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June 28, 2005 > The mosques behind the myth

The mosques behind the myth

Part III - Fast forward to the 20th century

by S. Reshma Yunus

Most Americans seemed to have discovered their fellow American Muslims after 9/11 when the media were papered with a melange of information and misinformation. Historically however, Muslims have been known to come to America with Columbus; there is evidence that they may in fact have sailed to Central and South America even prior to Columbus ( Even more fascinating, a recent book written by Gavin Menzies, 1421 The Year China Discovered the World, claims that a Chinese Admiral Zheng He circumnavigated the globe 70 years prior to Columbus's voyage to America! Admiral Zheng He, according to the PBS documentary about the book, was a Chinese Muslim.

Muslims also migrated to the United States from the Middle East and from Central Asia in the 19th century ( These early arrivals blended into their surroundings and did not create separate Muslim institutions. Many of the slaves forcibly imported from Africa during the colonization of the Americas were in fact people of Islamic faith and were not allowed to practice. African Americans rediscovered their own spiritual heritage that they had been deprived of exemplified by Alex Haley's Pulitzer prize winning book Roots.

The primary influx of immigrant Muslims to these shores was after World War II with the easing of immigration restrictions in 1965. Most came here seeking a better life, as did immigrants of other faiths, some for religious freedom. Most of the currently existing organizations and mosques were built during this time as the population grew and Muslims wanted to preserve their traditions both Islamic and specific cultural heritage.

Though there are no scientific counts of the number of Muslims, the Council on American Islamic Relations cites an estimates between 6 to 7 million Muslims in the U.S. ( Siraj Mufti in his article Islamic Community in North America: Prospects and Problems, sites an even larger number, of eight to 10 Muslims, includding Muslims in Canada. He states that there are over 2000 mosques and Islamic centers with new ones being built in urban areas in the U.S. and Canada.

Islam, despite the negative publicity, or perhaps because of it, seems to be the "fastest growing religion" ( Many people are so moved to curiosity that they take the time to learn about Islam, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and are surprised to learn that although there are fringe negative elements, Islam's core values consist of a strong call to justice and a shared brotherhood (and sisterhood) of humanity. The Qur'an states:

O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do (4.135, Yusuf Ali).

Several factors have contributed to the stereotyping of Muslims, such as wholesale branding of 1.2 billion people worldwide as terrorists, cited by Islamic organizations ( and others); one of the primary factors is the misinterpretation of the message of Islam by a few where certain versus of the Qur'an the direct word of God, according to Muslims, are taken out of context; another factor is cultural practices within Muslim communities that are in fact contrary to the teaching of Islam and the practice of the Prophet (pbuh). For example, many Muslim communities practice forced arranged marriages or prevent girls from obtaining an education - both of which are in direct violation the principles of Islam; yet factor is misrepresentation by "Orientalists" about Islam and Muslims in European literature (said Orientalism - see reference below for link to synopsis) as well as media stereotyping that we have previously discussed; and finally "normal" human xenophobia and general fear of the unknown is another perpetrator of bias toward any group considered "different."

Mosques - what are they?

A mosque, or rather a "masjid" which is the correct term, simply put, as described by Tahir Anwar, Imam of the South Bay Islamic Association, is basically a place to pray. A masjid can be any place as small and humble as a closet office to someone's home to a large elaborate structure complete with minarets and artistically designed curved domes. The main criteria for a masjid, according to Imam Tahir, is that is should be a clean place and that when one prays there, one can face Mecca. Imam Tahir distinguished a masjid from an Islamic Center which is more encompassing and in addition to the masjid part, may also include a community hall, full or part time religious school, library etc.

Islam does not have a formal clergy such as the Catholics do. However, an appointed Imam usually is given the responsibility of managing and overseeing the religious affairs. He (usually it is a male unless there is an all female masjid and there are no known ones in the Bay Area) will lead the prayers, provide religious opinions and often also leads the Islamic school which is held on weekends at most Islamic centers.

Up until the 1970s the only formal known masjid in the Bay Area was located in San Francisco. The Friday, (Jummah) prayers which are obligatory on men, were often conducted in homes or borrowed conference rooms close to work areas. As the community grew and gathered more resources, several masaajid (plural of masjid) were built all over the Bay Area. There are several visible masaajid in the Tri-City and outlaying areas.

The Islamic Society of East Bay (ISEB) located on Peace Terrace in Fremont, was the first large local masjid to be built from the ground up in the Bay Area. ISEB is an example of the peaceful coexistence of diversity as it shares outdoor infrastructure with a church, the St. Paul's Methodist Church also located on Peace Terrace. ISEB is now currently attempting to complete Phase II as it appears to have outgrown Phase I within 10 years of the completion of Phase I. Sayed Inamdar, the former president of ISEB, and the one who was vice president during the ground breaking of the masjid in the mid 1990s states that, " the community has now outgrown the existing structure, we need to have a larger place especially for women as the existing one is clearly inadequate." Mr. Inamdar, a resident of Tri-City area since the 1960s also primarily spearheaded the purchase and building of the first "Muslim cemetery" located in Livermore by himself and three other Muslim community members.

Since the building of ISEB, several other smaller masaajid have sprung up in places that are in more convenient locations as the community continues to grow. There is another smaller masjid in the Irvington area of Fremont and a small one in a shopping mall in northern Fremont. The local Afghan community has built a lovely masjid in the Hayward area on Mission Boulevard. This masjid has an open airy design and includes facilities for the washing and preparation of deceased members. Muslims usually perform the pre-burial procedures themselves rather than delegate them to morticians.

Zaytuna Institute is another Islamic organization located in Hayward, Calif. The institute was co- founded in 1996 by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, a charismatic individual who came from a spiritual Christian family and converted to Islam. The Institute now also led by Iman Zaid Shakir, a Muslim of African American origin with a strong emphasis on social justices. Websites of the various masaajid are located in the reference section below - all are welcoming of visitors.

Sources:;;;;; Haykal, Muhammad Hussayn, The Life of Muhammad, Delhi, India, Crescent Publishing Co.; Heath, Jennifer, The Scimitar and the Veil Extraordinary Women of Islam, Mahwah, New Jersey, Hidden Springs 2004; Hallaq, Wael, The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press 2005; Rogerson, Barnaby, The Prophet Muhammad, A Biography, Mahwah, New Jersey, Hidden Springs 2003; Armstrong, Karen, Islam New York, NY, Random House, 2000 Stowasser, Barbara Freyer, Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation, New York, NY, Oxford University Press 1994; - Author;;;;; Recommended Qur'an Translation; Yusuf Ali; Mohammad Assad.

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