By Dave Oedel
Macon is regularly reported to be a community with more Christian churches per capita than almost any other community in the United States. But no one talks about Muslim diversity in Macon. Macon has some of that too.
A little evidence of Muslim Macon can be seen easily. Much can’t.
Some things outsiders can see are the formally dressed African American men and boys distributing copies of the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, “The Final Call,” on Second Street at Ell, and on Napier Avenue at Log Cabin, in Macon-Bibb. Another thing in public evidence: the head-coverings, or hijab, worn by some but not all Muslim women when out in public in Middle Georgia.
Also in public view are the four publicly notable mosque buildings in Middle Georgia, if you know where to look for them. Travelers along four local thoroughfares routinely pass them — the Islamic Center on Vineville Avenue at Lamar in Macon, the Muhammad Mosque on Third Street at Wood in Macon, the Masjid Warith-ud deen Mohammed Mosque at 4525 Bloomfield Road in Macon, and the Islamic Center at 2501 Elberta Road in Centerville, Warner Robins.
These four mosques and their congregations mark local differences among Macon’s Muslims, in some ways suggestive of the differences that distinguish Muslims outside the United States, but also reflecting American racial, ethnic, economic and political differences.
The Muhammad Mosque is allied with the Nation of Islam under Minister Louis Farrakhan of Chicago. The Nation of Islam is an American-grown version of Islam following the lead of its founder, Elijah Muhammad, tracing also from key affiliations with Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Elijah Muhammad’s first wife, Clara, who was born in Macon and is known as the First Lady of the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam concentrates on issues of African Americans and the legacy of slavery.
One of Elijah and Clara’s sons, Warith Deen Muhammed, assumed leadership of the Nation of Islam in 1975, and helped ensure that Clara’s legacy as a nationally prominent advocate of religious home schooling would endure. With fourteen of Macon’s predominantly black schools having been designated this past week as failing schools by the state of Georgia, the concept of home schooling retains at least conceptual, if not-always-practical, vitality in Macon.
Under Louis Farrakhan’s leadership since the 1980s, the Nation of Islam has focused on black empowerment and overcoming the “prison without bars” that Farrakhan has described as characteristic of his own black American experience. Farrakhan has occasionally been involved in controversies. The Southern Poverty Law Foundation, for instance, has tagged Farrakhan as anti-semitic and anti-white, but Farrakhan rejects such characterizations, basically describing himself as pro-black.
Despite his advocacy for African American interests and black empowerment in Macon, former Macon Mayor C. Jack Ellis, who for a time took the name of Hakim Mansour Ellis, was not a member of the Nation of Islam. He instead joined a Sunni sect of Islam in Senegal, Africa, during his mayoralty, but later returned to worship as a Christian in the United States.
The Masjid Mosque also largely serves African-American citizens of Macon. Its imam, Zarif Shamsid-deen, an American birthright citizen and African American who worked as a prison imam/chaplain for many years before coming to Macon, distinguished his congregation from the Farrakhan-related Muhammad Mosque in Macon.
The Masjid Mosque on Bloomfield Road, unlike the Mohammed Mosque on Third Street, claims roots only in the Quran and the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad, not in Elijah Muhammad’s teachings. The Masjid Mosque’s imam Shamsid-deen did say that they celebrate Elijah Muhammad, and also celebrate Malcolm X. Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam in 1964, only then to be assassinated in 1965 by members of the Nation of Islam.
However, Shamsid-deen said that one can appreciate messages, like some of those delivered by Elijah Muhammad, of taking more responsibility in the black community, and giving courage to African Americans, without also considering Elijah Muhammad to be a prophet. Moreover, Shamsid-deen said that he and his congregation step back from embracing statements from Elijah Muhammad to the effect that “the white man is the devil, and God is black.” Just as one can respect George Washington though he was a slaveholder, Shamsid-deen continued, so one can respect Elijah Muhammad, though some of his conduct and statements were problematic, being inconsistent with the Quran and Prophet Muhammad.
Elijah Muhammad’s son, Warith Deen Muhammed, the namesake of the Bloomfield Road mosque, died in 2008. Farrakhan took over the Nation of Islam in 1982. Pictures of Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X and Warith Deen Muhammad adorn the wall of Imam Shamsid-deen’s office on Bloomfield Road.
