“How’s my hair?”

The most sensible question to ask the residents close to the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood (MIB), clearly. Today, Aman and I were going to be on NY1, a local news network, for our 30 mosques project. Since I have a tendency to look  awkward in front of a camera I wanted to cross my t’s and dot my i’s before they turned on. Aman, on the other hand, was made for this (See: Example 1 and Example 2.)

(TO WATCH THE NY1 INTERVIEW, CLICK HERE)

The Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood is in the heart of Harlem. The center was founded in 1964 by a close student of Malcolm Shabazz, Shaykh ‘Allaama Tawfiq. After the passing of the Shaykh, the assistant imam of the masjid stepped up – Imam Talib. Fast forward 20 years and you have one of the most important and historic Islamic centers in the US. Which is the reason why we had NY1 follow us today, and why my hair had to come correct — I felt like I had to represent.

The sidewalk that is under the center’s jurisdiction is painted green. Yusef, the communications director of MIB (pictured above), told me that they painted the sidewalk green so people knew not to drug deal, fight or loiter in that area. I heard of this infamous green sidewalk when I was living in Houston. I remember a story (which I can’t confirm) where one local was roaming Harlem intoxicated almost about to faint. When he came by the green sidewalk, he knew better than to collapse there, so he walk walked passed it and then fell.

Before Maghrib, Aman and I gave a brief interview outside the center to NY1.

The call to prayer was given and we all headed out to the lobby to break our fast. Imam Talib led the congregants in a supplication before we broke our fast. Aman, being Aman, ate his dates before the dua.

After Maghrib, Imam Talib brought us into his office to talk about our project.

Many community members came in and out of the office bringing important business issues to the attention of the Imam. One brother wanted a poster approved, another inquired about food, while a third updated him on how some of the events of the day went. It was clear that Imam Talib wasn’t the imam that just led the prayer, he led the community.

There was an aqiqah, or Islamic celebration of the birth of a child(ren), at the mosque so the food was provided by a family celebrating the birth of their daughter and son. Today’s menu: Rice, Salad, catfish, chicken, potato salad and some baked ziti. The catfish was made just the way I like it, not too greasy and plenty of lemon zing to it.

The majority of the congregants knew one another and all played a role in the mosque’s development. One brother served as the security guard outside, another served as the de facto historian – taking photos wherever Imam Talib told him. A group of sisters led dawah efforts and the weekend school program. It was clear from the get-go, Imam Talib and his congregation are establishing a model of how an Islamic center in America should run.

After running many errands, Yusef came in and sat with us in the office. I was amazed by the general respect and reverence the congregants had for Imam Talib and raised this point with Yusef. Turns out Imam Talib is one of the oldest community members at this mosque. He was the Assistant Imam for about 13 years before becoming the lead Imam  20 years ago. Imam Talib paused for a second and contemplated on this. While the Imam reflected on his history and his journey to stewarding this historic mosque and community, I thought back on my history and path to the present.

MIB is a predominantly African American space. There is a cultural familiarity that permeates the center and congregants that is distinctly “American” but at the same time authentically “Muslim.” As someone raised in the South Asian community, there aren’t many mosques I’ve grown up in or been to that have reached that kind of cultural ease. This brought up one question that has always loomed in my head – albeit a very cheesy one – how do we maintain our religious values in this country that doesn’t lead to dilution or the awkward choice of piety versus “prosperity” (both material and immaterial)? I dreaded going to the mosque as a child because all I ever saw were people who spent days and nights there, barely working or providing for their large families. Or, on the flip side, I would see those who would be successful financially, but would divorce themselves from the Muslim community. The existential question most Muslims in America ask: how do we strike the balance?

After we finished our dinner, Imam Talib gave both Aman and me a CD of Qur’an recitation by Shaykh ‘Alaama Tawfeeq, his teacher. According to the Imam, it is one of the first recordings of a Qur’an recitation by an American Muslim. This was an updated, remastered CD. The original was of course released on vinyl. I looked through the updated liner notes written by Imam Talib and here’s the part that struck me the most:

My teacher, Shaykh-“Allama Tawif was not a qari [Quran reciter] by profession, nor a hafiz of the Qur’an (one who has memorized the entire Qur’an). When I asked him why he had done such a recording, he replied simply, “to show that it could be done.” This was a burning desire within him – to always demonstrate that the Islamic family of nations is composed of Muslims from all over the globe, including those born and raised in America.

And that’s it. The recitation didn’t come from a trained reciter, or the usual figure, but by someone who said, “Why not me?”

The balancing act. It can be done and is.