Islam's Urban Impact

Islam's Urban Impact

Across the country African-American Muslims are working to improve their communities.

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 tackling perceptions."

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.

Copyright 1996 The Neighborhood Works
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