened a long and costly chapter of enmity between Turk and Arab.” The recruitment continued in spite of protests in Beirut. The Yemenese revolted in 1903 and again in 1911, ultimately forcing the Turks into a compromise.
In 1931, Mr. Omar came to Quincy to work at the Fore River Shipyard. The community of immigrant Muslims in Quincy was unable to fulfill its Islamic obligations. Those pertained to purifying and praying over the dead, reading from the Qur’an (the Muslim Holy Book), weekly congregational prayers, annual obligatory charity) (zakah), holiday celebrations, etc. Reasons for a lack of community cohesion were illiteracy, poverty, and having no “customary” place to pay the zakah. Mr. Omar pushed for the group to get organized. Because he could read and write, he soon became a leader in the nascent community.
CHAPTER 2: Ethnic America
A Death in the Community
In the early thirties, Mr. Omar made a personal friend of Mr. Dennis Sweeney, the proprietor of Sweeney’s Funeral Home of Quincy, founded in 1917. In 1939, the accidental death of a member of the community, Joseph Hassan, was the first occasion for a Muslim to be buried in the traditional Islamic manner. Mr. Omar washed the body and read Qur’an.
The record of Hassan’s death in Sweeney’s Archives marks the beginning of a relationship between Sweeney’s Funeral Home and the Muslim community which has lasted for three generations. Today, the grand-nephew of the original proprietor, Dennis Sweeney, provides the Muslim community with a special room for washing their dead. Mr. Sweeney estimates that he buries about thirteen Muslims a year and expects that number to increase as the community continues to grow.
In Quincy, where the pool of marriageable Muslims was small, marrying outside the faith had to be tolerated. In the immigrant generation, two men of the eight married outside their ethnic and religious group (marrying American Christians). Two men went back to Lebanon to find a bride. One man was married before he left and later sent for his wife. The other two men married Muslim women they met in America.
As their children grew to a marriageable age, marriages were arranged from among the eight families. The Ameens (Sulimans) married the Abrahams, the Abrahams married the Allies, the `Abduh Hassans married the Derbes, the El-Deebs married the Ismael Hassans, the `Abduh Hassans married the Omars, and in one case, an Omar married his second cousin from the family clan, the Awads.
Two Sunni and Shia mixed marriages were arranged. Because of their common ethnicity, the children of the immigrants never realized that there was any difference between them, until they became adults and learned for themselves that they were Shia and Sunni Muslims. Many years later, to fulfil their father’s last request, one Shia family invited a Shia Imam from Detroit, Michigan to bury their father in the traditional Shia fashion.
In the second generation, interfaith marriages occurred more frequently. In the Ismael Hassans, only four out of nine married another Muslim; in the `Abduh Hassans, three out of five; in the Abrahams, three out of five; in the Allies, two out of eight; in the Omars, two out of five; in the Ameens (Sulimans), two out of eight; in the Derbes, one out of eight; and in the El Deebs, none out of eleven children married Muslims. In every family, conversions of American women who married Muslim men were common. American men also converted but with less frequency. For the sake of simplicity, the number of converts will not be counted in these statistics.
In the third generation, most members of the eight founding families married outside their religious and ethnic group. In addition, the divorce rate is very high among members who married outside their faith, with at least one divorce in every family, and in some families more than one. In a minority of cases, divorces were noted in marriages between American born Muslims and immigrant Muslims. All those interviewed in this study cited the social importance of having a mosque where young people could meet and marry their own kind.
The Sons of Lebanon
The majority of Lebanese who settled in the Quincy Point neighborhood were Christians of the Melkite tradition. During the period between 1880 and 1925, almost ninety percent of the Arab immigrants to come to America were Christians from Mount Lebanon. One American born Lebanese Christian said that his father had emigrated from Mt. Lebanon in 1909 as a teenager because economic conditions were extremely 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.”
All of the respondents in this study agreed that most of the Lebanese immigrants, Christian and Muslim, met for the first time in Quincy. Being a minority in America, they formed strong social ties along ethnic and linguistic lines, observing certain traditions of life in Lebanon. For example, no marriages between Christian Lebanese and Muslim Lebanese were known to have taken place. The Christians arranged marriages between families and tended to be as endogamous as the Muslims. The Lebanese neighbors also continued the tradition of joining in the celebration of each other’s religious holidays. This tradition died out gradually in the 50’s.
Lacking in skills and impeded by a language barrier, both groups of Lebanese immigrants made slow progress adjusting to American life. However, the religious orientation of the Lebanese Christians suggests that their integration into American society would be easier than the experience of the Muslims.
The Christians had two churches in Boston, Our Lady of the Cedars (Maronite) and Our Lady of the Annunciation (Melkite) (founded by 1910). Those living at Quincy Point accepted the local Roman Catholic Church, St. Josephs, for their parish. The Muslims, on the other hand, had no institutions to help them assimilate, identify them, or support them in the process of social integration. They had an obscure religious history in America, represented by downtrodden slaves whose role in the building of America was never even acknowledged.
“The immigrant to North America… his identity, so long as his neighbor had any opinion at all, was shrouded in mystery. At times he was `Syrian,’at times, `Turk.'”
The term, “Judeo-Christian,” as it is used (or misused) in the U.S., is perceived by Muslims as an exclusive definition of what it means to be American: “Whether this is intentional or not, it is noted in Muslim circles as a way of keeping them from participating in the formulation of the future of American society. They question whether or not it may in fact be serving notice that they do not belong at all.”
CHAPTER 3: A Tale of Two Lebanons
In 1931, the neighbors decided to organize a social club, the Sons of Lebanon. The purpose of the club was to teach the children the Arabic language, help immigrants learn English, collect funds for charity, and discuss common concerns.
However, when the Christians wanted to use the Lebanese flag which pictured the Cedars of Lebanon, the minority (the Muslim element) objected. The Muslims wanted to use a flag which represented a united Arab world, or the “Arab Flag” (the colors of red, green, black, and white).
The question of which flag to use stirred up old country political/nationalistic/religious loyalties. There emerged two separate religious identities or traditions which necessarily involved different political/geographic loyalties peculiar to the complex history of Lebanon/Syria. One man, whose father was a founding member of the Sons of Lebanon, put it this way:
“One Arab would say, `We don’t want to walk under the Lebanese flag!’ And the other would say, `Well, we don’t want to walk under the sword of Islam.'”
Only a brief analysis of the divergences of the Sunni Muslim and Christian factions will be necessary for the purpose of this study. It is also understood that not all Maronites/Melkites or Sunni Muslims had the exact same perceptions of Lebanon as they are depicted here for the sake of simplicity. The conflict of identity, whether to call yourself Lebanese or Syrian, was a consequence of the frustration over the state of Greater Lebanon in the 30’s, and occurred within religious factions as well as between different religions.
Although many powers had sought to rule the region of Mount Lebanon with its Christian enclaves, it had always escaped overbearing tyranny of its internal affairs. Under Ottoman rule, Mount Lebanon was considered a millah. A millah is defined as a “religious community… with virtual autonomy in religious and social matters.” It was the Turkish way of recognizing the status of religious minorities. In certain areas of the Ottoman Empire like Mt. Lebanon, this system allowed minorities to “build their own sense of identity, while assuring their participation in the larger corporate whole, and it guaranteed freedom of religious expression.”
In the early 1920’s, under the League of Nations, the entire system was replaced by the French Mandate of Lebanon. The frontiers of Lebanon were extended to include other parts of the Vilayet of Syria where many Muslims lived, including the cities of Tripoli and Beirut, and in their surrounding areas north, south, and east in the Bekka region. Under French rule, Lebanon and especially the Maronite Christian element, enjoyed a sense of self-determination and separation from the rest of the Arab world.
The Muslims viewed the alliance between the Christians and French as an obstacle to Arab unity. Throughout Turkish rule, the Muslims of the region held that the nature of Lebanon/Syria/Palestine was as a part of a united Arab World and could never be separate.
Although the Christians had sewn the seeds of Arab nationalism in the mid-19th century, they opposed it at the turn of the century. The Muslims (Sunnis as the majority population) had become its main leaders. A.H. Hourani explains the tensions between the two faith traditions at the critical time when the Ottoman Empire was about to collapse:
“For them (Christians Lebanese) 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 rather than be part of a Moslem Arab State.”
“Many of the nationalists (Arab) believe that this attachment has been used by her (France) as an instrument in a policy of dividing, weakening and in other ways opposing the nationalist movement (of the Arabs).”
“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 Arabo-Islamic world to whose fringes they have so long clung…”
CHAPTER 4: The Arab American Banner Society
The national/political differences between the Christian Lebanese and the Muslim Arabs motivated the Muslims to re-define their community and to form a social club and charitable organization of their own. In 1934, aligning themselves with other Arabic speaking Muslims (Sunni and Shia) who lived in Boston, they founded the Arab American Banner Society. Mr. Omar’s wife, Genivieve Omar, sewed a banner to commemorate the founding: the banner is white satin with gold fringe; the writing is red embroidery; there is an embroidered green scale, under which are two gold crossed swords with black handles; the wording is: “Arab American Banner Society, Quincy, 1934. ”
Since none of the original members of the Society are still alive, the choice of its name is now a matter of speculation by their friends, relations, and this researcher. According to one friend, originally from Lebanon and currently a prominent member of the community in Quincy, the phrase, `Ar-Raya (banner) Arabiyya,’ was a popular one after the downfall of the Ottomans who had raised the Islamic banner. The new theme was to raise the Arab banner as the symbol of Arab unity.
