Masjid Al-Jamia: The History of Penn's Muslim Students Association and the Mosque in West Philadelphia

Masjid Al-Jamia

This is a picture of the Masjid Al-Jamia, which was founded by the Penn Muslims Students Association in 1988. It is located on the corner of Walnut and 43rd Streets.

In West Philadelphia, at the intersection of Walnut and 43rd Streets, stands a magnificent mosque: the Masjid Al-Jamia. Red bricked and massive, this mosque is one of the oldest and best-known places of worship in Philadelphia. Despite the mosque’s fame, few know of the unique history of its establishment. Masjid Al-Jamia was founded in 1988 by members of the University of Pennsylvania's Muslim Students Association (MSA), which still technically owned it until 2009. Indeed, given Penn’s image today as a secular institution, the relationship between Masjid Al-Jamia and the University of Pennsylvania is striking.  This essay seeks to explain the history of this mosque and to consider how its relationship with the Penn MSA has evolved considerably during the past generation.

First, it is important to note that Masjid Al-Jamia today functions as a pillar of the West Philadelphia Muslim community. Indeed, the name of the mosque itself, with “Masjid Al-Jamia,” meaning “The Congregational Mosque” in Arabic, is a title usually given to the largest mosque in a given area, to describe a place where Muslim gather en masse for regular worship and especially for the Friday sermon and prayer service. At the time of its founding, Jamia (as its members often call it for short) was indeed the largest mosque in West Philadelphia, and among only a handful that held daily prayer services[1]. This is very significant as devout Muslims pray five times a day, and if possible, they do so at a mosque. In the past twenty-five years, the number of Philadelphia mosques holding daily prayer service has grown to sixty as a result of the rapid growth of local Muslim communities, and indeed, the numbers and sizes of mosques are still expanding here. Nonetheless, Jamia is one of the few mosques that can boast hosting around 700 to 1000 individuals for the weekly Friday sermon required for most Muslim men, simply referred to using the Arabic word for Friday: “Jum’ah[2]. Jamia’s massive following pulls individuals from as far as twenty blocks away despite the current plethora of mosques in Philadelphia[3]. These individuals are largely immigrants of the first or, at most, second generation. The majority are of African descent, although there are many with South Asian and North African Arab roots[4]. A large portion of the community consists of youth or working class individuals. At least half speak Arabic, a trait which is reflected in how the Imam rarely speaks English, and instead opts to give his sermons in Arabic with an English translator[5].

Given the Masjid Al-Jamia’s centrality to the West Philadelphia Muslim community, and especially to Arabic-speaking immigrants, few would surmise that a student organization at the University of Pennsylvania founded this place of worship. But despite Penn’s official identification today as a non-sectarian university, the school has had a history steeped in religious traditions going back to its origins in 1740. Indeed, for several years during the late eighteenth century, Penn’s Board of Trustees consisted entirely of Anglican Christian men of wealth and repute[6]. Furthermore, one of the leading figures of the evangelical Protestant Christian movement known as the “Great Awakening”, George Whitefield (1714-1770), was a key player in the founding of the University of Pennsylvania. Many of the earliest students to seek education at Penn came expecting to enhance their knowledge of the Bible and Christian traditions[7]

In the late twentieth century, however, Penn’s student population was increasingly diverse and included Muslims as well. By 1984, Penn students (who had founded the campus chapter of the MSA in 1963) were using Houston Hall for religious gatherings and prayers on campus[8]. Many Muslims from across Philadelphia came to attend these events, alongside the Penn Muslim students, who included graduate students studying religious and Islamic subjects. As more students and non-students took part in the campus congregations at Houston Hall, the MSA realized the Muslim community needed more space[9]. The organization hoped to found a mosque, then, as a community center for both the MSA students as well as for the greater Philadelphia Muslim public[10]. Through this action the MSA students also hoped to conduct what is known in Arabic as Sadaqah Jarriyah, or “ceaseless charity,” an action that, in the Islamic tradition, continues to accumulate good deeds for the actor even after his or her death with the establishment of a benevolent institution qualifying as such action. Since Muslims believe that the comparison of one’s good and bad deeds will determine whether one will be punished or rewarded after death, Sadaqah Jarriyah is one of the best deeds a person can undertake [11].

