The first recorded mosque in New York City was founded in 1893 by a White American convert, journalist and diplomat Alexander Russell Webb. The mosque was the name given to a small prayer room next to an Islamic lecture hall in Webb’s publishing house and bookstore at 1122 Broadway in Manhattan. His location was in service of the goal to reach the educated public, not the poorer immigrants in Little Syria and elsewhere. The publishing company and its mosque shifted to other buildings before closing down operations in New York City in 1894.
Webb had hoped to build a large stand-alone mosque but abandoned the idea because of finances and the lack of success of the public meetings that got disrupted by debates. So, he shifted toward founding private Islamic discussion salons in New York and seven other cities. The one in New York City was called “Mecca Study Circle No. 1.” Webb also published the periodical Moslem World and the pioneering book Islam in America.
Webb modeled his Islamic center after one in Liverpool, England, which also founded a New York City branch in 1895 called the American Moslem Institute, which may have had a prayer room as a “mosque.”
As I write these words on the third floor of a building on Union Square, Manhattan, I am also reminded of John A. Lant, a white convert to Islam, who leaned out of his third floor window on Union Square uttering the Islamic call to prayer. The New York Times noted it as the “the melodious call of the Muzzerin.” He and Emin Nabakoff had grown dissatisfied with Webb and his views of Islam, so they started their own “1st Society for the Study of Islam in America.” So far, no record has turned up that they also started a mosque. Still, Muslims were finally picking up the tempo of institution building.
In 1904 Muslim missionary Satti Majid arrived from Sudan and became involved in starting up several Muslim organizations.
Then, in 1907 Tartars (or Tatar) from Russia, who had settled mostly in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and other Muslims set up the American Mohammedan Society. Eventually, they would found a mosque in Williamsburg.
Diplomats from foreign countries sometimes held worship services in their home or offices. The New York daily newspaper The Sun described worship services held in the the Little Syria neighborhood at the apartment of the consulate general of the Ottoman Empire. Beginning in 1910, Imam Mehmed Ali Efendi, an attache to the Ottoman Embassy in Washington, D.C., used the apartment to promote a religious revival among the city's Muslims. The Sun noted that the building at 17 Rector Street, called The Oriental, did not have a marker that there was a mosque inside. The most visible marker was the barber pole and an advertisement for the sale of linens "MUST SELL ALL LINENS REGARDLESS OF COST" and a display of women's undergarments marked for "CLEARANCE SALE." The newspaper described the services for the up to 75-100 male worshipers on the third floor, "In the Rector Street mesjed, the same ceremonies are prescribed for entrance as a rule at mosques...You have to remove your shoes and wash your arms, face and feet." During Muslim holidays, the crowd swelled to overflow into the imam's private rooms. In a new book A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume I, Patrick D. Bowen wrote that the mosque was "one of the earliest immigrant mosques in the United States.
African American experiments with Islam
As African Americans moved the center of their activities from the midtown Tenderloin area into Harlem in the early 20th Century, the density of their population and upward mobility that allowed an effervescence of spiritual creativity to crest into new Christian and other religious initiatives incorporated Islamic features. This sizzling religious aliveness was also taking place in other Northern cities. The drums, the calls, the shouts, and spiritual melodies of faiths were pouring out from African American religious innovators. At the same time a slow trickle of immigrants was creating mosques that laid the groundwork for future developments.
There may have been a mosque called the “Canaanite Temple” founded in the city by Timothy Drew (Noble Drew Ali) who came from a similarly named mosque in Newark, New Jersey. However, Drew is mainly known for his founding the Moorish Science Temple of America in Newark, which he moved to Chicago.
World War I stranded foreign Muslim seamen in New York City for the duration of the war, which started in 1914. Some settled here permanently. After the war, a group of Yemenite sailors welcomed the Sudanese Muslim missionary Majid as their spiritual leader in 1921. In the coming years Majid would increasingly focus his outreach on African Americans.
The war created more contact between the United States and Muslim lands. So, more Muslim missionaries arrived in the city during the postwar period.
One group of Muslims, the Ahmadiyya sect who had already had contact with New York City through their convert Webb (though there is some dispute about their role in Webb’s conversion), also sent a missionary named Mufti Muhammad Sidiq to the city in 1920 to further their mission work.
Sidiq began a society for the preservation of American Islam at 1897 Madison Avenue and stayed in the city for three years. He emphasized that Islam had successfully overcome the racial barriers that Christian teaching had unsuccessfully inveighed against. This was a time of race riots and discrimination so his message fell upon receptive ears among African Americans and South Asians. But the first official Ahmadi mosque ended up being founded in Chicago.
