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Jihad In Brooklyn: Just What We Do Every Day

“‘Adib’ means analytical one, someone who can figure things out,” according to Adib Rashid, the imam of the Masjid Abdul-Muhsi Khalifah in Bedford-Stuyvesant. These days Imam Rashid is trying to figure out how to communicate the true nature of Islam to post-9/11 America. That, and continue his work leading prayers at the masjid (mosque), directing a Muslim grammar school, and overseeing a growing nonprofit community-development agency.

A 1999 Columbia University study found more than 80 mosques in Brooklyn and Queens, up from fewer than 20 in all of New York City just 20 years ago. African-American Muslims have been a presence in Brooklyn for over 70 years, and are growing in number here and nationwide—of the estimated 6 million Muslims in America, about a third are African-American. On a cool October morning, one month and three days after the WTC disaster, I walk along Bedford from the A/C line at Franklin to meet the imam, one of Brooklyn’s most visible African-American Muslim leaders.

At 9 a.m. there is little activity on the street; two stray dogs lounge in a sunny patch of grass in a vacant lot. A grizzled man rides by on a bicycle laden with garbage bags full of soda cans. Several storefronts (a bodega, a coffee shop) still have their grates down. Then, as often happens in Brooklyn, there’s a mid-block fade into another culture; there’s the Khalifa Halal (lawful) Meats, and the Hasan Management Corp., specializing in real estate, mortgages and contracting. Above another halal shop, a grocery, a green and white plastic banner reads: WE CANNOT STOP NOW; OTHERS ARE HAVING IT THEIR WAY, advertising the Muslim American Society national convention, in Chicago (August 30 – September 3). Where Madison meets Bedford, across the street from the Church of the Nazarene, another green and white sign suspended from the edge of a two-story prewar brick building announces the Masjid Abdul-Muhsi Khalifah and the Clara Muhammad School.

The mosque proper, in which 300-400 people gather every Friday from noon until three to pray, is a low-ceilinged upper room in the building’s mazelike interior. There are no chairs (congregants kneel to pray) and prayer rows are delineated with long strips of masking tape set at a precise diagonal on the deep-green carpeting, oriented (literally) Northeast toward Mecca.

The mosque was founded by Malcolm X in 1959, when the building still contained a pillow factory and an auto shop. Since then the congregation has acquired it room by room, and the exposed pipes, insulation, and wiring in the hallways attest to ongoing renovations. In the three years since it opened, the Clara Muhammad School, named after the wife of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, has grown to 70 students, pre-kindergarten to sixth grade.

In the Elijah Muhammad Cultural Center, a large, gym-like room, the sun shines through the green lace curtains and sparkles on the contemporary spiral-shaped crystal chandeliers. This is where students eat lunch and social gatherings are held, among folding chairs and tables, which suit the building’s spotlessly clean, modest, functional spaces. The colors green and white predominate, as they are believed to do in paradise.

As I wait for the Imam to arrive, two little girls, their hair completely covered in long, forest-green hijabs, come in with their mothers, one of whom wears a traditional white hijab and long robe, the other a mid-calf-length leather coat and colorful head scarf. They disappear through a doorway marked SISTERS ONLY that leads deeper into the school wing. A tall, lithe, elderly gentleman in a suit acts as a gatekeeper, taking note of all comers and greeting them, “Salaam aleikum (Peace be with you),” to which they respond “Aleikum salaam (With you peace).” A few moments later, when a dreadlocked preteen boy in a yellow shirt and green tie whirls in, the gatekeeper sternly asks him if he knows what time it is. The boy is directed to sign a special book, presumably for the tardy; he does so with a good-natured shrug.

The terrorist attacks have had one particularly notable side effect for me: I’ve been learning about Islam. At this point I know just enough to feel that my knowledge is wholly inadequate. As a gesture of propriety, I’ve worn a beret (the least ridiculous hat I have). As I wait for the Imam, I spot several older men with beards, crocheted caps, and long robes, but none of them are him. When he does appear, I’m a bit surprised. He’s about 5'6", of slight build, and elegantly attired in a dark-gray double-breasted suit, a white shirt and a Windsor-knotted tie. He has a steady, slightly doleful gaze, a close-cropped gaze, and an uncovered head. And he suggests that we talk at the nonprofit offices, downstairs.