Founding the mosque took four years (1984-1988) from the inception of the idea to its realization. The Executive Board of the MSA led the efforts for the “Masjid Project[12].” They spent the first one to two years looking at different sites in the area surrounding Penn’s campus and estimating their suitability for worship[13]. The organization eventually settled on the Commodore Theatre, an old movie theatre and two-roomed space. They spent the next two to three years raising capital, establishing basic bylaws and meeting with the greater Philadelphia Muslim community on the progress of the mosque project[14]. The MSA raised money through several small scale fundraisers, such as bake sales and ticketed dinners, over the course of the next few years. Together the MSA students managed to raise over $100,000 for the purchase of the theatre. The organization placed the building into the custody of the North American Islamic Trust, an association that “serves as a trustee to Islamic institutions across the country”[15]. Upon acquiring the building, the MSA gave out an announcement that Jum’ah services would be held at the former theatre, and people flocked to attend. The students then helped with running the mosque and setting up elections for the “Shura Council”, or consultative council, for administering the mosque. This council was created so that West Philadelphia Muslims could be elected to run the mosque, while the MSA President acted as a liaison between the two organizations. At its core, Jamia was meant to be an institution separate from the MSA[16].  In the United States, argued former head of the Philadelphia Council of Mosques Aqil Abdus Sabur, there has never been before such a project where a Muslim Students Association founded a mosque for a Muslim community and then handed over the major leadership to that community.

Though Masjid Al-Jamia was mainly led by members from the Philadelphia Muslim community, the MSA initially went further than most other student-run religious organizations by stimulating activities within the community and aiding it along the way. From clearing out the rows of chairs in the old theatre’s screening room to giving the sermon preceding the Friday prayer and the prayer afterward, the MSA students were a constant help during the first decade of the mosque[17]. By giving the Friday sermons, in particular, they cemented themselves within the larger Muslim community and contributed heavily to the religious dialogue in West Philadelphia.  Beyond their notable presence in Friday and other prayer services across the week, the MSA students also formed an SAT tutoring program for the youth, spearheaded community service efforts such as tree-planting, and distributed among the poor the “Zakat Al-Fitr,” which is a charity donation that observant Muslims give as a religious duty to mark Eid Al-Fitr, or the “Festival of Breaking the Fast[18].”

In the following years, the relationship between Masjid Al-Jamia and the Muslim Students Association began to wane. There was a gradual decline in the interaction between the groups for a number of reasons. Over time, the constituency of the MSA began to change as undergraduate students surpassed graduate students in number. This younger demographic found it more difficult to relate to the Jamia community, whose members tended to be older[19]. Furthermore, in the past most Muslims students at Penn had some experience studying Islam and Muslims, and came to the University to increase their knowledge in that area. Thus, these past students had a greater ability to contribute to the Al-Jamia community with their deep knowledge. This knowledge was not strictly religious in nature. Often these students would hold seminars on Islamic history, art and even the architecture of Islamic civilizations alongside theological and Quranic discussions[20].

Aqil Abdus Sabur, a Penn alumnus and former head of the Philadelphia Council of Mosques, suggested that the negative image of Islam that spread in the American mass media following the attacks of  September 11th, 2001 also widened the rift between the two communities. Many students had parents who were fearful of any outward portrayals of religiosity. These students were told not to “appear too religious” and to “focus exclusively” on their course of study, which was often encouraged to be a subject unrelated to Islam[21].

By about 2005, the relationship between the Muslims at Penn and Masjid Al-Jamia had declined significantly relative to the 1990s. MSA members still conducted SAT tutoring for youth at the mosque, and even worked to help less fortunate children by holding gift drives during Muslim holidays. But the students never gave Friday sermons anymore, and, apart from a handful, they were rarely seen among worshippers at the daily prayer services[22]. Suddenly the difference of two or three blocks seemed like a significant distance. The Penn MSA leadership noticed this changed relationship, and around 2009 formally signed over the ownership of the mosque to Masjid Al-Jamia’s Shura Council[23]. Despite this increased separation, the two Muslim communities still came together each year during Ramadan, a month of the Islamic lunar calendar when Muslims fast during the daylight hours.

