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Belief, Practice & Theology. Muslims in New York City, Part IV

We are running several feature articles on Muslims in New York City. The recent controversies over the plan to build a Muslim community center near Ground Zero and to acquire and transform a Catholic site in Staten Island into a mosque shows how the life of New York City is best characterized as postsecular. Religion […]

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Imam El Haff Izak-El Mu'eed Pashah was the first Muslim chaplain for the NYPD, and his son and daughter served in the U.S. military.

We are running several feature articles on Muslims in New York City.

The recent controversies over the plan to build a Muslim community center near Ground Zero and to acquire and transform a Catholic site in Staten Island into a mosque shows how the life of New York City is best characterized as postsecular. Religion is playing an increasingly important role in people’s everyday lives, our politics, and how we symbolize who we are as a city.


Religion and Islam is important to Muslims, and almost two thirds do at least some of their five daily prayers (2007 Pew American Muslim Study).  And Muslims hope that America will become more religious.

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement?

The influence of religion and spiritual values in American life should increase

Agree*                             Disagree*
83%                                       11%

* Agree combines strongly and somewhat agree; disagree combines strongly and somewhat disagree. From 2000 Mosque Study Project.

However, the practices and theology of Muslims in New York City runs from practically secular to moderate to ultra-conservative. For example, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn Fatih Camii Mosque, which caters to Turkish Moslems, exhibits little hint of rigidly conservative or radical Islam. Typically, Muslims from other moderate Islamic traditions like those in Morocco also feel comfortable in this mosque. Yusuf, an immigrant from Morocco, told us that he likes the peaceful atmosphere of the Sunset Park mosque. “It’s not like some mosques,” he says. Some mosques are quite insular from the greater society while others are enthusiastic participants in their neighborhoods.


Muslims seem to religiously divide into three groups:

  • about 40-50% are very devout, attending the mosque at least once a week and say that they are involved with the activities of the mosque;
  • about 20% are nominal Muslims, attending mosque prayers only once or twice a month at most (24%) and only occasionally doing daily prayers (22%); and
  • 10% have little or no interest in Islam, never attending mosque for services (11%) and never doing daily prayers (10%).

(Compiled from Zogby’s 2001 American Muslim Poll and 2007 Pew American Muslim Study.)

In our interviews, imams at African American and Turkish mosques say that seven times more people claim to be associated with their mosques than ever show up. 34% of U.S. Muslims say that they seldom or never go to a mosque service (2007 Pew American Muslim Study). The son of one Turkish spiritual leader observed, “Most Turks aren’t very strong in their faith. But if you ask them, they would all say they are Muslims. But, Uh? Where are they?” At Masjid Malcolm Shabbazz leaders said that the allegiance of the more than 8000 who claim to be part of the mosque is more symbolic than real. On the day we visited the mosque there were about 600 people present.

Foreign-born Muslims tend to be less orientated to practicing their religion. 36% say that they seldom go to Friday mosque services. Iranian Muslims seldom attend weekly mosque services, and South Asian Muslims who are not from Pakistan are the next least likely attenders.

There is also a tremendous intellectual debate in how to be a Muslim in the U.S. If this includes making the mosque more like churches, should Muslims offer community services at the mosque and should Muslims do neighborhood development?

Indeed, more mosques are becoming like community centers. A pioneer in this regard is the African American mosque Malcolm Shabbazz Mosque at 118th Street and Malcolm X Blvd. in Harlem.

As worshipers file into Masjid Malcolm Shabbazz, the former Lenox Casino at 116th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, they pass mosque-sponsored stores, clinics, housing, and schools.  Imam El Haff Izak-El Mu'eed Pashah told an interviewer that his theology is "it is a mosque when it encompasses all of life. The whole earth is a mosque." Consequently, the Imam says, "We do neighborhood deeds.  Religion is always having an impact on New York City, and the city on us.”

Pashah was elected Imam in 1994 and became the first Muslim chaplain of the police department. Like most African-American imams in New York, Pashah's politics are focused on city problems and struggles. Masjid Malcolm Shabbazz follows the Sunni tradition, the majority tradition in the city.


Denominational diversity in New York City is reflected in the presence of Sunni, Shi'ite, Sufi, Ahmaddiyya, and Nation of Islam congregations, as well as a number of black sects. Practices within these denominational mosques also vary considerably from each other. Within each group there are theological “conservatives” and “liberals.” Most city Muslims are Sunni, but there are significant Shi'ite and Sufi centers. Traditionally, Sunni Muslims do not recognize the Sufi and Ahmaddiyya  as authentic Muslims, though they are more hopeful about the Nation of Islam.

