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The immigrant era of NYC Muslims

First day of Ramadan. Retrospective on Mosque City NY, Part 5

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African mosque and market in Harlem. Photo: Melissa Kimiadi/A Journey through NYC religions

African mosque and market in Harlem. Photo: Melissa Kimiadi/A Journey through NYC religions

The 1960s were pivotal years for Islam in America. First, the 1965 immigration act made it much easier for immigrants from countries with large Muslim populations to come to America. Starting in the 1970s, New York City started to receive a rising tide of Muslim-background immigrants.  Second, the visible presence of African American Muslims communicated to some overseas co-religionists that New York City was a place where Muslims could practice their faith.

During their sometimes difficult passages to the United States, the Muslim emigrants also took hope from a story in the Quran that advises that it is better to go on a journey to another land if you are fleeing oppression (Sunna 4:97). Indeed, the idea of journeying is central to the establishment of Islam and remains a paradigmatic narrative for Muslims who have traveled to New York City.

The Muslim establishment in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries also started investing in building up mosques in the United States that would teach orthodox Sunni Islam. They were trying to prepare for they reception of another big development for NYC Muslims, a worldwide revival of conservative Islam that was creating debates over who was really a good Muslim. Led by Islamic teachers Maulana Mawdudi in Pakistan and Sayuid Qutb in Egypt, the movement would split the Muslim world, create upheavals in mosques and lead some to terrorism. At the same time the 1967 and 1972 Arab-Israel Wars created a whole host of tensions within the Muslim community.

By the late 1970s and 1980s the new immigration was beginning to ramify into a dramatic increase in new mosque founding even as the African American Muslim movement was losing some momentum.

Urdu-speaking house mosque in Jamaica, Queens. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Urdu-speaking house mosque in Jamaica. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

This rising number of Muslim immigrants spiked upward during periods of turmoil in the Muslim world. In 1967 the Arabic loss of the Arab-Israel war spurred Palestinians into New York City. Civil war in Pakistan, an East Pakistan breakaway to form Bangladesh in 1971, the wars in the Balkans and civil strife in Africa dotted the landscape of the city with mosques of exile and deliverance.

In 1973 Nigerians of the Yoruba people in New York City helped to form the Nigerian Muslim Association. In 1975 a group of Muslims from Pakistan and India with the help of Saudi Arabian money formed the Muslim Center of New York in Flushing at 137-64 Geranium Avenue and eventually built a new building in 1996.

The types of Islam in the city also started to proliferate. These varied by theology and ritual focus, interpretation of religious history, life-style, leaders, nationality and tribe.

South Asian mosque in Jamaica, Queens. :Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religins

South Asian mosque in Jamaica, Queens. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

In 1976 Pakistani followers of the very conservative, but non-militant Tablighi Jama’at founded al-Falah Mosque as their national headquarters in Corona, Queens at 92-12 National Street. In 1983 they created a new mosque and the school Madrash al-Falah Islamia. This group bustles with evangelists and missions going out across the globe. Although their success elsewhere in the United States has been limited, the local congregation has achieved some traction among Colombians and Puerto Ricans with door-to-door evangelism. Also, they converted an Anglo American who became an instructor in the school.

Changing styles in religion and clothing in Corona, Queens. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Changing styles in religion and clothing in Corona, Queens. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Down the street from the mosque, a halal butcher shop (similar to a Jewish kosher butcher shop), Islamic Zabiha Meat Market, formed in 1974 with the claim that it was “the first halal meat shop in America,” perhaps a bit of hyperbole but a sign of how Muslims in the city felt that they were on the cutting edge of forming a new Muslim life-style in America. Discussions started to arise about how to create an Islamic-influenced urban culture. For example, similar to the Orthodox Jewish discussions about kosher food markets, Muslims have different definitions about what is the proper way to deal with foods like butchering meat. Some say that a food is halal, but if it is not processed in the right way (zabiha), like being blessed by a Muslim before processing, then it is really best to avoid the food. Hence, Queens got its Islamic Zabiha Meat Market.

