Islamic Centers in the USA- Past, Present and Future

By Nasim Hassan, Delaware, USA

Looking Back at the Past

There was indeed a time in the USA when Muslims of all sects including Shia, Sunni, Wahhabi, Brelvi, Salafi and even Ahmedis prayed in the same Mosque. At that time the Muslims from various countries like Egypt, Turkey, India, Pakistan and Arabian Peninsula joined hands to provide basic Islamic education to their children.


Majority of Muslims were not concerned about sectarian divide. The purpose was to preserve their Muslim identity and transmit Islamic values to the next generation. Here I am referring to the decade of 1970’s. This is certainly linked to the immigration policies of the USA where people from non- European countries were allowed to migrate to the USA.


Although first Mosque in America was established in 1915 in Maine but the Muslim community was very small till 1960. The immigration reform act of 1965 opened the doors for people from South Asia and other countries. The first generation immigrants were highly educated professionals who easily found a space within American system and established Islamic centers all across America.


In fact these highly educated professionals laid the foundation of all inclusive Islamic centers without any discrimination or prejudice based on ethnicity, sect, caste or color. Anyone who had good knowledge of Islam could deliver the Friday Sermon, lead prayers or teach in the Sunday school.


I have seen many Islamic centers where Imam leading the prayer or teachers in the Sunday school performed the work on a voluntary basis. This continued in many Muslim communities for about two decades till 1990. After that the second wave of immigrants who came on relationship basis started to become active in the Islamic centers.


Present Conditions

This second wave is now running the Islamic centers. Although the majority is educated but I notice the growing sectarianism in most of the Islamic centers.


In this write-up I have tried to document my observations about the present state and make some educated guesses about the future of these Islamic centers.


Passing out of first generation Immigrants

I can safely state that the generation of professionals who built Islamic Centers in the 1970’s has passed on the control to second wave of immigrants. These people are more conservative and rigid in their religious attitude and thinking. This generation certainly has educated professionals but they simply cannot devote much time to the religious services.


There was a time when the in many Islamic centers the women were treated as equal and they sat in a designated section. Now the women are completely isolated in their own areas with walls or partition.


This caused the professional women to leave the Islamic centers. Many women doctors and professionals come only for Eid prayers and avoid being ridiculed by pious Muslims.


Segregation of Islamic Centers

With the exception of few centers, the majority of Islamic centers are dominated by the sect, ethnic group or country of origin. You can find Shia, Sunni or Salafi dominated centers. Also you can find center where Pakistani, Bangla Deshi or Turkish communities dominate the decision making executive committee and the board. There are a few centers where Friday Sermon is in Urdu, Bengali, Turkish or Arabic languages. Although they try to translate the Sermon in English but there is hardly any time to explain the message.


These days most of the Islamic centers have paid professional Imams. These Imams come from their countries back home and young generation born in the USA has hard time in understanding their accent. There are also centers where the congregation consists of black Muslims. In these centers other people also come but day to day operation is controlled by the majority community.


Conflict of Interest Issues

There are few Islamic Centers where the board of directors understand the meaning of this conflict. I have seen the centers where father is president and other family members are in other positions. There are boards where people from one ethnic group controls for years and they provide jobs or construction contracts to their own people. In some centers the president and treasurer are related and do anything they want with the money. In fact this has caused financial loss because the president and the treasurer joined hands and spent the money on loss making ventures without approval from the board. I have seen Islamic centers where three members from one family (Father, Son and Wife) were elected to the board of directors.


Emotional attachment instead of rational decision making

Perhaps the Muslims are the most religious people with great emotional attachment. This emotional attachment to the imam or president reduces the checks on the operational aspects of the center. The argument goes by saying that Qur’an and Sun nah tells us to propagate Islam. So we should not be concerned about the financial issues because Allah will provide us with everything. As a result the Islamic Centers are planned in a big way with schools and Imams etc. and then get into financial problems.


Many times people park their cars blocking the traffic and trespass other people property. They get tickets with their cars towed away but still continue same pattern of behavior. Many times in their zeal they break the county and state laws and pay fines but do not learn anything from their mistake.


Organizational Pattern

Most of the Islamic centers are being run like privately owned businesses. The group although elected by the membership controls the information about the finances and do not share with the general public.


I believe the majority of Muslims living around are not active members of the centers. They come pray and leave donation in the box. I have seen thousands of people coming to the Eid prayers. This number goes down to hundreds in Friday prayers and still smaller number come for regular prayers. As a result the people running the Mosque make their own decisions. There has been instances of mismanagement of money in many Islamic centers. This mismanagement sometimes gets exposed due to the differences in the board. After some time the story fades away and the same people continue on their selected paths.


In a nation wide scandal many people lost money while planning for Hajj. Many of these hajj operators took advantage of their positions in the board and people trusted them for their piety.

This amazes me when I look at American non-profit groups who continuously invite people to join them. In many Islamic centers the executive committee tries to exclude people from the decision making process.


Looking Forward To Future

Based on my analysis in the state of Delaware about 30 percent of the Muslims will retain their Islamic identity. The rest of Muslims will merge into main stream America. This figure is a rough estimate and may differ from state to state. There are multiple reasons for this decline. Here are a few of them.

Lack of understanding of American culture

The people currently running the Islamic centers do not consider the needs of young people born in the USA. The Friday sermons are packed with stories and events that happened centuries ago. They do not address the challenges faced by the young generation. Many times the Imams fail to communicate due to language and accent problems. The people leading the prayers are immigrants and it is hard for them to touch upon contemporary issues.

This issue will stay around till the young generation takes over immigrants born in other countries.

Few Model Islamic Centers

Based on my observations of Islamic centers on the East Coast of the USA, I found a few centers that cater to the need of the young generations. They are conscious of prevailing conditions and communicate with the generation born in America.

These centers are in every state including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. They participate in interfaith dialogue, feed the homeless people and follow the enlightened approach to the religion.


I do not see any future for the Islamic centers that use Arabic, Urdu, Bengali, Turkish or any other languages for sermons. There are a few centers where the first generation immigrants f eel at home listening to sermons in their native languages. The attendance is gradually reducing while they continue on their selected path.

Second trend that I am witnessing is the decline of strict adherence to Shia, Sunni, Salafi or Brelvi traditions. Young generation simply does not understand the differences between various sects.

This would be a great plus for the new generation where they will join any local area Islamic center regardless of the sectarian association. This change will come slowly in decades. I believe the religious traditions and values have to penetrate the American culture to survive in this ocean of humanity. We have examples of Islam propagating at the grass roots level in South Asia. The great mystics and Aulia Karam communicated the basic tenets of Islam using the South Asian culture and traditions.

This will happen when young generation of Muslims born in America replaces the current immigrant generation.


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