The Tale of an Urban Mosque

The Maskid Makkah has served its community since 1962

By Samara Ahmed

Drive down West Susquehanna Avenue in North Philadelphia and you will see stores and restaurants with counters protected by thick walls of bulletproof plexiglass, neglected lots, and lines of rowhouses with painted white columns. Go a little further, and you will come across, a tall, mint-green building that sticks out in this neighborhood.

This is the home of Masjid Makkah, an anchor for North Philadelphia Muslims since 1962.

The Masjid is one of the oldest and biggest orthodox mosques in the area, offering 5 daily prayers, and weekend classes on Islamic studies. It has the capacity to hold over 700 people and serves as a religious and social center in the region, drawing around 350 people each week during Salaat-ul-Jumma, or Friday prayer.

Sister Ayesha Begum, an unassuming woman with light skin and a no-nonsense attitude, established the Hyderabad House Inc., a non-profit organization that, in its mission statement, describes itself like “other Muslim organizations involved in community work, with greater emphasis in education and establishing prayers among the communities.”

The Masjid Makkah

The Hyderabad House Inc. operates the masjid, and also publishes a newspaper called the Hyderabad Times, as well as an International Almanac. Sister Begum is best known for publishing a facsimile reproduction of the ‘Uthmna Dzu-Nurain,’ from the manuscript of Caliph Sayidina, containing Surah-Yasin, one of the most frequently read chapters of the Qur’an.

Today, she is sitting in the lobby, reading from a book when an African-American man in a dirty yellow windbreaker and light blue jeans enters the masjid, slamming the door behind him.

“I don’t know where the Imam is, this the first time I’ve been here, but the brother gave me $2.00 and fifty cent. I’m trying to get back over Jersey,” he announces, to no one in particular.

Sister Begum stands up. “Okay, I’ll give you a few dollars” she tells him, whispering something to her friend in Urdu.

“I need like 4 to 5 dollars altogether,” he tells her “the brothers out there told me to come over here.”

”They could have given you something” she says disapprovingly.

“They gave me $2.00,” he says. “I need like $4.50 to get the bus back over to Jersey.”

She pulls out a key from her pocket, and goes into an office. When she comes out, she has few dollars with her, and hands them over. The man takes the money, mumbles his thanks and leaves. Begum then sits back down again.

“There’s so much going on with Muslims after 9/11. We don’t want to put my masjid in jeopardy,” she says “you have to be careful.”

Aarif Subzpush, 21, is a chemistry major at Temple University from Allentown who lives in a room above the masjid. He’s noticed that the majority of people who attend the masjid are middle aged, African-Americans. A lot of them are former Nation of Islam members who have now become orthodox Muslims.

“There’s a big African-American Muslim community in Philadelphia. There are just so many Muslims that becoming Muslim is kind of the cool thing to do… having a beard and walking down the street is in fashion.”

Religious institutions have always played a huge role in African-American life. Islam in particular seems to provide not only the material but the training ground for young people who face racial discrimination, giving them a support system and keeping them out of trouble, a task that is not easy in neighborhoods that are plagued with poverty and violence.

In Philadelphia, mosques such as the Makkah Masjid, as well as churches and other houses of worship, serve as important safety nets in communities abandoned by the state. These centers work to bring people together and help those who need it the most.

Compared with other racial and ethnic groups, African-Americans are among the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation, with 87% describing themselves as belonging to one religious group or another, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Among the public overall, 83% are affiliated with a religion.

One of the other reasons for this is that religious theologies protect and insulate against racism and discrimination.

“Islam is like a big pot. Altogether we make the Muslim community, and if you are around really good Muslims who observe duties and rights, then all of the issues of race vanish,” said Dr. Eyas Amr, the Imam at Makkah Masjid.

“When we all stand for salah, you put your heard on the foot of the person who’s in front of you regardless of who he is. The fact that we do this daily makes it not an abstract practice limited to the masjid. You really feel part of a bigger community, a part of it with its problems and struggles,” said Dr. Amr.

Subzpush, whose parents are from India, lived off campus his freshman and sophomore year. He moved into the mosque this year due to its location, which is only a few blocks away from Temple. “Of course it’s also awesome to live in the masjid and be in that community. It’s actually beautiful how you have people from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds come together. We’re just brothers in Islam,” he adds, “Who cares if you’re from a different background? It just adds more spice to the pie.”

Dr. Amr, who heads the Masjid, is a Palestinian. When he came to America in 2000 to work on his Ph.D. in physics at Temple University, the masjid was the first place he stepped foot in. Due to his religious training, he was able to step in and lead the Friday prayers whenever someone was absent.

Once a self-described “back-up Imam,” he now leads Friday prayers at least once a month, if not more, and reads the taraweeh prayers, in which long portions of the Qur’an are recited, during Ramadan every year.

Dr. Amr, like everyone at the masjid, volunteers his services. The masjid has a modest budget and survives on minimal donations, in area that is mostly poor.

“For me it doesn’t really cost anything to do this. I live next door so it’s convenient, as is I have to come to the masjid to pray,” he said.

. In addition to leading the salah, he also helps mediate and provide support for families trying to raise children, a challenge that has been especially difficult for Muslims in America who are struggling to keep their children away from drugs, alcohol, and other temptations.

“Particularly youth of this neighborhood, I have known Muslims and non-Muslims have already been in jail. You try to help the mothers, even the grandmothers, even the non-Muslims too, help them to deal with what kids are putting them through, said Dr. Amr.

“It’s torture for the parents. You’ve raised and worked hard all these years and all of a sudden either he’s locked up or dead,” he added.

Dr. Amr often mediates between parents and their children, and speaks to them one on one. But in areas where gangs are glorified and violence is the norm, his message is not always well-received.

“Sometimes you feel it’s a brush-off response. They’re nice enough not to completely ask ‘Who are you to talk to me?’ but at least they listen to me. But I don’t know what they do behind closed doors.”

However, Dr. Amr continues to reach out with examples. The masjid also holds talks for its younger members whenever an arrest or death occurs. “We try to bring it up from the point of what do you learn from this. You don’t want to be in the same situation.”

One member, whose son had been sneaking out, took his son to the police station and asked the officers to give him a tour.

Although these measures might seem harsh, they’re often effective in driving the point home.

“It’s difficult,” said Dr. Amr. “You cannot be all that tough and you cannot be all that lenient. You have to balance the way you deal with things and you have to respect the new identity, the new individualism that’s coming into your house, whether it’s a man or a woman”

He emphasizes engaging with children when they’re still young. “If the head of the household isn’t really paying attention to what their kids are doing then, the next thing they discover is why did this happen? Because they haven’t paid attention. Children are like sponges. Take advantage of that time, you can fill them with good things.”