Islam in Greater Boston

IslamIslam in Arabic literally means “submitting” or “submission.” One who submits or surrenders his or her will to God is called a Muslim. While the whole of God’s creation is described as being inherently Muslim, human beings must choose whether to... comes from an ArabicClassical Arabic is the language of revelation in Islam as recorded in the Qur’an. Muslims consider every word of the Qur’an to be a direct utterance of God. The Arabic language itself is regarded as perfectly suited as the instrument for God’s comm... word meaning “submission” or “surrender.” The ProphetA prophet is one who communicates a divine message or vision, sometimes calling people to repentance or awakening, sometimes predicting future events. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to Hebrew prophets, including Abraham and Moses. Muslims believe ... Muhammad’s message of Islam called humankind to recognize the authority of the one GodGod is a term used to refer to the Divine, the Supreme being, Transcendent deity, or Ultimate reality., and to align one’s life with the path of Islam. In Greater Boston, Islam encompasses a diverse community of over 50,000 adherents served by nearly fifty different mosquesMasjid (plural masajid) in Arabic means “place of prostration,” or the place where Muslims bow in prayer; in English, this word has become “mosque.” A masjid contains a prayer hall in which there is a mihrab or prayer niche, and a minbar or pulpit..., schools, and community organizations. Originally composed primarily of African-American converts, the Muslim population of Greater Boston now includes immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. The landmark Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury is but one example of the ways in which this diverse community is building a vibrant future in Greater Boston.

Islam in Greater Boston

On a Friday afternoon in Dorchester, a group of Muslim men and women come together for Ju’mah prayersPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not. at MasjidMasjid (plural masajid) in Arabic means “place of prostration,” or the place where Muslims bow in prayer; in English, this word has become “mosque.” A masjid contains a prayer hall in which there is a mihrab or prayer niche, and a minbar or pulpit... al-Qur’an. Seated in a semi-circleIn some Pagan traditions, a “circle” refers to the people who gather for a ritual. When standing in a circle, all the participants are able to see each other, with no one member elevated over any other. This practice is often felt to encourage egalita... around the minbar (pulpit), men in work clothes and women in headscarves listen attentively as a young man delivers the khutbah (sermon). Changing freely from English to Arabic and back again, the khutbah focuses on the importance of community, and the need for Muslims to come together as one. At the Islamic Bookstore on Shawmut Avenue, parents purchase educational toys designed to instill Muslim values in their children. At Baraka Pizzeria in Braintree, guests select from a fully halalHalal means “permissible” or “pure.. For Muslims, halal is a legal term referring to good actions and to foods that are ritually slaughtered. Halal is the opposite of Haram. menu that includes standard American fast food as well as traditional Middle Eastern fare, as others perform their daily prayers in the back of the restaurant. Across Boston, Muslims form a vibrant, living community.

In Greater Boston, Islam encompasses a diverse group of over 50,000 adherents served by nearly fifty different mosques, schools, and community organizations. Originally composed primarily of African-American converts, the Muslim population of Greater Boston has grown to include immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, as well as converts of Euro-American descent and self-identified secular Muslims.

Immigrant Islam

The immigration of Muslims to the United States began in the late nineteenth century. Most came from Lebanon and Syria and some of these immigrants, both Christian and Muslim, settled in the Boston area in the early 1900s. Seven Muslim families settled in Quincy Point, where they worked to maintain their Islamic faith and practice. In 1934, these families joined with other Arabic-speaking Muslims in the area to form a cultural, social, and charitable organization called “The Arab American Banner Society.” From 1937 to 1952, they met in an old house at 470 South Street in Quincy. Realizing that the second generation was growing up with little Islamic identity, the Society began organizing informal religious lessons as well as Jum’ah prayers on Friday and Eid prayers on the two big feast days. In 1962, the leaders decided to build a mosqueMasjid (plural masajid) in Arabic means “place of prostration,” or the place where Muslims bow in prayer; in English, this word has become “mosque.” A masjid contains a prayer hall in which there is a mihrab or prayer niche, and a minbar or pulpit... at the South Street location. The building was completed in 1964 and was served by Mohammed Omar Awad, a first-generation immigrant and self-taught imamImam means “leader,” particularly the person who leads the daily ritual prayer or, more broadly, to the one who serves as a leader of the community because of his religious learning. In Shi’i Islam, it refers to one of a succession of direct descend.... During these years, the officers of the Quincy mosque took on national leadership roles in the Federation of Islamic Associations and helped other communities to organize and build mosques. Today, the Quincy mosque is known as the Islamic CenterAn Islamic center will typically include a mosque, school, and area for social and cultural activities. When a new Islamic center is being organized in the United States, attention is paid to community needs, including a weekend or full-time school, indic... of New England in Quincy.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the establishment of several additional Islamic centersAn Islamic center will typically include a mosque, school, and area for social and cultural activities. When a new Islamic center is being organized in the United States, attention is paid to community needs, including a weekend or full-time school, indic... in the area. Sensing the need for a mosque more accessible to the immigrant professionals living in the western suburbs, Boston Muslims founded the Islamic Center of Boston in 1979 and purchased a house and acreage in Wayland in 1987. In 1992, the group opened a community center with a social hall and eight classrooms. The Islamic Society of Greater Worcester also organized in 1979 and eventually purchased a former Catholic churchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... to renovate for use as its center. Throughout New England, this was a period of tremendous growth for the Muslim community.

