An expert's point of view on a current event.

Inside America’s Mosques

From tie-dyed hippies to hard-line radicals, they're not all the same -- and they're not what you think.

Top photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

The ninth anniversary of 9/11 is almost upon us, and the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States is as fraught as ever. Witness Florida pastor Terry Jones, whose planned “International Burn a Koran Day” held the nation shocked and riveted for weeks until he finally agreed to cancel the event.

In this environment of heightened intolerance, people focus on symbols, and no symbol is more representative of Islam than the mosque. But most outsiders have no idea what actually goes on inside mosques. Some have let their imaginations — and their mouths — run wild in depicting these places of worship as nurseries of homegrown terrorist plots against America, as the recent controversy over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York revealed.

But the conversation about mosques doesn’t need to be so ugly. Long before the latest controversies erupted, I, along with a team of young American researchers, traveled throughout the country studying U.S. mosques for the book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam. From fall 2008 until fall 2009 we visited over 75 cities and over 100 of the estimated 1,200 mosques in the United States, some of which are little more than a room or two. And we were reminded that Muslims in America are as diverse as Americans overall. There is no one pattern that can describe them all, and any generalities fail to cover the whole picture.

For one thing, only about a third of American Muslims come from the Middle East: The rest are made up mostly of African-Americans and South Asians. While these are the main categories, there are Muslims from all over the world in the United States. There are some mosques with a predominately Bosnian congregation, for example, while others are dominated by West Africans or Turks. There are also a small but growing number of white and Latino converts. And all these groups differ markedly in historical background, lifestyle, attitudes, and values. Muslim life is also affected by location. New York’s Muslims remain traumatized by 9/11 and the hostility they’ve faced as a result. By contrast, West Coast Muslims seem much more confident and relaxed.

In addition to ethnic and regional differences, mosques are divided again on the basis of sect and interpretation, although we found they fit into five categories, which we defined as modernist, literalist, mystic, African-American, and contested. The following is a list of eight representative mosques — including the one that hopes to become Park51, the Islamic center in downtown Manhattan — case studies across the broad diversity of American Muslim culture.

1. The Islamic Cultural Center of New York

New York, N.Y.

New York City’s largest mosque, located on 96th Street and 3rd Avenue, attracts 3,000 to 4,000 worshippers for Friday prayers. There are a plethora of Muslim cultures represented there, from North and West Africans to Chinese. On our visits we saw many professionals praying, including members of the New York Police Department.

The mosque falls squarely in the tradition of “modernist” Islam, a tradition that seeks to reconcile religion with modern life. Modernism was the dominant strain of American Islam throughout the 19th and most of the 20 century. (America’s oldest still-functioning mosque, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was built in 1934.) However, the influx of literalist immigrants since the 1980s has forced modernists on the defensive. Today, modernists are acutely aware that they are under attack both from literalists who see them as compromised Muslims who do not adhere sufficiently to the text and from non-Muslims, painting with a broad brush, who view them only as Muslims and thus potential terrorists.

The Islamic Cultural Center is modern and airy, not in the tradition of classic Muslim architecture. Yet the atmosphere can feel tense. The mosque’s smiling and gentle Indonesian imam, Mohammad Shamsi Ali, complained bitterly about attacks by literalists. South Asian Muslims in particular have attacked interfaith initiatives such as his close relationship with major Jewish leaders.

Worshippers come from all over, which can cause rifts in the congregation. An Arab imam visiting from Detroit told me, “There is no unity here; that’s the problem.” A Turk interjected that the congregation thought of itself more as Bangladeshis, Egyptians, and Pakistanis, yet only one word “unites us — it’s Islam.”

Other tensions seem to come from the imam’s ties to the government and law enforcement. Several individuals took me aside to express the fear and uncertainty of being a Muslim in New York today. Some congregants challenge the imam, even speaking rudely to his face. The congregants also seemed nervous about non-Muslim members of my research team asking too many questions, suspecting them of being government agents or representatives of a prying media.

2. The Islamic Society of Orange County

Garden Grove, Calif.