The nonprofit, New World Communities, Inc. (NWCI), was established by the mosque’s congregation in 1993 to provide drug and alcohol counseling and other services. The organization also works with parents whose children are in danger of being put into foster care, and offers a walk-in youth mentoring group for junior high to high school kids (open to Muslims and non-Muslims) who need advice on everything from sexual peer pressure, to taking the SATs, to applying for college.

NWCI has had particular success with an “incubation” program for small businesses. The halal meat market, the mortgage and construction concern across the street, and a private security firm all got their start here with the help of NWCI’s phones, file cabinets, computers, and contacts. Economic empowerment has been one of the driving forces behind the rise of Islam among African-Americans, and Rashid seems especially proud of NWCI’s projects in housing and business development. “You know that was one of the main ways Islam got converts at the beginning,” Rashid says. “People liked doing business with Muslims.”

Rashid is a gracious subject. While obviously very busy, he answers my questions thoughtfully. As we speak at the large table in the nonprofit’s conference room, he gets at least 15 cell phone calls, but he doesn’t interrupt our talk to answer any of them.

Rashid grew up going to Christian churches with his mother and grandmother in St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, where he was born. While not especially religious as a child, he loved Bible stories and was curious about the prophets. In 1973, at 18, he heard Minister Louis Farrakhan speak for the first time, his introduction to the Quran and Islam. In 1974 Rashid performed shahadah, the profession of faith in Allah and the prophet Muhammad, the only official step in the Muslim conversion process.

Near the time Elijah Muhammad, who founded the Nation of Islam, passed away in 1975, Rashid became disenchanted with some of the Nation and Farrakhan’s political and doctrinal positions. Not long afterward, Elijah Muhammad’s son, Warith Deen Muhammad, left the Nation of Islam to follow the orthodox Sunni Muslim tradition. Members of Warith Deen Muhammad’s Muslim American Society (2.5 million), now far outnumber those of the Nation of Islam (an estimated 10,000 to 100,000.)

Rashid followed W. Deen, as he is now, “You know, when Farrakhan came in, we were living under Jim Crow, and under those circumstances, if someone tells you the white man’s the devil, you believe it! But then W. Deen started giving the Quran a proper explanation; for example that Muhammad, not Elijah Muhammad, is the last true prophet. And he preached that we are all brothers under God. I realized that if I was going to build a whole life around this faith, it couldn’t be based on certain groups being angels and certain groups being devils—there are devils everywhere. It had to be based on something that exists in all times, in all climates.”

From 1976-77 Rashid served as a student imam in Albany, then became an assistant imam in Poughkeepsie. He joined the Abdul Muhsi Khalifa mosque when he moved to Brooklyn in 1989, and a year later, he was nominated for the position of imam. The congregation chose him over two other candidates in a secret-ballot vote.

When I ask what Muslim group Rashid and his congregation identify with, he is somewhat reluctant to categorize, but settles on Sunni, mostly to distinguish his practices from those of the Shiites (“the Ayatollah’s people”) and the Nation of Islam.

I say we’re Sunni in the sense that to us Sunni means Muslims who follow the Quran and the life example of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. We’re careful about calling ourselves by any particular name, because it’s going to mean something different to each person. Mostly we just call ourselves Muslims. Christianity seems to be more segmented. In Islam, you can say you’re Muslim because you follow the Quran, but in Christianity there are Baptists and Catholics, and they’ll refer to themselves by those denominations, rather than say they’re Christian. Catholics even have a different set of books, don’t they?

I confess I’m not sure and mumble something about the Apocrypha.

“Another set of books and another interpretation,” Rashid continues. “With Muslims, you’ve got the Quran, and that’s it.”

An imam is responsible for leading Friday prayers and serving as spiritual advisor to the community. But the imam’s authority, Rashid emphasizes, is limited: “Whatever I say, it’s the duty of the congregation to check it in the Quran.” About half of the Friday service is prayer (salat) and recitation from the Quran, followed by a discussion of community concerns. Salat is the second of Islam’s Five Pillars: shahadah, the statement of belief in Allah; salat (prayer, performed five times daily); zakat, charitable giving; Ramadan, the holy month of fasting; and hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, which every Muslim is expected to complete at least once.