Shi’a Islam in Boston

In addition to the more sizable SunniSunni Muslims emphasize the authoritative role of the consensus of religious scholars (‘ulama) in interpreting the Qur’an and the Sunnah (custom) of the Prophet. The community could thus choose any good Muslim as a successor (khalifah) to Muhammad, th... community in the Greater Boston area, several sects of Shi’a Islam have established their own centers of worship. The Boston Nizari IsmailiIsmaili Shi’ah refers to the group of Shi’i Muslims who, upon the death of the sixth Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq in 765, affirmed his son Isma’il to be the next Imam. The Ismailis further split in 1094 into Mustali and Nizari branches. Emphasizing the ne... Center, for instance, was founded in 1973 to serve the burgeoning Shi’a community in the metropolitanA Metropolitan is the title given to a bishop, used especially in the Orthodox family of churches today. area. Initially, a small group of students would gather at MIT and then at Harvard to worship together. In 1990, out of a need for a larger prayerPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not. space, the Nizaris relocated to their current home on Commonwealth Avenue in Packard’s Corner.

Ahmadi Muslims arrived in Boston in the 1960s, gathering at local homes for prayer. As numbers increased over the next twenty years, the need for a permanent center became apparent. In 1997, after more than three decades in Boston, the AhmadiyyaThe Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam was established in 1889 in India by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. He claimed to be the Messiah of this age, awaited by Muslims, Christians, and others. The missionary movement of his followers is now established in more than 144 coun... movement officially established its Boston Chapter in Sharon.

The Islamic Masumeen Center of New England was founded in 1995 to provide a home to the growing Jafari community in Hopkinton. Originally serving only six families, the Hopkinton center now counts over 100 families among its regular attendees.

The Dawoodi Bohra sect also has a strong presence in the area; the group originally met in Christian and Jewish worship spaces in Chelmsford, but after a resident American Dawoodi Bohra offered funding, the group moved to its new mosque in North Billerica, which was completed in 2004. This center, Anjuman-e-Ezzi, now serves over 250 members.

African American Islam

For African-Americans, Islam is part of the spiritual heritage of African ancestors brought to the US as slaves. The faith identity of these slaves was largely suppressed until some Islamic traditions were said to have been “rediscovered,” first by Noble Drew Ali, who started the Moorish Science TempleA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... in 1913, and subsequently by W.D. Fard and ElijahElijah was a ninth century BCE Hebrew prophet and visionary. According to tradition, he did not die but was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2). Elijah’s periodic return to eart. has become part of the rabbinical and mystical Jewish traditi... MuhammadThe Prophet Muhammad, known as “the Seal of the Prophets,” was born in the city of Makkah on the Arabian peninsula in 570 C.E. At 40, he began to receive a series of revelations from God through the angel Gabriel. His small group of followers met with..., who launched the Nation of IslamThe Lost-Found Nation of Islam in America, begun by Wallace D. Fard in Detroit in the 1930’s, was developed by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad preached some Islamic principles, but his lessons about the superiority of the Black Man were c... in the 1930s. After the death of Elijah MuhammadElijah Muhammad (born Elijah Poole, 1897; d.1975) became leader of the Nation of Islam after the founder, Wallace Fard, disappeared in 1934. Poole and others adopted African and Islamic names as a sign of their emancipation from the domination of whites a... in 1975, his son, Wallace (Warith) Deen Mohammed, led the majority of the Black Muslims along the path initiated by Malcolm X–away from the separatism of Elijah Muhammad and toward closer relations with the larger international body of mainstream Muslims. Many of the Nation of Islam templesA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... then became Sunni mosques or Islamic centers.

