Home featured Malcolm X’s Former Mosque Promotes Interfaith Ties

Malcolm X’s Former Mosque Promotes Interfaith Ties

by Welcome to Harlem

Institution Once Known for Black Separatism Also Focuses on Economic Development in Harlem

Masjid Malcolm Shabazz has been a center of African-American Muslim life in Harlem since Malcolm X began preaching there in 1956.

But gone are the mosque’s politics of Black Nationalism, its rule that white people aren’t allowed inside and its legions of followers in suits and bow ties.

Today, the mosque—its green dome overlooks West 116th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard—is an c pillar open to different races and religions.

When the facade of a nearby Christian church collapsed, for example, its congregation held weekly services at the mosque. A Jewish group without a synagogue now gathers there, too.

“It is a motivating factor for us to establish a strong community life and to have a dignified community—that good people would want to be a part of, whether they are Muslims or not,” said Imam Izak–EL M. Pasha, the mosque’s leader.

In July, the mosque and the Jewish group, the Harlem Minyan, held a joint service as both observed fasting rituals.

“They were really warm and welcoming,” said Mia Simring, who is part of the Harlem Minyan. “It was important to me that we take the opportunity to partner with such an established organization in the community.”

The mosque’s journey from Black Nationalist epicenter to interfaith hub has stretched across decades and generations.

The ministry of Malcolm X lasted for eight years at Temple No. 7, as it was called then. He served as spokesman for the Nation of Islam, a group known for its adherence to self-determination and the idea of a separate black society.

“Sometimes when you get beat up enough, you don’t want to be around the people that are beating you up anymore,” said Edward Curtis, who studies African-American Muslims at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, explaining the separatist mind-set.

Mr. Pasha said “when another language was introduced [in the form of Islam] to Malcolm X and many others, they were ready for it. They wanted decency.”

In the mid 1960s, Malcolm X began to question whether Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam’s leader, was a prophet and believed it was time to work with white America, Mr. Curtis said. In 1964, he split from the Nation of Islam, and Louis Farrakhan took his place at Temple No. 7. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965.

In 1975, when Mr. Muhammad died, the Nation of Islam’s leadership fell to his son, W.D. Mohammed, whose name was spelled differently.

Mr. Farrakhan split from the group, taking some believers and eventually the name, Nation of Islam.

W.D. Mohammed maintained the majority of his father’s followers, according to religious historians. At his induction, he walked on stage carrying an American flag to mark his new era of inclusion, Mr. Pasha said.

“It was a very dangerous thing for him to do,” he said. “He was saying, ‘Embrace America. You’re here. You’ve been here. And if you’re trying to get your share of it, embrace her.’ ”

Whites were allowed into the mosque for the first time, as W.D. Mohammed sought to create a more inclusive Islamic movement.

Today, roughly 200 people worship in the mosque on any given Friday. African-American Muslims number about 500,000 in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center, though religious scholars say the number may be underreported.

When Mr. Pasha assumed the leadership of Masjid Malcolm Shabazz in 1993, the mosque was $5 million in debt, he said, and it had weakened as a stabilizing force in Harlem.

Today, it owns an outdoor market with more than 50 vendors—most of them Muslim immigrants from West Africa—as well as several apartment buildings in the area.

“Even when you look back at that time of Malcolm, this is the healthiest and most influential we’ve ever been in the community,” said Tariq Shahid, who has attended the mosque since the 1970s.

When the facade caved in at Baptist Temple Church, the mosque didn’t just provide the congregation a new place to worship. Mr. Pasha had a whole area of the mosque renovated to accommodate the Christians and didn’t charge them.

“I thank God for Imam Pasha, because he saved us three years of rent,” said the Rev. Shepherd Lee, Baptist Temple’s pastor.

Once a center of controversy, Masjid Malcolm Shabazz is now a stop on some walking tours of Harlem. Among other themes, the tours celebrate the neighborhood’s role in the civil-rights movement.

Beyond its place in history, the mosque has built economic and moral authority in Harlem, said Neal Shoemaker who operates Harlem Heritage Tours out of a building near the mosque.

“If somebody’s going to do something wrong, they’re going to do it in a different part of Harlem,” Mr. Shoemaker said.

“They are really trying to create a better community that benefits the greater good, whether you are black or white or young or old.”

Aug. 10, 2014 10:18 p.m. ET

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