On November 9, 1937, under the provisions of the Business Corporation Law of the Commonwealth, the charter was submitted to the state. Charter members are: “Eassa Ali, Mohamed Omar, Toffee Derbes, Joseph Hassan, Fauthal Hassan, Ali El-Deeb, Mohamed Kerdy, Mohamed Mohriez and Mohammed Kedar, Aziz Abraham.” Eassa Ali was from Palestine and Mohamed Mohriez from Yemen. The others were all immigrants from Syria/Lebanon. Fauthal Hassan and Aziz Abraham were of the founding families but not of the immigrant generation. According to state law, a person had to be a citizen to sign a state charter. Some founding members of the immigrant generation were not able to sign on.
The first president of the club was Eassa Ali. Ali, Mohriez, and Joseph Hassan, lived in Boston and were bachelors. Joseph Hassan was the man mentioned earlier whose sudden death shocked the community. No information was obtainable on either M. Kerdy or M. Kedar. Derbes, El-Deeb, and Omar were three of the eight immigrant founding members who lived in Quincy.
The Constitution was written in 1937, but the authors are unknown. Abdullah Abraham, the eldest founding member, enlisted a Christian Lebanese lawyer to assist in the wording. Below are excerpts:
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.”
Article V Section 3: “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 II Section I: The privilege of membership in the Society was extended to all those who “desire independence for the Arab countries…”
(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…”
Like other Muslims residing in America at that time, the immigrants, “seemed content, or at least constrained, to keep Islam within the parameters of their ethnic associations.” In the Constitution, no reference is made to religion, while thoughts of “Arab” nationalism are evidenced.
By 1937, Western powers had colonized the Arab world, undermining any notion of Arab unity and nationalism. The immigrants expressed their opinion of this state of affairs in their constitution: “the privilege of membership was extended to all those who desire independence for the Arab countries.”
There is also evidence that the Muslims saw the possibility of integrating Arab/Islamic and American values. For example, they stated as their purpose: “to educate youth in the fundamentals of American democracy… in accordance with the highest principles and traditions of American life and education.”
In 1937, the Society purchased a house that was badly in need of repairs, at 470 South Street. The immigrants gathered there in the evenings to socialize and hear Mr. Omar recite the Qur’an or poetry about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Social gatherings and the annual picnic (muharrajan) to raise money for charity were the main activities of the Society from 1937 until 1952.
In conclusion, the earliest efforts of the immigrant generation, both Christian and Muslim, to preserve their ethnic identity, reflect a certain insecurity commonly felt by most immigrants coming to America. Sociologists call this sense, “anomie,” a lack of purpose or rootlessness. Both groups attempted to reaffirm their ethnic identity and assuage their feelings of anomie by forming strong community ties and social clubs.
No doubt the Muslims were further compelled by a feeling of “religious anomie” as well. Through the organization of the Arab American Banner Society, they were able to act on their need for religious community in accordance with their means. By pooling their limited resources, they were able to fulfill one of the pillars of Islam, the annual obligatory giving of alms (zakah). Another pillar of Islam, prayer was done in the home as a family.
But the struggle for survival in America consumed most of their time and energy. During the Second World War, frustrated by waning interest, they allowed their social club to die out. After the War, their children re-activated the Arab American Banner Society. As educated professionals and business men, they were enjoying increased economic and social status typical of the experience of second generation Americans.
Unlike their parents, who came from predominantly Islamic cultures, many of the American born Muslims were removed from the roots of their ethnic and religious heritage. They were not generally able to speak Arabic, or read the Qur’an very well if at all. They had no knowledge of religious law or history. With the exception of one, none had ever been inside a mosque.
Furthermore, their family life was altered permanently once they moved away from the Quincy neighborhood and from the home of their parents’, where traditionally religion had been passed along. Under the strain of mixed marriages, they did not lead their families in prayer. They understood that their children were growing up in a religious vacuum, with no sense of religious community, no religious education, and no social setting conducive for them to find a marriageable Muslim.
They faced the challenge of how to assert their religious identity in a pluralistic society where they were an ethnic and religious minority. With whatever knowledge and resources they had, they resolved to unite the community towards a stronger in-group identity.
PART II-THE AMERICAN BORN GENERATION,CHAPTER 5: Why Build a Mosque?
Motivations for building a mosque were both outer and inner-directed. One American born Muslim woman and executive officer 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?'”
Scholars who have studied the religious experience in America describe it much in the same way:
“To be a Protestant, Catholic or a Jew are today the alternative ways of being an American.”
“Religion in the United States is so closely identified with cultural and civil values as to take on the character of nationalism; and being `American’ presupposes the Judeo-Christian heritage or experience.”
Relating to a “church” is an outer-directed motivation. But since there was no other model, the Muslims fashioned themselves in many ways after the religious communities of the People of the Book (Christians and Jews). To build a mosque would, in some respect, “nationalize” their religious community in the same way a church symbolized the Christian community in America. According to the respondents in this study, there were three inner-directed motivations for building a mosque: to be able to pray together, to educate their children, and to have a place where the children could socialize.
CHAPTER 6: Early Attempts at Organization
In 1952, in spite of the fact that they didn’t always agree, the two generations, immigrant and American born, merged to re-organize the Arab American Banner Society with newly elected officers. Meetings took place twice a month with an average of between 6-12 members in attendance.
From 1952 until 1963, business meetings were held in a neighborhood restaurant, Ma’s Lunch, owned by one of the founding families, the Ismael Hassans. Congregational prayers (jumma), holiday prayers (Eid), and funeral prayers (janaaza) were held in peoples’ homes. After the meeting, informal religious lessons were conducted. By informing the Muslims of their Islamic obligations to educate their children, to pray together, etc., the leadership established the need for greater community cohesiveness. In the pre-building phase from 1957-1963, much was accomplished by the core of community leaders to raise money and draw attention to their group. For example, the Arabic Secretary, Haj Muhammad Omar (1st generation), promoted the Society in two Arabic/English Newspapers circulated in America: As-Sameer, A Daily Arabic Newspaper, Largest in the New World, Est. 1929, Brooklyn, New York; and Nahdat Al-Arab, Detroit, Michigan.
Publicity that targeted other Muslims in America generated donations (i.e. the American Moslem Society of Dearborn, Michigan, 1963) and attracted scholars (Ahmed Sakr, Mahmoud Ayoub) and dignitaries (the Cultural Attaches of Kuwait, the Sudan, and the United Arab Republic).
The Society continued to make charitable contributions to all parts of the Muslim world where disasters had occurred: floods in Bangladesh and Jordan, earthquakes in Iran, a tornado in Pakistan, etc.
In 1957, in response to the Sinai War, the Society donated $1500 to displaced Egyptian refugees and orphans. In receipt of that donation, the President of Egypt, Gamal Abd al-Nasir sent a letter of thanks.
In 1961, King Saud came to Boston for an eye operation. The Society was invited by the state legislature to send representatives to his reception. During the King’s recuperation, members paid him a visit in the hospital. Mohamed Omar wrote a poem for the occasion which the King asked him to read aloud. Eid cards were exchanged in the upcoming holidays. In February of 1962, King Saud donated $5000 to the Society for their mosque.
During this period before the building, the founders of the small Muslim community in Quincy were plagued by lack of funds. Outside of the $5000 from King Saud, the primary source of funding, as evidenced in the treasurer’s books from 1952-1962, came through donations and pledges from the eight founding families.
The American born Muslims also relied on donations from their business associates, lawyers, doctors, priests, rabbis, co-workers, customers, clients, and neighbors. Activities, such as the annual picnic, raffles, auctions, dances, whist parties, rummage, toy sales, and cosmetic sales, were open to non-Muslims and modeled after “church” fund raising activities.
The picnic (muharrajan) was the largest fund raiser of all. It gave Muslims from distant locations a chance to congregate annually and pledge money towards the mosque. A large community of Turks who lived northwest of Boston came by bus every year with their families and friends.
Throughout these formative years, the founders of the Society recognized that local community involvement was necessary for the survival of any institution in America. They attended interfaith community events held by the Sons of Lebanon, and formed their own bowling league.
Profiles of Leadership
By the early 60’s, there existed a unified community with committed leadership that spanned two generations. They were striving for a symbol of their religious community, “working towards something invisible,” as one founder put it.
Although he was the youngest, Mohamed Omar was the only literate member of the immigrant group. He was self-taught in religious history and the Qur’an. He is remembered by his daughter for saying: “I studied under my walnut tree.”
His peers depended on him to site the moon at the beginning and end of Ramadan, to counsel, to marry and bury them, and to read and write their regular correspondence to the old country in Arabic. Because these skills and qualities, Mr. Omar was recognized by tacit consensus (ijma) of the community as a leader (imam). He knew that education was one way to unite the community. He was the first “official” imam and served until 1982. At that time, he retired from all duties, leaving the job to a formally trained imam from Lebanon.
In the second generation, there were indigenous leaders with vision and perseverance. Aziz Abraham, president for eleven years, understood bureaucracy and diplomacy. He was able to diffuse arguments inside the community. As a businessman, he was familiar with the “old boy” society of American politics. As president, he attended local political activities at the State House and the inauguration of the Mayor and City Council. On another occasion, Sam Hassan attended an event called, “Meet Our Neighbor Night” organized by the Congregation Adas Shalom Brotherhood. The main speaker was Lt. Governor Francis W. Sargent whose speech was entitled, “Brotherhood and Public Service.”
Ms. Fatima Allie was another leader. She was meticulous about the treasury, the writing of the constitution, the Robert’s Rules of Order, and the minutes of Board meetings. Ms. Allie was treasurer for ten years and secretary for ten years. A teacher and also school principal by profession, Ms. Allie’s professionalism heightened the profile and efficiency of the organization. Her accurate record keeping made it possible to write this history.
Sam Hassan, alternating with Abraham as president, was president for nine years and treasurer for six years. Because he was well-respected, he was able to unite the community. His peers report that it was his strong leadership abilities that kept the organization on a straight path that never swerved from its goal.
