The below piece first appeared on Dawn News’ blog today. It was my first in a series of pieces on “Muslims in America,” where I attempt to show how Muslim-Americans are working to change perceptions and challenge stereotypes in the United States. You can read the Dawn piece here.
New York City is not only home to a significant Muslim population, the community is also a reflection of the city itself – vibrant, diverse, and colorful. Muslims in New York are South Asian, Middle Eastern, African, East Asian, European, and African-American, all speaking an array of languages and practicing Islam in their own culturally nuanced ways.
Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq, two young South Asian Muslims living in New York City, decided to explore the diversity within New York City’s Muslim community, visiting a different mosque each day during Ramadan – from Malcolm X’s mosque in Harlem to the Bosnian Cultural Center to the Islamic Center at New York University. Their journey, documented at 30 Mosques in 30 Days, gained an enormous following, with up to 1,500 people visiting the website each day to learn of the previous night’s discoveries. Towards the end of the month, they had reached their goal of 20,000 unique visits to the blog.
When asked what inspired 30 Mosques, Aman noted the project began as a simple personal experiment, since there were so many mosques he and Bassam wanted to explore in the New York area. They were overwhelmed with the unexpected number of responses they received from both Muslims and non-Muslims around the world, writing in to express their desire to pursue a similar experiment in their own cities or communities. What started as an innovative personal adventure soon became a way of connecting people throughout the world.
The two young Muslims wanted the experience to be as natural as possible, despite the subsequent media attention their website received as the month progressed. Ultimately, Aman and Bassam wanted to document what treatment any Muslim would receive walking into a mosque in the city. The overwhelming hospitality they received at each place surprised them both. On Day 28, Aman visited a mosque in the Bronx that had burned down the night before. Despite the tragedy, the congregation was united in their resilience. Aman, in his post, wrote,
Bilal [a man in the congregation] brought up one of my favorite sayings from Prophet Muhammad that really captured the mood in the air tonight. That the Muslim community is like a body. When one part of the body is in pain, the entire body is in pain. In other words, when one of us suffers we all feel the pain. But Bilal brought up an interesting point. He said this saying also applies to happiness. When one of us is feeling good, the rest of us should feel the same as well. He told me this was not a time for us to be sad and depressed. Instead, this is a time for us to smile and be thankful that everyone is here to support each other during the end of this blessed month.
On Day 9, Bassam blogged about the Masjid Aqsa, a predominately West African mosque in his neighborhood. He told me how a man insisted he stay after his prayers to eat, making sure everyone there knew he was a guest and should be welcomed. In the corresponding post, he wrote, “The hospitality during Ramadan has been unbelievable. There’s something in the air, and the weather only seems to get better.”
Each post on 30 Days further cements this notion – that despite their ethnic, cultural, and sectarian differences, the Muslims Aman and Bassam encountered were universally hospitable and inclusive.
Aman told me, “The Islamic Center at NYU was built by college students, while one mosque on Staten Island was established by a guy who worked in a factory during World War II. Each one of these threads make up the Muslim-American narrative –we are united by the belief in Allah, hospitality, and welcoming others.”
For both of them, these stories are instrumental in showing what the Muslim community in the United States has to offer, and how Muslims in America fit into the broader American identity. Aman asserted, “In America, we have different races, ethnicities, and religions, and for the most part live peacefully side by side. The prejudice and “clash” that occurred after 9/11 stemmed from ignorance and misunderstanding. One of the reasons we did this project was to show people that Muslims aren’t two dimensional characters…that such anecdotes humanize us.”
Although Aman and Bassam’s spiritual journey to 30 Mosques was only a modest attempt to break perceptions, their subsequent narrative indicates how easy it can be to break barriers, to challenge stereotypes, and get to know one another. Bassam, who recently met the great Abdul Sattar Edhi, said when asked to autograph his book, the renowned Pakistani philanthropist wrote, “Love human beings.” That simple message, Bassam noted, “is what it’s all about.”