Photo of Nigerian Islamic Society of Massachusetts by Derek Kouyoumjian
While many Christians have been pushed out of their longtime places of worship, Muslims have spent decades configuring residential and commercial buildings
The soaring brick facade of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC), nestled between neighboring Roxbury Community College and Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, walks a fine line between monumental and quotidian. New England’s largest mosque clearly announces its function with its dome and minaret, while simultaneously its relatively plain red brick exterior gives it an institutional, secular air. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the ISBCC is continuing a very American tradition of mosque architecture.
Though more and more American Muslims are worshiping in newly constructed mosques, most mosques and prayer rooms were not and are not in purpose-built spaces. While desacralized churches are being retrofitted to serve as luxury condos, Muslims have for decades been engaging in the opposite task—finding ways to make residential and commercial buildings fit the very particular mold of a Muslim worship space.
New England’s reputation as a place of deep Christian devotion, initially dominated by strict Puritanism then by the vise grip of the Catholic Church, masks a much more complex religious history. Muslims first arrived in the region as enslaved Africans who, being stripped of all autonomy, would have not been able to openly practice their religion or pass it on to their children.
In the early 20th century, some of the first immigrant Muslim communities in the United States were founded in New England. One of these was in Quincy, Massachusetts, where a small group of Muslim Syrian-Lebanese families settled between 1875 and 1912. The mosque their descendants eventually built in 1964, the Islamic Society of New England, is the oldest purpose-built mosque in the region.
Muslim New Englanders were of course gathering to worship long before the building of this mosque. Because many of these early Muslim immigrants to the region were working class, and often planned to return to their home country once they had saved some money, they at first didn’t make efforts to establish permanent mosques and instead created ad hoc worship spaces.
Farther north, the counting house at the Pepperell Mill in Biddeford, Maine was home to one of the first Muslim collective worship spaces in the United States. Albanian Muslim immigrants working at the mill worshiped here in the first decade of the 20th century and when some of their number succumbed to accident or illness, they were buried facing Mecca in the nearby Woodlawn cemetery. And in Peabody, Massachusetts, Ottoman Muslim immigrants (of both Turkish and Kurdish ethnicity) prayed in a space they rented as the Anatolian Cultural Club and in good weather prayed in Emerson Park.
A subsequent significantly large group of Muslims came, or more accurately, were converted, in the mid-20th century after the founding of the Nation of Islam and the reintroduction of Islam to many African Americans. It was during this period, in the early 1950s, that the oldest continually operating mosque in Boston was founded. A group of African American converts, or reverts as they refer to themselves, formed the Society for Islamic Brotherhood (SIB) and in 1970 founded the Mosque for Praising Allah (Masjidun Li Hamdi Allah).
Located in two narrow red-brick row houses just off Nubian Square, the Mosque for Praising Allah is both architecturally and institutionally the predecessor of the ISBCC. In his office at the front end of one of the houses, Imam Abdullah Faaruuq told the Dig about the history of his mosque and its place in the community.
Unlike many other African Americans Muslims during this period, the founders of the SIB were Sunni Muslims and not part of the Nation of Islam. One of the original members was introduced to Islam not in the United States, but by the Turkish troops he fought beside during the Korean War. At first they prayed in the mosque in Quincy, but soon began looking for spaces to worship closer to where they lived.
The community had begun worshiping in one of the two row houses in Nubian Square in the early 1970s, before purchasing both buildings outright, as well as an adjoining vacant lot. In the early 2000s, they did extensive renovations in order to update and connect the two structures. Despite the narrowness of the spaces in the building, serendipitously, the long side of the structures are oriented almost perfectly toward Mecca, allowing the congregation to maximize the number of worshipers.
The early 2000s is also when the construction of the ISBCC, just a mile down the hill, began. The origins of the project to build a flagship Boston mosque at that location originated decades early with Imam Faaruuq and the Mosque for Praising Allah, who were the first to work with the City of Boston to designate the land on which the ISBCC was eventually built for a mosque.
Imam Faaruuq maintains a close connection with the ISBCC, frequently leading prayers and offering sermons there, and told the Dig that many of his congregants attend both mosques. However, he has no plans to merge the two institutions, as he sees many practical advantages to worshiping in a smaller space.
“It’s easier for us to keep this place lit, and heated, and cooled, and cleaned,” not just because the space is smaller, but because it was built as a home, Imam Faaruuq said in an interview. The domed space in the ISBCC, although visually appealing, is much harder to keep warm than a former home.
A large percentage of the Boston-area mosques that are not purpose built, including the former Nation of Islam Temple #11, now the Masjid al-Qur’an in Dorchester, Islamic Center of Rindge Avenue in Cambridge, Masjid Ar-Rahman in Dorchester and the Islamic Cultural Center of Medford, are in former homes. The Dig visited the latter two mosques, which were founded by groups of more recent Muslim immigrants.
