Project History

To date, our fieldwork has helped us understand how Detroit’s Muslim population of roughly 150,000 has evolved over time. The building of mosques and the creation of Muslim spaces in Detroit is a deeply historical process, dating back to the late 19th century, when Muslim immigrants first came to the city in large numbers. Today, mosques and Muslims can be found throughout greater Detroit, in its poorest neighborhoods and its most affluent suburbs. In municipalities like Dearborn and Hamtramck, complex processes of immigration, conversion, religious revival, and ethnic community formation have created the largest, most highly concentrated Muslim neighborhoods and business districts in North America.

In the post-9/11 era, American Muslims have been portrayed as a new and highly problematic immigrant population. They are closely scrutinized by scholars, the media, and government authorities, who tend to emphasize not the historical roots of American Islam, but the challenges to national security and civil liberties posed by Islam itself and by U.S. policies toward Muslim Americans and the Muslim world. Our project looks beyond the “community at risk” models that dominate contemporary studies of American Muslims. Instead, we highlight variations in the status of Detroit’s Muslim communities over long periods of time, and we try to understand how local Muslims, using spiritual and cultural resources unique to Detroit, have successfully established their presence in a country that has often excluded or ignored them.

Detroit’s first, purpose-built mosque was established in Highland Park in 1921. Those who attended the opening ceremonies, according to contemporary reports in The Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press, were immigrants from “Persia, Turkey, Spain, Morocco, India, Siberia, Arabia, and Syria.” The mosque’s founders sought to create “a beacon of Islam in the West.” The conflicting expectations of this pan-Muslim congregation led to in-fighting; the mosque soon disbanded, and the building was sold in 1927. By the 1930s, several new Muslim associations existed in the city. Turks and Albanians met on Detroit’s west side. Arabs formed Muslim associations and mosques in Highland Park and on Vernor Avenue in Dearborn. Indians and Afghans gathered in a prayer space on Hastings Street, not far from Black Bottom, where W.D. Fard began preaching in 1930 and where Elijah Poole (later known as Elijah Mohammad) joined his movement, which became the Nation of Islam in 1931. By the 1950s, greater Detroit was home to well-known Arab and Albanian mosques, and the Sunni African American congregation of Masjid al-Mu`mineen, on Virginia Park in Detroit, welcomed foreign students from India and Pakistan who attended Wayne State University. In our survey of roughly 60 contemporary mosques in Detroit, we found that most of these institutions can be linked historically to the Muslim communities established in Highland Park and on Hastings Street in the 1920s and 1930s, in Dearborn in the 1930s and 1940s, or in Virginia Park in the 1950s.

Today, large, purpose-built mosques are a common sight in Detroit. Many of these congregations are old, but they are housed in new facilities whose grand proportions reflect confidence and prosperity. Their basketball courts, professional kitchens, media centers, and attached schools signal an expanding vision of the role mosques can play in everyday life. Meanwhile, small, modestly financed Muslim congregations are being established in abandoned storefronts, refurbished churches, warehouses, banks, and apartments. Together, these mosques constitute a sacred architectural landscape in which intra-Muslim difference is made and managed against a complex backdrop of new immigration from Africa, the Arab world, and South Asia, the spread of Islam among Black and other Americans, and the shifting religious and political orientations of second and third generation Muslim Americans. Since the 1990s, Detroit has also seen the creation of pan-ethnic mosques and pan-Muslim associations whose goals are to encourage Muslim unity, render Islam comprehensible to the larger society, and advocate for the interests of Muslim communities on the local and national stage.

Progress in Research and Programming

Since it began in 2004, Building Islam in Detroit has cataloged the diversity of Detroit’s Muslim communities, documenting and reinterpreting their complex histories. The project’s key participants (originally a team of 10 faculty and graduate students) have visited more than 50 mosques. Together, we have explored the devotional forms (prayer, teaching, celebration, mourning), design vocabularies (iconography, building shapes and features), identity practices (Arabic instruction, outreach, print and electronic media, cultural and ecumenical programs), and historical narratives (life histories, migration and conversion accounts, and stories of mosque building) that make these collective spaces Muslim.

To date, the Building Islam in Detroit project has produced two Ph.D. dissertations and numerous scholarly articles (see Links and Resources). Earlier versions of this website proved immensely popular; the photographs and mosque histories that appeared on BIID sites have been downloaded and put to use on other websites around the world.

 

In 2005, the BIID project produced a multimedia exhibition, Building Islam in Detroit: Foundations, Forms, Futures. Updated and redesigned in 2007, the exhibit has shown at multiple venues in the U.S. and abroad (see Exhibition).