Eid in America and the New York Mosque
Muslims in the U.S. and all around the world will be celebrating the Islamic festival of sacrifice, Eid al-Adha (in Turkish, Kurban Bayramı) today. Large numbers of Muslims at the Nation’s Capital and those residing in the Washington DC, metro area will perform their Eid prayers at the Islamic Center of Washington and Diyanet Center of America. These two significant places of worship and cultural centers not only serve asvenues where Muslims can come together for prayer, celebrate Eids, special events and socialize, they are also powerful visual remindersof the presence of Islam in America.
The Islamic Center of Washington, the first mosque of note in the United States, has a very interesting history behind. It was the fruit of a collaborative effort undertaken by a local Palestinian-American businessman, A. Joseph Howar and Muslim diplomats based in Washington. The mosque was conceived in 1944, when the Turkish Ambassador Mehmet Munir Ertegun, the father of the legendary co-founder of Atlantic Records, passed away suddenly as a result of a heart attack. The mourners realized there was no mosque in the city. Munir Ertegun was a devout Muslim, the grandson of Sufi shaykh İbrahim Edhem Efendi, and one of the most respected diplomats of the century who became the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in Washington D.C. just a few months before his sudden death.
In a newspaper article, Munir Ertegun was portrayed as “a soft-voiced, modest philosopher, with a wise understanding of people and nations… something of a prophet” who “shines in a city of false prophecy.” Howar told Ambassador Mahmoud Hassan Pasha of Egypt that it was a shame that the prayer service for “such a great Muslim could not be held in a proper mosque.” Eventually Howar, using his skills as a developer, spearheaded the effort to found and provided early funding to a committee to build a mosque in the U.S. capital. He was also the first to contribute funds. Eventually other Muslim diplomats helped in its development and funding.The countries that launched the campaign in 1945 were 11 countries from the Muslim World with diplomatic missions in the U.S.: Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen. In 1948, Howar, placing a silver dollar on the ground for luck, began work at the site on Massachusetts Avenue NW, the capital’s famous “Embassy Row”.
Prof. Mario Rossi, a noted Italian architect and designer who achieved international recognition and built several mosques in Egypt,designed the building. Objects from the contributor countries were skillfully woven into the overall pattern of the architectural decoration of the mosque. Egypt donated a magnificent bronze chandelier and the pulpit, and sent the specialists who wrote the Qur’anic verses adorning the mosque’s walls and ceiling. The blue tiles, similar to those in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, were donated by Turkey and came along with the experts to install them. The prayer rugs came from Iran, which are still in the mosque of the Center. The Islamic Center’sfirst director was Dr. Mahmoud Hoballah. Toward the completion of its construction, Dr. Hoballah said: One of the important functions of the institute is to foster good relations between the Moslem world and the United States.”
Finally, with its completion, the Islamic Center’s dedication ceremony took place on June 28, 1957. President Dwight D. Eisenhower stood with diplomatic representatives of 15 Muslim nations and spoke at ceremonies dedicating the Islamic Center. In his brief remarks, Eisenhower paid a warm tribute to the Muslim nations spreading from North Africa and the Middle East to Indonesia. He said the countries which financed the center have for centuries “contributed to the building of civilization” and have added much to the advancement of mankind. Praising the Islamic science, he noted: “From fundamental discoveries in medicine to the highest planes of astronomy, the Muslim genius has added much to the culture of all peoples.”
In fact, the lack of adequate prayer facilities for Muslims in the United States and a mosque construction project had been conceived decades before by the Ottoman Embassy in Washington D.C. and the Embassy Imam, Mehmed Ali Efendi. Muslims would have built a mosque as early as 1910s in New York had the Balkan Wars and the FirstWorld War not erupted.
Early Muslim immigrants who came to the U.S. in the late nineteenth century were predominantly from the Ottoman lands including today’s Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. New York, New England, and Michigan towns and cities had significant Muslim populations in early 1900s. Soon after Imam Mehmed Ali landed on the U.S. soil and assumed his office as an attaché to the Ottoman Embassyin Washington D.C., he was appointed to the Ottoman consulate in New York because of the larger population of Muslims in the city. Imam Mehmed Ali thus rented an apartment in Lower Manhattan, in a neighborhood which used be called as Little Syria. This apartment, which would later become the Rector Street mosque, or masjid, was operated by the Ottoman Embassy in Washington D.C. The mosque’s congregation consisted of Ottoman Muslims and also Turkish students such as Ahmet Emin Yalman and Ahmet Şükrü Esmer studying at Columbia University and who would become prominent figures in Turkey’s history.
