Thursday, April 6, 2017

Old Islam in Detroit

by Frank Boles

In a particularly timely presentation Professor Sally Howell of the University of Michigan Dearborn spoke on March 16 about the history of Detroit’s Islamic community.
Professor Howell’s presentation made clear how deeply rooted Islam is in southeastern Michigan, while at the same time noting the evolutionary changes that help contrast Islam in the Detroit area with the faith  as it is practiced in the Middle East.

The nation’s first mosque was actually a tourist attraction – opened in 1893 as part of the “Cairo St.” exhibit at the Columbian World Exposition held in Chicago.   To add authenticity to the exhibit the adhan (call to prayer) was made from the mosque’s minaret five times a day. To the surprise of the organizers, who saw the call as merely an added entertainment, faithful Muslims would actually gather when called to pray. Surprise turned to delight, as this became something of an additional tourist attraction, and the fair’s organizer’s saw the prayer of believers as adding even more authenticity to their “exquisite and picturesque little mosque.”

America’s first mosque built by Muslims opened in Highland Park, Michigan in 1925. Like so many other immigrants these people had been drawn to Highland Park by Henry Ford’s Model T plant, and its $5 a day pay scale. Although the mosque opened in 1925, Islamic religious leaders had been active in the community for more than a decade.

The first religious leader in the community, Kalil Bazzy arrived in 1913. He was a man of great piety, but spoke no English. Before he left Syria (today southern Lebanon) he had received a note, written in English, by his brother, who was already in Detroit. Bazzy was instructed by his brother to pin the note on his clothing when he arrived in the United States and show it to officials.
That note got him from New York to Detroit, onto a local streetcar, and off the streetcar at LaBelle and Victor Ave.   There, too his utter amazement, he found a community “Arab, all Arab.”  As another immigrant related, “You could walk up and down Victor Avenue and not hear one word of ‘American’.”  Bazzy, a Shi’a, was a man of piety, but as some noted,no formal religious training.

Soon after Bazzy’s arrival in Highland Park, he was joined by another man of great piety, Hussien Adeeb Karoub, who from the Bekaa Valley, about twenty miles from Beirut. Unlike Bazzy, Karoub had received religious education. He could recite the Qur’an from memory. His brother Mohammed, who had already spent five years in America, recognized that bringing his devout brother to Detroit to lead a religious community would be of great benefit. Thus Karoub came to America. 
His Sunni roots at first made many of the Shi’a uncomfortable, as there was a long tradition of Shi’a harassment and persecution in Syria.  But Karoub proved a tolerant man who reached out to all in the Islamic community.

In the 1920s, the Islamic community consciously reached out to African-Americans with heartfelt statements regarding the equality of all people in the eyes of God. Many African-Americans chose to accept the faith. Other African-Americans would incorporate Islam into their own religious tradition.  The Nation of Islam, although today headquartered in Chicago, was founded in Detroit during the 1920s.  The Nation of Islam’s Temple #1 still remains open for worshippers in Detroit.
Howell told a fascinating story of the growth of Detroit’s Islamic community, as well as its interaction with Detroit’s African-American community.  Her thoughtful discussion of the nation’s largest Islamic community was one of value and importance.