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Keeping the faithful

April 9, 2007, Boston Globe, Keeping the faithful, By Omar Sacirbey.

After 50 years, this local mosque thrives but still faces challenges

Boston Globe website

Rafiq Akbar of Dorchester is one of the few people who can say they went fishing with Malcolm X. But it wasn't fishing in the usual sense.

"Fishing means going out and informing the African-American of his heritage and what he wasn't taught while enslaved here in America," Akbar, 80, explained one recent Friday morning inside the Masjid Al Quran mosque, where the fragrance of sandalwood filled the air. Akbar and a small group of Black Muslims with the Nation of Islam bought the brick building at 35 Intervale St. 50 years ago, and since then he has been a part of its sometimes turbulent but transformative history.

"We would inform the nonbeliever that he was Muslim by birth," continued Akbar, formerly Alfred X Sutton, "and that we were in slave masters' names and not in our original names because we were all separated during slavery, the child from the parent, and the slave master did not have any interest in teaching the slave. We'd tell history like it happened."

This year Akbar is telling history again, as he and subsequent generations of worshipers celebrate Masjid Al Quran's golden jubilee. Some members are collecting old newspaper clippings and videos recalling important mosque milestones for an archive, while others are planning interfaith meetings, lectures, and other public events. The highlight is an expected visit by Imam Warith Deen Mohammed , son of longtime Nation leader Elijah Muhammad , who became leader after his father's death in 1975 and brought the movement into mainstream Islam, jettisoning its black supremacist ideas and theology.

"It's very historical," said Ayesha K. Mustafaa , editor of the Muslim Journal in Chicago, the weekly newspaper published by W. D. Mohammed's ministry. "There are only a few locations that still stand today that made the transition from the Nation of Islam days into Islam under Imam W. D. Mohammed."

Originally named Muhammad's Mosque No. 11, the mosque today includes Africans, Arabs, South Asians, and others, attesting to its evolution from black nationalist stronghold to traditional Sunni mosque. Masjid Al Quran, however, faces new challenges, from finding money for repairs to keeping younger generations interested in faith.

"There's still a struggle," said Jamil Abdullah, 31, a second-generation member of the mosque. "Now the struggle is to stay together."

Starting point Wallace Fard Muhammad founded the Nation of Islam in Detroit in 1930 , proclaiming himself Allah incarnate and Elijah Muhammad his final messenger. By the time Akbar came to Boston in 1948, there was already a small community of Black Muslims, many of them musicians who played jazz at the clubs around the intersection of Massachusetts and Columbus avenues . Akbar, a horn player, occasionally jammed with an up-and-coming Calypso singer, Louis Walcott , who changed his name to Louis Farrakhan and became the first preacher at Muhammad's Mosque No. 11.

The movement also ran a grocery on Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan and a restaurant in Grove Hall where bean pie and carrot cake were among the favorites. Members, when they went out in groups of five or six to "fish," would also sell copies of Muhammad Speaks , the Nation's newspaper named for Elijah Muhammad, and fish from Whiting H&G fish company . Elijah Muhammad preached that whites were devils who oppressed blacks, and that blacks needed education, work, and discipline to overcome their oppressors. Akbar said the Nation's antiwhite rhetoric wasn't downplayed -- "they'd never let you forget it" -- but it wasn't the main part of the message, either.

"The main thing was what we needed," he said. "Elijah Muhammad's programs were lifting the black man and woman through business, through respect of person."

When W. D. Mohammed succeeded his father, he abandoned the theology and black supremacist teachings but kept the black pride part and brought his followers into mainstream Islam. Under Imam Shakir Mahmoud , Muhammad's Mosque No. 11 followed along and in 1985 was renamed Masjid Al Quran.

But not everybody followed W. D. Mohammed. Farrakhan clung to Elijah Muhammad's teachings and in 1978 reestablished the Nation of Islam. While Farrakhan set up his headquarters in Chicago, followers in Boston bought a new Muhammad's Mosque No. 11 in Grove Hall, which still functions today.

For those worshipers who came into mainstream Islam through the Nation of Islam, reconciling their Nation roots with their traditional Muslim beliefs is part of a new identity challenge. Racial supremacy is anathema to Islamic teachings, while the idea that W. F. Muhammad was Allah incarnate and Elijah Muhammad his final messenger are considered heresies in Islam. But given what blacks in America had been through -- slavery, Jim Crow, segregation -- a typical introduction to Islam through learning the Koran and the sayings of Islam's Prophet Muhammad would not have worked, some observers said. "We weren't a normal people, and so a normal process wouldn't have worked for us, is the contention," explained Ibrahim Rahim, whose father joined the Nation in 1974, and then followed W. D. Mohammed into mainstream Islam. "We're not defending that theology, but we're not denying its existence, and there's a difference.

Looking ahead If black pride defined the mosque in the '50s and '60s, and the move into mainstream Islam in the '70s and '80s, the grind of everyday life and heightened suspicions about Muslims characterize the current era. "I think we have some challenges," said Imam Taalib Mahdee , a Cambridge native who in 1992 was elected to succeed Mahmoud as the mosque's imam.

Mahdee has sought a more visible role for Masjid Al Quran in Boston's public life, taking part in interfaith lectures and attending Israeli Independence Day celebrations at the Israeli consulate long before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made such outreach imperative for Muslims. Mahdee says the mosque can do more, but he also believes that other congregations could do more to reciprocate Masjid Al Quran's efforts. Mahdee would also like to see the mosque's younger congregants -- those in their teens, 20s , and 30s -- become more involved in the mosque.

Abdullah, the second-generation member , agrees. As a boy, he attended the Sister Clara Muhammad School, where his mother, Salwa Abd-Allah , was the principal. As a young man, he dipped in and out of mosque life, but recently has become more active, helping organize a mosque basketball team and public events, including a tribute to Malcolm X last month at Roxbury Community College.

While African-Americans are the biggest part of the congregation, immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia have brought a new vitality, and many feel they have as much at stake in the mosque's future as African-American worshipers. Papa Samba Diop came to Boston from Senegal in 1986 to study and has been a regular ever since at Masjid Al Quran. When his brother called one morning in 1992 to tell him their mother had died, Diop, with no family or close friends in Boston, went to the mosque.

"It was a place of comfort in that situation. Imam Mahmoud prayed for me and asked the whole congregation to pray for my mom," Diop said. "I came here, and I got a lot of support."

While Diop didn't experience segregation like some other worshipers at Masjid Al Quran, their stories aren't lost on him. In fact, Diop learned about Malcolm X and the civil rights struggle as a schoolboy in Senegal.

"I'm old enough to remember what my father said about the struggle of black people here," Diop said. "And looking back, I don't think I would have traveled here in the early '60s, because it was awful for black people. And these guys deserve all the credit, because they made it possible for us to come here."

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at osacirbey@hotmail.com .

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