This profile was last updated in 2014
The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC) is the third expansion of the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) since 1981. In the late eighties, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) set aside the area in Roxbury for a religious and cultural center. After unsuccessful applications from several other mosques to construct a center at the site, the land was sold to the ISB. In November 2002, the ISB broke ground in Roxbury at an onsite ceremony attended by government leaders such as Mayor Thomas Menino, Boston City Councilman Chuck Turner, U.S. Representative Michael E. Capuano, and religious leaders such as Bishop Filipe Teixeira of the Catholic Church of the Americas, and Imam Talal Eid, then representing the Islamic Center of New England in Sharon, Massachusetts.
The demographics of the ISB have shifted over the years and will continue to change as Muslims from diverse communities worship at the new mosque. The ISB began with a largely Arab population, but its membership has since grown to become remarkably diverse. At any given Friday Jum’ah prayer service, it is estimated that twenty-seven different ethnicities are represented. The large African and African-American Muslim populations already present in Roxbury also affect the demographics of the Center.
Center Construction and Controversy
The ISB faced several challenges during the design and construction process. One ongoing challenge was financing the Center. This project was unlike any Islamic center or mosque undertaking in New England in its size and facilities and those who began the effort did not foresee its financial enormity. The cost was well over 20 million dollars, and the Islamic prohibition against paying interest precluded traditional financing options. After 9/11, the ISB focused many of its personnel resources to counter the anti-Muslim backlash that affected Muslims across the country.
However, the largest roadblock to the construction process was the complicated, five-year-long legal battle and media controversy surrounding the new complex. Starting in 2002, allegations were made against the ISB regarding improprieties made during the sale of government property for the Cultural Center, as well as alleged ties to Islamic extremists through fundraising campaigns and the group’s board of directors. In 2004, the Boston Redevelopment Authority was sued over the sale of the Roxbury plot to the ISB. The ISB then counter-sued, claiming a conspiracy of both opposed parties and media outlets to publicly defame the ISB and some of its leadership. Construction on the mosque was halted indefinitely.
In 2006, private reconciliation efforts were initiated by the Interreligious Center on Public Life (ICPL) in an attempt to settle the dispute outside of court through mediation. In February 2007, a judge threw out the suit against the Boston Redevelopment Authority that questioned the ISBCC land deal, and in May 2007 the ISB dropped their defamation suit. With the legal battle over, the ISB was able to resume construction and held a minaret capping ceremony, co-sponsored by the Muslim American Society (MAS) – Boston Chapter, on June 9, 2007. A few weeks later on June 27, the ISB and MAS held an “Intercommunity Solidarity Day” to emphasize the valuable addition of the Cultural Center, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to the rich cultural and religious diversity of the Boston area. Currently, the Boston Chapter of the Muslim American Society is the responsible body for the mosque, and houses its offices within the complex.
On June 26-27, 2009, the ISBCC held a two-day ceremony to celebrate the completion of the Center. The inauguration included an interfaith breakfast, a ribbon-cutting ceremony, a call to worship, prayer service, and a dinner. All were welcome at the public ceremony that included speeches from US Representative Keith Ellison (DFL-MN), the first Muslim to serve in Congress; William A. Graham, Dean of Harvard Divinity School and scholar of Islam; and other local religious leaders. Mayor Thomas M. Menino noted that the opening of the ISBCC represented an official welcome to Muslims of the city of Boston, stating: “We can’t be a city that separates ourselves, we have to be a city that builds bridges and that’s what we are doing.”
For a selected history of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, please see the ISBCC Timeline.
The ISB Cultural Center is the largest Islamic complex in New England. The architects of the complex integrated the architecture of the mosque with the surrounding neighborhood and region, using brick and beige concrete together with traditional Islamic motifs of pointed arches, a 140-foot minaret, and a gilded dome. The new facility includes a mosque to accommodate 1,200 men and 400 women in prayer rooms, and an addition is planned for 2013, which will house the Malik Academy, an Islamic school for students from kindergarten through fifth grade. The school will have 18 classrooms serving approximately 20 students; currently the Malik Academy consists of grades 1 through 3. The Cultural Center includes: administrative offices; a media and da’wah (outreach) center; and a multipurpose hall and café for social events such as Ramadan, weddings, and lectures. There is an underground parking garage as well as an adjacent lot, accommodating a total of 570 cars.
The Center is currently developing a library with a general collection to support the school, as well as a more specialized collection of books on Islamic history and culture. The library will feature a selection of books on interfaith activities that will contribute to the Center’s overall goal of engaging Muslims and non-Muslims in the metro Boston area, and it is hoped this library will eventually be open to the public.
The Center also houses a morgue with facilities to wash the dead and make burial preparations in accordance with Islamic law. Currently, local Muslims must make special arrangements with area funeral homes, but it is often impossible to hold prayer services for the dead in mosques with the body present, as is Islamic custom. The new facility will make it possible to meet the ideal for an Islamic burial.
The new center is directly adjacent to the Roxbury Community College (RCC) on a parcel of land that has been vacant for 40 years. As part of their agreement with the BRA for the purchase of the Roxbury property, the ISBCC offers educational lectures to RCC students, and holds public lectures for the greater Roxbury community. One of the largest events held by the ISBCC is their annual Fundraising Ramadan Iftar dinner, which attracts hundreds of local Muslims for dinner in the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center of the adjacent Roxbury Community College.
Both the city and the ISB hope the Cultural Center will attract Muslim businesses and residents to the Roxbury community, which could have an enormous impact on the area’s economic situation. The Center maintains two local parks as a method of compensation to the city for setting aside the land. The Center will also benefit the larger Boston community by providing a forum for interfaith dialogue and interaction with civic leaders.
Much of the information contained in the original profile was obtained from an interview conducted by Summer Intern Jessie Thisell with then Assistant Director Salma Kazmi on June 20, 2005. Updates were made by Summer Intern Katie Merriman, after attending the minaret capping ceremony and the Intercommunity Solidarity Day in June 2007. Research Associates Kate DeConinck and Katie Merriman updated this profile in January 2010.