This profile was last updated in 2009
The Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) was organized in 1981 as a loose association of Muslim student organizations at Harvard University, Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, Wentworth Institute, Suffolk University, and Tufts University. As the number of Muslims in the Boston area grew, the ISB eventually became a separate organization, serving Muslims in the Cambridge area, according to Salma Kazmi, assistant director of the ISB. “That life cycle is very typical of a lot of organizations in the U.S., because of the immigration here, often because of people coming for school and deciding to stay,” Kazmi said. “But now, the Muslim Student Associations in the universities are pretty vibrant in their own right, so there’s no real overlap. But, you will find that because we’re in Cambridge, people, as they outgrow their student communities, will find a place here.”
Serving a Diverse Population
Besides serving as a space for the five daily prayers, the ISB provides a variety of services to a diverse Muslim community. The ISB offers classes throughout the week for both English and Arabic speakers. According to Kazmi, classes are organized by topic or population. There is a “new Muslim” class for converts to the faith as well as more advanced classes in Qur’anic exegesis, hadith study and Qur’ranic recitation. There are also ESL classes for non-native English speakers and Arabic classes for those who do not speak Arabic. The variety of classes indicates the variety of subgroups the ISB serves. “One of the things that’s unique about this mosque is that there are different activities offered for very different types of people,” Kazmi said. “Some of the people don’t even overlap in their lives, other than they use the same facility. So like, college students live in their college-student world, but they’ll be at the ISB for something. You know, we have like a ‘mommies group,’ which is this like, ‘Muslim, second-generation American’ type of group. And then you have the converts group. And then we have this big immigrant population and then you have like, you know, these old Arab ladies that are parents of students that are here. So it’s very interesting, the mix of people, but often, like I said, they sometimes don’t even overlap cause they kinda do their own thing.”
The ISB website provides an online hub for communications within the community, with an online announcement and message board, as well as bulletin boards for people to post ads for everything from employment to housing to items for sale. Kazmi also said there is some talk of taking the mosque’s marriage arrangement service to the internet, with an online questionnaire to aid the imam in pairing up potential couples. Kazmi said the extensive use of an online community is practically mandated by the well-educated, professional community that the mosque serves. “We have to [have an extensive website]; we’re next to MIT and Harvard!” she said. One of the Five Pillars of Islam is zakat, or almsgiving, and the ISB also undertakes a variety of relief efforts, which Kazmi said have been more local and community-based since Sept. 11, 2001, before which time many of the relief efforts were international in scope. The ISB provides loans and emergency assistance to members in the community in need, as well as other services like providing support to a family who has lost a parent. Members can even pay their zakats online through the ISB website.
Community Development and Interfaith Dialogue
The ISB is active in interfaith work in the community and in educating the public about Islam. ISB has an ongoing relationship with Temple Beth Shalom, also in Cambridge, and hosts monthly Jewish-Muslim dialogues in conjunction with that organization. Kazmi said previous topics of dialogue have included the role of women, dietary laws, and comparative text study between the Torah and the Qur’an on stories common to both faiths. In addition, the ISB had an outreach director after Sept. 11, 2001, who worked to build relationships with government agencies, schools, and nonprofits, as well as area churches and synagogues. As a result of the outreach director’s efforts, Kazmi said the ISB has been called into some of the work the ACLU is doing in relation to civil rights after Sept. 11. The ISB also co-sponsored a dialogue project on race and ethnicity in Boston (more information available at http://www.bostondialogues.org/.) and was also a recipient of a grant from the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) to do civil rights and civics training for the Muslim community in Boston. “So we’re trying to do leadership [and] community development work as well, and try[ing] to be a little bit more aware of and involved in the broader issues in the community,” Kazmi said.
Future Developments and Plans
In 1991, ISB purchased a duplex at 140-142 Prospect Street to become a center for the growing community, and in 1993, the Society purchased and began renovating a former Knights of Columbus Hall at 204 Prospect Street. This striking and beautiful mosque facility opened in 1994. It attracts Muslims from throughout the Boston-Cambridge area for prayers, religious education and annual observances. Between 70 and 100 people visit the mosque daily, with nearly 1,000 in attendance at Friday prayers, which often spill into the parking lot in the back. In the summer of 2004, construction began on a new Islamic cultural center in Roxbury near Northeastern University and Roxbury Community College, with a slated construction timeline of one year. The ISB was able to obtain a tract of land in the center of Boston, through a deal in which the Society will be able to “pay” for some of the cost of the land in services to the community, according to Kazmi. For example, the ISB will maintain the nearby parks and donate books to the Roxbury Community College library, as well as sponsoring a lecture series at RCC. The new facility includes a mosque that will accommodate 1200 men and 400 women in prayer rooms, as well as an Islamic school serving kindergarten through fifth grade. The school will have 18 classrooms and will accommodate 20 to 23 students each. Currently, the nearest Islamic schools are in the nearby suburbs of Sharon and Methuen, both a 45-minute drive outside of Boston. The center will include a library with a general collection to support the school, as well as a more specialized collection of books on Islamic history and culture. Kazmi said the ISB hopes to be able to have the library open to the public, although the technicalities about borrowing privileges have not been decided. The library committee is still in the process of finding sponsors for the library contents and has also discussed having a consortium with the libraries at nearby Hebrew College and Andover-Newton Theological School. There will also be a morgue in the building, with facilities for washing the dead and burial preparations. Kazmi explained that there is a particular washing ritual that must be performed when someone in the Muslim community dies, and the body should be prayed over in a mosque before burial. Currently the community must make special arrangements with area funeral homes for the preparation of the body and are often unable to hold the prayer service in a mosque with the body present. Kazmi said that having a prayer service in a mosque without the body is permissible, but the new facility will make it possible to meet the ideal for Islamic burial, which is to have the body present for the prayers in a mosque. Kazmi said the library and the funeral facilities are probably two of the things that people are most looking forward to in the new center and will serve a regional need rather than just the local Roxbury community. The new center will include administrative offices, a media and da’wa (outreach) center, a store for Islamic art and books, an aerobic fitness center for women, and a multipurpose hall and kitchen for social events (or large-scale gatherings like Ramadan events and weddings) and lectures. There will be an underground parking garage as well as an adjacent lot, accommodating a total of 570 cars. The structure will include a large minaret and dome as well. “The other thing that I think is significant for the center is that it really adds visibility to the Muslim community in Boston,” Kazmi said. She related a time when the ISB held an open house in their Cambridge location and several people walked in and were surprised to find out the building was a mosque. “I think that that’s the case with a lot of mosques,” Kazmi said. “People don’t even know that there’s a community around.”