Zaheer Ali has spent over a decade living and working in Brooklyn as a Muslim.
But over the past year, as he put together an ambitious archive of local Muslim voices, he’s learned a lot about the lives of the diverse communities who call the New York City borough their home.
As the Brooklyn Historical Society’s oral historian, Ali launched the organization’s yearlong flagship project, Muslims in Brooklyn, last fall. The project, which features 50 interviews with local Muslims, is going public this week.
“Brooklyn is a gathering place for Muslims from all over the world,” Ali told Religion News Service. “This project reinforced the multidimensionality of these communities, that we should not collapse or flatten the experiences of Muslims.”
The interviews, ranging in length from 90 minutes to three hours, will be collected in a permanent, searchable digital archive paired with public educational and art programs.
The participants come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds – including African-American, Yemeni, Palestinian, Moroccan, Kashmiri, Bangladeshi, Tatar, Haitian and Puerto Rican – and from 18 different Brooklyn neighborhoods. They range from 24 to 74 years of age, from unobservant to conservative Muslim and everything in between, and represent occupations including entrepreneurs, community organizers, clerics, medical professionals, homemakers, business owners, laborers, educators, musicians, artists and more.
Interviewees include a few better-known names in “Muslim Cool” author Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer, Bangladeshi Feminist Collective founding member Shahana Hanif, 9/11 first responder Stacey Salimah-Bell and Asad Dandia, a Columbia University graduate student who was a plaintiff in the 2013 class-action suit against New York Police Department surveillance.
About 22 percent of America’s total Muslim population lives in New York City, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding estimates, and among the city’s five boroughs, Brooklyn has the most mosques – nearly 100. That’s one of the highest concentrations of mosques in the country.
Brooklyn’s Muslim history is as deep as it is dense, serving as home to one of the country’s oldest mosques, the Brooklyn Muslim Mosque. It was established in the borough’s Williamsburg neighborhood by a local community of Eastern European Muslims, who in 1907 founded the Lithuanian Tatar society – later called the American Mohammedan Society, and now recognized as America’s oldest surviving Islamic congregation.
Another significant historical landmark, known as the State Street Mosque is based in Brooklyn Heights. Founded in 1939 by Sheikh Daoud Ahmed Faisal and his wife, Sayedah Khadijah Faisal, the mosque is formally known as the Islamic Mission of America. It was “an early spiritual nurturing ground” for African-American Sunni Muslims, as well as for many immigrants who were arriving in the mid- to late 20th century, Ali explained.
Brooklyn also boasts Masjid Abdul Muhsi Khalifah, one of the mosques that Malcolm X founded while part of the Nation of Islam, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. And local Muslim musicians like rapper Mos Def have also played critical roles pushing the boundaries of art.