American Renaissance

New Black Mosque in Pittsburgh to Offer Openness

Ervin Dyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Feb. 19

When a congregation of African-American Muslims cracks the soil on a mosque expansion project in the East End later this year, more than ground will be broken.

For a faith group that has spent much of its 84 years misunderstood and separated from the Pittsburgh black mainstream, the new worship space will symbolize a new openness.

A largely working-class community, African-American Muslims are gaining visibility here as more professionals appear among their ranks. With these physicians, teachers, attorneys and scientists comes a desire to reveal more of who they are and what fuels their faith.

One of those lifting the veil and pushing the community out of the shadows is Rashad Byrdsong, a former Black Panther. With his roots in community and social reform, Byrdsong, 54, and others are in the midst of a seven-year plan to build an expanded mosque on the site of the existing one on Paulson Avenue in the city’s Lincoln-Lemington section.

The $1 million project upgrades the Masjid Al-Mu’min (“believers” in Arabic) and promises to bring adult care, help for ex-offenders re-entering society and technology training to a long-neglected neighborhood.

Al-Mu’min’s plan coincides with development efforts by the nearby Mount Ararat Baptist Church and the new construction of a Kingsley Association community center, which turns 100 this year.

The mosque’s ambitious goals include housing and work force development and creating a commercial corridor that offers Islamic garments and hilal meat, which requires a special process for Muslim consumption.

A key element is a cultural library that documents the long history of Muslims in America.

“We’ve been here for centuries,” said Sarah Jameela Martin, a first-generation Muslim and local educator who made Pittsburgh her home in the early 1960s. “We’re just looking at ourselves differently.” Pittsburgh’s African-American Muslims are an orthodox group, subscribing to the traditions and practices of Sunni Muslims. They are distinct and separate from believers in the Nation of Islam, a more nationalist faith begun in 1931.

Their life in Pittsburgh has been marked by living quietly within their own social borders. Misunderstood by African-American Christians and demonized by Western culture, they focused inward, developing their faith and girding themselves against secular culture.

“Now, we’re choosing to reconnect,” said Byrdsong, a Vietnam veteran who runs the Community Empowerment Association, a grass-roots group seeking social and economic development in the East End. “And we want to bring folks a greater awareness and consciousness of who we are and the contributions we bring to a community.”

Being black and Muslim is nothing new. Among the millions of West Africans captured and enslaved in America, Muslim scholars say 10 percent to 20 percent practiced Islam, which they were forced to abandon.

As a result, much of early Islamic life in America remains fuzzy. It didn’t help that for decades, the community maintained itself in isolation. When it did venture beyond its own walls, its work remained underground.

That changed a little in the early 1990s, at the height of gang violence, in Pittsburgh and across the nation. In many communities, it was African-American Muslims who brokered peace agreements.

Often the face of African-American Muslims has been equated with bow ties, crisp suits and selling beans pies on street corners. Though that’s often one of the most visible portraits of followers of the Nation of Islam, a black separatist group that gained popularity in the 1960s, for orthodox African-American Muslims, there are no easy identifiers.

Byrdsong does not have the face of Osama bin Laden. There is no tangle of a beard. No turban. Nor any of the other stereotypes often associated with “olive-skinned” Muslims, the faithful who hail from Arab and Middle Eastern nations.

In fact, of the 10,000 Muslims in Pittsburgh, 42 percent are African-American. And, though it’s changing, like Malcolm X, many black Muslim men were introduced to the basic tenets of Islam in prison. The National Association of Muslim Chaplains maintained that of the 350,000 African-American Muslims in prison in 2002, the majority converted while incarcerated.

Byrdsong accepted the faith while serving 10 years for robbery convictions. Like many African American men, he said he wasn’t willing to embrace a white Jesus and found redemption in Islam and its prohibitions against drugs and alcohol and its focus on family and universal brotherhood.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Nation of Islam’s popularity declined, and many of its adherents converted to orthodox Islam. Still, Minister Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam, propelled the Million Man March in 1995, an event credited with contributing to dropping crime rates and violence in black neighborhoods.

“We’re seeking that same kind of uplift locally,” said Byrdsong. “It’s time to open up a dialogue that takes us out of the closet.”

In Pittsburgh, African-American Muslims are mainly working class and, except for the women who are sometimes identified by the head or facial garments they wear, fold into the quilt of black life.

There are other fringe faiths claiming to be connected to Islam, but the orthodox community counts its members based on those who follow Sunni practices, such as seeking Hajj, the spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca all able-bodied Muslims must make, and accepting as the last prophet, Muhammad, the illiterate shepherd who helped found the religion 1,400 years ago.

Martin, a two-time Fulbright scholar, is a keeper of the flame of their history. She believes the community here was organized in 1920 by about 30 families, those who were influenced by Moors who had settled in the Hill District and those possessing remnants of the faiths passed on from ancestors.

They worshipped in a small house on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District, before eventually purchasing the old library and building Mosque No. 1, the first mosque in Pittsburgh, also on Wylie.

In a post-Sept. 11 world, Pittsburgh’s black orthodox Muslims have forged a stronger fellowship with their immigrant brethren. After the Patriot Act tapped their phone lines, bugged their mosques and required many to register with the government, many immigrant Muslims bonded with African-American Muslims.

Because of the terrorist strikes, said Byrdsong, all Muslims became suspects, “but the experience made immigrant Muslims more aware of the racism we face and showed them many conditions here are similar to the Third World conditions that they can relate to.”

The greater fellowship translates to a growing political clout.

But when politicians head to the communities, they typically gravitate to predominately immigrant mosques. In the fallout from Sept. 11, their voices are louder, they are more visible, their outreach is more structured and, because of their elevated socioeconomic status, they offer more resources.

In contrast, when black American politicians approach Byrdsong, they do so, he said, in his role as a community organizer. His ability to gather black American Muslims as a political constituency has never been tapped.

It’s a problem he wants to correct through consensus building. Doing so, he believes, positions black American Muslims to reap the benefits of faith-based funding, the federal initiative aimed at having religious organizations address more social service needs.

Byrdsong said faith-based advocates know enough to invite black American Muslims to seminars explaining the initiative, but that more awareness is needed.

For example, at lunches and dinners to discuss the initiative, pork, a food restricted from Muslim diets, has been served. More sensitivity is needed, said Byrdsong. “Islam is at the table. We want to be recognized.”