Places that Matter

Masjid At-Taqwa

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photo by Molly Garfinkel, July 2014
photo by Molly Garfinkel, July 2014
Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Storefront mosque with a large and diverse congregation
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Place Matters Profile

Adapted from Hidden New York

Over twenty-five years ago, former members of the Nation of Islam founded Masjid At-Taqwa in what used to be a corner bar where illegal drugs were sold. Today the Masjid -- whose name roughly translates as “mosque of prostration for God-Consciousness and piety" -- attracts over 1000 worshippers for Friday afternoon prayers and anchors the economic and social revival of the surrounding community.

Five times daily on the streets of Bedford Stuyvesant calls to prayer reverberate from a loudspeaker mounted to the roof of the mosque. “God is great, God is great. Come to prayer, come to success. There is no God but God and Mohammed is the messenger.” The muazzin's live chanting in Arabic begins before dawn. Some neighbors set their clocks by the calls. Others walk to the mosque or say their prayers where they can. The calls are so beautiful, says Sister Subhanah Wahhaj, even those who are not Muslim ask to learn about the faith. 
           
The Imam and congregation welcome visitors to the mosque. Fridays after one o'clock in the afternoon will be crowded; other days and times, less so. Dress as you would for a visit to any house of worship.
 
A Place of Refuge and Comfort
           
Masjid At-Taqwa is a large corner storefront formerly covered in varnished natural wood and forest green panels. In 2007, the exterior was renovated and is now addresses the street with warm hues of red-veined marbled slabs donated by a businessman from another local mosque. The men enter the mosque from Fulton Street. Women and young children enter their separate prayer section, the masula, from Bedford Avenue. Prior to prayer, members use the mosque's wudu for washing hands and feet. African-American, Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Malian, Moroccan, Nigerian, Pakistani, Senegalese, and Sudanese Muslims all worship here; the diverse congregation drawn from the surrounding neighborhood. Most prayers are chanted in Arabic, though supplements are sometimes read in English. Even on crowded days most worshippers can squeeze in, but when the space overflows, as on holy days, they spill out onto Fulton Street and spread their prayer rugs on the sidewalk.
           
Imam Siraj Wahhaj is not only the congregation's spiritual leader he also runs the masjid, or mosque. He and the assistant Imam lead daily prayers and the weekly Friday sermon, and they often conduct full days of teaching and counseling: Arabic, Islamic studies, marital counseling, pre-marital counseling, leadership training, and more. Sometimes Imam Wahhaj is called upon to testify for female congregation members whose employers object to their traditional dress -- the hijab being the full-body covering, the kimar just the headscarf. The Imam notes that his name, Siraj Wahhaj, comes from the Koran, meaning 'we sent them a bright light.' "Not that I'm that bright a light, but I could be a little, little, little light," he adds with a smile. Imam Siraj always imagined that he would become a teacher. But as a young man attending New York University, he expected to teach mathematics, not religion. Math and painting portraits were the two passions that in his youth consumed him for hours, but Islamic law views portraiture as vying with the creator, thus the Imam no longer paints. What energy he once devoted to charcoal and watercolor, he now devotes to his large and growing community.
 
From Shoot-Outs to an Islamic Marketplace
           
In 1981, the Imam's family and a small group of others left the Nation of Islam -- the "Black Muslim" organization -- on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan to form their own mosque. They had no building so they bought an abandoned one from the City at auction. "This area then," he remembers out loud, "was really, really rough. Really rough. We had shoot-outs every day." Drug trafficking plagued the neighborhood, and though the Imam and mosque leaders attended community meetings, nothing seemed to change. So the masjid's male members set about to clean things up. Brother Ali Abdul Karim recalls that one day a burst of gunfire ricocheted through a window of their restaurant. "That was the last straw."
           
Imam Siraj picks up the story. "January 21st, 1987. We had a big rally, monster rally, thousands of people, and we talked with the police beforehand about closing down the crack houses. There were 15 crack houses on this block alone. In the past when they closed down a crack house it would open again after only a day. But this time when the police made their raids, we sent in our men after them. We mounted patrols in front of those crack houses for forty days and nights. I'm talking twenty-four hours a day. When customers came by we told them, 'No more, it's closed.' If a drug dealer came by we escorted him out of the community. We had brothers marching around the block on patrols. We had brothers driving around. And occasionally the police would come by. Between all of these things, the crack houses stayed shut."
           
The congregation's discipline, bravery, and inspired reference to the forty days and nights of Noah's Ark couldn't help but attract attention. What followed were awards from politicians, appearances on the Geraldo show, invitations to speak, delegations of visiting Muslims from abroad, and interviews with media from all over the world. But the congregation's real effort has gone into setting down roots. Releasing themselves from the grip of drugs and violence freed the members to raise their families in safety and build their community anew. Today, merchants and vendors do business in the masjid-owned stores on either side of the building, as well as on outdoor tables found year-round on the sidewalks. Customers can find prayer rugs, kufis (Muslim skull caps), ankle-length attire and coats for males and females, Islamic books, tapes, oils, and more. The masjid itself owns five stores in the neighborhood, and congregation members own about another thirty, including halal restaurants and a halal bakery. (Halal foods are prepared in a special process not unlike koshering.)
           
The revived street life has been healthy for residents but also for important visitors like "gypsy" cab drivers. During the years of drugs and crime, cab drivers suffered robbery after robbery. After masjid members kicked out the dealers, they gave the cab drivers stickers for their car windows identifying them as friends of the mosque. The robberies almost ground to a halt. Since gypsy cabs provide service to low-income neighborhoods that yellow cabs often do not, drivers and customers both won. 
           
Creating a Sense of Place
           
As the masjid prospers, the sights, sounds, and fragrances of Islamic devotion are coming to define the landscape. The Imam and congregation hope for the day when the mosque's growing membership will have comfortable spaces to pray and to study, when a traditional Islamic dome will rise above Fulton Street, and the muazzin with the loveliest voices will call to ancient prayer the faithful of Brooklyn.