To Build or Not to Build
At the heart of their financial problems was an impasse. Should they build anew or buy an already existing building? If this question was answered, it raised another: Should they build with whatever money was available, or wait until they had saved enough money to finance the whole project? In 1961, an ambitious decision was made to level the house at 470 South Street and build anew. At the time, they had saved $5000.
In 1962, they hired a local architect, Joseph Donahue, to design a mosque. Mr. Abraham consulted a lawyer, Dimitri Homsy, a member of the Sons of Lebanon, to study the Constitution and By-Laws of the Society. Mr. Homsy, who donated his services, returned that a new corporation had to be formed with new by-Laws and constitution.
The administration of the Islamic Center of New England was organized with a Board of eight directors and four officers. Meetings would be conducted according to Robert’s Rules of Order. It has been estimated that there were only about three or four mosques built in the country at this time.
After breaking free of the impasse,the Society’s fund raising efforts gained momentum. As a result of pledges and donations, the bank balance was raised to nearly $20,000 by 3/31/63. The membership was still only 44 people.
Due to the size of contractors’ bids and a revised higher cost of the building ($50,000), the idea of taking out a small mortgage came up but was resisted because of the issue of interest which is forbidden in Islam. Work was started on the building in the spring of 1963. Pressured to make payments to the contractor for the work in progress, members finally succumbed to the idea of taking out a mortgage. It was the exact amount owed to the contractor (approx. $10,000), who completed the work in February, 1964.
The list of guests invited to the building dedication in October, 1964 included: representatives from the Quincy Council of Churches, all state and local officials, four Imams from Detroit, one from New York, 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.
The Center of Attention
Throughout the sixties, the Center was inundated by requests for financial and informational help from other Islamic groups trying to start up. Requests came from small groups in Springfield, Lowell, Boston, and as far away as Houston. Travelling to New Jersey and Connecticut, the leaders of the Center (Sam Hassan and Aziz Abraham) gave speeches about how to build a mosque.
Mr. Abraham sought support and acknowledgement from other Islamic organization in America. In the early sixties, they joined the Federation of Islamic Associations in the U.S. and Canada (FIA). From 1963-1981, the Center sent delegates to the annual FIA convention. The FIA, founded in 1952 by Lebanese Americans from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, kept the Muslims abreast of the growth of Islam in America, sponsored Youth Camps, established full-time accredited schools, monitored the media, and encompassed nearly 220 Muslim-related groups throughout the country.
Mr. Dawud Assad, president of the FIA from 1975-1977, relied heavily on the support of groups like the Islamic Center of New England. He became friends with Mr. Sam Hassan when they served as first and second vice presidents in 1967. When Assad was president in 1977, Mr. Abraham became treasurer.
Mr. Assad’s relationship with the Quincy group culminated in later years when he became the Director of the Muslim World League and helped them to find a trained imam. The Muslim World League is a non-governmental organization representing nearly 50 Muslim countries at the United Nations. Each year the MWL sponsors trained imams for Islamic organizations in the U.S. and Canada Currently, it sponsors 22 full-time imams in the U.S. and 11 in Canada.
The Quincy group of founding families brought their young children to the new mosque. They inspired programs which were geared towards American traditions and holidays. 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 of that same year, the Center held prayers for all its deceased members. Halloween Parties and Record Hops were organized with the hope of re-capturing the interest of the American Muslim youth.
However, efforts to interest the young people in Islam and in each other failed. The group was still too small to present opportunities for meeting prospective marriage partners. For these young people, interfaith and interethnic marriages were common and even preferred over the tradition of their grandparents who had arranged marriages for their children from among the eight founding families.
CHAPTER 7:Influence of the Muslim Students
During the 1960’s, many Muslim students entered the U.S. to study at universities. At their disposal were new Islamic materials taken from early sources that had not been translated into English prior to this decade. Distribution of educational materials has improved drastically in America and Canada since the founding of the Muslim Student Association in 1963. The Quincy group joined the MSA the same year it was founded.
The MSA publishes educational books and pamphlets written by Muslim scholars for the consumption of English speaking people. The Islamic Society of North America in Indianapolis, IN, currently an umbrella organization for many Muslim organizations in the U.S. and Canada, developed out of the MSA.
The Muslim students helped organize community events. Religious holidays (Eid) were observed and obligatory charity was paid at the end of the holy month of Ramadan (zakat-ul-fitr). Speeches in English and Arabic were given on subjects like the importance of prayer. The Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (Mawlid an-Nabi)was celebrated in the Arabic tradition and Arabic was taught to the children. All respondents agree that the Muslim students encouraged the small group of founders to learn more about Islam.
When the leadership advertised in local papers, at airports and hotels, Muslims flocked to the Center. The mosque membership tripled from 1964-1974. The community became a heterogeneous mixture of transient and permanent immigrants from many different countries (fifth wave of Muslim immigrants to the U.S., 1967 to present).
The Harvard Islamic Society was organized in 1958 by (Haj) Abu Nuri (Afro-American), Syed Nadwi (Pakistan), and Ahmed Osman (Sudan), all of whom became members of the Center in the 60’s. Abu Nuri, a convert to Islam in 1940, is credited for initiating the relationship between Harvard and the mosque. He became a member of the Center in 1965 and served as Vice President of the Board in 1973. He served on the Board from 1978 to 1982 and was the editor of the newsletter for over seven years.
In his interview, Abu Nuri pointed to the vast diversity of the Muslim community in America and around the world. He saw the equality and universality of man in Islam. He felt this was an especially important interpretation of Islam that was in contrast to the persistent racism of American society. Abu Nuri observed that some of the Muslim students he had met stressed more of a cultural/provincial interpretation of Islam.
In response to the specific question: Did the Muslim students influence founding members to build a mosque? One founding member and Board officer stressed that the students’ most valuable contribution to the community was their ability to teach the Arabic prayers to adults and children by using phonetics. She stated:
“But they had very little influence. The idea to build a mosque came from us. The Muslim students benefitted from us just as we benefitted from them.”
The current Religious Director of the Center was asked his opinion of the relationship between the Muslim students and the indigenous Muslim community in today’s community. He felt that their religious background was an asset to the community and to the American society in general.
He discussed the difference between those Muslims who are living permanently in the U.S. and those living temporarily. As temporary residents, the Muslim students have a different perspective of daily life in a non-Muslim society. Based on this perspective, they can become critical of the indigenous Muslims for the practical choices they make in consequence of life in this society.
For example, a Muslim student living temporarily in Boston with his family felt that any “good” Muslim would never put their child in public school where it is understood that the high standards of ethics and morality are not being taught or guarded. While agreeing in principle with the student, the Religious Director’s response was driven by practicality and reality: “Who can afford to send all their children to private schools?”
Re-Examining Fund Raising Activities
In 1967, the new immigrants took up positions on mosque committees. The building was expanded in 1968 to double the size of the prayer room and social hall. In this decade, the founding members were outnumbered by the recent immigrants (although not on the Board of Directors). As one founding member put it, they now envisioned a mosque for “all Muslims,”not just for their children. It was at this time that the founding members were made acutely aware of the impropriety of some of their fund raising activities which included raffles, card games (whist), Chinese auctions, and the sale of liquor at the annual picnic (all forbidden in Islam). Sam Hassan, then president, stated that there was tremendous pressure from the Muslim students and recent immigrants to stop these activities. In 1967, he “decreed” that all of the activities considered by the “new” community consensus to be “Islamically” improper would be discontinued. Imam Omar had agreed that any money used to build a mosque should come by “clean” Islamic ways.
Conformity to Islamic standards had to be a gradual process because the American born Muslims were an isolated community, lacking in Islamic education. They had adopted the non-Islamic methods of raising money from the churches and synagogues.
When the leadership had decided to build a mosque, other financial concerns arose. For example, the subject of donations to charities overseas was heatedly debated between the generations. The American-born generation argued that if the community was ever going to build a mosque, then, “charity should begin at home.”
With the “picnic” activities excluded in 1967, the community feared that fund raising would be impossible. Since the ladies had always participated in the efforts to raise money, they were asked to find new ways to raise money. Women of the American born generation reorganized the Ladies’ Auxiliary. They played the most important role in establishing new fund raising activities which were more appropriate for the whole community. These included luncheons, dinner parties, banquets, mystery rides, bake sales, and an international food fair and bazaar.
Islam and Cultural Integration
When Muslims with greater knowledge of Islamic law joined the indigenous community, their influence sparked a reform in the community which ultimately led to greater unity and cohesiveness. Islam has a history of spreading to new regions or cultures in the world, where a community has little or no Islamic knowledge. Thus, the impact of Islamic knowledge causes the community to undergo reform (a reforming activity), in order to redefine itself Islamically (a distinguishing activity).
Simultaneously, as the host culture is absorbing Islam (an islamization activity), the Muslims are absorbing the indigenous host culture (indigenization). By studying Islamic history, scholars have been able to generalize about the process of Islam and integration. W. Montgomery Watt depicts four continuous and often simultaneous activities: the reforming activity, distinguishing activity, islamization and indigenization activity.
The reforming activity is a tradition in Islam which is centuries old. In this case, reforming the fund raising activities is a good example of how the community begins to distinguish itself as a separate religious community. The renewal of Islam ignites the whole cycle of integrative activities. Then, as a community continues to gain knowledge, it undergoes the islamization/indigenization activity. This means that it will adopt certain Islamic cultural usages and suppress others. It will modify certain indigenous customs and then adopt them, or reject them all together.
The role of Muslim women in the American Islamic community is an example of the indigenization activity. Since a mosque in a Muslim society traditionally does not involve women, having women work in the administration of the mosque is indigenous to the host culture. Since it is likely to be supported by the government, a mosque in a Muslim country would not have to raise money. Having to fund raise and having women do the fund raising are two more examples of indigenization activities.