Usually, Muslims are unwilling to directly attack another Muslim leader, following the Koranic injunction that “All Muslims are one.” However, Muslims will say that a certain teacher is “not very careful,” “he is not real knowledgeable,” or that perhaps the listener would like to hear another Muslim leader. These mild words can cover bitter differences. If the disagreement is extreme, some may even question whether a leader is truly Muslim.

The 2007 Pew Study gives us a theological profile of American Muslims. Nationally, half of the adult Muslims identify with the Sunni tradition. 16% identify with Shia Islam, and 5% with another Islamic tradition. 30% identify as Muslims without specifying any particular tradition.

American Muslims tend to be theologically conservative. 86% believe the Koran is the Word of God, and 50% say that the Koran should be read literally, word for word.

96% believe in “One God, Allah,” and 94% believe that Muhammad is the prophet of God.

91% believe in a future Day of Judgment, and 87% believe in the existence of angels.

Most American Muslim men and women support separating the sexes at mosques. 46% say that when praying at a mosque, women should pray separately from men. 23% say that women should pray in the mosque with the men as long as they are in a separate section.

Muslims can be deeply ambivalent toward American culture, finding immorality rampant. Yet, Muslims say that they find America an exciting place to develop their Islamic faith. They believe that they are taking advantage of America’s religious freedom to explore their Islamic identity and to argue for modern leadership of the Islamic world.

There is great controversy about whether Muslims want to apply Shariah (Muslim) law in the United States. In NYC many immigrant Muslim leaders say that they would prefer shariah law to the immorality that they see as rampant in American society. However, they also say that a good Muslim should adapt to the laws of the country in which they reside. The United States law is normative for them. Iman Feisal Abdul Rauf, who stands at the center of the Ground Zero controversy, is famous among Muslims for arguing that the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution represent the same principles as does Muslim shariah law and should be accepted by all Muslims.

Religious trends among young American Muslims

A disturbing note found in the Pew Study is that only 58% of U.S. Moslems have a very unfavorable view of al Qaeda. Though few (5%) say that they have a favorable view, 27% of American Muslims either said that they didn’t know what they think of the terrorist organization or declined to answer the question. African American Muslims tend to have a more jaundiced eye toward the United States and are much less likely to be unfavorable to al Qaeda.

Another religious development is that many Muslim youth are moving toward a much more conservative Islam than their parents practice and feel a much greater tension with modern life. This trend is not matched by an increase in sympathy with al Qaeda. American Muslim youth are much more dismissive of al Qaeda than their parents. However, there is a very small countering trend among some youth towards more favorable views of al Qaeda and suicide bombing.

Youth from a conflicted country like Palestine can be invested in that conflict. We observed one art exhibit by a young Palestinian art student in Williamsburg that featured multiple displays of suicide bombers, displays that looked like Muslim shrines. She claimed that one picture showed her brother preparing as a suicide bomber. However, the young woman seemed more aesthetically focused than inclined to any action.

[Mayor Bloomberg on "Mosque controversy": ]

  • I’ve recently started a blog, the information you provide on this site has helped me tremendously. Thank you for all of your time & work.

  • An interesting and thought-provoking anecdote.

    While we were censusing in Sheepshead Bay and Flatbush areas, we noticed mosques and synagogues right next to each other. I wondered if there was much interaction.

    Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of the NY Board of Rabbis has dialogued on his radio show with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the controversial "Ground Zero Mosque." Those conversations were perhaps useful but didn't convince many people on either side of the controversy.

    The suggestion of a story on Jewish-Muslim relations in NYC is a very good one. Thanks!

  • I'd like to see a story on Muslim-Jewish relations in the city, but especially in Brooklyn. Interesting afternoon today with two students: they walk in together, sit next to each other, look very very much alike, features, colors, height (differed only weight ::) chit chatting throughout a three hour class. I thought they were cousins. When taking attendance at the end of the class, it ended up that one is Jewish and the other Muslim. At that moment I dreaded the upcoming discussion/s on religion and politics, wondering if this new friendship will withstand the tensions of those discussions.

  • We appreciate your kind words and look forward with enthusiasm to working with you and others to document and tell the religious story of our city. There is much more to be said about Muslims in NYC. Would there be anything that you would to see us deal with?

  • Thanks for your great material on Islam.

  • Thanks! We are enthusiastically following your help to new immigrants. Best!

  • Great news about how many people are looking at the magazine. Will keep spreading the word.

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