By Samaria Bailey
As one of the nation’s most historic Islamic sites, The Philadelphia Masjid, Inc. has a deep and textured history that’s seen highs and lows — from the building of a thriving religious community to having its very existence threatened.
The Masjid was established in 1976 as a congregation of eight temples that were formerly apart of the Nation of Islam, and is known for fostering a robust Black Muslim community that produced devout followers, operated businesses and maintained an independent school.
Now rebuilding from a series of leadership and legal challenges nearly 10 years ago, their vision is to reclaim their position as a bastion for Black Muslims and the surrounding community.
“We grew out of a movement or a community that was known as the Nation of Islam, and it was a community that was independent in the sense that we relied on ourselves,” said Resident Imam Kenneth Nurridin. “We didn’t look to the East for direction, we really didn’t even look to America for direction, but we sort of looked at the need we had and our needs as a people.”
The Philadelphia Masjid has roots in the Nation of Islam’s Temple No. 12, formerly located at 13th and Susquehanna streets.
Following changes in the Nation, brothers and sisters left the main Temple No. 12 and other Temple No. 12 locations around the city to join the the World Community of Islam in the West under the leadership of Imam Warith Deen Muhammad. These brothers and sisters established the Philadelphia Masjid in 1976.
“Imam Warith Deen Muhammad … brought us the religion, the traditional standards that are lived by Muslims all over the world, but the unique thing is we didn’t have to depend on them for interpretation or application of it. It was based on what we as a people needed,” said Nurridin. “We began to look at the things that the Nation of Islam espoused — the white man is the devil. This was also like a shock treatment for our people and for the greater society and it was almost like a chemotherapy because white supremacy was a cancer. If you got cancer, you need a strong drug. The treatments of Elijah Muhammad were like a chemotherapy that cured us of inferiority complexes and it freed us to now be in a position where we can take responsibility for our own community.”
The practice of this do-for-self philosophy resulted in the Philadelphia Masjid becoming a house of prayer that empowered its people socially just as much as it did spiritually.
“We [had] a school here … We had businesses. We had a supermarket, we had bakeries. We had a fish program where we were bringing in fish from Peru,” said Nurridin. “So, all of the economic necessities were brought into perspective and among our people. We had more economic strength when we were isolated or segregated because we had to do for self.”
The Sister Clara Muhammad School was a special point of pride. For nearly 30 years, it educated thousands of Black Muslim students in academics and the tenets of Islam.
By the early 2000s, the Masjid was embroiled in legal troubles and leadership issues, which hurt the development and economic progress made in their early years. The school, facing competition from charter schools, closed in 2005 amid the legal battles.
“It did slow down because everything we did was centered around the children,” said Aazim Muhammad, executive director of the Masjid’s Community Development Corporation. “There became a period when we were not as visible to the broader community because we were always associated with education. Now that we are going through a rebirth process, we are placing an emphasis back on education and education programming.”
Muhammad has been a member of the Philadelphia Masjid for more than 35 years. He was married and raised three children there but he moved to California in 2008 and was away for almost 10 years. Upon his return, he began working in the CDC, leading efforts to build programs to empower the community.
“We have new leadership. The CDC existed as a seed but we have new leadership and he has a very extensive background in running CDCs, so his expertise, his zeal, his commitment has enabled the CDC to grow in leaps and bounds in just a year,” said Nurridin.
The Philadelphia Masjid still owns its property — 44,000 square feet, including the building and land. As the surrounding community develops, Muhammad said, the Masjid has a vision to develop as well, even as they receive countless offers.
“We get inquiries in the mail almost on a daily basis,” he said. “But nobody is bold enough to knock on the door.”
Muhammad emphasized that the Masjid is not interested in selling the property. Instead, they’ve designed a vision that calls for the Black independence and do-for-self mentality that distinguished them in their early history.
The development plans include multigenerational, affordable housing for seniors and first-time homebuyers, an early-childhood training center and a vocational training or building trades program.
One piece of the development that will be piloted this year is a culinary training program for high-school dropouts and ex-offenders, in partnership with YouthBuild.
“No one came from another city and started the [Philadelphia Masjid]. It’s African-American started. We own this building. That’s what made it special. And it’s the biggest one in Philadelphia,” said Khadijah Hameen, a member of the Masjid for 44 years.
Hameen remembered coming up as a Muslim girl in training when she joined the Masjid as a teenager. She wasn’t raised in the religion but she was inspired by the Muslim women in her community.
“I lived down the block from Muslims. They were in the Nation of Islam. I always liked the way they carried themselves, the way they dressed,” said Hameen.
She joined the Philadelphia Masjid when she was 18 and is still there, an active sister who distributes free food for members and the community.
But what’s been just as important to her as the family-like environment of the Philadelphia Masjid is the sense of empowerment that’s come from being a part of it.
“It made you love yourself more. You were able to have self-love, self-preservation,” she said. “We’ve always been here for each other. We know this is something we have built and it’s something that belongs to us and we are not giving it up. This is our establishment.”
Tauheedah Jihad, a member who joined the Philadelphia Masjid as a teenager and also came up as a Muslim girl in training, agreed.
“This is my home. This is where I started. We used to cook. I was selling [the publication] “Muhammad Speaks,” she said. “Since they first opened this Masjid, through thick and thin, we’ve been together. We will fight to the bitter end to hold this institution up.”
This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune.