Background

Detroit has been home to Muslim communities for over a century. Its first mosque was established in Highland Park in 1921. Today large, old, multilingual mosques can be found throughout Detroit, and many of these congregations are building new mosques and schools whose grand proportions reflect confidence and prosperity. Recent immigration, conversion to Islam, and the shifting religious and political orientations of second and third generation Muslim Americans are also creating dozens of new, less imposing houses of worship. Small, modestly financed mosques occupy abandoned storefronts, refurbished churches, and the basements (or second floor offices) of benevolent entrepreneurs. Together these mosques represent a sacred architectural landscape in which intra-Muslim difference is made and managed. Even before the new immigration of the 1960s, the Muslims of Detroit were doctrinally and ethnoracially diverse. One of the oldest mosques, in Harper Woods, is Albanian, and Elijah Muhammad and W.D. Fard began their collaboration in Detroit. The city’s first Muslims came mostly from Turkey, the Balkans, and Greater Syria. Arabs are still the single largest Muslim population. The growth of African-American Muslim and South Asian immigrant populations has broadened the arena of intra-Muslim relations, and the accumulated history of Muslims in Detroit now provides a wide range of precedents for the formation of new identities.

Building Islam in Detroit will examine aesthetic, institutional, and discursive frameworks that have shaped Muslim identities and spaces in Detroit. Our team includes Muslim and non-Muslim scholars who specialize in the study of Arab, African, and South Asian societies. Some of us have extensive research experience in Detroit; some of us have none. We are historians, anthropologists, urban planners, a linguist, art and architectural historians, an archivist, and a photographer. Together, we will look closely at the institutions Muslims have built in Detroit, at their histories, their architecture, how they signal their Islamic status to the public (or choose not to), and the materials they use to mark their particularity within a diverse Muslim community. We will explore the design vocabularies (e.g., iconography, building shapes and features), devotional forms (e.g., prayer, teaching, celebration, mourning), and identity practices (e.g., Arabic instruction, outreach, development of websites and newsletters, cultural and ecumenical programs) that make these spaces communal and Muslim.