By Ray Walsh
When Americans think of African― American Muslims and economic
development, they likely think of the highly publicized Nation
of Islam and its controversial leader, Louis Farrakhan. The NOI
does have a notable history of community involvement, including
public housing patrols and the creation of local businesses.
However, many African Americans who adhere to the Islamic faith
do not belong to the Nation of Islam and may find the public perception
of their faith as discomforting as some Christians find the specter
of Pat Robertson. Members of the ministry of W. Deen Mohammed,
for example, are helping to build urban communities across the
country through economic development and organizing.
"At one point in time the place of worship was a focal point
in people's lives. We hope to rekindle that tradition to rally
around [these places] for inspiration and consolation," says
Arlene El―Amin, director of the community outreach program
at Masjid An―Nur in Minneapolis. The mosque (or masjid in
Arabic) was one of five religious organizations in the Twin Cities
to receive grant money from the McKnight Foundation this spring
to expand its volunteer―run services.
In Georgia, the Atlanta Masjid of Al―Islam purchased an abandoned shopping center in 1991 and has transformed the site into a mosque and eight businesses some of which are owned by mosque members. Leaders are encouraging members to purchase homes nearby to help build the community; the mosque also runs a pre―kindergarten through 12th grade school for 300 students.
"To invest in and develop the community is an Islamic concept.
Charity for us has a bigger meaning than just giving money: a
bigger investment in the place and the people where you are located,"
says Imam Plemon El―Amin of the Atlanta Masjid of Al―Islam.
(The iman is a mosque's spiritual leader.) "God spoke to
the Prophet Mohammed about the needs of the neighbor, that the
neighbor may almost hold the status of inheriting as a part of
the family. Everybody has an obligation to develop worldly life
as well as seeking spiritual heaven. Community development is
a part of worship."
Other Atlanta developers have plans for the rapidly changing neighborhood, including more expensive housing and an upgrade of a local golf course. Members of the mosque have been organizing in the housing project across the street and working with the Atlanta Housing Authority to find replacement housing for anyone who may be displaced, El―Amin says.
Community organizing was also key for a community policing project
started in 1987 by Imam Yahya Abdullah of Dallas. African―American
Men Against Narcotics (AAMAN) began patrolling "war zone"
neighborhoods in South Dallas, cleaning up abandoned buildings
and working with police to photograph people coming into the community
to buy drugs. Successful enough to end the need for marches in
Dallas, the program has spread to other cities, including Raleigh,
N.C., Rochester, N.Y., Richmond, Va., St. Paul, Minn., and most
recently Little Rock, Ark.
The distinction between the Nation of Islam and the ministry of
W. Deen Mohammed began in the late 1970s. After studying in Egypt,
Mohammed, the son of the late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Mohammed,
split from the NOI and worked to bring African―American Muslims
into the traditional fold of Sunni Islam_the largest branch of
Islam worldwide. By stressing the text of the Qur'an and the deeds
of the Prophet Mohammed, W. Deen Mohammed de―emphasized the
need for American Muslims to follow one leader. The mosques supporting
his ministry have been sensitive to association with black nationalism
and isolationism, and the decentralized nature of the ministry
has led many local mosques to coordinate with secular groups around
the needs of their communities.
Nuri Madina, a Chicago lawyer, activist and longtime associate
of W. Deen Mohammed, characterizes the national trend as simultaneous
but not centralized. "Increasingly we'll see more and more
economic development and outreach into the broader community the
type of cooperative effort that you saw under the Honorable Elijah
Mohammed," he says. "But we won't see the regimentation
[that exists under the Nation of Islam]."
Typically, which community development or organizing initiatives
a mosque supports depends on local concerns and abilities. Members
may be involved in cooperative buying, community schools, child
welfare reform or a host of other issues. But the activities are
usually organized by individual members with the encouragement
of the mosque, but not necessarily its participation.
Despite local autonomy, economic development remains a common
goal in African―American Muslim communities. One of the best
examples is in Brooklyn, where the Oceanhill―Brownsville
Tenant Association shares resources and volunteers with Masjid
Al―Jamaiyah. The association emerged from local organizing
around school decentralization in the mid―1960s. In 1980
Imam Abdur―Rahman Farrakhan brought the mosque and local
churches together to run the group as a non―profit developer,
which now has subsidiaries involved in construction, security,
management and maintenance.
The association manages more than 1,200 low― and moderate―income
housing units in 120 buildings and takes in $15 million in rental
income_money that goes back into the community, says Farrakhan,
the group's executive director. The association employs 300 people
and uses local labor for its construction work. Farrakhan says
the project, "is one of morality and proper conduct. We work
with people who have been convicted of crimes, out on work―release
or parole. We're socially conscious. . . . We work with people
who would not ordinarily be able to function in the mainstream."
Another Brooklyn mosque, Masjid Mushi―Khalifa, which was
established as Temple 7C by Malcolm X in 1963, recently merged
with Masjid Al―Jamaiyah. The mosque owns and runs a three―story,
block―long complex that houses a cultural center, library,
school and prayer room. It also contains a number of retail businesses,
including a furniture store, barbershop and beauty salon, health
food store, and laundromat. "We don't have beeper stores
or fly―by―night electronic stores," Farrakhan says.
"We look to establish businesses that have an impact in the
community by providing basic fundamentals."
In his work with the tenants association, Farrakhan has worked to build bridges with other religions, a task he says can be frustrating. "We have a contingent of Christian people who work with us--sometimes harmoniously, sometimes not so harmoniously--to get the job done. We don't have a formal relationship with the church: Preachers are intimidated by working with Muslims," he says. "I'm the grandson of a Baptist preacher. I've been trying for 16 years with all that is in me to work with them, but we haven't had the same kind of relationship we'd have liked to have had."
African―American Muslim leaders nationwide would like to
see the gap between Islam and the other monotheistic faiths narrowed,
stressing the unity of humankind and the commonality of Jewish,
Christian and Muslim beliefs. Ayesha K. Mustafaa edits the Muslim
Journal, a Chicago―based weekly affiliated with the ministry
of W. Deen Mohammed. She says organizing to help Muslims exclusively
would be counter―productive.
"Our basic approach is to work with existing organizations,
to lend our principles where they can interconnect," Mustafaa
says. "Most are already compatible. For instance, when it
comes to our children we're not isolationists. If my children
have problems with gangs, my responsibilities are to work with
whatever organizations are attacking that problem."
Some voices in the Muslim community criticize the mosques for
not being aggressive enough in addressing urban problems. Others
feel that their greatest impact should be spiritual. "We
have these exercises we go through in terms of sustaining ourselves
spiritually when you don't have all your necessities met, reshaping
what we perceive of as our needs." Mustafaa says. "Setting
a new social and business climate is what we think we can have
a strong influence on. There is so much we can achieve just by
For More Info:
Muslim Journal, 910 W. Van Buren, Ste. 100, Chicago, IL 60607,
(312) 243―7600; Masjid An―Nur, P.O. Box 11781, Minneapolis,
MN 55411, (612) 521―1784; Masjid Al―Jamaiyah, 319 Rockaway
Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11233, (718) 498―2700; Atlanta Masjid
of Al―Islam, 560 Fayetteville Rd., Atlanta, GA 30316, (404)
378―1600, fax (404) 377―0043.