Sources of support

Building Islam in Detroit has received generous support from several University of Michigan programs:

The Rackham Interdisciplinary Institute,

The International Institute’s Islam/Art/America project

the Duderstadt Center (GROCS)

Islamic Studies Initiative

Project History

To date, our fieldwork has helped us understand how Detroit’s Muslim communities have evolved over time. The building of mosques and the creation of Muslim spaces in Detroit is a deeply historical process. It has always required careful negotiation among Muslims themselves and between Muslims and the larger society. These cultural interactions have, over the last century, transformed neighborhoods and business districts into identity zones that are perceived to be uniquely Muslim by insiders and outsiders alike. In the post-9/11 era, American Muslims have been closely scrutinized by scholars, the media, and governmental authorities. Our project is 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 press reports, 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, and the building was sold in 1927. By the 1930s, a variety of 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 Afghanis gathered in a prayer space on Hastings Street, not far from Black Bottom, where W.D. Fard began preaching in 1930 and where Elijah Mohammad joined his movement, which became the Nation of Islam. In our survey of roughly 50 contemporary mosques in Detroit, most of which are now filled with immigrant Muslims and indigenous converts to Islam, we determined that the majority of these institutions can trace their origins, directly or indirectly, to Highland Park, circa 1921, Hastings Street, circa 1934, and Vernor Highway, circa 1937.

Today, large, old, multilingual mosques are found throughout Detroit. Many of these congregations are housed in new facilities whose grand proportions reflect confidence and prosperity. Their basketball courts, industrial kitchens, and media centers 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 African 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

Building Islam in Detroit is cataloging the diversity of Detroit’s Muslim communities as well as documenting and reinterpreting their complex histories. Since April, 2004, 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 mosque histories) that make these collective spaces Muslim.

An initial version of the Building Islam in Detroit website proved immensely popular, and the pictures and mosque histories that appeared on the site have been downloaded and put to use on other websites around the world. 

BIID has also produced a multimedia exhibition, Building Islam in Detroit: Foundations, Forms, Futures, which was shown at the University of Michigan in 2005 and Michigan State University in 2007. The exhibit was redesigned in 2007 and is now traveling to cultural centers and universities in Africa and Asia (see Exhibition).

To view the exhibition as it appeared in 2005, click here.

To view the current exhibition, click here.

For more information or details about the project, email ...