For some years Muslims in New York City gathered for the celebration of the end of Ramadan, the “Eed-el-Kurban” at the Royal Palace Hotel on 18 Manhattan Avenue in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. The Herald Tribune notes that the gathering attracted nearly 1000 celebrants.
At this time events in the history of Muslim mosques in New York City of the postwar period may ring a resonance with your knowledge of current events. In 2014 we received the news of the fire-bombing of Crimean Tartar mosques in Russian. This is strikingly reminiscent to the reason New York City got its first first building dedicated solely to a mosque. During the revolutions and wars that wracked Russia between 1900 and 1917, Tartars in Lithuania, Poland and Russia fled to New York, many settling in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Some of them also evidently attended meetings at the Mohammedan Unity Society in Harlem at 67 W. 125th Street and eventually founded a mosque.
In the 1920s Druze Muslims published a newspaper al-Bayan (The Dispatch) out of an office at 391 Fulton Street in Brooklyn. They also set up a Young Muslim Association. Their prayer services were either held in the paper’s office, private homes or rented facilities. (Druze Muslims sometimes call themselves the adherents of the “Tawhid Faith” to emphasize their disputed Islamic roots.)
In 1923 the newspaper Afro-American proclaimed that “N.Y. to Have Mohammedan Mosque,” based on a “Mohammedan Masonary” that stressed mystical Egyptian connections and “the absolute equality of races and genuine brotherhood.” Abdul Hamid Suleiman, a resident at 143 W. 130th Street in Harlem, claimed to have established the “Mecca Medina Temple of Ancient Free and Operative Masons from 1 to 96 degrees.” This temple may have actually existed since 1910. At least it did in Suleiman’s mind. Suleiman’s movement likely influenced the founding of the Moorish Science Temple of America established by Noble Drew Ali.
Suleiman and Noble Drew Ali also drew upon the Shriner social club’s similar interest in the “Mysterious East.” The Shriners finished a massive The Mecca Temple on 130 W 55th Street in December 29, 1924. Today, it operates as the City Center. However, regardless of the name, this wasn’t really a mosque but a mythological romance. Some African Americans like Ali, who were associated with the Shriners, wanted to take the next step by actually founding a mosque dedicated to Islam.
In 1925 Ali established his temple in Chicago, and around 1928 a temple in Harlem. It mixed ideas from Suleiman, the Shriners and Marcus Garvey’s Black nationalist movement. Ali promoted what he called Moorish nationalism which was an Afro-centric, back-to-Africa Islam based on his own version of the Quran.
There were other Muslim-like establishments at the time that appealed to the common desire for a noble African past and remarkable knowledge available through esoteric channels. In the 1920s there were at least nine African Americans advertising themselves as “Mohammedan Scientists” available for Islamic-themed spiritual advice.
Finally, in 1931 New York City got its first building fully dedicated to being an Islamic mosque. Members from the Mohammedan Unity Society and other Brooklyn Tartars bought a building at 108 Powers Street and turned it into a mosque of the American Mohammedan Society (the name was changed in the 1960s to the Moslem Mosque). The building was originally a church that was converted into a Democratic clubhouse and a public hall on the second floor. Religion, politics and entertainment have always swirled around the city’s boiling pot to create brand new cultural stews every couple of decades.
The Muslims kept the steeple, adding a small Islamic crest on top, and turned the hall into an octagonal prayer space. New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell reported that the people in the neighborhood called them “The Turks,” the same title given three hundred years ago to Anthony Jansen van Salce.
In 1936 a Herald Tribune article itemized the different nationalities of the worshipers, noting that the Tartars were the majority. The reporter noted the services attracted between 100-200 Arabs, Tartars, Syrians, Egyptians, Turks, Afghans, East Indians, Albanians, Malayans and converted native Americans. At the services dressed in a dark green robe with a green fez trimmed in white, Hussain Rafikoff served as imam. He was a Tartar from the village of Iwje, near Vilna of today’s Lithuania.
In 1933 Kurdish immigrants founded the Turk Hars Birligi (Turkish Cultural Alliances) in New York City. Perhaps, the organization held prayer services, but from the evidence of event photos that we have seen, it appears that the events were mostly celebrations of ethnic culture.
In 1939 a significant Orthodox Sunni Muslim mosque was established in Brooklyn Heights by a Carribean Black named Daoud Ahmed Faisal. He obtained a brownstone building at 143 State Street for his Islamic Mission of America for the Propagation of Islam and the defense of the Faith and the Faithful. For decades to come the “State Street Mosque,” as it was called, was the main Sunni Muslim center in the city.
Next: Retrospective on Mosque City NY, part 4. The period of African American Islam
Mosque building is pretty recent but Muslims have been here since the beginning of the city. Retrsopective on Mosque City NY, part 2 .