The longer Muslims remain in a region, the more they absorb the host culture. To these Muslims, Islam becomes a synthetic of itself and the particular orientation, values, customs, and traditions of the host culture. When the community becomes satiated with knowledge and considers itself to have attained the identity of a “real Islamic community,” complacency forges a regional or provincial interpretation of Islam which is passed on from generation to generation.
In my opinion, hundreds of years of integration, coupled with imitative reasoning (taqlid), produce an interpretation of Islam inseparable from the host culture. The breed might be described as: “Saudi Arabian Islam,” or “Indian/Subcontinent Islam.” Domination of the anthropological dimension of regional studies of Muslims tends to force the question: Which is the “real” Islam?
Learning about “real” Islam, however, is only possible by returning to the study of original sources, the Qur’an and the Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad). These sources, primary and secondary respectively, must be universally viewed as religious knowledge purged of cultural accretions.
Building a unified Muslim community presented many obstacles to the American Muslim leadership. Their positive reception of the educated immigrants, who quickly became a majority within the community, was a crucial step toward unity. Sam Hassan’s decision about the picnic activities was based on the need to establish a common Islamic identity. Establishing an Islamic identity is also constantly challenged by outside forces. For example, Muslims living as a minority in a non-Muslim society are always pressured to conform to non-Muslim ways, even become absorbed entirely into the mainstream culture.
All Muslims, and especially those coming from Muslim societies, are vulnerable to these pressures and they do respond, but in different ways. Theodore Pulcini, in the Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs, focused his studies on the experience of immigrant Muslims coming from traditional Muslim cultures to live as a minority in a non-Muslim society. Because of the dominant cultural influences, a healthy minority identity is hard to maintain and transfer from generation to generation. Pulcini asks the question: “How will Islam define itself in a majority culture whose values, in crucial ways are diametrically opposed to those of traditional Muslim cultures?”
In the struggle against the threat of religious anomie, the Muslim immigrant in the non-Muslim society might respond by seeking isolation, confrontation, integration, or assimilation. Pulcini devised a continuum of measured “responses” he calls: the Subcultural, Counter-Cultural, Accommodationist, and the Assimilationist Response.
The subcultural response advocates a separate living style or withdrawal from the dominant culture. By isolation in ethnic or religious ghettos, the subculturalist can avoid or reduce the effect of non-Muslim influences. For example, a model Islamic community, the Dar-al-Islam (house of Islam) experiment, was built in the 1980’s in the isolated high desert of Abiquiu, New Mexico, populated by 60-70 Muslims, mostly immigrant.
Another example is the Muslim student mentioned earlier who believed that Muslim children could not be “Muslim” if they were integrated into the public school. By sending his child to an Islamic school, he feels he can best preserve a sense of being “Muslim.”
Since the fund raising activities of the Quincy group prior to 1967 had been open to non-Muslims, the request from the Muslim students to stop certain activities might be seen as a step toward isolating the Muslim community from social interaction with non-Muslims, and termed a subcultural response. In fact, many members among the eight founding families objected strongly to the decision and withdrew their financial support of the mosque, decrying that the “immigrants” were people who “knew nothing about this country … so why should they tell us what to do?” The idea of isolating the Muslim community from the non-Muslims was repugnant to the many founding family members. On the other hand, it could be described, as mentioned earlier, as a distinguishing activity of the nascent Muslim community, distinguishing the community as separate from the Christian and Jewish.
The counter-cultural response calls for, “safeguarding distinctiveness in the midst of the cultural mainstream.” The counter-culturalist attends public school, for example, but dissents. He remains integrative in order to influence or reform mainstream thinking, but maintains the essentials of Islamic identity as “a clearly distinguishable, non-conforming subset.” As one recent immigrant member of the Islamic Center said: “We must stay with the people, understand their problems, and try our best to change and reform them.”
Those who adopt an accommodational response prefer a less confrontational role in the society. They argue that by emphasizing distinctiveness (i.e. exotic names, wearing a head cover, etc.), children might be exposed to taunts or prejudice from their peers in school. A negative experience could result in the child resenting his religion and giving it up.
Like the counter-culturalist, they favor public school and interaction with non-Muslims. The difference between the accommodational and the counter-cultural response is that the tension of being different is reduced. Concerned over the future survival of Islam in a non-Muslim society, the accommodationist does not ask his children to stress separateness, but encourages them to emphasize their compatibility with the religious and cultural identities of others.
A criticism of this response would be the concern that such a high degree of integration might lead the Islamic community to lose its distinguishing features. But the accommodationist also teaches his children, “to hold that their Muslim identity is inviolable.” This is accomplished by teaching their children to take pride in their religious heritage (supporting and being a part of the mosque community), and by providing some formal Islamic education for their children.
Another way to understand the accommodationist response is by a term sociologists call, “pluralistic integration,” which means: “where a group continues to maintain itself as a unit on its own, but is nevertheless accepted by the majority as part of the society.”
Since many of the Arab American Muslims from the original eight founding families had refused any Islamic instruction and withdrawn from the Muslim community, one might conclude that they had chosen to give up their Islamic identity in favor of total religio-cultural absorption. This is an example of the assimilationist response. Never forgetting their minority status, the assimilationist is sensitive to his children seeing the majority culture as the aspired norm and himself as belonging to a group that is inferior to that norm. Gaining acceptance from the American mainstream is weighed heavier than maintaining an Islamic identity. Defection from the community is certain.
According to Milton Gordon in his work, Assimilation in America, to avoid defection, it is important that the community maintain a cultural separateness and in-group identity he refers to as, “structural pluralism.” This is accomplished first and foremost by building institutions like mosques and schools where religious observances can be learned and practiced. Muhammad Anwar in his article entitled, “Religious Identity in Plural Societies: the Case of Britain,” confirms the importance of establishing Muslim institutions in Britain as a way to ward off defection from the community and as “boundary maintaining mechanisms.”
Although the assimilationist response is embraced by new immigrant Muslims as well as by their offspring, it is noted to be the response of the least amount of Muslims living in a non-Muslim society.
In order to describe the “Islamic identity” of mosques in America, scholars often try to apply terms such as “a liberal mosque” or “a conservative community.” While labeling certain institutions has some obvious value, it is often misleading. Standard connotations of such terms applied to whole communities do not begin to assess the Muslim’s range of responses (Pulcini) to life in a non-Muslim society. Nor does it take into consideration that the Muslim identity is linked to an ever-evolving understanding of Islam and the constant pursuit of knowledge. As one prominent Muslim leader stated of his diverse community:
“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 medium 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 sixties was a transitional period during which the identity of the community changed significantly. It was a time when the expense of building and maintaining the mosque had overextended the small community of Arab Americans. With the influx of Muslim immigrants, a small ethnic group was transformed into a large and diverse community. Simultaneously, a co-dependence developed between the indigenous and immigrant Muslims.
“The growing transformation of Islamic consciousness means that small ethnic enclaves are in some cases learning how to share their institutions with more recent immigrants, in the process gradually dropping their ethnic particularities and
moving toward a more common Islamic identity.”
PART III-THE ISLAMIC COMMUNITY/1970’S, CHAPTER 8: Leadership in Cooperation
In the early seventies, the indigenous leadership came under the influence of Dr.M. Dr.M. was a student from India studying at the Harvard Divinity School in the 1960’s and a member of the Harvard Islamic Society.
Dr.M came to Quincy in 1962. Dr. M led a series of Islamization activities, which made the Center more attractive to more immigrant Muslims. For instance, Islamic cultural usages were adopted such as, prayer schedules, proper Islamic dress in the prayer room, men and women’s funeral committees, ablution rooms (wudu) were designated, and weekly sermons (khutbat) on Fridays were offered by Islamic scholars and students in both English and Arabic. He served on the Board of Directors from (1973-1976), and was also an assistant to the Imam, Mohamed Omar, from 1974 to 1977.
Meanwhile, the indigenous leadership continued their indigenization activities: establishing a scholarship fund; organizing a Boyscout troop; hiring an office secretary (female); and, in (1974), ensuring that Dr.M. and Imam Omar became licensed as Justices of the Peace, in accordance with state law.
In March 1972, land directly beside the building was purchased from the Ameens (Sulimans) to be used as a parking lot. The secretary’s minutes indicate that the Board was also considering a relocation of the mosque. In 1974, the search for a new site was abandoned, however, in favor of a second building expansion.
The expansion added a library, office space, and a multi-colored dome. Money was donated to build a minaret (a tower from which to call the faithful to prayer), but it was never built. A movable staircase (minbar), or a podium for the Imam to use during the Friday sermon, was built. Efforts were abandoned to add a niche in the wall (mihrab), which indicates the prayer direction (qiblah) facing Mecca. The niche would have exceeded the limit of the Building Code of Quincy, with its protruding wall.
Islamic Sunday School
After numerous attempts to find a format, a suitable curriculum, and capable teachers, the Islamic Sunday School was finally organized under the leadership of Dr. AKK. He was elected to the Board of Directors in 1970 and served as president of the Board for six years (1984-1989).
A biology professor schooled in this country and originally from Iraq, Dr. AKK began the Sunday school reform program as a teacher of Arabic. By 1974, there were 75 students and 25 adults enrolled in the school program. In 1990, the school had 140 children registered. In 1991, there were reportedly over 300 students registered. The basic format includes four levels of development (grades) for children in four subjects: Qur’anic Arabic, Qur’an Recitation, History of the Prophet Muhammad, and Religion. There are extra classes for adults in the explanation or interpretation of the Qur’an (tafsir). Classes are held on Sunday mornings.
In 1975, because more space was needed to accommodate the growing student body, the City of Quincy consented to permit the mosque Sunday school to have seven classrooms at the local Elementary School. In 1982, another building expansion added four new classrooms for the weekend school.