Between the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (which overturned many of the strict immigration restrictions on non-Western European countries that had been in place since the 1920s) and the turn of the 21st century, an estimated 1.1 million Muslims immigrated to the United States. Late 20th century immigration laws favored educated immigrants, and those seeking education, and thus a disproportionate number of these Muslim immigrants are highly skilled professionals.
Many immigrant Muslim Bostonians first came here as students, and many of Boston’s biggest Islamic socieites are derived from college and university student associations. For example, the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) was organized as an association of Muslim student associations. They first established the ISB Cambridge mosque, and then took on the ISBCC project in Roxbury after the Society for Islamic Brotherhood were not able to raise enough money to complete the project.
Finding creative, and halal ways to finance renovations and building projects was a common concern for the leadership of all three mosques the Dig visited, since most interpretations of Islamic law see certain common financial tools, such as interest accruing loans, as forbidden..
Both the Masjid Ar-Rahman in Dorchester and the Islamic Cultural Center of Medford are in early stages of raising funds for planned renovations of their respective buildings. The Nigerian Islamic Society of Massachusetts, which runs the former, was formed in 1994. Its first members met each other worshiping at the Mosque for Praising Allah and Masjid al-Qur’an and decided to create an institution where they could pass on their culturally-specific Muslim traditions to the next generation. In 2006, the community was able to pool together enough money to buy a single-family home in Dorchester to use as a worship and community space.
The Masjid Ar-Rahman, the mosque created by the Society, is virtually indistinguishable from the other white-washed, wood-framed homes in Dorchester—only a faded sign by the door indicates that it isn’t a private residence. Inside, the living room and dining room have been connected to form a small but comfortable prayer space, while the kitchen has been retrofitted with spigots and seats for the mandatory pre-prayer ablutions.
Ideally, the Society would like to create its own mosque from the ground up, but for now it is focusing on rebuilding the former house into something that fits its needs. “There is a lot of wasted space, the space upstairs is too small to use… we are trying to think about how we can expand it into something more modern, something more durable,” Dr. Fatai Ilupeju, Director of the Nigerian Islamic Society, told the Dig, “but so far it has been accommodating to us.”
A full-scale rebuild is never going to be an option for the Islamic Cultural Center of Medford (ICCM). In 2018, the primarily South Asian immigrant congregation purchased the historic Isaac Hull House, the oldest building in Medford Square, built circa 1720. The Hull House’s importance goes beyond its age. Paul Revere stopped by the house, then home to Isaac Hull, captain of the Medford Minute Men, on the night of his famous midnight ride.
Humayun Morshed, President of the ICCM, gave the Dig a tour of the building. It has had many lives over the past 300 years, including (ironically) as a tavern and, more recently, a funeral home. Its age and multi-function history have resulted in a sprawling, maze-like interior. A large foyer is painted with a mural of historic Medford buildings and the hand blown glass windows facing the street are still intact. It is a strange structure, and not all that functional for its new life as a mosque.
The current plan of the building cannot accommodate the 150 to 200 worshippers for Friday prayers. The direction of Mecca and the footprint of the building are at an awkward angle to each other. The prayer hall is currently in a former viewing room that is not part of the historic main structure, and the IMCC hope to be able to demolish some of the interior walls in this newer addition in order to accommodate more worshipers.
However, the building does have some significant advantages. The location, for one, and also its history as a funeral home. It can be difficult for small mosques to accommodate the ritual washing of the body and other Muslim funeral rituals, but the ICCM has all the facilities needed for a funeral built in.
In her book Old Islam in Detroit, Sally Howell argues, “Buildings do not need to look like an archetypal mosque to function as mosques.” Indeed, in the US banks, schools, office buildings, houses, apartment buildings, theaters, and warehouses have been converted into mosques. The history of building conversion allows us to explore the making of sacred space, and the architectural, decorative, and ritual processes by which a space becomes fit for prayer and gathering. The history of mosques in America is a history of creativity, innovation, and renovation.
Mosques are not defined by architectural style, but by the existence of functional elements: a space to perform ablution and ritual cleansing before prayer and a musalla, open carpeted space for communal prayer. This large space must be directed toward the qibla, the axis of prayer oriented to the Ka’bah in Mecca. Often, but not always, there is a mihrab, a niche or arch that indicates the direction of prayer. Mosques also often have a minbar, or a pulpit. In the US, mosques have served as masjids, “places of prostration” and prayer, and more broadly have functioned as Islamic centers providing educational spaces, classrooms, and community halls, fulfilling the social and religious needs of the Muslim community.
Because many of the mosques in the US are not purpose-built, internal aesthetics and renovations have been the primary way in which secular buildings and Christian churches alike have been transformed into mosques. As Petra Kuppinger has argued in her study of mosques created from converted factories, office suites, and industrial complexes, “taking symbolic ownership of their less than perfect localities, community members transformed these as best as they can, using the interior grammar of mosques.”