I ask Rashid about the general mood among Khalifa’s membership since the attacks. He says that no one was injured, and that for the most part things have been business as usual, except for the sort of talk about U.S. policy one might expect. He says the membership does not have a clear political stance. “We just realize we have to stay close to prayer,” he says. The children in the school have had a lot of questions—chief among them, “Muslims did that?” It has been a challenge, Rashid says, to explain that if the perpetrators were Muslims, their actions were not in keeping with Islam.

I ask whether the membership has experienced any harassment, as other Muslims and people of Arab (and other) descent have in recent weeks. In particular I wonder how being black intersects with being Muslim. The Times reports that some non-Muslim black youths feel less targeted by police, but that some Muslim blacks have an increased sense of discrimination; in the words of one 19-year-old Chicagoan, “It’s sort of like being black twice.” African-American Muslims in New Jersey told the Newark Star-Ledger that much of the heat they’re getting comes from other blacks.

“That’s strange you say that,” Rashid says, “because when I make speaking appearances I do notice that most of the people who come to hear me are whites, and white Christians; they all seem interested in hearing what I have to say. But there never seem to be many blacks, and I don’t know why that is. But as far as harassment, we haven’t had much. There were some incidents on the 11th and 12th in the community here; some people were looked at strange, there were some comments. But we have a good relationship with the 79th precinct, and the police came by the day of and for a few days afterward to see if we wanted some officers stationed in front of the mosque and NWCI. For the most part, the full-blooded Americans, who are pretty much the entire congregation here, have had zero problems. I tell you though, if President Bush and Colin Powell hadn’t said certain things, it probably would have been a lot worse. They’ve done a good job of expressing that not all Muslims are terrorists. I do pray that these events don’t affect the spirit too much of the membership here.”

In addition to drug and alcohol counseling and foster-care prevention, NWCI and the mosque offer immigration and naturalization advice. On a bulletin board upstairs a flier from the City of New York Department of Youth and Community Development advertises free immigration application assistance, referrals to English classes, and ID photos. Rashid and his congregation frequently meet and befriend Muslim foreign nationals, and the latter have experienced the brunt of the community’s and the authorities’ suspicion.

“It’s not uncommon for us to have Muslims from other countries coming through, so we can see the difference between the terrorists and the Muslims who have nothing to do with that. We can look at the human side of the issue. There was one guy from Tanzania, Hajji Khamis. He’s extremely skilled at tajweed, the traditional recitation of the Quran. He went to school to learn it starting as a little boy. Some people come here and overstay their time. But he came to us and wanted to legitimize himself, and we wanted him to teach the children about tajweed, so we introduced him to some legal people. He was going through that process when the FBI picked him up a few days ago. I guess the FBI had to pick up someone.”

“But you know, once you get to know someone and you see how he acts and conducts his affairs; there’s no way this guy’s a terrorist. You know what I think? The terrorists know how to steal identities. They probably used his name. And now he’s locked up in New Jersey, and he’s been cleared, but they’ll probably deport him.”

Rashid speaks with an equanimity born of experience. “In ’93, the last time the World Trade Center got bombed, it was the same thing. The FBI came around looking for people, some of the immigrants we were working with were harassed, and we had to get some lawyers in here.”

I ask Rashid how he and his congregation feel about the U.S.’s military response.

“I’m an American, I live here, and I have to be able to take my two little children to Times Square without worrying about being blown up. So I agree that there has to be some sort of response. But even if Osama bin Laden is in fact responsible—and I do think that for the most part the information that’s coming from the government is accurate—even so we can’t just go bombing them and then setting up another government that’ll be toppled in four or five years. I pray that the President and the Secretary of State can bring these folks together and stabilize the region.”

Does he think it may be too late for a diplomatic solution, now that we have begun bombing?

“It can’t ever be too late. We have a responsibility to address the grievances of the Muslim peoples of the world. And the burden is on us, the Muslim-Americans, and especially on African-American Muslims, to facilitate that, because we know about oppression. I’m old enough to remember being discriminated against, not having certain opportunities. In the past, if these attacks had occurred, the authorities probably would have been targeting certain groups more overtly—but I think things have changed in America, and I think there’s hope. So having come through that experience, we are in a unique position to work with both sides. In the past we [Muslim Americans] have allowed Muslim extremists and the small pockets of Muslim leaders who support terrorism to speak out against America, and at the same time we haven’t been talking to the government about the needs of the Muslim peoples around the world. If Muslims had a voice here, that would take away the appeal of people like bin Laden.