The Islamic Cemetery
In September of 1977, the mosque bought land for a Muslim cemetery in Candia, New Hampshire. Due to zoning complications, the project never reached fruition and the land was sold.
In 1988, twelve cemetery plots were purchased in the Knollwood Cemetery in Canton. Today, it is reported that: “The Center has an agreement with Knollwood for use of 2,000 grave sites during the next 30 years, and it has an option to buy more. The Center also has about 500 grave sites available to it at the Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.”
Who is a Member?
Up until the 1970’s, a person would pay the annual dues to become a member of the Center. The membership would make him/her eligible to vote in the election for new Board members. As more Muslims came to the Center, the indigenous leadership tried to organize the membership dues better, in order to generate more income for the mosque.
Paying membership dues is a good example of an indigenization of the Islamic community in America. In April of 1977, a Membership Committee was formed with the goals of increasing membership and monitoring community growth. The committee struggled to ascertain and record which members were registered and paid, registered but not paid, or not registered at all. As it turned out, the most challenging problem was communicating to new arrivals that they had to pay money to become a member of the Center.
This problem was like an onion, with many layers. The first layer is about the traditional differences. According to Islamic tradition, every Muslim is “automatically” a member of the religious community (ummah). The custom in many American institutions, however, is to pay to be a member of a religious institution. Many churches and synagogues in America rely primarily on membership contributions for their funding. The recent immigrants were often unaware of the financial source of religious institutions in America.
Since they consider themselves to be members already, there is no use to ask Muslims to become members. As Pulcini suggests, immigrants will respond in various ways. For example, the subcultural response is to refuse to pay the membership dues because it represents the influence of a non-Muslim society.
To complicate matters, the Islamic concept of voluntary giving, or sadaqah (optional donation) was indigenized early on, when the mosque first opened. Passing the plate in the prayer room is an example. A Muslim expects his sadaqah to be voluntary, so he might be offended to be asked for a donation; and the issue becomes whether or not to pay, rather than how much to pay. When sadaqah donations are mailed into the Center, no one really knows how to record it. It might be meant to pay for a membership dues, or not. Recording the donation is complicated and even more difficult, when it involves a sensitive donor. For all its unresolved problems, it was estimated that the membership dues represented only 6% of the mosque income in 1990.
Devising Systems of Measurement
The steady growth of the newsletter mailing list was once considered a good index for monitoring community growth. It is impossible, however, to say for certain what the size of this list measures. For example, since the Religious Director began inserting prayer schedules into the newsletter in 1982, the demand for the newsletter increased radically. As of November, 1990, in a concerted effort to keep more accurate records, all mailing lists were entered into a computer system. As of August 16, 1991, the newsletter mailing list numbered 862. The membership list (paid and unpaid registered members) was numbered at 589 families.
Only estimated figures of how many Muslims attend Eid prayers are available. As an index to community growth, these figures measure only the “Eid Muslims.” They indicate that more and more Muslims are using the mosque on holidays like the Eid-ul-Fitr (feast after the month of fasting Ramadan) and Eid-ul-Adhha (feast of the sacrifice, after the pilgrimage to Mecca). In April of 1990, attendance for Eid-ul-Fitr was estimated to be over 4000. These estimates are based on a system of counting the rows of men and women in each room during each of three prayer sessions. Attention is also paid to the amount collected of the traditional zakat ul-fitr. This is a minimum dollar amount that each family is asked to pay before praying the Eid prayer at the end of the month of Ramadan. The amount is set by the Religious Director each year. On the Eid-ul-Fitr (April, 1991), the amount was set at $8.00 per family member, to be paid by the head of the household. According to some analysts, Muslims do not register on the membership roster at the mosque in the same way that people of other faiths do. As mentioned earlier, this is an unresolved problem of an ongoing indigenization activity that encounters a steady stream of new immigrants.
CHAPTER 9: Leadership Threatened
The First Takeover
In 1977, as the membership increased, the community experienced what they perceived to be an attempted leadership takeover by Muslims outside the ethnic group of founding families. A close study of the Amendments to the Constitution and By-Laws reveals how the leadership responded to the threat of a takeover, and the ever-changing community constituency.
For example, in the original Constitution of the Islamic Center (1962), Article V stated that a person could become a Board member after he had been a member for three months. In 1966, in response to the growing diversity of the community, Article V was amended to read that a person must be a member for four consecutive years before he was eligible for election to the Board.
In 1975, one of the Board members, a Muslim of the Shia tradition, Dr.FA, suggested that the eligibility requirements were too stringent and discouraged members from running for the Board. But the Board did not change the By-Laws at that time.
In January of 1977, Dr. FA. became president of the mosque. At his urging, the founders agreed to review the constitution in committee. In an amendment, they reduced the term of membership eligibility for election to the Board from four to two consecutive years. Dissatisfied with this compromise, Dr. FA. resigned in April of 1977.
Dr. FA., an Iranian physician, had been a member since 1971. He was highly educated in the Shia schools of law and had served on the Religious Committee. He taught how Shia prefer to pray, by placing the head on an object on the floor during the sujud position. His lectures were well-received. However, when he became president and wanted to fill vacancies on the Board with other Shia new to the community, the founders, who were both Sunni and
Shia, feared that he was trying to change the way things were done, from the Sunni tradition to the Shia tradition.
The leadership found they were caught between two conflicting traditions of authority. First, in the Islamic tradition, authority is given to the most knowledgeable member and not questioned. Second, in the tradition of the Quincy community, the founders’ authority was based on the principle of social cohesion; its founding members were all “Arab Muslims,” who had equally sacrificed to build a mosque, and never had an interest in division or domination.
When Dr. FA. left the Center, the Shia community purchased a house in Cambridge for a new mosque. It has been estimated that the group lasted about three years before they split up. The property was sold and the money distributed among all the mosques in the Greater Boston area. Quincy received a share of $12,000 in October of 1983, with the stipulation that it be used for a library, which it was.
The Second Takeover
A second takeover attempt came rapidly on the heels of the first. It concerned the man who was Religious Director from 1976 to 1978, M. Sid. M. SID was the younger brother of Dr. M. After Dr. M left the area in 1976 to work for the Muslim World League based New York, M. Sid, a student at Harvard Law School, stepped into the position as Imam Omar’s assistant, and later, as the first official Religious Director of the mosque. With the help of Dr. M, the Center received a subsidy from the Muslim World League to pay M. SID for his services.
The energetic director accomplished much in the community, doing work that the elderly Imam was unable to do. However, it is the general consensus of those interviewed in this study that M. SID’s style of running things at the Center were incompatible with the community. It was reflective of a certain authoritative style of leadership that befitted the most knowledgeable member. When the founders were not prepared to hand over the expected authority, a power struggle ensued.
When a controversial issue arose, M. SID expected that his extensive knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence and law would be deferred to, and his resolution accepted. Although he was the Religious Director, the resistance was more about the amount of the authority the founders wanted to invest in him. Expectations were mismatched.
Underlying the hesitancy to empower M.SID, the American leadership understood that they were risking the division of their cohesive community over a whole host of controversial issues (some of them timeless in Islam). All the respondents in this study refer to this period as the first time their community was ever divided.
Again, the divisive issues were not debated, as much as the degree of authority the Religious Director should have. The scope of his duties and responsibilities needed had never before been enumerated. Since Imam Omar was still the official imam, some limits had to be imposed on M. SID, as to what he was going to be called and expected to do.
Another issue was whether or not M. SID should be working throughout the New England area, or confining his responsibilities to the Center. No one seemed to agree on the geographical scope of his duties or the conditions under which the Muslim World League had agreed to pay him.
Early in 1978, after much dissension, the leadership acted to remove M. SID from his position. It was put before the General Membership meeting for a vote, and community consensus would be honored. However, M. SID arranged for his supporters to attend the meeting. They came in busloads to the Center, many for the first time. They paid dues and voted. But in spite of these heroic efforts, the majority carried the vote to dismiss M.SID. The leadership immediately amended the By-Laws of 1962 (Article X), making it a requirement that dues be paid well in advance of the November election.
In 1979, M. SID organized a small group of members to establish a mosque of their own. They rented a public school in Cambridge and called themselves, the Islamic Center of Boston. M. SID left the area soon afterwards. In 1987, the Islamic Center of Boston purchased a house and acreage in Wayland, MA. The fast-growing community was planning an expansion of 8-10 classrooms and a community center on the property, to be completed by December, 1991.
Having seen the large number of complicated and controversial issues that were raised during M.SID’s leadership, the indigenous leadership realized it was ill-prepared to guide the community of immigrant Muslims, as they tried to navigate life in a non-Muslim society. Initially, the founders had managed the Muslim community with only a handful of guidelines. But as the community became larger and more diverse, their guidelines became insufficient. The American leadership could not answer the questions that Islamic leaders, knowledgeable of Islamic laws, had already debated.
For example, the Board of founders did not know what to do with the interest that had accrued in the mosque savings account. Since it is forbidden in Islam to charge or receive interest (the term, riba is usury in Islam), there were many questions that needed correct answers: Should they keep a savings account? What should be done with the interest? Is it legal to give it away as charity to families overseas? Can it be used to buy books? Can it be given to the mosque as a donation?
The founders debated whether or not to find an educated Sunni imam. They worried how a foreigner would respond to secular society. Would he impose a cultural interpretation of Islam on the community? How would he preserve community cohesion?
In 1982, the Muslim World League sponsored ten “orthodox” imams to come to this country from Lebanon. They were trained at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Director of the Muslim World League in New York, Dawud Assad, recommended Talal Eid to his long-time supporters and friends at the Quincy Center.
