Good Job

M asjid Al-Islam has no minaret, but it does have a chimney. Instead of a golden dome it has a shingle-covered pyramid roof. Instead of arabesque arches it has Victorian-style molding. Instead of a courtyard it has a rear parking lot.

Just south of Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Saint Raphael Campus, the mosque doesn’t look much different than most of the other single-family homes around it. But if it wasn’t for the mosque, this neighborhood would look very different.

In 1987, Masjid Al-Islam was just a small break-off congregation that met in a Dixwell Avenue warehouse, led by New Britain native and not-yet-famous Muslim-American scholar Zaid Shakir. Upon returning in 1987 from studying the faith in Syria, Shakir moved to New Haven and quickly attracted a following, mostly serving local black Muslims eager to practice in closer alignment with their 1,400-year-old religion’s roots.

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With black nationalism’s rise during civil rights-era America, Islam gained steam among conscientious blacks—an alternative to Christianity, the “white man’s religion” that’d been foisted upon their ancestors. Zealous embrace of a more reactionary sort of Islam gave rise to religiopolitical organizations like the Nation of Islam that, mostly unguided by scriptural scholarship, were far removed from the religion’s deeper traditions. As time went on and black Muslims like Shakir made pilgrimage to the Middle East, they began to see a much more accepting and intricate variety of Islam than the narrower American-spun versions.

Masjid Al-Islam has a strong foundation in that more nuanced Islamic practice, with a diverse membership comprised of Americans, of course, but also of people born in Jordan, Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, Togo, Albania, Palestine and even Puerto Rico. The imam, Hafith Abdul Hannan—who leads prayers—is from Pakistan.

But for all its openness, Masjid Al-Islam has also had to be hard-nosed. When it moved to its current location on George Street in 1995, the area was hanging on by a thread. Houses sat abandoned, especially along nearby Gilbert Avenue. The neighborhood teemed with drug dealers, many of whom spoke with Jamaican-tinged English or, when that wasn’t effective, a handgun.

New Haven Police officer and Masjid Al-Islam member Shafiq Abdussabur recalls a pivotal story that occurred not long after the mosque moved to George. Brother Mustapha Abdus-Shakur—a black Muslim with a “Samuel L. Jackson-like build” and a similar personality, according to Abdussabar—told a local drug dealer not to hawk his wares near the mosque. A verbal conflict then turned physical, ending when Abdus-Shakur tossed him over a fence. The dealer went off, threatening to come back and shoot up the congregation.

Instead of calling the police or barricading its windows, the congregants went out onto Gilbert Avenue and held an unusual afternoon prayer vigil—a show of strength, replete with pistols, shotguns and other weapons on display. (A number of the congregation had permits.)

A few days later, the dealer Mustapha threw over the fence came back singing a very different tune. “I can see you’ve moved in here,” he said. “So, where can I sell drugs?”

Abdus-Shakur’s mandate: “Anywhere I can see you is too close.”

Over the next few years, there were many more encounters, and at every turn the dealers ended up moving further away. When a Muslim congregant moved into a house on Greenwood Street, Masjid Al-Islam’s ‘turf’ went with it, pushing dealers even further west. The mosque’s members continued buying up and repairing properties in the area, also setting up regular night patrols. And steadily, without a single shot ever fired, Masjid Al-Islam helped pushed local drug dealers out of the neighborhood.

In 2002, honoring the work Masjid Al-Islam has done in the area, the city of New Haven named a corner at Gilbert Avenue and Greenwood Street “Nabi Muhammad Corner.” (“Nabi” means “prophet” in Arabic.) A green street sign still declares it.

Muslims might call Masjid Al-Islam’s efforts “good deeds.” Christians might call them “good works.”

Others can simply say, “Good job.”

Masjid Al-Islam
624 George St, New Haven (map)
(203) 777-8004

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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