In 1979 the Kuwaiti and other Arab governments continued their religious investments in New York City by helping Muslims from Bangledesh to start Masjid al-Aman in Brooklyn. These Arabic states are mainly orientated toward Sunni Islam, but Shia Muslims, who emphasize a different historical tradition in Islam, also started to make their mark with mosque projects.

Koran students at the small Belal Masjid in Flatbush. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Koran students at the small Belal Masjid in Flatbush. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

In 1979, the Iranian revolution forced many Persians into exile, some to New York City, more to the suburbs. An Iranian founded a Sufi mosque in Manhattan. A group of Shiites loyal to Ayatollah Al-Kholei, a rival of Khomenei, started meeting together and eventually would build a large mosque, the Iman al-Khoei Foundation on the Van Wyck Expressway in Jamaica, Queens.

Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Al-Kholei mosque and school for Shia Muslims in Jamaica, Queens. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

In the 1980s a small proportion of the Indo-Guyanese from South America who were Muslim formed a mosque in the Little Guyana area of Richmond Hill, Queens. Since then, several other mosques have also been established in the area.

In 1983, another group of Pakistanis started the Islamic Center of Corona at 42-12 National Street, the same year that Feisal Abdul Rauf took over as imam at a Sufi mosque in Lower Manhattan.

Murid Muslim parade in Harlem. Photo: Melissa Kimiadi/A Journey through NYC religions

Murid Muslim parade in Harlem. Photo: Melissa Kimiadi/A Journey through NYC religions

In 1984-1985 a significant new migration of Murids (meaning “committed ones” or “ones who desire”) started to come from North Africa into New York City. The Murid Muslim groups are part secret societies like Masons and part Muslims who follow teachers of the Tariqa (the spiritual path) Sufism which includes local African cultural adaptations. A high proportion of the Senegalese in New York City are “Muridiyya,” according to scholarly sources. Each year, the Senegalese also put on the Ahmadu Bamba parade in honor of the founder (d 1927) of Murid Islam. Murids see Touba, Bamba’s burial site in Senegal, as another holy city like Mecca.

Parade for Ahmadu Bamba, spiritual leader of Murids from North Africa. Photo: Melissa Kimiadi/A Journey through NYC religions

Parade for Ahmadu Bamba, spiritual leader of Murids from North Africa. Photo: Melissa Kimiadi/A Journey through NYC religions

Another widely praised figure among African Muslims is Hassan Cisse, who passed away in 2008. He was a pivotal leader of the large Tijaniyyah Order of Sufis and has many admirers in the city.

Hassan Cisse, African Sufi leader with wide impact among NYC African Sufis. Photo illustration: A Journey through NYC religions

Hassan Cisse, African Sufi leader with wide impact among NYC African Sufis. Photo illustration: A Journey through NYC religions

Senegalese Murids practice a Muslim work ethic that has provided enough money to create mosques and sustain their operations. The ethic is based on the Quranic injunction that Muslims must do ‘amal saalih, or “wholesome work,” that is acceptable to Allah and will be duly rewarded. Their mystical founder Amadu Bamba taught “jihad al-‘akhan,” which means the “greater struggle” to change one’s life through industrious work. One of his leaders Ibra Fall spread this culture of work under the banner, “you reap what you sow.” Two things that the Murids were reaping were mosques and Islamic circles (informal socio-religious groupings).

In Senegalese shops you can pick up Murid singers like Cheikh Lo or the legendary singer Youssou N'Daun.

Islam was also spreading in stops and starts among Latinos. In 1988 Khadijah Rivera founded an evangelistic organization PIEDAD, short for Propagacion Islamica para la Educacion de Devocion Alla’el Diivino, or Islamic Progagation for Education on the Devotion Allah the Divine.

Starting in the 1990s, African American participation in mosques started declining. Consequently, the proportion of mosques that are maintained by African Americans started also to decrease. Hundreds of thousands of South Asians have settled in the city and are driving a big wave of mosque expansion.

