It’s that kind of “I’m Muslim, so you’re just going to have to deal with it” attitude that’s so refreshing to me.
Before coming to Philly, I asked many of my friends there which place I should check out when I come. Every single one of them pointed me to the United Muslim Masjid in central Philadelphia.
This place was founded by Kenny Gamble, who’s a major music legend in Philadelphia (I didn’t even know he was Muslim). He opened this mosque in 1994 when prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers ran the neighborhood. Now Gamble owns properties on most of the block and built a certified charter school and even a Muslim barbershop nearby.
I walked into the mosque and found this word etched in the driveway (“Salam,” which means “peace” in Arabic) that reflects the atmosphere that welcomed me into the building.
One of the cool things about Philadelphia is how strong the Muslim presence is here. Even some of the gangbangers and drug dealers unknowingly have adopted traditional Muslim styles of dress such as long beards and rolled up pant legs as some kind of fashion trend. This boy in the mosque was wearing an izaar, or as I like to call it “The Muslim Man Skirt.” He was telling me that it’s not uncommon to see several non-Muslim kids in school rock the same outfits. I woulda worn one too tonight, but I didn’t get a chance to shave my legs.
I spoke at length with Carlin, who heads the mosque, about some insight into the Muslim community here. What I find so fascinating is how strong the presence of Muslims is here. He explained many of the Muslims here, including himself, were deeply rooted in the Nation of Islam movement in the 1960s, before embracing a more mainstream and less militant Islam in the 1970s. I asked him and other former Nation of Islam members at the mosque what motivated them to embrace the mainstream. He and others said it was an easy transition because the more he studied Islam, the easier it was to reject the Nation of Islam’s aggressive black-centric views.
But I still didn’t understand why Philly Muslims have such a strong presence here, compared to Chicago, DC or New York where there are plenty of Muslims too. One of the guys there explained to me a lot of it has to do with the Nation of Islam. In the 1960s, the Nation of Islam in Philadelphia got respect from just about everyone on the block because they cleaned up the violence and drugs in the neighborhoods. So when the Nation of Islam transitioned into mainstream here in Philly, they held onto those views of demanding respect and having no tolerance to things like drugs and violence.
Plain and simple, I was sitting among some certified Muslim badasses. Maybe if I ever get to their level of toughness, I could pull off wearing a man skirt too.
photos by Aman Ali