The holy month of Ramadan has often pushed the Muslim communities at Penn and Al-Jamia much closer together. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims have the opportunity to conduct nightly “Taraweeh” prayers to take advantage of the fact that the value of good deeds in the month are multiplied many times over. Taraweeh literally means to rest, and is a name given to the prayer to denote the customary rest between every four “rakats” or units of prayer. These Taraweeh prayers, though not mandatory, have a plethora of benefits beyond normal prayers and thus are heavily attended by even Muslims who do not normally pray[24].  These prayers go on until very late into the night and are only valid if prayed in a congregation with other Muslims.  As a result these prayers are conducted exclusively in large religious spaces with full control of their hours of operation, namely mosques.  Thus, Muslims who wanted to participate in such prayers would travel nightly to Jamia. On Penn’s campus alone, as many as 300 Muslim students and professors crossed the campus every day to attend the prayers at the mosque[25]. The increased value of good deeds also had more students attend the daily prayers there. Additionally, the collective act of fasting, a requirement of all observant Muslims during the daylight hours of the Ramadan month, further increased the sense of concord between the Muslim community on and off of the university’s campus. Since providing food for others to break their fast is a highly valued good deed, members of both organizations would hold “breaking of the fast dinners,” or iftars, where Muslims from different communities would break their fast together[26]. Countless Muslims came together in the 30 days of that holy month who, if not for the catalyst of Ramadan, were unlikely to have otherwise met[27]. This changed in 2011 however. Since the Islamic lunar calendar contains no leap year adjustments and is shorter than the solar calendar by ten to eleven days, Ramadan migrates throughout the solar year. The year 2011 was the first time, since the founding of Jamia, that Ramadan and the Penn academic year did not overlap.

Ramadan’s eventual movement out of the University academic calendar cut off a crucial link between Masjid Al-Jamia and the Penn MSA. Since 2011, the relationship has dwindled. Without Ramadan to bring people together, many Muslim freshmen failed to attend a prayer at Jamia until later in their first year. The most an average observant Penn MSA student is likely to attend prayer at Jamia is perhaps three times a month. Many see the distance as too far, especially given the prayer services regularly held in religious spaces on campus[28]. Even the long-lived SAT tutoring run by the Penn MSA in service of Jamia’s youth has dissipated. Indeed, the 2011-2012 academic year was the last year of the program. With its end, the formal relationship between Masjid Al-Jamia and the Penn MSA has all but ceased. The strongest contact they now have is the occasional attendance of community members at one another’s Friday services. Still, this may yet change. The Penn MSA leadership hopes to revive the SAT program and create a general mentorship program between Penn students and children in West Philadelphia beyond tutoring. They would like to aid these children in all aspects of their education using the resources available to them as Penn students, and hopefully reconnect with a community with whom their predecessors in the MSA once worshipped[29].

Today, it is clear to those who worship there that the Masjid has created a lasting and significant change to the dynamics of West Philadelphia. It has become a lively center for Islamic and Arabic studies and is always teeming with religious activities, from free dinners during Ramadan to Quranic study circles [30]. Furthermore, Al Jamia has attracted a vibrant community of Muslim residents and Muslim businesses in the area immediately around it, and according to Aqil Abdus Sabur has contributed to decreasing rates of crime in the region. In short, the Penn MSA has created a self-sufficient institution of lasting change in the West Philadelphia area [31]. In the words of Aqil Abdus Sabur, “This is a significant legacy of the Penn MSA, within the Islamic concept of ‘sadaqah jariyyah,’ or continuous charity.”

In sum, the historical relationship between the University of Pennsylvania and Masjid Al-Jamia is important. To be sure, the relationship has changed significantly since the mosque’s founding by the Penn Muslim Student’s Association in 1988. Today the mosque attracts a diverse West Philadelphia population, with many of its members being from African American, North African, Middle Eastern and South Asian communities. Perhaps in the future this connection will grow strong once again. For the time being, merely remembering this shared history can offer a foundation for cooperation between the mosque and the Penn Muslim community in the future. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Aqil Abdus Sabur interviewed by Majid Mubeen, via email. 25 November 2014. Masjid Al-Jamia Project.

 

Cheyney, Edward Potts. History of the University of Pennsylvania, 1740-1940, Philadelphia:

University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940.

 

Jesse Rogers. "A Crescent, and an Arch."The Daily Pennsylvanian, March 27, 2007. Accessed

November 15, 2014. http://www.thedp.com/article/2007/03/a_crescent_and_an_arch

 

Kim, Heon C., and Edward E. Curtis IV. "Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Muslim Americans." In Edward E. Curtis, IV, ed., Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2010. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp ItemID=WE52&iPin=EMAH0219&SingleRecord=True (accessed November , 24 2014).