In 1991 Pakistanis also started another influential mosque, the Muslim Center of New York at 137-64 Geranium Avenue. That same year the symbolically important and architecturally impressive Islamic Cultural Center at 96th Street in Manhattan. Downtown, a commercially symbolic mosque was erected. The Ar-Rahman Foundation, often called the taxi cab driver mosque, was established at Madison Avenue and 28th Street.

In 1991 Albanian Muslims started the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center which has grown large with an excellent school. Imam Tahir Kukaj was one of the local Muslim leaders who quickly responded to the Charlie Hebdo killings. He denounced "the cowardly terrorist attack" as an abuse of the Prophet Muhammad and offered a prayer for the families, "May God's grace shower upon the families of victims and may God help people of France to overcome this tragedy."

Portrait of Imam Tahir Kukaj in the Albanina Cultural Center, Staten Island. By Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Portrait of Imam Ferid Bedrolli in the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center, Staten Island. By Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

As the population of immigrants from Muslim lands has swelled in the city, many of the smaller varieties of Islam are establishing footholds. One unusual Islamic option came in 1994. That year, the adherents of Ahl-e-Sunnat wa-Jama’at (also called Barelwi) founded Idara Tableeghul-Islam at 32-13 57th Street in Woodside, Queens. These Muslims usually construct a shrine to their saints (called a Dargah) in their worship hall.

Edgy, somewhat off-brand versions of Islam continued to percolate as creative resources among some African American artists. In 1993 Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad helped to form the Wu-Tang Clan around themes from the Five Percenters.

Terrorism by Muslim extremists that peaked with the destruction of the World Trade Center shook all the Muslim community and caused a re-examination of preaching and attitudes toward America.  Some mosques started to more closely examine the pedigrees of the mostly foreign imams that preached in NYC mosques.

The violence coming out of the mosques was fed by a background of violent extremism of some African American Muslims, the cultural shock that American immorality gave to immigrant Muslims, and the boiling cauldron of the Middle East with its American involvement. Most mosques preached against American corruption, and some concluded with a call to arms.

In 1993 followers of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a fiery anti-American cleric who briefly preached at Masjid Al-Farooq and other mosques in Brooklyn, bombed the World Trade Center.  They failed in bringing down the towers, the sheikh went to jail, and some mosques closed. But the Muslim leaders as a whole did not seem to grasp the magnitude of their internal problems. It took 911 to wake them up.

The most alienated and angry believers sometimes ended up in a Crown Heights mosque operated by Muslims of the Americas, Inc. They also established an “Islamberg” in upstate New York to give paramilitary training. The mosque has been accused of fostering support of al-Qaeda. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was beheaded by another Muslim group while he was researching whether the airplane shoe bomber Richard Reed was connected to the mosque. Looking  back over the activities of this religious center does make for disturbing reading. The mosque has closed, and its leader, Mubarak Ali Gilani, has fled to Pakistan. He denies any connection with Muslim terrorist groups, and the FBI has not brought any charges against him.

The views that are imputed to the mosque leader are repudiated by other local Muslim leaders who have awakened to the perils of extremely violence even to their own children.

Most Muslim leaders changed their preaching with more appreciation of the United States, turned away extremists, denounced irresponsible imams and cooperated with the FBI. It is still a learning process.

Some mosques were founded with decidedly peaceful imams inclined to interfaith efforts. In 1995 one such founding was the Masjid Al-Hikmah by Indonesians in Astoria, Queens. In 1997 Juan Alvarado, Samantha Sanchez and Saraji Umm Zaid established the internet evangelism group Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO). Alvarado had been coverted out of the Nubian Islamic Hebrews by Alianza Islamica.

Imam Shamsi Ali is author with Rabbi Marc Schneier, Sons of Abarham. Imam of Masjid Al-Hikmah, Astoria, Queens.