As a congregation, we are very concerned about the innocents in this situation. We pray for the people in Afghanistan who have nothing to do with terrorism, for the Chechens and for all the refugees, and the Muslims wherever they might be. We have special concern for the Palestinians, who have legitimate complaints, although they perhaps don’t always go about expressing them the right way.”

Are there any particular passages from the Quran or other texts that he’s been looking to for guidance for himself and his congregation?

“The Quran says that we can’t take a life unless we have sound reason, and then it must be through due process. If ever there’s an opportunity to save a life, you have to take it. It’s important for our government to take a closer look at where those opportunities might be. Muhammad teaches mercy; this is documented history. When Muhammad captured his opponents he would let them go; he was renowned for it.”

Given that mercy and due process are such integral parts of Islam, where do certain Muslim clerics, such as the Saudi Wahhabis, get scriptural justification for jihad, or holy war, against infidels? Rashid offers a different interpretation of jihad, explaining that, in Arabic, the root of the word jihad means “exertion.” So jihad in his view simply means striving hard to be a good person, and living according to the principles of the Quran. “How it became a political statement, how it came to have the definition of war, I don’t know. But this is what we have to do as Muslims; we have to try to correct these misconceptions.”

I remark that Rashid and his congregation seem to have set up an admirable balance between “church and state” (the mosque and the nonprofit), which is a particularly American value. I’ve read that in Islamic nations, by contrast, political leadership and religion are inextricable. I ask Rashid if it’s difficult to live in a culture in which religion does not have center stage, and one that is in conflict with values in so many ways.

“Islamic law obligates us to follow the rules of the country in which we live. There are certain clothes we don’t wear, types of music we don’t listen to, foods we don’t eat, but we don’t want to get into conflict with the law, so we can keep the mosque and prayer area separate. That’s why we set up this nonprofit in the first place, so we could work with all kinds of different groups doing the drug and alcohol counseling and our other programs without there being a conflict.

So, apart from compliance with dietary laws, for example, what would the U.S. be like if it were Muslim?

“In its financial structure, certainly, the way folks borrow and lend money, that would be very different. And if Muslims ruled, we wouldn’t have church and state divided. Now how would that affect the actual day-to-day functioning? In an Islamic state Muslims would be required to conform to our religious laws, but the non-Muslims would be able to do what they’re obligated to do according to their faith, too. Muslims recognize other faiths as legitimate, because we believe we’re all really talking about the same God. Now, I’m a Muslim in America, and America does the same thing. I’m a Muslim and the law has to acknowledge that and give me the freedom to practice my beliefs just as it does for everyone else.”

Rashid introduces me to Shaheed Nafeesha, the director of NWCI, who has approached him for approval of a decal that will advertise one of the youth outreach programs. She greets me warmly and launches a tour of the warren of mostly windowless, newly renovated rooms, including the security CEO’s office, piled high with file boxes. She proudly shows me a stack of maroon porcelain tiles, which will soon cover the Bedford façade. There’s a kitchenette, an empty office being prepared for a new incubation, and Nafeesah’s avowed favorite spot, the “living room,” which has a comfy looking leather sofa and a large TV still in its box against a wall—a place for clients, families and employees to “hang out,” says Nafeesah. In NCWI’s small waiting room we meet a woman just out of Americorps who has come to interview for a position as a social worker. The atmosphere is pleasant and calm as the mostly female staff starts their day.

As Rashid and I exchange goodbyes, I remark that even in the best of times, it must be hard to be Muslim here. But he disagrees.

“I’ve been over there to the homeland,” he says. “I’ve been on hajj to Mecca and Medina, and all the holy sites. You get a lot of blessings from going to pray in Mecca at the Kabah, where Abraham built the first place of worship for the one true God, but I could never live there. This is my home. Those of us who studied the teachings of Prophet Mohammad and seek to build a society according to the teachings of Prophet Mohammad and the Quran—you know, this here,” Rashid gestures to the window overlooking Bedford, “I think if you want to know what the perfect Islamic society would look like, I think this is pretty much it.”

NOTE ON THE TRANSLITERATION: Spelling of Islamic terms is consistent with that in Islam: A Short History, by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library Chronicles, 2000).


Emily Votruba

Emily Votruba is the copy chief at Cargo magazine.


The Brooklyn Rail

JAN-FEB 2002

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