Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

“This Is a Muslim Home”

3. “This Is a Muslim Home”

Signs of Difference in the African-American Row House

Aminah Beverly McCloud

Muslims over history have varied widely in their cultural lives. They have, however, generally shared certain practices dependent on space. Muslims’ submission of their will to God ideally reappropriates space and reorganizes temporality. Salat (formal prayer) requires space both physically and mentally. Fasting makes demands of mental and spiritual space, while altering temporality. The Hajj demands its space and time. In salat, for example, boundaries are formed when the prayer space is isolated. The calling of the adhan and the iqamah signal movement from one reality to another as the Muslim and Muslimah stand before allah. In salat, the individual merges with the worldwide (and local) umma in a time for God that is distinct and unbounded. Both the practical needs of ritual and the profound juncture of the coterminous nature of the time and space of salat with the time and space of the world have a fundamental influence on space.

This essay first briefly describes the main Muslim communities and their congregational spaces in Philadelphia and then turns to a discussion of the city’s African-American Muslim homes. Muslims make these homes, built on standard models, into a distinctive “Muslim space” through signage, decoration, and practice.

The Philadelphia Communities and Congregational Space

Philadelphia has been a microcosm of Muslim activity at least since the 1940s. Most Islamic groups in the United States either have members living there or some ties with residents. By the middle of the 1970s, numerous Muslim communities were evident in Philadelphia, among them the Moorish Science Temple of America (1913), the Ahmadiyah movement (1921), three Nation of Islam communities (1930), the American Muslim Mission (1980), the Darul Islam (ca. 1971), and several communities associated with the Muslim Student Association.

“Our divine national movement stands for the specific grand principles of Love, Truth, Peace, Freedom, and Justice,” the Moorish Science Temple’s statement of belief begins. “It is the great god allah alone, that guides the destiny of the divine and national movement” (Ali 1927). The community expect “the end of tyranny and wickedness” against African-Americans and seek to connect with their Muslim heritage in general and with the descendants of Moroccans in particular. They identify the qur’anic kufars (disbelievers, or the ungrateful) as the European-Americans, who face imminent destruction as a result of their apparent disbelief and unaccountability while engaging in evil conduct. They understand the nature of reality as spiritual and human existence as co-eternal with the existence of time. They believe that the Christianity taught by European-Americans was designed to enslave Africans, and they regard heaven and hell as conditions of the mind created by individual deeds and misdeeds.

Moorish Science members usually meet in a designated house in a room painted beige or eggshell, with neatly ordered rows of chairs on an uncarpeted floor polished to perfection. In one house I visited, all the chairs faced a small stage with a podium, behind which were seven chairs signaling some persons of importance. On the wall behind the stage were nicely framed portraits and documents: Noble Drew Ali’s mother dressed in white, with a long white veil; Noble Drew Ali by himself, looking regal; a charter for the community; and a set of bylaws. All the other walls were bare, and the only other fixture was a red flag with a green five-pointed star in its center. The sect offers members a space of neatness, cleanliness, and order.

The Ahmadiyyians, who originated in the Indian subcontinent in the late nineteenth century, assert that God is active in this world, determining and designing the course of events. They hold that there should be a living relationship with God, from whom revelatory experience is still possible. Because of this belief, other Muslims have accused them of denying the finality of Prophethood (cf. Haider, this volume). Ahmadis do, however, believe in the Oneness of God, observe the prescribed prayers, fast during the month of Ramadan, pay zakat, and perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. They also uphold the Al-Hadith (Friedmann 1989). They are active missionaries, and their journals, The Review of Religions and The Moslem Sunrise, have been widely used.

In Philadelphia, this community meets in a large house, where there is strict adherence to the code of gender separation, with women having a separate entrance and a separate prayer room. The walls are bare, with the exception of an occasional piece of Arabic calligraphy. Distinct prayer areas are carpeted. Chairs are provided for eating and classes. The Indian subcontinent influences furnishings and other decorations.

The American Muslim Mission, which has largely replaced the Nation of Islam founded by Elijah Muhammad in the 1930s, is also active. The mission dates from an address delivered in Atlanta in the late 1970s by Elijah Muhammad’s son, Warithudeen Muhammad, who disbanded the central authority of the Chicago masjid, encouraging decentralization of the community. He “revived true Islam,” instituting salat at the proper times and encouraging the five pillars. Imams were to be trained in Arabic, tafsir, masjid administration, and marriage counseling. The AMM continues to emphasize concerns of African-Americans such as self-development, self-accountability, racism, and poverty.