Incorporated in 1976, the Islamic Society of Orange County, another example of a modernist mosque, is a large white building with several minarets surrounded by palm trees. The center, which attracts 2,000 to 3,000 worshippers for Friday prayers, is headed by Indian-born Imam Muzammil Siddiqi, a noted scholar and religious leader who presided over an interfaith service at Washington’s National Cathedral on then-President George W. Bush’s invitation after 9/11. Siddiqi provided us with a neat, clean, and orderly visit. Members of the mosque came up to us enthusiastically, asking how they could help with our survey. While we were received hospitably in most mosques, this one stood out as particularly friendly.

In Orange County, we saw how a modernist mosque run efficiently under a respected imam can provide the community a sense of cohesion and well-being. Siddiqi is an example of an American imam who is firmly rooted in Islamic tradition and jurisprudence and accepted as a leader by major American Muslim organizations, but also respected by the mainstream American establishment.

3. Al-Farooq Masjid

Atlanta, Ga.

Literalist Muslims tended to worship in modernist mosques until the 1980s and 1990s brought a large influx of literalist immigrants to the United States along with funding from places like Saudi Arabia. Literalist Muslims believe that Islam and modern culture (be it from the Muslim world or the West) do not mix. They rely on strict codes for dress, behavior, and theological interpretation. In classic literalist Islam, a mosque is simply bricks, mortar, and a rug to pray on, as all glory is reserved for God. But new facilities like Al-Farooq, Atlanta’s largest mosque, embody a new form of literalist Islam that seeks to project itself and is visible and unapologetic. The city has a large literalist professional class with money from abroad, and it constructed a gigantic citadel of Islam downtown that has become part of the city’s skyline.

We attended Friday prayers with more than 1,000 men and women. I estimated that 30 percent of the congregants were South Asians, 30 percent were Arabs, and the rest African-Americans and others. Two new young imams in traditional South Asian shalwar kameez who had just arrived from training at the seminary in Deoband, a center of literalist Sunni Islam in India,
told me that their best advice to the Muslim community in the United States was to “become walking Qurans.”

Not everyone in the community was impressed with the mosque’s leadership. An imam from another mosque told us the hard-line board was “totally out of touch with the rest of the community.” If the imam steps out of line, the board will remove him, as it did with the previous Al-Farooq imam, who had been asked to leave under mysterious circumstances a few months before, possibly because he was too moderate for the board’s tastes.

The Al-Farooq community seemed to be caught between a desire to reach out to the greater Atlanta community and a palpable fear of outsiders. CNN asked to do a story on our visit to the mosque, but the Syrian president of the board refused permission, citing the Muslim community’s bad experiences with its “enemy,” i.e., the U.S. media.

4. Masjid at-Tawheed

Stone Mountain, Ga.

Not far away geographically but on the other end of the literalist spectrum is Masjid at-Tawheed. This mosque harbors no ambitions to reach out either to non-Muslims or even to other Muslims who are less conservative. The congregants call themselves Salafis, an Arabic term for “ancestor,” which now refers to the strict literalism practiced in Saudi Arabia.

Tawheed, like many Salafi mosques throughout the country, is hidden and unmarked, located in a nondescript strip mall behind a halal meat store. The Sufi imam who told us of the mosque’s location pleaded with us not to reveal his identity, for fear of reprisals by the Salafis.

In contrast to the professional class represented at Al-Farooq, the literalists of Tawheed include taxi drivers, day laborers, and recent immigrants. Whereas other mosques had separate sections for men and women, in Tawheed women were not visible at all, sequestered in a separate room. The walls are lined with bearded Muslims slowly rocking back and forth reciting the Quran.

Its website declares that “Jews and Christians are waging a war upon Islam” and that Muslims who believe in “democracy” are on a “criminal path.” Any Muslim participating in democracy has renounced Islam and is to be condemned as a heretic. The congregants at Tawheed say that some speakers at the mosque have argued for suicide bombings and called for the deaths of Christians and Jews, but that many members did not agree with this position.

It is important to point out, though, that the vast majority of literalists, including those at Tawheed, want to be left alone to worship according to their beliefs and within the law. They are fully conscious that men like Osama bin Laden have violated the basic tenets of Islam through their violence. The imam told us, “[Islamic terrorists] have a misconception. By no means can you kill children, females, or people worshipping in church, unless they are fighting you.”

5. Masjid Al-Farah

New York, N.Y.

