Muslim groups to celebrate 70 years in Baltimore
When Charles Rasheed moved to Baltimore in 1945, he found himself in a city with no organized Muslim presence.
The barber from Washington followed the teachings of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. Rasheed shared those teachings in his home and his barbershop, and he had a fledgling temple certified in 1947. A movement gradually took shape.
This weekend, more than 250 local Muslims will gather to mark the 70th anniversary of their faith tradition in the city.
The community’s leaders are viewing the festivities — a unified prayer service, or Jumu’ah, on Friday, and a banquet Saturday evening — as a chance to celebrate their forebears’ struggles and to set the tone for a promising future.
“It’s truly remarkable to have us all come together around one common theme — recognizing that we are a 70-year-old community that is still evolving for the greater good of humanity,” says Minister Carlos Muhammad, spiritual leader of Muhammad Mosque No. 6. It is one of four local mosques that trace their origins to Rasheed.
Carlos Muhammad, the national archivist and historian for the Nation of Islam, says it’s hard to estimate the number of people in Baltimore who count themselves as Muslims, though he says he would not be surprised if it were in “the tens of thousands.”
About 1,000 of those attend one of four mosques whose roots run deep in local history: Mosque No. 6 in Central Forest Park; Masjid Khalifah in Park Heights; Masjid Al-Inshirah Peace Center in Windsor Mill; and the largest of the group, the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore on West North Avenue.
The four houses of worship, members of the Greater Baltimore Muslim Alliance, are sponsoring the weekend’s events, including the banquet at The Forum Caterers in West Baltimore.
Keynote speakers will include early “pioneers” of the movement such as Jameel Ansari, 93, who became a Muslim in Baltimore in 1954, and Velma Muhammad, 76, who joined the community in 1960.
They’ll discuss what appealed to them about Islam so many years ago and why they still practice the faith.
Younger members of the community will also take the podium, including Naimah Sharif, who will discuss growing up in a Muslim household in Baltimore in the 1980s.
“We’ll showcase the strength and courage of our pioneers as well as the importance and determination of our youth as they carry the torch of al-Islam into the future,” says Imam Earl El-Amin, spiritual leader of the Muslim Community Cultural Center.
In post-World War II Baltimore, Islam struck many as a life-affirming belief system. Carlos Muhammad says the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, who headed the Nation of Islam from 1934 through 1975, included what he calls the historical fact that most of those brought to the Americas as slaves were Muslims, and nearly all saw their religion stripped from them.
Elijah Muhammad’s version of Islam focused on reconnecting black Americans with that history, Carlos Muhammad says.
In 1954, Ansari warmed to that message. He and other blacks he knew had long harbored questions about why their prospects were so bleak, Ansari recalls, but asking them was frowned upon and many simply accepted their hopelessness.
Discovering Islam “was almost like being rescued from a disaster,” he says, including learning that “we are all God’s children — you and me and every one of us.”
After Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, his son, W. Deen Mohammed, began to separate his father’s teachings from their primary focus on African-American issues, a move that caused widespread disagreement among followers across the U.S., including in Baltimore.
Mosque No. 6 is more heavily influenced by Minister Louis Farrakhan, who resisted W. Deen Mohammed’s changes. When Farrakhan and W. Deen Mohammed reached a rapprochement in 2000, it allowed local mosques to begin worshipping and working more effectively together, Carlos Muhammad says.
“There's no difference in the basic theology itself, just as there’s no difference between what Baptists, Catholics and Methodists believe,” he says. “We all come from the same womb.”
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