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August 24, 09

NEWS / Mosque in Portland, Oregon, Reflects History of Islam in America

Over time, mosque broadened its outreach and community involvement

By Steve Holgate
Special Correspondent

Portland, Oregon — Many things about this particular mosque don’t conform to the popular image shared by most Americans. The modest one-story building, with its co-located community center, boasts no minaret or dome. It has no high ceilings. Ironically, it is located on a street named after a Baptist minister, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet the members of the Muslim Community Center can trace their institution back further than any other mosque in Portland, Oregon. And its story reflects the recent history of Islam, not only in its home city, but in the United States, changing from a community focused on racial separatism to one that is open to all.

According to Shaheed Hamid, the mosque’s imam, the mosque was established in 1968 as part of the Nation of Islam, an order that was then the most prominent Muslim group in the United States. The Nation of Islam and its most famous adherent, Malcolm X, preached a message of self-reliance and racial separatism. According to Hamid, the members of its Portland community fit that mold at that time.

Hamid, a stocky man who looks younger than his 60-some years, says that the Nation of Islam must be understood in the context of its time, with the group coming out of the American civil rights movement. Though its tenets were very different from those of most Muslims around the world, Hamid indicates that the Nation of Islam’s members largely were unaware of this. “Though we weren’t practicing pristine Islam,” he says, “you’d be pretty hard-pressed to say that we didn’t think we were Muslims.”

With the death of its leader, Elijah Muhammad, in 1975, the Nation of Islam began a transition. The impetus for change came from Elijah Muhammad’s son, W.D. Muhammad, who said, “Any true religion has to be for all people.” This was much the same message that Malcolm X had begun to preach a decade earlier, but now it had been accepted as the truth.

This marked the beginning of dramatic changes for Portland’s Muslim Community Center. The transition was gradual, however, as members began modifying prayer services, how they observed Ramadan and their study of the Quran. Though the center and mosque still served a primarily African-American community, they broadened the call to include all groups.

With a new identity, the mosque in Portland took on a new role and became more active in the broader community.

The mosque began to encourage and participate in interfaith dialogues, reaching out to the local Christian and Jewish communities. The center began playing an active role in local political issues, inviting candidates and officeholders to dialogues with members of the mosque. Members have also participated in several “Days of Dignity,” going to homeless people to offer soap and toothbrushes and other personal hygiene items, and inviting them to the mosque.

The Portland community has reached back. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Hamid says, the mosque “received great support from the local police,” with two plainclothes officers supplying security during Friday prayers. Though the mosque received a few menacing telephone calls, Hamid says they were more than matched by many calls of support from Portlanders, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Hamid says that a number of non-Muslim women offered to dress in Muslim garb as a show of solidarity, and accompany women from the mosque to grocery stores and on other errands.

He says the mosque emphasizes that Islam is a peaceful religion. “Allah orders us to be just, and to work toward bettering humanity,” Hamid says. “That’s Islam. We recognize that some segments of the Muslim community work against this, such as the Taliban and al-Qaida. We see them as corrupting the message of Islam.”

While the Muslim Community Center and its mosque may have been the first of their kind in Oregon, they no longer are alone. Since the 1980s, a number of other mosques have been established, starting with one to serve Muslim university students in Portland. Other mosques serve Turkish, Yemeni and South Asian communities, as well as others. Relations among the mosques, Hamid says, “are excellent.” He adds: “We are trying to be more visible, to admit persons of every ethnic persuasion and racial hue. Our services are open to all.”

The Muslim Community Center and its mosque have come a long way from the days of separatism. They have taken on an important and productive role in the larger community.


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