The History of Islamic Communities in Rhode Island (2006)

By the 1990s, Muslims had established more than six hundred masjids (mosques) and centers across America.[1] The approximately six thousand Muslims in Rhode Island are a dynamic and vibrant subset of this larger Muslim-American community.

Muslims began meeting in the 1960s and 70s in the student’s union building at the University of Rhode Island and surrounding smaller communities to pray and develop a community for worship and socialization.[2] This small group of Muslims would often travel to Quincy, Massachusetts just to find a congregation with which to pray. In 1975, they had grown sufficiently, and the planning for a permanent Islamic center began. The seven main contributors were Dr. Ahmad Hassan, Dr. Muzammil Siqqiqi, Dr. Najafi, Dr. Naeem Siddiqi, Dr. Muhammad Abdul Waheed and Syed Abdul Latif.[3] Members from other nearby masjids in Quincy and Roxbury, Massachusetts gave a helping hand as well as advice from their experiences in establishing a new masjid. These people and others who helped out in the administrative and planning process included: Dr. Abdul Waheed, Abdul Rahaman Bukhari, Jibreel Khazzan, Nurul Islam, Mujahid, Muhsin, Abdur Rahman Saboor, Malaika Abdul Bari and Wali Bey.[4] In July of 1976, the first meeting of the Islamic Center of Rhode Island was held at the International House of Rhode Island and about 80 members signed up. Funded mostly through donations from the larger New England Muslim community, in November of 1976, 582 Cranston Street, Providence, formerly a funeral home, became Masjid Al-Karim, the first masjid in Rhode Island. Renovations and additions soon followed to establish this two-story masjid that is now barely able to contain its expanding congregation.[5]

The members of the Muslim American Dawah center, under the national leadership of Warith Deen Muhammad, are converts from the Nation of Islam (NOI) to Sunni Islam. The community’s NOI roots in Providence date back to 1952, when Martin’s Barber Shop on Winter Street along with other homes were used as meeting places for NOI members. Eventually, members consolidated their resources and a meeting place was established at 312 Prairie Avenue.[6] Eventually, in the late 1970s, the congregants physically and spiritually left the NOI at 312 Prairie Avenue and established Masjid Al-Razzaq on 234 Pavilion Avenue as their new home from which they could begin their community activism for the social reform of societal ills within the scope of Sunni Islam.[7] At the same time, the community retained close ties with the larger Muslim community of Rhode Island, composed mostly of immigrants at Masjid Al-Karim, on Cranston Street. As the facilities in Masjid Al-Razzaq deteriorated, the community began to worship increasingly with the larger Muslim population in Providence. Eventually, a group of Nigerian Muslims bought Masjid Al-Razzaq in the early 1990s for their own use and to address their specific cultural needs as an immigrant community. However, as members of this community grew and diversified, the need was felt to separate to a place where the vision and aims were not as centralized around particular racial needs. Thus in the mid 1990’s, a group lead by Imam Akorede formed a new masjid called Masjid Zumratul Jannat (Mosque of the People of Paradise).[8] Not feeling fully accepted by the rest of the Muslim community, due to their past affiliations, the current members of the Muslim-American Dawah Center then, in the late 80’s raised the funds to establish a new location at 804 Broad Street.[9] Finally, in July of 1998, the community was fortunate enough to be able to expand further to its present location on Lockwood Street.

Often, Muslims travel lengthy distances simply to worship or attend a service. As was the case with the Muslim community in the Providence area, this often results in a movement to establish a new place or worship in a more convenient place for the more populous groups. The members of Masjid Al-Islam previously attended Masjid Al-Karim in Providence. However, the expanding congregation saw the need for amasjid in the North Smithfield, RI area for convenience and new resources.[10] This was also the case for the swelling Muslim community in Pawtucket, RI. Eventually, enough money was raised to make both of these dreams a reality as Masjid Al-Rahman was erected in Pawtucket and Masjid Al-Islam was erected in North Smithfield.

Although Masjid Al-Karim, founded in 1976 on Cranston Street in Providence, was the first mosque in all of Rhode Island, all of the communities are united through the Southern Rhode Island Islamic Society(SRIIS) and other larger groups, such as Islamic Council of New England. This organization is lead by Muhammad Shariff, Professor of Economics at the University of Rhode Island.[11] It oversees the larger events in which all communities commonly participate, such as the Eid prayers and celebrations. In addition, it provides displays and presentations about Islamic history, art and culture at local libraries and universities to educate the public on the rich traditions of Islam. All masjids maintain close ties with each other, coming together for the major holidays and events, while at the same time balancing unique individual identities of their own. For most Muslims in this area, the masjid one attends is simply a matter of convenience rather than allegiance.

Within the vast diversity of Muslims in this area, there is a surprising amount of uniformity in their aims, ritual and religious life. All masjids are theologically Sunni and hold the Qur’an and Sunna as primary sources of authority, and every one emphasized an all-encompassing vision of membership and participation in their community and religious life, regardless of sect. Despite its diversity in ethnicity and languages, each community maintains the practice of using Arabic in its rituals and services in order to maintain a sense of authenticity with the original language of the Qur’an. Some communities participate in a form of spiritual chanting called dhikr, which serves as a tool for the remembrance of God. Many Muslims in this area see prayer, in its juxtaposition of black and white, rich and poor, as a unifying and equalizing practice; in prayer, all are truly equal in the eyes of God and superficial distinctions become meaningless as one must overcome one’s prejudices and fears for a common, higher ideal. All masjids offer the basic prayers, and each stress the importance of an educational vision for its congregants, especially its children. In addition to adult classes and after-school programs to teach Arabic and Qur’anic exegesis, each masjid had or was planning for a Sunday religious school, with the eventual aim of opening up a full-time K-12, Islamic school.

Islam is said to be the fastest growing religion in the world: it is estimated that approximately 20,000-40,000 Americans convert to Islam each year and by the year 2010, America’s Muslim population will double to approximately 10-12 million and will be the second-largest faith after Christianity.[12] There is possibly no better support for these trends than the Providence area Muslim community. The community has been growing almost too fast to maintain itself, as every masjid is looking for new facilities to meet the demand of its congregation’s swelling numbers. A larger, refurbished masjid also helps to fulfill the educational needs and provides a sense of pride and belonging for its youth, even amidst the crime and dangers on the streets. The newest project for these Muslims is to establish a masjid in the Warwick area so that its residents will have a place to convene, worship and socialize with an identity uniquely their own.

All masjids in this area are open to non-Muslims and other Muslims alike to attend their functions and to worship, learn and grow together. One feature any visitor of a masjid would notice is that they are all facing Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest place on earth for Muslims, to which they pray five times a day. One may also notice a common simplicity that exists for all masjids in this area; all have a lack of decorations inside and out. At most, one may see elegant calligraphy of the Qur’anic text on the walls or as a part of the masjid’s architecture.

The Masjids in the area have made many efforts to improve the community in which they reside. For example, the concern many congregants had about the crime-ridden area in which Masjid Al-Karim (on Cranstron Street, Providence) resides and the impact that would have for its growing community were quelled due to a crime prevention initiative implemented by the masjid’s leaders.[13] Others, such as the members of the Muslim American Dawah Center, have looked to combat larger societal ills, such as teenage pregnancy and child poverty. The former mayor of Providence, Vincent Cianci, awarded them a citation of excellence for the recently established “Putting the neighbor back into the hood” anti-crime program that encourages communal involvement and service.[14]

Interfaith initiatives are also primary in the minds of this community as a key to living harmoniously and cooperatively through mutual enlightenment and active engagement of diversity. Therefore, many local imams sit on interfaith councils, including Imam Ansari, of the Muslim American Dawah Center, on the National Council on Citizenship and Justice (NCCJ) Interfaith Council.[15] The Muslim community also provides a Muslim chaplain to Rhode Island Hospital, the Providence corrections center, ACI, and the Cranston Training Center, a juvenile detention center.[16] Many congregants visit churches, high schools, prisons and hospitals to educate others about Islam and fight stereotypes that exist within the media. Many Muslims were in the news towards the end of 1999, as they volunteered support for the families of the victims of the devastating Egypt Air Flight 990 crash, which occurred in Rhode Island.

Surely, this is a community on the rise. Due to their efforts, Rhode Island is a better place to live, work, study and worship.


[1] Haddad, Yvonne, The Muslims of America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 189.↩︎

[2] Hameed, Abdul, Personal Interview, 4/20/00. Bey, Wali, Personal Interview, 5/10/00.↩︎

[3] Hameed, 4/20/00. The seven members also were helped greatly by their immediate families and Muslim contacts in the New York and Boston area.↩︎

[4] Ibid.↩︎

[5] Ibid.↩︎

[6] Ansari, Farid, Personal Interview, 4/11/00.↩︎

[7] Ibid.↩︎

[8] Akorede, Muritall, Personal Interview, 4/12/00.↩︎

[9] Ansari, 4/11/00.↩︎

[10] Abu Nar, Hassan, Personal Interview, 4/8/00.↩︎

[11] Bey, Wali, Personal Interview, 5/10/00.↩︎

[12] Haddad, The Muslims of America, 164.↩︎

[13] Hameed, 4/20/00.↩︎

[14] Ansari, 4/11/00.↩︎

[15] Ibid.↩︎

[16] Hameed, 4/20/00.↩︎


Bibliography

Abdalati, Hammudah, Islam in Focus (Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1975).

Abu Nar, Hassan, Personal Interview, 4/8/00. (Imam of Masjid Al-Islam)

Albanese, Catherine, America: Religions and Religion (New York: Wadswroth Publications, 1998).

Akorede, Muritall, Personal Interview, 4/12/00.

Ansari, Farid, Personal Interview, 4/11/00. (Imam of the Muslim American Da’wah Center, Lockwood Street, Providence)

Austin, Allan, African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook (New York: Random House, 1985).

Bey, Wali, Personal Interview, 5/10/00.

Haddad, Yvonne, The Muslims of America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Hameed, Abdul, Personal Interview, 4/20/00. (Imam of Masjid Al-Karim, Cranston Street, Providence)

Koszegi, Michael, Islam in North America: A Sourcebook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

McCloud, Aminah, African American Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

Rahman, Fazlur, Major Themes of the Qur’an (Minneapolis and Chicago: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980).

Smith, Jane, Islam in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979).
http://www.usembassy.state.gov/posts/pk3/wwwhiart.html.