Some mosques in America are against having an imam who is subsidized by an outside organization like the Muslim World League. Studies have shown that the fears anticipated by the Quincy group are not uncommon. One report states:
“Leaders of three of the mosques in this study refused the offer of a full-time paid imam, partly because they perceived there would be strings attached. The League, or the country that provides the funding, is responsible for the selection of the imam. Typically he is someone educated in a Muslim country whose first introduction to the United States is as the imam of a local mosque. Several mosque leaders expressed concern that such a `foreign’ imam either would not fit in with the members, imposing a different interpretation of Islam than they wished, or would simply wrest control of the mosque from the leaders who currently enjoyed such influence.”
PART IV- THE COMING OF THE IMAM/RELIGIOUS DIRECTOR, CHAPTER 10: The Imam’s Background
As a young boy in Tripoli, Lebanon, Talal Eid was certain he wanted to become an imam, and he was encouraged by his father. His training began early in a private high school where he earned a degree in Islamic law and ethics, through the study of al-shari ah (Divinely revealed law). Azhar of Lebanon in Beirut was a five year high school required as prerequisite for Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. The curriculum included secular sciences as well as Islamic sciences. In 1974, Talal Eid earned his degree from the School of Legislation and Law at Al-Azhar University.
After graduation, he taught high school for a year, became a half-time imam at a local mosque for two years, and finally was appointed to a mosque in Tripoli as a full-time imam.
Eid recalled his experience as a young imam. At the height of Lebanon’s civil war, he would give his Friday khutbah on peace and brotherhood. When the people decided that they had heard enough from this “idealistic” imam, they demanded that he speak on the merits of jihad (fighting or striving in the way of God’s justice). Unwilling to support the civil war, Imam Eid applied for a position in America. The chief Islamic scholar (Mufti) of Lebanon nominated him to the Muslim World League for appointment to a mosque in America.
Imam Eid was 30 years old when he arrived with his family in March of 1982, to become Religious Director of the Center. For more than a decade, he was the only graduate of al-Azhar University in the New England area. He also chaired the Majlis Al-Shurah (consultative council) of the Islamic Council of New England. In June, 1991, he received his Masters in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA.
CHAPTER 11: Responsibilities, Duties, & Salary
Because of their experience in the 1970’s with different leadership styles, the founders took steps to protect the mosque from anyone who would assume tacit authority. The first guidelines for the duties and responsibilities of the Religious Director were prepared in committee by the Board. Under Article V in the Constitution (revisions made prior to 1983), the Religious Director and the length of his tenure are determined by the Board, with the approval of the general membership. Under “Powers and Duties” it says:
“1) …shall lead or supervise all religious services of the Corporation.
2) …shall be an ex-officio, non-voting member of the Board of Directors.
3) …in his absence, his duties shall be performed by the religious committee.”
In accordance with the corporate format, the Board views the imam as a salaried functionary of the mosque. The title of Religious Director corresponds most likely to this perception of his role in the corporation. The sphere of his influence within the community is restricted to the realm of religious matters and does not include administration.
Imam Eid describes his job as: Leading the prayer,
teaching (school, lectures & the khutbah), lecturing at and attending interfaith activities, performing burials, witnessing marriages (not a sacrament in Islam), family counselling, and witnessing conversions. His position is most accurately described as imam-khatib (prayer leader/preacher).
His salary is subsidized by the Muslim World League for approximately $13,000 a year. The Center pays all other expenses amounting to about $25,000 a year (health insurance, rent, etc.). He has received an annual cost of living increase, but prefers to be signed to a contract like the other clergy in America. His income from marriages is nominal and is divided for the Center to get half.
Since 1983 to date (July 11, 1991), Talal Eid has 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%, and most of these are women. That is about 28 conversions per year, or, over 2 conversions per month. A convert receives a document signed by the Imam and two witnesses. The document can be used to obtain a visa from the Saudi government, if the person decides to pilgrimage to Mecca. This document is an indigenization which has no basis in Islamic law, yet it does not conflict with Islamic principles.
CHAPTER 12: The Imam and the American Community
The Founding Families
Imam Eid was cognizant of the protections taken by the founders to restrict his role. He was cautious about bringing Islamic knowledge to the isolated community. When he first arrived, he attempted to hang a curtain in the prayer room, to separate the men from the women. But when the American born Muslim women, joined by many of the immigrant women, protested, the Imam did not insist. He learned that, “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.”
His advice to a new imam is to find out what the people expect from him, and not to focus on what he expects from them. The people in Quincy were set in their ways. For example, weddings of American born Muslims (usually to non-Muslims) were modeled after American church weddings. They were held in the prayer room where friends and families (non-Muslims included) gathered to observe the taking of the vows.
After the Imam’s arrival in 1982, this type of wedding continued to be requested by the American born founding families. The Imam honored these requests, even though he preferred that anyone who enters the prayer room be purified in the Islamic tradition by performing the wudu (ablution). Rather than ban this practice, the Imam knew it would eventually die out on its own. He reasoned that teaching the next generation of the American born Muslims (fourth generation founding families) about Islamic marriages, customs, and principles would ensure against future requests. And, since the community was diverse, it was unlikely that an immigrant from Pakistan or Iraq would want to imitate a Christian church wedding.
The indigenization of the Muslim community in America is shaped by the effects of secularism. In the secular society, religious matters and feelings are confined to a small arena of life. De Tocqueville wrote in his Democracy in America:
“Religion in America is a world apart in which the clergyman is supreme, but one which he is careful never to leave.”
Dr. Marston Speight defines secularism as, “The result of a process by which religion loses its influence in society”
Regarding secularism, Imam Eid states:
“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.
Indigenization is also drawn from Christian influences that form the basis of American culture. For example, since most people do not work on Sunday, a large number of Muslims attend the mosque on Sunday, during the school year (Sept-June). A mid-day prayer is held in congregation, even though the traditional Islamic congregational prayer day is also held on Friday. Fridays are not as well attended as Sundays during the school year. But in the summer, the opposite is true. Sunday prayers are not as well attended, while large numbers attend for Friday prayer. This would also indicate that the Muslims are making a special effort to bring their children to Sunday Islamic school. The Islamic school does not meet in the summer, but models itself after the American educational system.
The role of the imam is also subject to the indigenization activity and Christian influences, because his role in the community has become similar to the American clergy. For example, like his American counterparts, the Imam spends about 1/3 of his time counselling married people.
With the coming of the Imam, attendance at the mosque on Sundays and Fridays is five times greater. In 1986, a fourth expansion of the Center was completed, adding a duplex next door to the mosque (costing approximately $260,000). One side of the duplex functions to house the Imam and his family.
Overall, the impact of the Imam’s coming has been in the area of increased knowledge of Islam among the members of the community. Imam Eid believes that the ever-increasing growth and cohesion of the community corresponds to the degree of their knowledge. The youth, whose interest is always a concern, have returned to the mosque in recent years. They have even adopted many of the traditional Islamic values.
At this time, the mosque is limited to its role as a place to pray and learn. The leaders who I interviewed agreed that the Center’s role needs expand, in order to make it and Islam more attractive to the youth. Social and economic needs are met minimally by the mosque. There is not enough space or social/recreational activities to bring young people together so that marriages would be possible between community members. There is not enough money in the zakah fund to meet the demands of indigent community members or students seeking money for higher education. And, there is not yet a full-time Islamic school to meet the social and educational needs of Muslim families. When more Islamic institutions are built, Imam Eid foresees an increased role for the mosque and Islam to play in the lives of the Muslims in America.
As a representative/clergyman of the Muslim community, the Imam is pioneering a new role. The Imam possesses a high level of Islamic knowledge, which is a scarcity in America, not only among Muslim community leaders, but also in American universities and other institutions. Because of the centrality of interfaith relations and the paucity of information about Islam in America, the Imam becomes a valued educator in non-Muslim and Muslim communities. He is increasingly involved in interfaith and educational activities which demand much of his time. The Imam is a member of the Quincy Clergy, a group which meets once a month.
Does Imam Eid feel the sway of influence from the Muslim World League which is funded mainly by Saudi Arabia? To date, there is no evidence of any conflict of interests. In the American context of the separation of church and state, the Imam enjoys political immunity.
He regards his relationship to the Saudis as between an employee and employer. He accepts invitations he receives from the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. For example, when some of the Iranians caused a disturbance in Mecca in 1986, the Imam was invited to view videos of the situation. His employer paid for his travelling expenses, overnight stay, lunch, and given the video as a gift.
The Imam is aware of the hostile political situations involving Muslim countries. Since the prayer room is likely to be occupied by Saudis, Iranians, Iraqis, and Kuwaitis, he would never take sides. Thus reassured, American Muslims have come to appreciate the indigenization of the imam’s role of peacemaker in America, and even the boundaries of secularization.
Like other religious institutions in America, the mosque side-steps the political arena in favor of a more “humanistic” approach to world conflicts. Common themes for religious leaders to share with their congregations and each other are: the value for human life and sympathy for its unnecessary loss; abhorrence for the killing or holding of innocent people; advocating peace with justice and fostering compassion and understanding for all people.
The politics of prayer and peace practiced by the clergy (including the Imam) in America are not without controversy. For example, during the Gulf War the clergy in this country were nearly unanimous in rejecting war as a solution to the problems in the area. This stand was taken in opposition to President Bush, who resolved to attack Iraq in January of 1991.
PART V – THE ISLAMIC COMMUNITY/1980’S, CHAPTER 13 Interfaith Activities
As soon as the mosque was built, students from churches, high schools, elementary schools, and colleges came to tour or requested that someone come to them and speak about Islam. Although the response to the genuine interest of the non-Muslim community was positive, interfaith activities had rarely been initiated by the immigrant Muslim leadership.
When Dr. AKK was president of the Center (1983-1989), he was the exception, giving interfaith relations a high priority. Under his leadership, he initiated interfaith meetings with organizations like the National Conference for Christians and Jews. In more recent years, he formed the Islamic Interfaith Committee which meets on a regular basis with the Massachusetts Council of Churches.
