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Islam in America:
The Beginning in Massachusetts

From the book A NEW RELIGIOUS AMERICA by Diana L. Eck, Muslim Life in Americawhich is published by HarperSanFrancisco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc, and available wherever books are sold. Copyright (c) 2001 by Diana L. Eck. All rights reserved.

The history of the Muslim community in Sharon, Massachusetts, is in some ways typical of a wide range of Muslim experience in America. This new facility is a branch, an expansion really, of the Islamic Center of New England in Quincy, located just south of downtown Boston and not far from the birthplace of America's sixth president, John Quincy Adams.
The community dates back to the early 1900s when immigrants came from Syria and Lebanon to work in the Quincy shipyards. There were more Christians than Muslims at first and more men than women. Before long, the Muslims came together for prayers and special observances. Seven families, in all, lived in the area of the shipyards. Mohammad Omar Awad volunteered as the imam, the leader of the prayers. In 1934 they formed a cultural, social, and charitable organization called the Arab American Banner Society. They met in a house on South Street in Quincy, organizing informal religious lessons for their children, gathering for Friday prayers, and celebrating the two big Muslims feast days, Eid al-Fitr at the end of the month of Ramadan and Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice during the time of pilgrimage to Makkah. In 1962, after three decades of temporary housing, the leaders of this Muslim community decided to build a mosque on South Street. Almost as soon as the new building was dedicated in 1964, the community began to experience the impact of the new immigration. The small group of Muslims suddenly tripled in the decade between 1964 and 1974.

By the early 1980s the community took a giant step by hiring its first full-time imam, Talal Eid, who came from Lebanon and had been educated at the al-Azhar University in Cairo. He was jointly sponsored by the Quincy mosque community and the Muslim World League. Eid, along with his wife and two small daughters, arrived in New York with another Lebanese imam and his family. They had thought they would be neighbors in America, until they suddenly discovered that New England and New Orleans were more than a thousand miles apart.

Talal Eid has led the community now for over twenty years, somehow finding time for graduate work at Harvard Divinity School in the midst of an increasingly busy life. "Being an imam in America is totally different from being an imam in Lebanon," he said in an interview with the Pluralism Project. "There my role was limited to the mosque and dealing with the community, but here it is a combination: I lead the prayer, do the education, do the counseling, and deal with people of different backgrounds, cultures, nationalities, and languages. The Islamic Center of New England is a small replica of the United Nations, with more than twenty-five different nationalities." Today, Imam Eid has more than three hundred children enrolled in weekend education programs and two congregations in Quincy and Sharon.

Imam Eid's role has grown not only because of the expanding expectations of his own community, but also because of the expectations of clergy in America generally. This means taking on new roles such as hospital visitation and participation in interfaith clergy meetings and interfaith dialogue. "It's not only about educating the Muslims," he says, "but I also have to do my share in educating non-Muslims, because living in a pluralistic society you have to establish friendly relations with people who believe differently than you." As one of Boston's most prominent and visible Muslim leaders, Imam Eid participates in three or four interfaith Thanksgiving services and is called upon constantly to speak in churches, synagogues, civic organizations. He answers questions at Cambridge City Hall, rushes to the Quincy mosque for Friday prayers, then leads a session on Islam with nurses from the Children's Hospital. Imam Eid's daily rounds are as exhausting as those of the most harried of urban ministers.

Like many other Muslim communities in the U.S., the Muslim community of New England has experienced fear and pain along with growth. In March of 1990 a three-alarm fire swept through the Quincy mosque, causing an estimated $500,000 worth of damages. The fire was attributed to arson, but the investigation was inconclusive and no one was arrested. The experience was unsettling for the community. Imam Eid recalls, "In the past, whenever a sad incident involving Muslims would take place in the Middle East or in any part of the world, people would focus on us. We received harassing calls and threatening letters. Angry people came over to demonstrate in front of the Islamic Center. And then there was the arson. If it's cloudy anywhere in the world it will rain on us here." For a year after the arson, Muslims pulled together and poured their resources and energies into rebuilding what had been destroyed -- the dome, much of the prayer hall, and the education wing.

Even before the fire, however, the Quincy community was bulging at the seams in the South Street mosque and had been looking for a larger home. In 1991 the group found a large building for sale in Milton -- an estate that had housed a Jesuit center with more than seven acres of surrounding land. It seemed perfect for a new Islamic center. Before long voices of resistance, apprehension, even suspicion were heard in Milton. Would there be too much traffic? Would there be enough parking? Would this be in keeping with the character of Milton? Dr. Mian Ashraf, a Boston surgeon and a prominent leader of the Muslim community, remembers the meeting with Milton neighbors. "They were worried we were going to destroy their neighborhood by bringing in a lot of people. A man from the newspaper asked me, 'Doctor, how many people are you expecting to come here to pray?' I said, 'Well, you know, on our great holy days, we will probably have thousands.' But of course there are only two such holy days a year. So the next day, the headline in the paper was 'Thousands of Muslims Coming for Prayers to Milton.' I was so upset."