In New York City, we spent an evening at Masjid Al-Farah, a mosque in the mystic tradition where Feisal Abdul Rauf is currently imam. The mosque is situated in an unassuming building sandwiched between two bars 12 blocks from Ground Zero — but it leapt into the spotlight recently because of Abdul Rauf’s part in the plans to build the Park51 Muslim community center a few blocks away from the 9/11 site. Currently, overflow congregants from Al-Farah pray in the abandoned Burlington Coat Factory where the proposed new mosque would be built.

Although some media outlets have attempted to portray Abdul Rauf as an extremist with links to terrorists, he is, in fact, very much a mystic imam. Mystics have a unifying view of faith and believe that Muslims, Christians, and Jews all pray to the same God. Modernists and literalists frequently complain that mystics “innovate,” or place human figures between man and God, which they say challenges monotheism. The mystic reverence of saints, as well as their use of music and dance to connect with the divine, causes conflicts with other Muslims.

It is a safe bet that opponents of Park51 would be surprised by the scene at Masjid Al-Farah’s weekly dhikr, or recitation of the names of God. Every Thursday night, some 40 people gather, men and women, including some visiting Zen Buddhists, Jews, and Christians.

A female mosque leader, Sheikha Fariha Fatima al-Jerrahi, led the ceremony. The sheikha is a white mystic who converted to Islam from Catholicism after a decade-long search for God. She wore flowing robes with tie-dye flourishes. Sheikha Fariha tries to expand the boundaries of Islam by including traditions of other faiths and absorbing her Americanness and Christianity into Sufism.

Together, we chanted the names of God, sitting, kneeling, and standing. The effect was hypnotic and intoxicating. After about 30 minutes, the sheikha stood up and asked everyone to hold hands, continue chanting, and rotate in a circle. Although the sheikha constantly referred to the Prophet of Islam, the eclectic and syncretic nature of the evening didn’t have much to do with Islam itself.

“It didn’t feel Muslim at all,” said one of my research assistants, like a disgruntled customer about to ask for his money back. After all, he was accustomed to spending late hours in Salafi mosques discussing the Quran and the boundaries of faith with earnest bearded men inspired by Saudi texts.

 6. Masjid As-Sabur

Las Vegas, Nev.

For most white Americans, African-American Muslims are synonymous with the Nation of Islam (NOI), the 80-year-old organization best known for the confrontational rhetoric of Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan. But the African-American Muslim community has roots stretching much further back: An estimated 30 to 40 percent of the Africans brought to America as slaves were Muslim. And the NOI today accounts for a very small percentage of the African-American Muslim community of 2 to 3 million.

African-American mosques are typically located in inner cities. They are simple and sparse and frequently include clinics and aid programs. As opposed to immigrant communities, which tend to be more concerned with the Muslim world overseas and issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Kashmir, African-American Muslims are typically more concerned with local matters like education and health.

A good example of an African-American mosque is Masjid As-Sabur, the oldest mosque in Las Vegas. Founded in 1971 as Muhammad Mosque No. 75, As-Sabur was part of the Nation of Islam until the congregation switched to Sunni Islam in 1975. The move was part of a larger movement of millions of African-American Muslims away from the NOI, led by Elijah Muhammad’s son, W.D. Muhammad, whom I have called the Martin Luther of American Islam. In contrast to his father, who referred to whites as “devils,” W.D. Muhammad argued that whites and blacks are brothers and advised his followers to embrace their American identity.

The mosque’s congregation is about half African-American and half immigrants and converts, and the leadership is mixed. It is a simple, adobe-style green and white building located in a Las Vegas back alley. The prayer room has the air of an office space minus the cubicles and has little ornamentation. The mosque has an active health clinic and food bank that helps Muslims and non-Muslims alike in the impoverished neighborhood.

Imam Fateen Seifullah, the mosque’s leader, has an easygoing charm and bountiful energy. Growing up in Los Angeles’s Compton neighborhood, the imam identified with black nationalism and joined the Nation of Islam because Farrakhan’s rhetoric blaming whi
te America for all the ills of the world appealed to his own anger. In 1988, in trouble with drugs and gangs, he discovered that blaming whites had left him “nothing but the underworld.” Now his approach is more open-minded.

