A new American piety

Islamic mosques expand their community role for the growing Muslim faithful in the US.

Some worshippers arrive at the mosque very early, sliding their shoes into mailbox-like slots in the hallway, completing the ablutions that precede prayer, and then settling down on the rug in the large prayer hall. Several open their Koran to read as they await the start of the Friday service - the prime religious event of the week for Muslims. The women, dressed in scarves and jilbabs, head downstairs, where they join in via TV.

By the time the 1 p.m. service begins with the call to prayer, the main hall is packed with men, and the crowd has spilled out into the parking lot, where a large tent is set up for the overflow.

When opened in 1995, the Islamic Society of Boston's Cambridge mosque was expected to meet the needs for years, but crowds of up to a thousand soon forced the search for a new location. Now they are preparing to build a dramatic mosque and cultural center in the heart of Boston, with a 1,500-capacity hall, full-time school, and space for 3,000 for special functions.

Their experience is a striking example of the growing presence of Islam in the US, where the number of mosques has risen by 25 percent to more than 1,200, and the average weekly attendance has nearly doubled over the past six years, according to a recent national survey released by four Muslim organizations. "The Mosque in America: A National Portrait" is the first comprehensive look at US Islamic centers (see note at end).

The Boston society's experience also illustrates how - as Islam takes root in America - the mosque has taken on a community-building role. Often in other countries, "the mosque is a place to pray," says Ihsan Bagby, a professor at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., who headed the study. "Here it is the center of Muslim life - in terms of social and cultural functions, and economic and social services."

And, the survey reveals, the ethnic and racial divisions which characterized the founding of many mosques - an experience common to immigrant faith groups - are breaking down. What used to be solely South Asian, African-American, or Arab American mosques, are now more inclusive. Only 7 percent of US mosques are attended by just one ethnic group.

While men predominate at Friday prayers in the US, women are an increasing presence (22 percent) at the service. (Only men are obligated to attend.)

Contributing to the signs of growth are the continuing immigration of Muslims from many parts of the world, a steady rate of conversions, and decisions by "lapsed" Muslims to return to regular practice and ensure that their children are reared in the faith.

"Many Muslims weren't practicing due to lack of a mosque, and others who had been here for years began to feel guilty because their children knew little of their religion and culture," says Yousef Abou-Allaban, a psychiatrist from Syria who heads the cultural-center building project. "Also, many people started converting - in 1998, it became about four a month."

"In this area, a lot of those converting are students," adds Salma Kazmi, a young Pakistani woman who is the project's assistant director. "I was struck once at a prayer service at Harvard University that only three of us were born Muslim, and the rest were converts."

Attendees are 30 percent converts

The survey shows immigration is providing the main growth, but nearly 30 percent of mosque attendees are converts. Of the 20,000 annual conversions, an estimated 13,000 are men, 7,000 women; 63 percent are African-American, 27 percent Caucasian, and 6 percent Latino.

Nataka Crayton, who says her mother is a Jehovah's Witness and her father a "defunct Catholic," converted six years ago after finding Islam on her own. "My soul was always searching, and the concept of living a righteous life appealed to me," she says. "Most questions you ask have answers," and there are rules, but "they are put in place to protect and guide us by a loving God." She insists that the idea that women don't have an equal place in Islam is a misperception - that it's a question of different roles.

"You are talking about criticism from a society where everything goes - no limits," she says. "I came from a dating world that is really unhealthy. I think overall that Islam, which helps both men and women protect their chastity, elevates the standard of the woman."

Steven Shakir, an African-American from a Pentecostal family, says back in the 1970s, he was seeking more fulfillment and questioning Christianity's treatment of minorities. He joined the Nation of Islam. But when Elijah Mohammed's son, W. Deen Mohammed, took many of that faith into mainstream Islam, he followed.

"That satisfied my soul," Mr. Shakir says, "because I could then relate to all people." He says Islam appeals to him because of "the balance, and encouragement to learn in all areas of life." Shakir has been a member of the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester (Mass.) since its inception in 1980 and was its first treasurer.

