BU Today

In the World

Islamic Center Reaches Out to Boston

Roxbury minaret beckons to greater community


Watch this video on YouTube

In the slideshow above, watch images from a recent visit to the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury. Photos by Chitose Suzuki

Lost in all the pundits’ outpourings, TV banter, and casual debate about the virtues of Islamic centers as neighbors is the fact that most non-Muslims have no idea what goes on in a mosque. At the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC), that is easily remedied. Ahalan wa sahalan, the Arabic expression for “You are welcome,” prevails from the moment of entering its cavernous bab as salaam—gate of peace. The sprawling year-old Roxbury center, in the first throes of outreach efforts, is still a largely untapped resource for the community.

On a recent Friday evening, the center’s atrium and lobby overflowed with Muslims sharing the traditional snack of dates and milk to break one of the dawn-to-dusk fasts of the holy month of Ramadan, which ends on September 9 with the major Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr, the “festival of breaking the fast.” At iftar, the meal taken after sunset, this non-Muslim visitor, with breakfast and lunch under her belt, was urged to sample some especially succulent dates sent by a relative from Saudi Arabia. With bellies calmed and toddlers darting underfoot, worshippers—men in the front, women assembled near the arched entrance—filed into the prayer hall, emerging soon after to share a copious spread donated by a local Middle Eastern restaurant.

All IBSCC’s Friday evening meals are free and open to the public, Muslim and non-Muslim. Outside of Ramadan, they draw about 200, says executive director Bilal Kaleem, one of the last students in BU’s University Professors Program, who has put on hold his master’s thesis on society and Islam in America. Among the hundreds of women gathered in the café for the meal of chicken kebab, salad, and rice (the men took their dinner on tarps spread across the prayer hall floor) were a psychiatrist who emigrated from Cairo, a teacher from Amman, Jordan, and a Saudi married to a student. A scan of the faces of those gathered for evening prayer and the Ramadan meal defied categorization, with immigrants from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, as well as American-born Muslims, both white and African American. Kaleem was born in Zambia.

“We’ve been through the ringer,” Kaleem says of the ISBCC’s embattled past. Although he’s unsettled by the anti-Muslim sentiments surrounding the proposed lower Manhattan mosque and others around the country, he predicts slow but steady acceptance of his own $15.6 million center, whose trustees include representatives from several faiths, including two from local synagogues. And the center wants to establish partnerships with universities such as neighboring Roxbury Community College. Last May, Governor Deval Patrick addressed more than 1,100 worshippers at the mosque, underscoring his commitment to publicly denouncing anti-Muslim discrimination.

“We’ve tried to reach out” to critics who charge that ISBCC-affiliated Muslim American Society has links—albeit once or twice removed—to the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical movement based in Egypt, Kaleem says. “We say, ‘Let’s talk.’ But they respond, ‘We don’t talk to extremists.’” He attributes most of the prejudice to politics. He calmly confronts accusations of nefarious goings-on by imploring people to “just show up. It’s a community space.”

Several T stops or a short bus ride from the Charles River Campus, the ISBCC is an elegant structure rising from an asphalt island along Roxbury’s Malcolm X Boulevard, a poetic coincidence the charismatic civil rights activist and hajji (one who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca) would have appreciated. The center opened in spring 2009, its hotly challenged presence clinched when an assortment of state and local politicians, among them Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (Hon.’01), and prominent clergy from several faiths spoke decisively in its favor. In June 2007, nearly 2,000 Bostonians gathered for the capping of the mosque’s minaret. Today the center is flourishing, with an ornate, balconied prayer room accommodating about 1,000, a children’s area slated to become a K-8 school, a spacious, WiFi-equipped café, and a shop. The building’s school wing was the site of an Arabic and Quranic summer program, its spacious classroom a colorful jumble of crafts projects and toys. The center is designed so people of all faiths can come and go, removing shoes only to enter the prayer hall.

Its red brick a nod to classic New England architecture, the 70,000-square foot building is still a work in progress. As funds allow, flourishes of mosaic and the names of the prophets in Arabic calligraphy will unfurl atop the arches and around the prayer hall and atrium. The building, 15 years in planning and construction, was designed by a team of architects led by Sami Angawi, a former fellow of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and founder of the AMAR Center for International Architecture in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. With a series of smaller arches fanning out from the main entry, the building is adjacent to the campus of Roxbury Community College and Roxbury Heritage State Park.

Beyond the prayer hall and the pristine areas for men and women to wash before prayer, the center provides a range of social services, including diversity training for police, distribution of halal meat, and a speakers’ network. Nearly 1,000 attend Friday prayers, triple that during Ramadan, when overflow crowds of worshippers unfurl mats in the atrium and entranceway.

“The mosque in America is becoming a community and cultural center,” says Ihsan A. Bagby, an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky, who has surveyed 600 mosques across the United States. “Many mosques want to do outreach, but it sounds like the Islamic cultural center in Boston is one of the few places really doing it. They’re leading the way.” Bagby is sanguine about the current tempest over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero. “It’s inevitable that it will change,” he says, “because the Muslim community is not in and of itself out of step with America. So, when Americans come to know Muslims and their mosque they will come to be accepting, because there is no real problem.” He sees echoes of the struggles of Irish Catholics, Jews, and African Americans, who were all marginalized. Now, he says, “is the Muslims’ time to go through this gauntlet.”

Positioned on a mat at the front of the prayer room, the muezzin, one who calls the hour of daily prayers, casts his head down as he sings: “Ashhadu an la ilaha illa Allah…I bear witness that there is no god except the One God…” Because of worshippers’ diversity and the mosque’s inclusive spirit, women who choose to can pray in the main hall, rather than the balconies. “This is unusual, but we have people here from so many traditions, and prayer varies from culture to culture,” says Bilal. “People here can do what’s comfortable for them.”

Men and women are always separated for Islamic prayer—because the worshippers almost touch during the customary prostrations—but at ISBCC the separation might be no more than a respectful space between the male and female groups in the main hall. Separation isn’t necessary in the common areas, and there is no explicit dress code, but modesty is in the fabric of Islam, so visitors should be sensitive to it. People can socialize or study and have coffee, tea, or snacks in the Common Word Café, which hosts art exhibitions, the most recent a series of Norman H. Gershman photographs of Albanian and Kosovar Muslims who rescued Jewish families during the Holocaust. The café gets its name from a line of Quranic verse that beckons to “people of scripture” to come to a common word.

“It’s saying that we all have common ground,” says Kaleem.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu. Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @kcornuel.

+ Comments

Post Your Comment

(never shown)