As we walked about the mosque, people would come up to the imam and embrace him or whisper some confidence in his ear. He had a smile and hug for everyone. He confided that he was constantly short of funds. Muslims, he felt, tend to spend more money building new mosques than helping the poor, which was against the true spirit of Islam: “Our Prophet, peace be upon him, that wasn’t his example. Service to humanity was far more important than luxurious properties.”

Owing in part to its location, the mosque has become a haven for celebrities like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson — the latter, we were told, helps vacuum the mosque’s prayer rugs as an act of piety. Tyson donated $250,000 to the current building, more than half of the total cost, and Ali helped with fundraising.

7. Nation of Islam

Chicago, Ill.

Visiting the NOI’s main mosques in Chicago and New York, visitors encounter a level of security stricter than in most airports. At the Chicago facility, an impressive refitted Greek Orthodox cathedral with the distinctive star and crescent extending above the dome, my two research assistants were met by burly security guards wearing leather jackets and earpieces.

Although Nation of Islam members were courteous to the visitors, they were cold and suspicious of our project and motives. The racial tension was palpable as my assistants waited to meet with Larry Muhammad, the director of education of the Muhammad University of Islam, situated next to the mosque. Wearing a meticulous white suit, he discussed his school and the positions of the NOI, which, he said, remains popular in the black community but has also experienced growth among Latin Americans.

The curriculum is based on the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan, which include elements not found in traditional Islam: for example, the story of the scientist Yakub, who was guided by Allah to create the white race via a breeding experiment. But as knowledge of traditional Islam has become more widespread in the community, some Sunni practices have been introduced, such as fasting for Ramadan.

8. Islamic Center

Omaha, Neb.

In smaller cities and towns — and even some larger cities — a mosque’s interpretation of Islam can become contested. If a city has only one or two mosques, literalists, modernists, mystics, and African-Americans must worship together and conflict can break out. With a lack of strong leadership, a suitable imam cannot be agreed upon and the mosque could go for years without a head.

Early in our fieldwork, I was invited to speak at the small and nondescript Islamic Center in the suburbs of Omaha during Ramadan. As I stood at the pulpit speaking in favor of dialogue with Jews and Christians, an African-American man rose in a startling breach of etiquette to challenge my interpretation of Islam. “Good Muslims” could not talk to nonbelievers, he almost shouted. I immediately recognized him as a Salafi due to his comments and dress, a kufiya that gave him the appearance of having walked right out of Saudi Arabia.

My host, a Pakistani lawyer who was acting president of the Islamic Center, quietly stepped away from the pulpit once the harsh words began to fly, probably feeling intimidated. Meanwhile, the challengers, now numbering four, pressed on.

It turned out that the four who challenged me had posted a fatwa in the mosque before 9/11 calling for the killing of Jews and Christians and praising bin Laden’s deeds. Shortly before the attacks, they had beaten up an opponent in the mosque’s parking lot. My host and others who identify with modernist Islam came up to me and in hushed tones voiced their approval of my words as we were leaving the mosque.

In this contested mosque, the Salafi members had successfully blocked the appointment of any imam who was not of their thinking, leaving the Islamic Center without an imam. In such cases prayers are led by members of the congregation.

We saw many mosques like this, hamstrung by an inability to reach a consensus religiously, culturally, or on the question of interfaith relations. In some ways, we felt that this mosque, more than any of the others, represented the state of American Islam: lacking in leadership, riven by conflict, and unable to move forward from old wounds.


Our study confirmed that the United States has attracted Muslims from all over the world. Every kind of sect and culture is represented here. This is a blessing in terms of the cultural richness it brings, but it presents a challenge in creating a cohesive and unified community.

Both Muslim and non-Muslim Americans need to step back from the passion and controversies created by the so-called Ground Zero mosque and refer to the vision of the Founding Fathers of the United States, who, above all, respected religious pluralism. It is worth noting that John Adams called the Prophet Mohammed one of the greatest truth-seekers in history, Benjamin Franklin called the Prophet a model of compassion, Thomas Jefferson hosted the first iftar dinner at the White House and owned a Quran, and George Washington extended his hand of friendship to the Muslim community.

To bring the temperature down, we need to remember the great Founding Fathers of this land and reinforce the traditions of religious pluralism. A good place to start is in America’s mosques.


<p> Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, is the former Pakistani high commissioner to Britain and served as political agent in Pakistan's South Waziristan agency.   </p>

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