Negotiations to buy the property went forward, but while the Islamic community was finalizing its mortgage arrangements, a group of Milton buyers purchased the property out from under them for one and a quarter million dollars in cash. "That was a bitter pill to swallow," said Ashraf "I questioned in my own mind, why did people do this to us? Is it true that they are discriminating against us? I didn't want to believe that because all my life nobody discriminated against me." Some in the Muslim community were determined to take the issue to court and fight for the right to be good neighbors. Others did not want to settle in a community that had already expressed such hostility. This is a difficult question, and it has been faced by one immigrant community after another in cities and towns across America as they negotiate to buy property and find themselves confronting the opposition of new neighbors. The community decided not to raise an uproar over the lost opportunity but to look toward the future and seek another property.

Happily, the opportunity soon came to purchase a former horse farm in Sharon, a small town of 15,500 that is more than half Jewish. "I got a telephone call," said Dr. Ashraf, "The man said, 'Doctor, I have just the place for your Islamic center. I've been reading in the newspaper what they've been trying to do to you. You want to build a house for worship, and I think I can help you.' He took me out to Sharon. He had fifty-five acres of peaceful land for sale. I fell in love with the place right away."

"Suppose the neighbors give us the same problem again?" asked Ashraf "What will we do?" This time, the community came up with a plan to introduce themselves to the town of Sharon. To begin with, they gave an educational videotape on Islam to every neighbor on the road. "We told them, 'If you have any questions, come talk to us. We'll have a meeting. We'll sit down. We'll answer your questions.'" Their proactive energy seemed to work, and the town of Sharon began to open its doors to the new Muslims. The rabbi of Temple Israel, Barry Starr, told Ashraf, "I think you are going to enrich our town. You're going to bring new things here." Starr called a meeting of the Sharon Clergy Association, and all of them had the opportunity to meet representatives of the Muslim community. The clergy voted a unanimous welcome to the Islamic Center. They printed their endorsement in the local paper, under the headline "Sharon Welcomes Islamic Center."

I found my way to the property in Sharon for the first time on the day of the groundbreaking, a rainy spring day in 1993. Appropriately, it was an interfaith groundbreaking, with rabbis, bishops, pastors, and priests -- all in hard hats -- joining the members of the Muslim community. As they turned their shovels of earth that day, many commented that they were breaking new ground for all of their religious communities. The Muslims had erected a great striped tent for the occasion, and we all crowded inside to hear the greetings and words of congratulations. I remember especially a young Muslim woman, a teenager representing the Muslim youth group, who stood on a folding chair and said the words American Muslims have said thousands of times in explaining their religious tradition to their new neighbors. "Islam means peace," she said. "I hope there will be a day here in New England, which has always been the birthplace of new ideas and great movements, when religious beliefs will not be held against anyone but will be a tribute to that person's moral strength."

Two years later the new center was open for its first ever Eid al-Fitr, the feast day at the end of Ramadan. It was a few days after the Night of Power, a sparkling late-winter day after an ice and snow storm. The frozen field of the former horse farm was a vast parking lot for the thousands who had come to pray. Dr. Ashraf announced with a sense of pride, "Today Eid is a formal holiday in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Because of our efforts, Eid is a paid holiday for Muslim workers and a religious holiday for our schoolchildren too. We need to let people know that Eid is our holiday." He shared with pleasure a letter to the American Muslim community from President Clinton "Greetings to all those who are observing the holy month of Ramadan. As dialogue replaces confrontation....Hillary and I offer our greetings to Muslims everywhere."

After the Eid prayers, the crowd streamed down the hill, dressed in their holiday best -- bright selvar kamizes, sequined and mirrored velvet jackets, bright pink parkas, brilliant African cottons -- a festive and colorful congregation delighted and dazzled with the winter wonderland. "I have never seen an icy Eid like this!" grinned a young man from the Gambia in Africa. Juice, coffee, and doughnuts were served in the common room of the school at the base of the hill. "Eid Mubarak!" "Happy Eid!" greetings were exchanged in this growing congregation of Muslims, born in over thirty countries and forging now an American Muslim tradition.

The Islamic Center of New England is really a microcosm of Islam in America today, with its generations of history, its growing pains, its efforts to establish Islamic practice in a culturally diverse Islamic community, and its efforts to create Islamic institutions on American soil. Its saga of relations with non-Muslim neighbors is also a mirror of wider experience -- from the threats and arson attack to the zoning battles and finally the successful effort to build new bridges of relations with other communities of faith.

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U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Germany/Public Affairs/Information Resource Centers 
Updated: August 2002