Islam in America Vignettes:
1893 New York City Muezzin
By Precious Rasheeda Muhammad
A snapshot from the New York Times December 11, 1893
August 31, 2007 | On December 10, 1893 at 11AM, the Muslim call to prayer (adhan), called five times a day throughout the world wherever praying Muslims are found, could be heard three stories above New York City’s famed Union Square. This was the same call, which, by the appointment of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), had been first called and perfected centuries before by Bilal the Abyssinian ex-slave and reportedly seventh person to embrace Islam. The “melodious” call, carefully documented in a 200-plus word New York Times article published December 11, 1893, came from the third-story window of the Union Square Bank building at 8 Union Square East. This building faced Union Square where, among many other remarkable events, 250,000 people once rallied for the North at the start of the Civil War (1861); where Emma Goldman, the anarchist activist against poverty, injustice, and oppression, once told a crowd of 3000 unemployed, “Go into the streets where the rich dwell. Ask for work. If they do not give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, then take bread.” (1893); and where, in the agonizing weeks immediately following September 11, people from all walks of life gathered to reflect, mourn, and pray for peace (2001). Appropriately then, it would be in such a place of historic precedence, with regard to collective action, that one of the earliest documented Islamic calls to congregational prayer in the history of the United States would take place.
John Lant, the muezzin (one who calls the adhan), was affiliated with the Islamic outreach programs of the nineteenth century statesman Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, the first known white American convert to Islam. In the Timesarticle, Lant is described as “…like Muhammed [Mohammed] Alexander Webb…a devout follower of Islam.” At the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions hosted in Chicago, today “recognized as the occasion of the birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide,” Webb was the main representative for Islam. He gave two lectures, one titled “The Spirit of Islam” and the other “The Influence of Islam on Social Conditions.” Muslims passing through New York City from the Chicago World’s Fair, which the World’s Parliament of Religions intentionally ran somewhat parallel with to maximize the number of participants from around the world, were also present that December morning. Congregational prayer followed the adhan. The inaugural meeting of the Society for the Study of Islam—likely one of the several study groups Webb established in the United States—ensued with a key address by Emin L. Nabakoff, another Muslim affiliated with Webb who later became his successor. The congregation ended with a discussion on “Islam in America.”
Whether awe-inspiring or ire-inspiring, several adhans, and the history behind them, have caught the attention of the American public for some time now and have been documented in diverse ways from oral history to a complete media circus such as in the following stories.
There is the adhan that is called once a day for a week from the steps of Widener Library—the world’s largest academic library and also home to one of the world’s rare Gutenberg Bibles. A member of Harvard Islamic Society calls this adhan during their yearly Islam Awareness Week. A Harvard professor once shared with the author of today’s article how she was sitting in her office when the adhan was called and the sound resonated so sonorously throughout Harvard Yard that it seemed the birds even stood still.
There is the two-minute adhan broadcast over loudspeakers requested by the Bangladeshi Al-Islah Mosque—in the once majority Polish and Roman Catholic city of Hamtramck, Michigan—that made international news, set off a national debate, and even ignited protests from, among many others, the National Alliance, a white nationalist and white separatist organization. In May 2004, Al-Islah began broadcasting the adhan daily after an unanimous vote from the City Council and a majority vote from residents on an amendment to Hamtramck’s noise ordinance, which would “permit ‘call to prayer,’ ‘church bells’ and other reasonable means of announcing religious meetings to be amplified between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. for a duration not to exceed 5 minutes.”
And then there is the goose-bump inducing adhan at the beginning of the Emmy-Award nominated ESPN short feature on the nearly undefeated Lady Caliphs basketball team of W.D. Mohammed High School in Atlanta, Georgia. As the call to prayer is heard, a resonant voice over announces, “…it’s a call to prayer that starts in Mecca, half a world a way, but is answered here, in a gym near downtown Atlanta, by a team of young women and their coach.” The clip goes on to show how these young African American Muslim girls played on to victory despite the constant taunting and hatred they endured because of their religious beliefs and modest uniforms, which included long sweatpants and headscarves.
These three represent only a handful of the adhans that have made it into the American public square and historical record. But the 1893 Union Square Bank building adhan is possibly the most significant as it is likely one of the earliest, and one of the most detailed, documented occurrences of the adhan in the history of the United States. It was located in the city know today as “the capital of the world” and was documented in the newspaper known as much for its slogan “All the News That’s Fit To Print” as it is for the idea that it is “the nation’s newspaper of record.” Moreover, there were Muslims present who were either from other parts of the country or the world making it more of a national or international event. Perhaps most notably, it was affiliated with supporters of Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb who was identified in the August 6, 1893 New York Times as “the first American to take interest in Mohammedanism [Islam] and introduce it into this country” and in the September 20, 1893 Chicago Daily as “the head of the Mohammedan or Islamic religion in this country.” Webb started the earliest documented mosque in U.S. history (in the Moslem World Building, 1893), the earliest known Islamic institution in New York (the American Moslem Brotherhood, 1893), and the first Islamic publishing company in the United States (the Oriental Publishing Company, 1893).
While non-Muslim’s exposure to the Muslim call to prayer may sometimes be seen as an encroachment on American culture, as in Hamtramck, Michigan, it was not the case in New York City, 1893. In fact, the 1893 Times reporter found it surprising that “…cosmopolitan as the city is ” the “…call of the Muezzin” had only just happened “for the first time in New-York’s history.”
All Content Copyright © 2007-2009 Precious Rasheeda Muhammad