Menvekeh Daramay Interview by Majid Mubeen. 30 November, 2014, via telephone. Masjid Al-Jamia Project.

 

Muslim Voices of Philadelphia. DVD. Directed by Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship and Mosque, Lajna Ima’illah (the women’s auxiliary of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community), Masjid Freehaven, Masjid Muhammad, Masjidullah Masjid, Moorish Science Temple of America, Inc., Temple #11, Muslim Student Association at the University of Pennsylvania, QAAMS (Qu’aid AmeerAbdul-Majeed Staten Hajj Foundation), and The New Africa Center (Islamic Cultural Preservation and Information Council, ICPIC). 2014; Philadelphia, PA: Scribe Video Center, 2014.



[1] Aqil Abdus Sabur, interview by Majid Mubeen, 25 November 2014, Masjid Al-Jamia Project, Email Message, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[2] Sabur, interview by Majid Mubeen, 25 November 2014

[3] Jesse Rogers. "A Crescent, and an Arch." The Daily Pennsylvanian, March 27, 2007. Accessed November 15, 2014. http://www.thedp.com/article/2007/03/a_crescent_and_an_arch

[4] Menevekeh Daramay, interview by Majid Mubeen, 30 November 2014, Masjid Al-Jamia Project, Phone Conversation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[5] Daramay, interview by Majid Mubeen, 30 November 2014

[6] Edward Potts Cheyney, History of the University of Pennsylvania, 1740-1940, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940)

[7] Cheyney, History of the University of Pennsylvania, 1740-1940,

[8] Muslim Voices of Philadelphia. DVD. Directed by Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship and

Mosque, Lajna Ima’illah (the women’s auxiliary of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community), Masjid Freehaven, Masjid Muhammad, Masjidullah Masjid, Moorish Science Temple of America, Inc., Temple #11, Muslim Student Association at the University of Pennsylvania, QAAMS (Qu’aid AmeerAbdul-Majeed Staten Hajj Foundation), and The New Africa Center (Islamic Cultural Preservation and Information Council, ICPIC). 2014; Philadelphia, PA: Scribe Video Center, 2014

[9] Sabur, interview by Majid Mubeen, 25 November 2014

[10] Sabur, interview by Majid Mubeen, 25 November 2014

[11] Sabur, interview by Majid Mubeen, 25 November 2014

[12] Muslim Voices of Philadelphia, dir. By Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship and Mosque et all (2014; Scribe Video Center, 2014 dvd)

[13] Sabur, interview by Majid Mubeen, 25 November 2014

[14] Sabur, interview by Majid Mubeen, 25 November 2014

[15] Sabur, interview by Majid Mubeen, 25 November 2014

[16] Daramay, interview by Majid Mubeen, 30 November 2014

[17] Muslim Voices of Philadelphia, dir. By Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship and

Mosque et all (2014; Scribe Video Center, 2014 dvd)

[18] Sabur, interview by Majid Mubeen, 25 November 2014

[19] Sabur, interview by Majid Mubeen, 25 November 2014

[20] Muslim Voices of Philadelphia, dir. By Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship and

Mosque et all (2014; Scribe Video Center, 2014 dvd)

[21] Sabur, interview by Majid Mubeen, 25 November 2014

[22] Jesse Rogers. "A Crescent, and an Arch."The Daily Pennsylvanian, March 27, 2007. Accessed

November 15, 2014. http://www.thedp.com/article/2007/03/a_crescent_and_an_arch

[23] Daramay, interview by Majid Mubeen, 30 November 2014

[24] Muslim Voices of Philadelphia, dir. By Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship and

Mosque et all (2014; Scribe Video Center, 2014 dvd)

[25] Rogers, "A Crescent, and an Arch."

[26] Daramay, interview by Majid Mubeen, 30 November 2014

[27] Muslim Voices of Philadelphia, dir. By Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship and

Mosque et all (2014; Scribe Video Center, 2014 dvd)

[28] Daramay, interview by Majid Mubeen, 30 November 2014

[29] Daramay, interview by Majid Mubeen, 30 November 2014

[30] Sabur, interview by Majid Mubeen, 25 November 2014

[31] Sabur, interview by Majid Mubeen, 25 November 2014

 

Masjid Al-Jamia: The History of Penn's Muslim Students Association and the Mosque in West Philadelphia