In 1985, when international politics reached new lows, interfaith activities reached new heights at the Quincy mosque. Reports of “Muslims” taking hostages aboard a TWA plane resulted in vandalism of the mosque, and a demonstration outside the mosque, organized by the Jewish Defense League who burned the Ayatollah Khomeini in effigy. The media demanded a response from the Quincy mosque. The leadership quickly put together a public relations committee, and Dr. AKK called a press conference in which he stated that the mosque was a “house of God,” where people came to worship, and not a political organization. It was, therefore, protected from “harassment” by the Bill of Rights.
The reasons why interfaith activities increased during times of crisis are speculative. It would seem that relations between Muslims and non-Muslims would be strained. But in fact, since the revolution in Iran (1979-80), which generally heightened awareness of Islam among Westerners, bad publicity has been the single most driving force for positive interaction between non-Muslims and Muslims in America.
These observations are based on the first-hand experience of this researcher, while serving as office secretary at the Center from 1985 to 1989. As a result of the TWA crisis, the public relations committee was formed to deal with the growing demand for more education and information about Islam. This demand corresponded directly to international incidents involving Muslims.
Sensational news like the publishing of the Satanic Verses and the threat to kill its author, as well as the Gulf War of 1991, continued to draw the Center onto the international stage, and increased the desire for interfaith activities. Institutions in America at the vanguard of improving Muslim/Christian relations include the Hartford Seminary and its Duncan-Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian/Muslim Relations, and the Office of Christian-Muslim Concerns, NCCC USA. These institutions, founded by Orientalist scholars, are frequently called upon during an international political crisis to impart their expertise on matters concerning Islam and the Muslims.
In my view, this decade marks a time when non-Muslims in the West have never been more curious about Islam. Further, the most effective medicine for mending sick relations between Muslims and non-Muslims appears to be a generous dosage of knowledge and a forum for people of different faiths to voice and realize their common concerns and common values. For Muslims, the activity of imparting knowledge about Islam is called, dawah. For Christians, there is a similar activity to bring about peace and harmony in a pluralistic world, which is the ever-evolving nature of Christian mission.
CHAPTER 14: The Islamic Council
Another goal of AKK’s administration in the 1980’s was to organize the Islamic Council of New England, headquartered at the Islamic Center. Seed money ($5000) for this organization had been held in escrow from 1975-1985.
In 1985, AKK used the money to organize the first Islamic Conference of New England, launching an annual event sponsored by the Council. It was attended on average by 400-500 Muslims from all over New England. There were twelve charter members who joined the Council in 1983 and two more joined in 1985.
Today, the Council is an umbrella organization of eighteen mosques and Islamic Societies currently in New England. In its issue of the Islamic Forum (August 1991), AKK stated the goals and objectives 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.”
At this writing, the current Council members include: 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, 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.
Training Islamic Leaders
The Quincy Center served as a training ground for many of the Islamic leaders who are now members of the Islamic Council. A prime example is Shakir Mahmoud (Afro-American convert to Islam since 1964). At this writing, Shakir Mahmoud was the current imam of the Masjid al-Qur’an in Dorchester, MA. He first heard about the group of Muslims in Quincy in 1961, after reading in the newspapers that King Saud had donated $5000 to their building fund.
At that time, Shakir was focused on the racial problems of the 1960’s. He was observing with some reservation the response of Elijah Muhammad’s organization, the Nation of Islam. Of particular interest to him was a certain member of the Nation, Malcolm X, someone he had known from Boston since 1953.
Influenced by Malcolm X’s (Abdul Malik al-Shabazz) pilgrimage to Mecca, his split with the Nation, and his assassination in February, 1965, Shakir decided to concentrate less on racial problems and more on the religion of Islam. Motivated to learn more about “orthodox” Islam, Shakir went to the Islamic Center. In 1973, he became a member of the mosque. He was elected to the Board of Directors, serving from 1977 to 1978. He also participated in many educational related activities, simultaneously learning and teaching.
Meanwhile, in 1975, after the death of Elijah Muhammad, his son, Wallace Deen Muhammad, began the difficult process of dismantling the Nation and introducing the basics of “orthodox” Islam to its twenty thousand followers. At that point, Shakir renewed his relationship with Wallace Deen, meeting him in Chicago and telling him about his experience in Quincy. Wallace Deen was impressed by Shakir’s knowledge.
In 1976, Imam Wallace Deen (who changed his name to “Warith Deen” in 1980), realizing his need for capable leadership, asked Shakir to go to Temple #11 in Dorchester (once assigned to Malcolm X) and teach. Shakir taught for a year, and in 1977, he was elected by the community as their Imam.
In 1984, the name of the Temple was changed to the Masjid al-Qur’an. The constitution was rewritten to establish a Board of seven permanent members, with Shakir as President and Imam. Imam Shakir Mahmoud remained a member of the Islamic Center and became a member of the Islamic Council. Today, Masjid Al-Qur’an also has a full-time Muslim school, the Sister Clara Muhammad School, which was founded in the early 1980’s and sponsored by the American Muslim Mission, named by Warith Deen Muhammed.
The community in Dorchester was once 95% Afro-American converts to Islam. But soon, Muslim students from many countries joined the mosque, prompting Imam Shakir to describe it as a “rainbow community.” The community has about 25 active families, mostly professionals and about 25% blue-collar workers. Imam Shakir considered the Muslim students to be an asset because they helped enforce Islamic values. His sermons are often related to the American cultural milieu and the effects of its progressive moral and social decay. The Imam believes that there is an urgent need for strong Islamic values in America today. Imam Shakir was part-time Chaplain at two prisons in the area.
Organizing the Muslim Students
In 1982, an Egyptian engineer and member of the Islamic Center of New England, Rajab Rizq, organized the Islamic Society of Boston. The ISB also joined the Islamic Council. Its objective was to organize the multiple Muslim Student Associations in the area to assist each other. At the time of its founding, the ISB included student associations at Harvard, Boston University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
At the time, the president of the ISB was a Palestinian graduate student in Islamic Studies at Boston College. He stated that the organization expanded to include Northeastern University, Wentworth Institute, and Suffolk University. He preferred that it not be called an umbrella organization because “it recognizes the complete independence of each student association.” At the same time, it performs certain functions which benefit all of the student associations.
For example, ISB made certain that there is someone available for each university, to give a sermon and lead Friday prayer. On the Eid-ul-Adha in June, 1991, ISB organized holiday prayers in a large park in Roxbury for all Muslims. Working closely with MYA, the Muslim Youth Association, the ISB also sponsored Islamic scholars to lecture in the Boston area. Lectures were usually hosted either by the Islamic Center of New England, or by the largest Muslim student association, MIT.
In September, 1991, a professor of Arabic at Bethlehem University, Palestine, Yasser al-Mallah, came to MIT as a visiting scholar from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. He lectured on the Arabic language in the Qur’an. Speakers such as al-Mallah were available once or twice a month to the Muslim community and all speeches were simultaneously translated into English. Men and women were welcomed to attend.
PART VI – THE ISLAMIC COMMUNITY/1990’S, CHAPTER 15: Fire and Discrimination
On March 30, 1990, during the holy month of Ramadan, a fire destroyed the insides of the Islamic Center of New England, although the concrete exterior remained intact. Damage was estimated at more than $500,000. Investigators determined that the fire was the work of an arsonist, but were unable to find or punish the perpetrator. Insurance money was used to cover the cost of repairing the Center. An outpouring of sympathy and financial assistance came from the surrounding communities, both Muslim and non-Muslim.
One year later, the leadership of the Center tried to purchase a large mansion in Milton, MA, sitting on a 7.5 acre lot. The intention was to build a prayer room and social hall that could each accommodate 1000 people, and to use the extra land to build a school, a camp for the youth, and so on. Negotiations, however, fell through in July, 1991, and the Center turned its search for a larger expansion site, in other areas on the South Shore.
It should be noted that the city of Milton was not favorable to allowing the fast-growing Muslim community to buy the property and move there. There were a few, influential Milton residents in the neighborhood who came out against the Center. Their objections were viewed by some as prejudicial and discriminatory. But in their own defense, they claimed concerns over an increase in traffic. The Center filed a suit to sue those involved, based on religious and country of origin discrimination. Eventually, the mosque leadership decided not to pursue the suit. In the last report (November, 1991), the land was bought by the Milton neighbors.
After a long search to find the right property for expansion, led by Dr. Mian Ashraf, the leadership found 55 acres of farmland in Sharon, MA. In December, 1991, the general body membership approved the Board’s purchase, at a cost of $1.15 million.
I will conclude this thesis by analyzing the divisive forces that threatened the Muslim community in Quincy, and also the cohesive forces that unified the community. I will also explore the necessary conditions for the future growth of Islam in America.
Since the mosque was built in 1964, the membership diversity has been on par with the United Nations. It is a known fact that people from different cultures with diverse social, educational, and economic backgrounds are easy prey to inherent and powerful divisive forces. In response to these inherently divisive, internal forces, the Muslims must strive to find a common Islamic identity.
Outside the community, divisive forces are equally threatening. These forces involve issues of prejudice and discrimination that arise as a result of Muslims living as a religious minority in America. Some individuals, especially the youth, react negatively about their Muslim identity and prefer complete absorption into the dominant society.
In response, Muslims need to build a strong, welcoming, and forward-looking community that shares the pursuit of knowledge and social integration as two common purposes. Since Islam teaches that the pursuit of knowledge is incumbent upon every male and female, religious identity can be strengthened through education and supportive community services for its own members. Importantly, another essential component of the community’s cohesive purpose is an unwavering commitment to educate the surrounding non-Muslim community. The community demonstrates its value of social integration and interfaith relations by acting as an equal religious and social justice partner within the majority society.
