PITTSBURGH — Allahu Akbar, the Muslim call for prayer, rings out on a recent Friday and a group of black men and women gather to celebrate the Islamic day of rest.
The wooden house in Pittsburgh’s rundown Homewood neighborhood looks like any other on the block. But the sign at the door, Masjid Mumin, and the rows of shoes lined up inside on gray, plastic shelves hint of the brand of Sunni Islam its members practice.
The mosque is one of seven in Pittsburgh, home to a vibrant community of about 8,000 to 10,000 Sunni Muslims — some 30 percent of them black.
Following what appears to be a trend in cities nationwide, religious leaders in Pittsburgh say there has been a rise in black conversions to Sunni Islam since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
No national surveys have been taken to confirm the increase, but Islamic religious leaders in Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit have also reported growth, said Lawrence Mamiya, a professor of religion and Africana studies at New York’s Vassar College. Experts estimate that 30 percent of the 6 to 7 million Muslims in the U.S. are black, with only South Asians making up a larger number at 33 percent.
The Sept. 11 attacks have “cut both ways, positively and negatively,” Mamiya said.
Accent on the positive
Richard Turner, coordinator of the African-American studies program and an expert on Islam among blacks at the University of Iowa, said since Sept. 11, Muslims have been attempting to “disseminate positive information about the religion, so the obvious outcome of that would be more conversions.”
Sunni Islam is the world’s most prominent branch of Islam. The Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple, other Muslim groups that attract many blacks, believe in prophets after Muhammad, making them anathema to Sunni Islam.
Rashad Byrdsong, an elder in Pittsburgh’s black Muslim community, hopes the rise in interest in Sunni Islam will help the Mumin Mosque collect money to expand their small house of worship into a larger community gathering place.
The new mosque, still in the planning stages, will look more like a community center than a traditional minaret-topped Muslim place of worship found in the Arab world.
The expanded Homewood mosque will have a daycare facility, a re-entry program for released inmates, a health clinic and a program for entrepreneurs, features that are in great need in the downtrodden neighborhood.
“First, the spiritual aspects, the dawa, but also basic, physical, fundamental needs,” Byrdsong said.
Building mosque ‘a solid goal’
In the fourth year of its seven-year expansion plan, Pittsburgh’s tight-knit Muslim community has raised much of the $1.5 million needed in the project’s first phase through book sales, telephone fundraisers, auctions and banquets. It has purchased all but two lots it will need, and already has the sketches for the future mosque complex.
“Building the mosque has always been a goal, idea, vision,” said Yusef Ali, 63, emir of the Mumin Mosque. “But as a community grows ... it’s (become) a solid goal with strategic objectives.”
A growing number of Muslims in America, especially blacks, are building mosques that offer a variety of community services, partly because the federal and state governments do not answer to many of their social needs, Islamic experts say.
These complexes take the religion back to its roots before the modern-day state began providing services to the population.
“What you have here is the creation of a true American Islam,” said Edward Curtis, a religious studies professor who specializes in African-American Islam at IUPUI. “Islam has been a part of this country from its beginning, and the forms of Islam that are successful here are indigenous forms.”
Homewood as model
The Homewood mosque, though unique, follows a model similar to other black mosques in the United States, Mamiya said.
In Harlem, the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque has built apartment buildings and townhouses, offers social services and even owns a sanitation company used to provide jobs to former prisoners, Mamiya said.
“The African-American mosque has made itself different in this way from other mosques around the world,” Mamiya said. “Religious institutions in the black community have always been their strongest institutions and have always done more than religious functions.”
Pittsburgh, magnet for Muslims
Pittsburgh, like some other cities on the East Coast and Midwest, has long been a magnet for black Muslims, beginning in the early 20th century, when more than 1 million black people moved from the South to the North.
Pittsburgh, then a prosperous steel town, attracted thousands of blacks seeking work, and became one of several cities where Sunni Islam took hold. Today, black Muslims here brag that in 1932 Pittsburgh became home to the first chartered Muslim mosque in the United States.
Byrdsong, executive director of the Community Empowerment Association, was attracted to Islam while serving a 10-year prison sentence for robbery. He said the religion appeals to many, including those in prison, because of strict rules banning alcohol and drugs and its success at keeping people from deteriorating into a life of crime.
Pittsburgh is home not only to black Muslims, but also a broad community of immigrants who practice the religion. However, until Sept. 11, the two communities were largely isolated.
‘Time for us to come together’
After the attacks, immigrants — subject to FBI surveillance, police raids and other scrutiny — began to reach out to black Muslims in Pittsburgh, whose persecution they could suddenly relate to, said Sarah Jameela Martin, 64, an active member of the city’s black Muslim community.
“It really was a time for us to come together,” Martin said.
But Sept. 11 also put an end to any hopes the black Muslim community had to collect money for their mosque project from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries overseas, because new U.S. laws put Islamic charities under greater scrutiny.
Now, as immigrant and black Muslims in Pittsburgh try to improve the religion’s image and separate it from global terrorism, blacks are paving the way, Martin said.
Black women, for example, have long worn the traditional head-covering, or hijab, to work, while immigrants have been reluctant to do so, she said. Today, Muslims in Pittsburgh are far more visible, she said.
“Because of our social tag ... we didn’t mind,” Byrdsong said, pointing to his dark skin as an explanation to why being openly Muslim has never been a problem for blacks in America. “We can’t hide it.”
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