To convert churches into Muslim space has required communities to remove non-mobile furniture like pews and renovate stained-glass windows. In converting theaters, sloped floors need to be leveled to create a congruous surface for prayer. In offices-turned-mosques office partitions need to be removed and walls need to be knocked down to create an open space for prayer. Often bathrooms need to be renovated and adapted, often with the addition of foot baths for ablution. Curtains, screens, and other mobile elements allow spaces within converted mosques to serve different functions so, for example, a musalla could also work as a classroom or social halls.
There is a practical spirit to mosque conversions. Converted mosques help us see how sacred space is not the product of formal or official architectural design, but the product of small interventions and choices: the addition or subtraction of furniture, the installation of carpets with decorative elements, patterns and lines that delineate where people could line up for prayer and help orient them toward the qibla. In the Mosque for Praising Allah, elements like beautiful carpets printed with floriated columns and pointed arches, electronic clocks displaying prayer times, a sound system, shoe racks, and updated bathrooms with automated sinks were all interior interventions that turned these row houses into an important religious space.
Sacred space is ritual space, and as Muslim communities adapt and repurpose buildings they create spaces hospitable to and appropriate for prayer. Ritual and embodied practices do the work of consecrating spaces—“through the spoken word, prayer, and the remembrance of sacred events, space is made Muslim…” So it is the combination of creative adaptation through the addition of interior elements, and the consistent use of these spaces for salat and community gatherings that allow for the creation of Muslim space in buildings that were formally homes or offices.
“I think the utilization of already established spaces and having them converted so that they can be used as a worship space is a wonderful thing,” Imam Faaruuq of the Mosque for Praising Allah told the Dig. “[However], we would prefer to build places of worship and schools from the ground up.”
To this end, Imam Faaruuq shared his plans for building a new mixed-use building on the site of his current mosque and adjoining lot. The elegantly designed and sleek new building would include 38 to 42 units of mixed income housing, a restaurant, bookstore, cafe, and a purpose-built mosque space with all the accompanying facilities needed to run the mosque and accommodate the congregation.
One of the first mosques was also a mixed-use building, and also located in a predominantly non-Muslim city. After the Prophet Mohammed was forced to flee Mecca, he built a home in the city of Medina, and added a large open courtyard for worship. Now, nearly 1,400 years later and 6,000 miles away, this earliest of Muslim design traditions is coming full circle. But both the building itself and the thinking behind it are fully grounded in modern concerns and sensibilities.
The building’s architects have proposed unique design elements, such as a white filigree pattern on tall glass panels that elevate the look of the building beyond the modern condo aesthetic. Not only is the look of the building modern, but it would incorporate green design elements, including solar panels and a roof garden. The housing units in the building would be publicly available as rental units and help finance the overall building project and long term maintenance costs. The whole project is aptly being called New Madinah.
It’s wonderful to rely on tradition for certain things, Imam Faaruuq told the Dig, but as an institution “you have got to think progressively.”
Imam Faaruuq’s project recently hit an impasse, however, when the Boston Parks and Recreation Department denied a request to cut down two street trees whose canopies are blocking areas that would fall within the new building space. Developers cut down large trees all the time without consulting anyone if they own the land where the tree is rooted, but the fact that these trees are on the street, and thus municipal land, gives the city power to block development simply by denying a request for their removal. He is now taking his proposal directly to Boston City Council in hopes of approval.
Whether the New Medinah project comes to fruition or not, the future of Boston mosques is more likely to resemble mixed-use development than standalone sanctuaries with domes and minarets. All three of the mosque leaders who the Dig spoke with mentioned the lack of available land as a major factor in their community’s decision to buy the buildings they occupy. Empty lots in metro Boston are only going to become more rare as more and more new buildings go up in response to the city’s housing crunch.
A 2016 study of a mosque using a converted church in Amsterdam reported that the mosque’s leadership wished their building reflected its new nature as a mosque. In Boston, the opposite seems to be true. The leadership of Boston’s homes turned mosques are more than happy to have their buildings continue to reflect their domestic origins.
Even if they had the chance to rebuild the space from scratch, Dr. Ilupeju of the Nigerian Islamic Society of Massachusetts said the new building’s exterior would not necessarily be all that different.
“You think, Oh, let’s build something that looks like a big masjid, so everybody [knows what it is].’ No, that’s not the way it works. Once you try to blend in the community, that makes more sense… The issue of a big minaret, that’s not what Islam is. It is what is in your heart.”
This article, part of a three-part series, was made possible in part with support from Sacred Writes, a Henry Luce Foundation-funded project hosted by Northeastern University that promotes public scholarship on religion, and was edited in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and DigBoston.
Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada is Assistant Professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College. She is the author of Lifeblood of the Parish: Men and Catholic Devotion in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (NYU Press, 2020) and is editor of the journal Material Religion: The Journal of Art, Objects and Belief. You can follow her work at alyssamaldonadoestrada.com and follow her on twitter @emoprofessor.
Claire Sadar is a freelance journalist covering religion, politics, social justice, and their intersections. You can follow her work at ClaireSadar.com and on twitter @KARepublic.