The Sun article published in 1912, including an interview with Imam Mehmed Ali, shed a new light to Manhattan’s Muslim community. “While the voice of muezzin, calling the faithful to prayer, is never heard in New York, nevertheless the Mohammedan form of worship is carried on here in spite of the mosques and minarets” The Sun said. “The chapel consists of two rooms, soberly furnished, and rent of them, as well as the salary of the Imam, or priest in charge, is paid by the Turkish government” said the newspaper. “One of the rooms is the sanctuary and the other is the audience room. As the worshipers say their prayers standing, it often holds as many as from 75 to 100 and on the special feast days of Rhamazan-Bayram (Eid al-Fitr)and Kourban-Bayram (Eid al-Adha) the devout have overflowed into the two rooms belonging to the Imam himself… When the Imam sacrifices a lamb at Kourban-Bayram he invites friends to eat with him.”
It was also noted: “In the Rector Street mesjed, the same ceremonies are prescribed for entrance as rule at mosques. You have to remove your shoes and wash your arms, face and feet.” The prayers were held regularly on Fridays with extra services on Sundays for those who had to work during the Friday prayer. Imam Mehmed Ali said “everybody is welcome” to the mosque, implying his intention of making the mosque serve also as a cultural center.
The article said there were several hundred Muslims in the vicinity and in New England “and the Imam goes regularly to minister their needs.” In Lowell, Massachusetts, where the article referred as the Imam’s “parish” there were “more than 1.000 temporal or spiritual subjects of the Commander of the Faithful; Boston, Worcester, Providence, and other New England towns…. Since the Imam’s arrival in New York, the Muslims of New York have been adhering more closely to their religious practices.”
A letter sent to Edhem Nejad, a prominent member in the Young Turk movement who had also spent years in Europe and the U.S., shed further light to the intention of the Ottoman Muslims and Imam Mehmed Ali spearheading a project to a build a mosque in New York. Thus, the first phase of the project was renting an apartment to serve the congregation’s needs as a temporary space until the mosque was constructed. That letter was sent by a Turkish immigrant named Enver Bey from Uskudar (Istanbul), whom Edhem Nejad described as a person “known for his hard work among his countrymen in America.” Enver Bey in New York wrote: “Imam Efendi and we-all Muslims-will work on building a Mosque in here, we will make an attempt. Much money is needed to build a Mosque which is fair enough for the glorious Ottomans and Muslims in a place like New York where the land is very expensive.”
In his letter, Enver Bey of Uskudar said: “Mehmed Ali Efendi told me that he had lived in India, China, and Japan for 15 years and he speaks their languages to some degree. His English is excellent. He knows many of the Princes in India and has close friends among them. Imam Efendi is a very respected figure among all Muslims; he is not only the Imam of Ottoman Muslims, he is also the imam of the Indian, Philippine, and Chinese Muslims in the U.S.”
New York City was selected as the location of the mosque for the reason that it had a concentrated population of Muslims and was the largest city in North America. Imam Mehmed Ali and Enver Bey would lead the project. Enver Bey said: “I am confident that all Muslims in the United States will work for construction of the mosque… Imam Efendi went to Providence and Worcester will meet the Muslims there, then he will visit other cities where Muslims reside.” Several US newspapers had also reported about the Imam’s visits to the Turkish immigrants and lecturing in New England towns including Peabody, Salem and Lynn.
Edhem Nejad resented the lack of a mosque and wrote: “Shouldn’t we be sorry that although in America all people, all nations, have their own sanctuaries and Muslims don’t?
Regarding the mosque project, Edhem Nejad wrote “Before I tell you about Imam Efendi and the Mosque I should tell you that Imam Efendi and the New York Muslims want to build a temporary mosque in New York for the time being; a large room will be rented and its inside will be refurbished like a mosque… Muslims will congregate there on Fridays and holidays for worship.” This was the temporary mosque in Little Syria which was a part of the Imam’s apartment and which attracted the attention of The Sun. In a New York Times interview, Todd Fine, PhD student of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said “The Rector Street mosque in Little Syria offers an elegant way to show that Muslims also belong.”
Unfortunately the Balkan Wars and later the First World War negatively impacted the efforts of Imam Mehmed Ali and the early Muslim community in the U.S. in terms of funding the mosque project. Donations were channeled to the war effort. However, their dream would be realized decades later in Washington D.C. as a result of the impact of Mehmet Münir Ertegun’s death.