This profile was last updated in 2006
This profile was researched and written by student Jonathan Grass of Reed College, under the direction of Dr. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri. Members of the Muslim Community Center trace their roots in Portland further back than members of other Portland mosques and Muslim community centers. During its nearly forty years of existence, the community has prayed in many different locations. It has seen members come and go, and it has undergone a major transformation in its beliefs and ideology as it converted from the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam under the leadership of Warith Deen Mohammed. Through all these changes, however, a core group of people has continually provided leadership for the community.
The community began with four or five members of the Nation of Islam gathering in the mid- to late-1960s in one another’s houses to pray and plan the founding of a Nation of Islam temple in Portland. In 1967, these few men brought a member of the Nation of Islam from San Francisco to Portland to serve as their minister. At this time, there were about nine members in the nascent community. They began to meet in the back of different African-American-owned businesses in Northeast Portland, on what is today known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard (previously called Union Avenue). As the community grew, it found a home in the back of a large storefront on 7th Avenue and Fremont Street, which was spacious enough to accommodate the men’s families. In this new space, the community cultivated a family atmosphere that has come to characterize most of the community’s activities and fundraisers till today. Around 1968, the community had grown large enough and had raised sufficient funds to establish an official Nation of Islam temple and community center in a building at 833 N Shaver Boulevard, which occupied nearly an entire city block. The building became Nation of Islam Temple #62. It opened up to an entry room that housed social gatherings and regular meetings four times a week. Another room in the building was known as the University of Islam. In it weekend classes for children and, later, community college-level classes for adults were taught. A large hall housed Sunday meetings. Upstairs were the offices of the minister and the captains of the Fruit of Islam and the Muslim Girls Training and General Civilization Classes. The Nation of Islam’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, one of the most widely read news sources for the African American community, was sold out of another room in the building to make money to fund the temple and its activities. Funds for the temple were also raised at a market founded by the Nation of Islam, where male members sold imported fish and baked goods that community member made at a bakery on SE Halsey Boulevard. The basement also contained a kitchen where community dinners were prepared for sale at public meetings. When the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, died in 1975, the community embarked upon a transformation that required much rebuilding in the coming years. The new leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad’s son, Warith Deen Mohammed, gradually converted the group to Sunni Islam, and, thus, the racially exclusive and nationalistic ideologies on which the Nation of Islam was founded were officially abandoned by its members. While a great number of the Nation of Islam’s members nationwide gladly embraced Sunni Islam, others objected to its abandonment of the black nationalist ideals of the Nation of Islam. Reportedly about 75 members of Temple #62 converted to Sunni Islam. The community had to be restructured to accommodate the new beliefs and acts of worship required of Sunni Muslims. Steps were taken to abolish the strict separation of the sexes that was characteristic of Temple #62. This resulted in a much-needed conservation of financial resources by allowing men and women to pray in the same room. In addition, all official positions of the Nation of Islam’s infrastructure were abolished, and the Minister was replaced by an imam, who led the community primarily in matter of faith. Within a few years, the new community was established enough in its new religion to send a group on the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) with Warith Deen Mohammed. The community also moved to a 3,000 square feet house in North Portland in which a family that had been active in the community lived. According to the wife and mother of this family, the community members became “urban nomads,” moving within a year and a half to a storefront on NE Alberta, and then to the back of an optometrist’s office on Union Avenue (known today as Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard) within another year. Eventually, the community leased a building near the optometrist office with an option to buy. This is when what is known today as the Muslimc Community Center of Portland was established. This is also the time when the community developed a board of consultation (shura board), adopted a constitution, and appointed an amir (president) to manage the building. In 2003, the Muslim Community Center taxed its working members to purchase the building adjacent to it, so that they could once again separate the spaces in which men and women pray.
The community is run by the cooperation of many of its members. The shura board deliberates major decisions, and is elected by men and women who are considered to be “active” members of the community. The board is headed by an imam, an associate imam, an amir, and a treasurer, all of whom volunteer their time to the Center. Other members of the community also volunteer to teach classes in Arabic and Islamic law and to tutor children in the variety subjects taught in public schools.
Activities and Outreach
The Muslim Community Center is open for all daily prayers, and is well attended for the Friday congregation prayer (al-jum’a). During the Jum’a, 70 or so men and approximately equal number of women hear a khutba (sermon) by one of male leaders of the Center. Due to the rigid work schedules of many of the community members, the weekends are a busy time at the Community Center. Saturday mornings, classes are offered to teach children Arabic and the Qur’an. Some Saturdays, men hold classes in Islamic law (fiqh). The frequency of these classes is determined by the perceived need and the desire of community members to attend. Each Sunday, women hold their classes to teach the role of women in Islam and to give support to women who are new to Islam or the community. Monthly potlucks take place on the fourth Saturday of every month, and are often used as an opportunity to invite Islamic scholars, activists, and political leaders to present themselves and interact with the community. The Muslim Community Center of Portland is also active in community efforts to revitalize Northeast Portland and to build a viable multicultural community there. One of its leaders also hosts a weekly radio show on issues related to Islam and Muslims.
The Muslim Community Center is located in a storefront on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in Northeast Portland. Men and women have separate entrances leading to separate prayer rooms that are adjoined inside by a middle door. The women’s side has a small library and a classroom in addition to the prayer room, while the men’s side has just a large prayer room. The back of the men’s prayer room holds a small kitchen and sink area partitioned by a curtain. This area is used to prepare food and tea that is served after prayers and at potluck events.