Imam Shamsi Ali told A Journey that in dealing with Jews "the biggest jihad for the to fight against" the distrust "in the back of their heads...It's so negative...Unless you change that, you cannot move anywhere forward..." He is fighting that distrust by co-authoring with Rabbi Marc Schneier of Sons of Abraham. He also leads the Indonesian Masjid Al-Hikmah in Astoria, Queens.

In 1998 LGBT Muslims founded Al-Fatiha which held some national conferences but didn’t establish a mosque and eventually closed down after coming under a death sentence fatwah from a British Muslim organization. The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity was then started to hold private conferences under the cover of a secular LGBT organization.

The wave of African Muslims was accelerating mosque establishment in the late 1990s. In 1998 two mosques were established in Harlem by Muslims from French-speaking countries in Africa. On Eighth Avenue near 116th Street, Muslims from the Ivory Coast and Guinea started Masjid Aksa and Masjid Salaam (now defunct) about a block away on 116th Street. The Aksa mosque also attracted some worshipers from Senegal, Mali, Togo and Burkina Faso.

Murids also formed several score of “circles” (dahiras) that act as central socio-religious centers that don’t necessarily focus upon a physical mosque. At least one circle was formed for Bamba’s mother, Mame Diarra Bousso (1833-1866), as the most saintly Murid woman.

Shortly thereafter, in 2001, the massive wave of Senegalese Wolof-speaking Muslim immigrants came into Harlem and established their headquarters at Masjid Touba on Edgecombe Avenue, facing 137th Street. These rural cattle traders found street peddling congenial, though hard work.

The trips from Africa were not easy to arrange because of immigration restrictions. Notably, one boatload of Muslim immigrants had to be rescued at sea while on their way to New York City.

Rescue At Sea

As more Africans settled in the city and their mosques proliferate, a new tier of urban sacredness overlaid the city. Consequently, the Africans’ sense of alienation from the foreign, harsh metropolitan life was lessened. Sociologist Zain Abdullah describes this process as the formation of a Black Mecca, “a middle world where the vagaries of … life are symbolically reworked as their struggle to navigate the complexities of New York City.”

The Africans were not always greeted with joy by Muslim African Americans, who saw them as interlopers with an attitude that they were superior. The 1999 murder of Amadou Diallo, a Muslim from Guinea, helped to push the Africans and African American Muslims together.  However, the fact that the Africans turned to a Christian pastor, Reverend Al Sharpton, to articulate their concerns to the police indicated that the rift was not totally repaired.

The crisis over Diallo’s death lead some Guinea Muslims to push harder to institutionalize themselves in the city. In 2005 Fulani Muslims from Guineas established the Futa Islamic Center on Eighth Avenue near 138th Street.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks poised a particular shock to Afghans at the Masjid Hazrati Abu Bakr Siddique - Islamic Center in Flushing, Queens. The majority of the worshipers supported the Northern Alliance which became the first battle allies of the United States. However, a few were Taliban who had been tolerated out of a sense among immigrants to leave their battles in their home country. The Taliban disappeared, but occasionally, unknown to mosque leaders, a small number of sympathizers of the terrorists come to worship. Worshipers from other countries are also commonly at the prayer meetings.

Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

One worshiper at Masjid Hazrati Abu Bakr Siddique - Islamic Center in Flushing, Queens wrote on Facebook, "Now, I am extra grateful that I live in this city where we have Masjid/Churches in every street. This is one solid benefit we have to live in ‪‎NYC‬." Note Korean church in background to the left of Mosque. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

On Friday 18 March 2005, African American, Methodist preacher’s daughter turned Muslim Amina Wadud acted as imam for a congregation of about 60 women and 40 men seated together, without any gender separation, in a building owned by the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on Manhattan's Upper West Side . Another woman Suheyla El-Attar gave the call to prayer.

In 2008 the city offered a symbolic gesture to tell the world that Muslims are as New York as a Coney Island hot dog. The Empire State Building flashed the Muslim-colored lights during the night of the EID celebration at the end of Ramadan.