In 1965, a young African-American convert to Islam, Shakir Mahmoud, came to the Quincy mosque to learn more about “orthodox” Islam. He had grown dissatisfied with the teachings of the Nation of Islam, especially after Malcolm X’s break with the movement. When W.D. Mohammed began the process of steering the largely separatist Nation of Islam toward a more mainstream Islamic path, Shakir was called to teach Islamic studies at Temple #11 in Dorchester, which had once been led by Malcolm XMalcolm Little (1925-1965) is one of the most well-known African Americans who embraced Islam. He took the name Malcolm X upon joining the Nation of Islam while in prison. He spoke forcefully for black separatism in the face of white predjudice and violen... and, later, by MinisterMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam). Louis X, now Louis FarrakhanMinister Louis Farrakhan (b. Louis Eugene Wolcott, 1933) revived the old Nation of Islam in 1977, restoring its original ideology and organization and establishing the University of Islam in Chicago. He states that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, after his.... Shakir became imam of the Dorchester mosque in 1977. Under his leadership, the community moved gradually toward the moderate and mainstream Islam espoused by W.D. Mohammed. In 1984, the name of the center was changed from Temple #11 to Masjid al-Qur’an today, the mosque attracts Muslims from all parts of the world in addition to its core African-American constituency.

Student Organizations

During the 1960s, Boston witnessed an influx of students from predominantly Muslim countries. This demographic shift coincided with the founding of the Muslim Students’ Association (MSAIn 1963, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) was organized to promote religious unity, through education and mutual aid, among Muslim international students at North American colleges. The MSA laid the groundwork for numerous national organizations, inc...), the first nationwide Islamic organization, on the campus of the University of Illinois in 1963. Today there are active Islamic societies at Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Northeastern, Wentworth Institute, Suffolk, and Tufts. Some student groups, such as the MIT Muslim Students’ Association, are directly affiliated with the national MSA. Others, such as the Harvard Islamic Society, are not.

Islamic Associations and Cooperative Efforts 

There are currently a number of active Islamic organizations in New England, bringing together Muslims and providing leadership to the centers in the area. The Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) was organized in 1982 as a loose association of the independent student Islamic societies: the ISB’s goal was to assist these societies by sponsoring lectures on the political, economic, and social aspects of their religious life. The original ISB mosque, located in a renovated Knights of Columbus Hall on Prospect Street in Cambridge, stands as a striking and beautiful addition to the religious architecture of Greater Boston.

The Islamic Council of New England (ICNE), founded in 1984 and now including more than thirty Massachusetts centers, sponsors an annual conference on Islamic life in the United States. The New England Imam’s Shura Council, a subsidiary of the ICNE, makes decisions about certain Islamic legal matters–such as the establishment of common prayer times–with the input of imamsImam means “leader,” particularly the person who leads the daily ritual prayer or, more broadly, to the one who serves as a leader of the community because of his religious learning. In Shi’i Islam, it refers to one of a succession of direct descend... and other leaders from each local center. The Council also provides materials for Islamic training and children’s education, and conducts youth programs, summer camps, and sports activities.

The New England Muslim Sisters Association (NEMSA) was formed in 1985 to promote “Islamic rights for women in political, economic, social and educational fields.” NEMSA sponsors an annual conference to exchange information and resources among Muslim women in the region and assists in organizing women’s events at the local level. The group also seeks to distribute accurate information about Islam and to respond to inaccurate representations of Muslims in the media.

In 1999, the Muslim American Society (MAS) established its Boston Chapter, and has since become the face of Islam in Greater Boston. Composed primarily of immigrants from the Arab world, the increased influence of the Muslim American Society in Boston represents yet another step in the diversification of Islam in Boston. MAS-Boston is now based at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, where the organization serves in public relations and administrative functions for the landmark mosque and cultural center.

Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center

The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC) has been a potent symbol of the development of Islam in Boston over the last decade. Throughout the history of its planning and construction, the center has been embroiled in legal and cultural conflict, and its recent inauguration was an important milestone for many of the city’s Muslims. The path to the ISBCC’s completion was turbulent: in addition to rising costs, negative press took its toll. Articles in the Boston Herald accused several ISB leaders of having ties to extremist groups.

Also fighting the construction was the DavidDavid was the King of Israel (c. 1000 BCE) credited with uniting the many tribes of Israel into a centralized kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital. David is said to have planned for the Temple in Jerusalem, which was subsequently built by his son Solomon... Project, a group striving “to promote a fair and honest understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” The David Project found a resident to file suit against the ISBCC in court, contending that the city had sold the land below market value and therefore violated the separation of church and state. The ISBCC filed its own countersuit, accusing media groups of defamation, but that suit was eventually dropped after the opposition case was dismissed in early 2007. Prayers started later that year, and on June 26, 2009, the ISBCC held its public inauguration.

Since its soft opening in October 2008, the ISBCC has developed into an active participant in Boston’s public sphere. The ISBCC houses the offices of MAS Boston, providing a broad range of social services to Muslims as well as non-Muslims in the area. The ISBCC also plays host to many other community groups and activities, such as the summer Qur’an institute for Muslim children and a Friday night halaqah (gathering) of young Muslim professionals. As the largest Islamic center in New England, the ISBCC is undoubtedly the most prominent landmark of Islam in Greater Boston.

Islamic Interfaith Cooperation

Interfaith cooperative efforts are an important part of the programming and activities of many local Muslim organizations. The Islamic Council of New England, for example, regularly participates in interfaith dialogue events with the Massachusetts Council of ChurchesThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The ISBCC is also an active participant in interfaith efforts, housing an interfaith center for dialogue at its facilities.

In many instances, however, Islamic outreach has been the result of individual efforts. In 1982, Talal Eid–educated in Lebanon and at Al-Azhar University in Cairo–came to Quincy, where he served as spiritual director of the Islamic Center of New England, as well as imam of the Quincy Mosque. He later became imam and executive director of the Islamic Institute of Boston, and in 2007 he was the first imam appointed to serve on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Today Eid serves as the Muslim chaplainA chaplain is a member of the clergy who serves in a prison, a hospital, a college, or some other institution outside the context of the normal congregational life of a religious community. at Massachusetts General Hospital and at Brandeis University (a historically Jewish institution). Within Greater Boston, he has been instrumental in developing cooperative interfaith efforts.

Eid’s work is often representative of a growing trend toward interfaith work among Boston’s Muslims. For instance, through Project Nur, several local college and university student groups have organized community outreach programs, including interfaith iftarsIftar is “breaking the fast” at the end of each day of the month of Ramadan. After sundown during Ramadan, most Muslims ceremonially break their fast by eating dried dates and soup before the maghreb prayer. Later they may eat a larger meal with relat... to celebrate the breaking of the fast during RamadanRamadan is the ninth lunar month during which the first revelation of the Qur’an came to Muhammad. Each year in this month, Muslims abstain from all food, drink, and sexual activity from dawn until sunset. They ar. also meant to make a conscious effort .... The New England Muslim Interfaith Council has similarly sponsored community events, including film festivals and a series of public lectures.

Islamic Schools

The establishment of both primary and secondary Islamic schools has been a significant marker in the growth of the community in Greater Boston. Founded in 2001, Alhuda Academy in Worcester has become one of the leading full-time Islamic academies in New England, with over 100 students in pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade. Alhuda Academy’s curriculum is designed to develop “better citizens and better Muslims” by integrating mainstream educational techniques with Islamic principles. Al-Noor Academy, located in Mansfield, was founded in 2000 and serves approximately 75 students in grades 6-12. Al-Noor Academy attempts to fully incorporate Islam into the educational process by emphasizing Islamic values through required coursework as well as through extracurricular activities.

The Future of Islam in Boston

The Muslim community of Greater Boston has grown more diverse and more visible with each passing year. The fusion of immigrant and indigenous influences has shaped the city’s cultural landscape over the last several decades. As the community proceeds with new cooperative initiatives, such as the ISBCC, it can be safely assumed that Islam in Boston will continue its trajectory of growth and engagement.