The mosque in Worcester has grown steadily, too - mainly from immigration, but recently from conversions, including Puerto Ricans. A Sunday visit to the regular "weekend school" for both children and adults highlights the multicultural nature of community life.

Pakistanis are the largest Muslim group in Worcester, but people are also from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India, Somalia, Bosnia, the US, and elsewhere. "When you have people from many cultures, what it does is open up your minds to listen," says Tahir Ali, a software engineer from Pakistan. One of the founders of the society, he spearheaded the major renovation that turned a large abandoned church into a mosque with classrooms on four levels.

"When you come to the mosque, everyone is the same - this is dictated by our holy book," says Khalid Sadozai, a member of the board of trustees. (In a majority of US mosques, decisionmaking rests not with the religious leader, or imam, but with an executive board or board of trustees - and most, the survey found, allow women to serve as board members.)

Diversity still a challenge

Dr. Bagby says diversity is "part of the ideal Muslims are trying to live up to, but mosque leaders admit it's still a challenge - it's not always reflected in the leadership." He says the survey shows mosques don't yet "get great scores on 'how well you feel your community is like a family.' "

The Sunday gatherings in Worcester are lively and mixed, whether it's the children learning their Arabic and Koran, the women - in a kaleidoscope of colors and national dress - teaching classes or sharing the latest family news, or the men sitting in a circle listening to the imam and discussing verses from the holy book.

The weekend school aims to give children Arabic-language skills for reading the Koran and an understanding of Islamic history, teachings, and behavior. Young people in the older class discuss Islamic principles (this day it's "community consensus") and how they apply to daily life.

Uzma Ali, who recently graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in biotechnology, attended the school as a child, stopped for a while during her teen years, but now appreciates the older class and other activities the mosque sponsors for young people, such as lectures and sports activities.

She and her brother, Amir, an honor student at the University of Massachusetts, say that growing up Muslim in America has not been challenging. "Friends just accept you as being different [no alcohol, no dating, etc.], and it hasn't been a problem," Amir says. He plays on the basketball team Shakir now coaches, which competes against other mosques across central New England.

Along with serving its own members, the Worcester Islamic society is expanding social-service efforts in the broader community. It began a few years ago when the US State Department asked if it would help out Bosnian and Kosovar refugees settling in the area, says Mohammed Anwar Uddin, social-service committee chairman. Members helped them with English and with negotiating the adjustments to a new culture.

Now the committee provides food to people in need, and is working with Muslim Community Support Services, which involves mosques all over the state, to set up a weekly free clinic. Almost 70 percent of US mosques provide some service for the needy.

Faith is mosque's central focus

The focus of mosque life, of course, is the faith and its relevance to all aspects of life. In the Friday sermon in Cambridge, Imam Basyouni emphasizes the importance of obedience to God. In the Sunday adult class in Worcester, Imam Sheik Hamid speaks of Islam as a religion of love and a beautiful family life, and how "Allah wants to give us a test - we are now in a world where we are in a test of our wisdom, our understanding, and of our morality."

For many Muslims, this emphasis on morality is an anchor and guide amid a culture of shifting and sometimes corrupt values. They see the growth in the faith as evidence that they have something to offer to an American society struggling with substance abuse, violence, and disintegrating family life.

The Islamic Society of Boston, at its new site near Northeastern University in Roxbury, intends strong outreach into the community, Dr. Abou-Allaban says. It will provide Roxbury Community College with a 10,000-title library and raise $10,000 a year for 10 years for its educational programs. It also will maintain nearby parks for the city, and offer a family and drug-abuse counseling clinic.

The structure itself is likely to become a striking landmark in the city, designed to combine elements of Islamic architecture with Boston's red-brick tradition. Abou-Allaban has the daunting task of raising the $14 million project cost without the use of loans, since that would require interest, which in Islam is considered usury. The society is aiming for a September groundbreaking.

'''The Mosque in America' survey was co-sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Islamic Society of North America, Ministry of Imam W. Deen Mohammed, and Islamic Circle of North America. While Islam is often called 'one of the fastest growing faiths in the US,' firm figures don't exist. This study found about 2 million Muslims associated with mosque life, and estimates a US Muslim population of six to seven million.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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