The Postsecular City with Muslim green shining for EID on the Empire State Building.

In 2010 an attempt to establish a mosque near Ground Zero to show Muslim integration with America became bogged down in controversy. However, the incident provided the occasion for Bloomberg to declare that not “one inch of New York City” is off limits to mosque building. So, though Muslim immigration to the city slowed and religious scholars and imams had a hard time entering the United States, Muslim participation in city affairs, immigration and mosque building was recovering and proceeding at a fast pace.

Presently, Muslims are expanding, refurbishing and building a number of mosques. They are also building schools and community centers. For example, Masjid al-Aman in Brooklyn is building a worship center for women and hope to have enough space for a new school.

More recently, a small number of Mexican immigrants in New York City have become Muslims through Muslim outreach efforts and the internet. An influx of Muslim West Africans to the Bronx also has increased Latinos' contact with Islam.

Hispanic Muslims in the city are divided over whether they need a Spanish-speaking mosque. Some feel that the ‘ummah, the Muslim body of believers, should not divide itself along racial or ethnic lines.

Cyber Islam is overlaying a social network that sometimes supersedes local mosques. New Yorkers are becoming Muslims without ever attending a mosque. Others attend mosques, but their religious reference group is found online. This is a wide-ranging phenomenon that goes far beyond those dark electronic alleyways of Islamic cyber terrorists.

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin of PC Magazine took the temperature of this phenomenon, observing that “an unusually high number of Muslims in New York City [were] using their mobile devices for Ramadan related activities” in 2014. He noted a proliferation of apps and online options for Ramadan usage.

If a local Muslim wants to plan out his prayer times, a local Muslim can use the app "Athan," which also updates the time based on one’s location. If a worshiper is uncertain in which direction to pray (toward Mecca), he or she can check it out on "Qibla Compass."

Ramadan Quran reading can be done with "iQuran," "Quran Reciter" for those who like to hear various oral styles of saying Quranic passages, or even Amazon’s e-book on Ramadan readings.

Since Ramadan is a time of reflection one one’s life in order to do better, there is an appropriate app named "Habit List" that helps one to sort out the good and bad habits.

Welcome at entrance of in Flushing, Queens. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

Welcome at entrance of Masjid Hazrati Abu Bakr Siddique - Islamic Center in Flushing, Queens. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

Because fasting from sunrise to sundown is a large feature of Ramadan, Muslims want to make the evening meal count. "My Halal Kitchen" provides some help with meal planning as does the "Big Oven" app. Indian and Pakistani Muslims might use the app "Sweet ‘N Spicy." Other New York Muslims prefer the app "Everyday Food" by Martha Stewart or the options on Instagram and Facebook.

Muslims believe that New York City and America will fare well in this cyber world. As one Senegalese Muslim told researcher Abdullah, America itself is “selling hope.” That is what American represents to Muslim immigrants. The Quran states the religious interpretation for man in its encouraging words, “those who suffer migration and exile and struggle in the path of God – they have hope of the mercy of God…” (Sunna 2:218) Earlier this year, succor came in the form of the New York City Public Schools officially recognizing Muslim holidays. Got to expand the mosques!



Next: Kitchens of Faith for Ramadan & July 4th! Mosque City NY, Part 6


See the previous Mosque City NY features:


The era of African American Islam. Retrospective on Mosque City NY, Part 4


The period of New York Muslim experimentation, 1893-1939. Restrospective on Mosque City NY, Part 3 


Mosque building is pretty recent but Muslims have been here since the beginning of the city. Retrsopective on Mosque City NY, Part 2 


Mosque City New York,Part 1. All-time record number of mosques in New York City


  • Except Europe has straightned out while these Muslim countries are full of tribal warfare, honor killings and lack of respect for human life.

  • Thanks!

  • For now. Just like Europe of old.

  • Many of these Islamic countries have values incompatable with America.

  • Great article about Muslims in New York City! I appreciate the historical background about how these Islamic groups started here.

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