In his interview, the Religious Director, Talal Eid, noted the correlation between a knowledgeable leadership and the future growth of the community. For instance, knowledgeable leadership will provide education for the community. An educated community will spawn members who prefer same-faith marriage over interfaith marriage, and same-faith marriage will promote growth of the community by generation in the vertical direction. Moreover, knowledgeable leadership and an educated community will attract Muslims who are seeking to increase their knowledge. To a certain extent then, this ensures growth in a horizontal direction.
It was evidenced in this history that when knowledge of the original sources was found to be lacking in the leadership, growth of the community was threatened. For example, throughout the entire pre-building period (1934-1964), the isolated indigenous Muslim leadership, modeling themselves after the communities of the People of the Book, used non-Muslim practices to raise funds.
In 1967, when more knowledgeable Muslims joined the community, they taught that, in accordance with the Qur’an and the Hadith, some of these practices were forbidden in Islam and should be discontinued. If their message had been ignored by the leadership, they would have withdrawn their support, threatening the survival of the community at the time. But because the leadership was receptive, the community prospered.
Underlying the prosperity and successful exchange of the immigrant leadership and the indigenous leadership was the strengthening of Muslim identity. As scholar W. Montgomery Watt taught, a distinguishing activity is a powerful act of unity. Thus, knowledge of the ways in which the Muslim community is “distinct” from the communities of the People of the Book provided new insight into the “Muslim identity,” which in turn, united the community in their struggle to establish their identity in the non-Muslim society.
What is meant by knowledgeable leadership? Since the original sources in Islam, the Qur’an and the Hadith, cannot speak for themselves, the scholars and teachers who speak for these books must be interpret them as guidance that unites humankind in love of God and love of his neighbor, with respect and equality for all, and in a firm purpose that is indicative of a truly universal appeal.
Further analysis of what is meant by a knowledgeable leadership revealed that culture plays a significant role in the acquisition of knowledge and identity. Since Islam forms the basis of culture in many Muslim countries, the relationship between culture and religion is often inseparable. Because the community in Quincy has grown initially by immigration (horizontally), rather than by generation or conversion, certain issues of what I term, “cultural/religio” identity were central.
Knowledge of religion or any subject is never transferred in a social vacuum. Cultural influences prevail. In general, when an immigrant from a Muslim country first arrives, he is a product of his culture and self-possessed of a particular cultural/religio identity. In other words, his knowledge of Islam is intertwined with cultural accretions, educational and familial traditions, and social customs. His Muslim identity is “complex,” because it is wrapped up in his culture and linked inextricably to how he sees himself in the context of a Muslim society.
Given these facts, Muslims from many cultures can hold diverse and even controversial interpretations of Islamic principles and interpretations of Islamic sources. Since this can cause division in a community, religious knowledge must be liberated from cultural accretions. Muslims coming from different cultures also possess various degrees of knowledge, and they will have learned about religion in different ways. This can lead to different interpretations of the same Islamic principle.
In the exchange of knowledge in 1967, between the indigenous leadership and the Muslim students, the latter employed the principle in Islam that obligates each Muslim to enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong. If drinking alcohol is forbidden to Muslims in Islam, then, selling it at the fund raising picnic to anyone would be illogical, at best.
The request to stop the activity raised another question, especially for the indigenous group. Were the immigrant Muslims asking the indigenous to conform to the model of a Muslim community that existed in another country? Arguably, the answer is no. Rather, they were urging the leadership to conform to a broader understanding of this principle mentioned above, with the additional purpose of uniting the nascent community around its distinctiveness.
On the other hand, as witnessed by the second takeover attempt in the 1970s, when the principles of right and wrong were imposed on the community, and knowledge was used authoritatively (as it may have been taught in an authoritative society) to compel conformity to an abstract rule of Islamic law, conformity was resisted.
Based on my research, I have concluded that the threat to community cohesion, with rivaling cultural interpretations of Islam demanding conformity, emanates from a provincial interpretation of Islam and not a universal understanding. Islam could not have spread throughout the world, if not for its universal appeal.
Muslims also feel pressured to conform to the dominant non-Muslim culture. Some will respond by wanting to preserve original cultural identity. For example, in the early thirties the immigrant fathers of the first generation acted to preserve their ethnic identity by joining with the Christian Arabs and forming, the Sons of Lebanon. But it is important to point out that when religious identity became more important than preserving ethnicity, the two groups formed their own religious organizations.
Whether the Muslim community in Quincy is typical or atypical, its most dynamic feature is its rapidly growing and diversified constituency. There is reason to believe that any community is vulnerable to a “takeover,” by leadership that holds a different interpretation of Islam, based on a more national, ethnic, and provincial understanding. Given that unity is a constant struggle for any social organization, I have concluded that it is never safe to assume that a community is immune to division or takeover.
After examining the challenges presented by diversity in Muslim communities, I have learned that culture can be a cohesive social force, if the community acknowledges it as common ground. In other words, cohesion was heightened when the immigrant leadership demonstrated its value of integrative activities, and was able and determined to practice Islam within the framework of the non-Muslim society.
As Theodore Pulcini points out, there are many responses to the pressures of living as a religious minority in a non-Muslim society. These have to do with the tension that exists between the pull of assimilation and the preservation of identity. This raises the issue of the importance of practicing Islam, as a way to preserve Muslim identity. It is not enough for a Muslim to pursue knowledge. S/He must also practice Islam and demonstrate heartfelt qualities. Living Islam is implementing Islamic values, such as brotherhood, ethics, good manners, modesty, and practicing the acts of worship (ibadat), such as prayer, fasting, and charity. To a recent immigrant, unaccustomed to practice in a non-Muslim society, practice can appear at first to be limited, if not impossible. But steady acculturation can help with that process.
The same was true for the immigrant founders of the Quincy community, who were busy with basic survival when they first arrived in America. Before they could build the mosque, they had to develop a certain degree of political and economic integration, some sophisticated social skills, and raise their families.
The next generation, born in America, wanted to become more fully integrated by building a mosque. But they too had to achieve a certain degree of social and economic success at first. They believed they could practice the religion of their choice, as the Bill of Rights promised, and so they proceeded confidently. Therefore, as a priority for future growth in America, the Muslim community must develop a clear perception of itself within the framework and context of American life. This means that Muslims must not have to choose between their religion and their life. They must feel free to practice as much religion as they want to. It also means that they continue to distinguish themselves through practice, develop new social integrative skills, and stand united, in order to build other Islamic institutions, such as hospitals, universities, and social welfare institutions.
Muslims living in America will provide strong support for ethical and moral principles that Americans have always valued. For example, the honest businessman or congressman who can be trusted to work for the greater good, and the virtuous woman who guards the sacredness of her body.
Another priority for the future of Muslim community, and especially its leadership, is to remain conscious of the perception that the non-Muslims have of them. To create or correct this perception, the Muslims must educate and integrate. The presence of Muslims in business, as neighbors, co-workers, teachers, and students does not protect against prejudice and hatred. In fact, many Americans may not be aware that their doctor is a Muslim. Interfaith activity and educational programs are the most effective activities in the greatest struggle of all, the struggle (jihad) against ignorance.
Important distinguishing activities are currently being pursued by the leadership of the Islamic Council of New England. The Council initiated a program of informing local city and state officials of the dates of Islamic holidays. They are also active in interfaith activities, working to correct misconceptions of Islam in American textbooks and the media, holding Islamic educational conferences, supporting Islamic schools and businesses, establishing scholarship and charity funds, etc. While Muslims are assimilating and recognizing America as their common ground, there are some problems inherent in this acculturation of Muslims into American society. For example, there was evidence in the Quincy community that some children of immigrant Muslims have absorbed a sense of racial hatred, which so permeates American society. Since racism is not an Islamic practice and racial hatred is forbidden in Islam, it is incumbent upon the leadership to speak out against it. If they tolerate racism, they lead the community to identify more with ignorance, betray their religion and every principle of justice in Islam.
With regards to future subjects worthy of investigation, sociological aspects are central to the study of Islamic community in America. Because more and more Muslims are taking refuge from the wars, persecution, and prevailing world poverty, the leadership must recognize the role of community to aid people in need.
I also recommend that future studies of Islamic community in America focus on reasons why there are such great numbers of converts to Islam and what the appeal of Islam is to Americans. Although there was no time in this thesis to elaborate on the number of conversions and how they impact the steady growth of the Islamic community, other studies have not overlooked their statistical significance. Scholars have frequently pointed out that in the days of the growing Islamic Empire it was socially prestigious and economically advantageous for people to convert to Islam. However, in today’s modern Western society, these reasons seem outdated. Therefore, scholars of sociology and psychology (and not theology or history) need to revisit the subject to determine the universal appeal of Islam.
In my opinion, the appeal of Islam is that it upholds values that Americans and others truly love. These include but are not limited to: truth, dignity, family, responsibility, morality, ethics, the sanctity of human life, and recognition of a merciful and forgiving God.
Although often perceived as being impervious to change, the Muslim community, from a religious perspective, is charged in the Qur’an with the responsibility to be the “witness for all humankind,” and act as the “best community;” that is, be those who set an example, those who hold tightly to these treasured values. As a witness to the high price paid by any society that loses these values, the Muslim sees Islam as a refuge for these values, a place where well-being is found.
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 1950-1960’s.
Treasurer’s Reports 1952-1987.
Constitution and By-Laws of the Islamic Center of New England
Articles of Incorporation and By-Laws, Islamic Council of New
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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Dictionaries & Encyclopedias:
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Elias’ Collegiate Dictionary, English-Arabic. Cairo: Elias’ Modern Publishing House & Co.
Elias’ Collegiate Dictionary, Arabic-English. Cairo: Elias’ Modern Publishing House & Co.
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World Book Encyclopedia, 1989 ed. S.v. “Phoenicia,” by Louis L. Orlin.