The Bloomfield branch has about 50 families in its congregation, according to Samshid-deen, and does not segregate women and men in worship. The Bloomfield mosque no longer has a children’s program, according to Samshid-deen.
Middle Georgia’s other two primary mosques, the Islamic Centers, provide more traditional Islamic prayer, study and community from the perspectives of those having grown up in Islamic faith communities outside the United States, primarily in the Middle East, India and Pakistan. Their congregants are mostly immigrants to the United States, unlike the Mohammad and Masjid mosques, whose congregants are mostly American-born.
Although both Islamic Centers are open to all comers, Macon’s Islamic Center tends to serve Sunni Muslim immigrants, because Macon’s immigrant Muslims are predominantly Sunni. The Warner Robins Islamic Center, drawing in part from the broader international community associated with the air base, tends to serve a broader cross-section of Muslims, including those who come from Shia backgrounds as well. All Muslim sects are welcome in both Centers.
Despite their differences of race and ethnicity, attenders of all four mosques say that they share some common beliefs, traditions and Quranic scripture tying together local followers of Islam in a broader faith community, one extending far beyond the Macon area.
In particular, one thing apparently shared by all our local Muslims, according to those members interviewed, is a common revulsion to ISIS and the shocking barbarity of the actions it has taken in the name of Islam. ISIS’ brand of Islam, to the extent even recognized as Islamic by other followers of the faith, is seen as a violation of basic tenets of peace that Middle Georgia’s leading Muslims recognize to be Allah’s will.
Also shared apparently by all area Muslims is a sense of common concern at the apparent targeting and execution of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on February 10, 2015, over supposed parking transgressions. The deceased were promising young Americans, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, and Yusor’s husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23.
Macon’s Islamic Center on February 13, 2015 convened a gathering to honor the victims’ memories, and to express solidarity as Muslims against religious and ethnic discrimination.
My first experience meeting members of these mosques was in January, 2015, after Friday prayers at the Islamic Center on Vineville Avenue, where I talked with some of the men of the congregation, but no women. Within the sanctuary, women are divided from the men. Some men of the congregation, including the imam, met with me after prayers and the imam’s weekly address, similar to a sermon.
The Macon Center’s imam, Muhammad Abbassi, has served in Macon’s Center for seven years. Neighbors describe the mosque’s congregation and activities as a welcome, stable and quiet part of the community. Several regular attenders of prayers at Macon’s Islamic Center told me that they have felt welcome in Macon despite ongoing turmoil internationally in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
When asked for a reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings in January, 2015, one Macon Islamic Center member, Dr. Muhammad Awais, suggested that the perpetrators of those acts were no more affiliated with Middle Georgia’s Muslims than the perpetrators were affiliated with the rest of Americans, all of whom condemn the violence. “Why am I responsible?” Awais asked rhetorically. “Why do I have to defend them? Go catch those guys. Those are the bad guys. We don’t have anything to do with them. We all want the same thing — peace.”
Similarly, when I talked with a young Muslim from Montezuma, Georgia, on February 13, 2015, about the North Carolina massacre of Muslims on February 10, the young man said, “We understand that this guy [Craig Stephen Hicks] was a bad guy. There are the good guys and the bad guys. That’s true everywhere. Nobody likes the bad guys, whatever their religion. Let’s get along together.”
The young man added that his experience in the U.S. during the past four years that he has lived in this country has been positive. “I have been treated very well in Macon County. They made me feel welcome at high school.” The young man is presently working in a family business, also going to college and attending prayers regularly at the Warner Robins mosque, which is the closest mosque to Montezuma. He expressed optimism about the future of religious tolerance. “There is only one God,” he said.
An earlier version of this article indicated that the Mohammad Mosque on Third Street and the Masjid Muhammad Mosque on Bloomfield Road are both affiliated with the Nation of Islam. The Masjid mosque’s imam, however, disclaims present affiliation with Minister Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, while still endorsing some teachings of W.D. Muhammad and his father, Elijah Muhammad, founder in the 1930s of the Nation of Islam.
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