American Muslim Mission communities refurbished their places of congregation to be “orthodox”; they were no longer called “temples” but “masjids” or “mosques.” Pictures of Elijah Muhammad, Clara Muhammad, and W. D. Fard were removed, along with the characteristic elegant chandeliers, heavy velvet drapes, chairs, and wall lighting. Search areas were turned into cloakrooms to serve as foyers leading into the masjid. Women, who had always been present side by side with men, were now separated from men inside the prayer area (the masala).

The Darul Islam, finally, used a rehabed house, which in the 1970s was open neither to the general community of Muslims nor to the surrounding community. The members sought seclusion and protection after reports of police mistreatment of their mentors in New York. Guards at the bare entranceway sat behind a counter to scrutinize visitors as to their intent. The community held its prayers upstairs, out of range of observation, with women in a separate room, linked by loudspeakers. Believers lived close to the masjid and schooled their children there. The mosque was open twenty-four hours a day.

As these examples illustrate, although the concept of umma is very important to African-American Muslims, it is provincially conceived. Their buildings reflect their many divisions and their perception of American hostility to the Muslim world. For all their sectarian differences, however, African-American Muslims share a great deal, including their use of the home.

“This is a Muslim Home”

African-American Muslims in large cities have continually attempted to replicate the earliest Muslim communities by locating themselves in physical communities in close proximity to the masjid. Some jointly purchase small apartment buildings when available. In a few cases, entire communities have moved to rural areas to be able to live together.

Muslims often mark their homes as a space of difference and separation by a sign on the door. This is especially important for those living outside a Muslim enclave. The sign creates a boundary that signals both a warning and a welcome. To non-Muslims, the sign serves as a polite warning that the visitor is about to enter a different space and time. For other Muslims, it is a sign denoting a refuge. The phrase, “this is a muslim home / please remove your shoes” is on the door of hundreds of African-American Muslim homes and apartments in Philadelphia and probably in other major cities as well.

Muslims say that these signs, selling for only fifty cents, appeared in the late 1960s on the tables of Muslim vendors. Non-Muslim workmen, repairmen, salespersons, and social workers may be annoyed by the sign and resist removing their shoes. Neighbors simply grow used to it.

For the owners of the space, the sign symbolizes the success of having created a boundary that defines an area of control. The sign dictates an attitude: in this house, it says, the hostile environment of racism, religious intolerance, and discrimination are locked out; prayer space and hospitality are guaranteed.

African-American Muslims self-consciously and deliberately organize the use of domestic space in the light of teachings found in the Qur’an and Al-Hadith, as well as through the example of immigrant Muslim homes and homes in the Muslim world. These Islamic norms thus inform the basic daily needs characteristic of domestic space—shelter, food storage and use, ritual activities, and social interaction. For African-American Muslims, the home becomes a space for learning and practicing Muslim behavior and for being separate from the larger society.

One of the classical divisions known in Islam, between Darul Islam (the House of Islam) and Darul Harb (the House of War), translates in American usage as the domestic space and the outside community. Domestic space is consciously separated from the space of the House of War, which is viewed as a space of religious intolerance and racism. The use of domestic space creates, moreover, a sense of shared spirituality with Muslims elsewhere in the Muslim world, while fostering a sense of well-being in an environment perceived as hostile.

Juan Campo has recently argued that “the religious meanings of domestic space is an important part of the study of sacred space” that has long been neglected (Campo 1991: 8). In examining the Islamic aspects of Egyptian homes, Campo links a terminology and discourse related to domestic space to a discourse related to God’s house (the Ka‘ba), sacred history, rules of behavior, and the Hereafter. Campo suggests that the social etiquette and some of the ritual observances defined for the Ka‘ba have served as the prototype for all human dwellings. The Qur’an reminds Muslims that the people before them who committed serious errors perished, along with their dwellings (cf. Haider, this volume). Thus, everyday social life is linked to “ideas about God, right and wrong, purity, and blessings.” Many rules relate to women (Campo 1991: 27). As for Paradise, “In each of these descriptions, the quality of life in Paradise is an idealized rendering of the best aspects of domestic life in this world” (Campo 1991: 25). Thus the Qur’an’s exhortations about the space and time of the Hereafter implicitly remind believers of the importance of the home. The Al-Hadith explicitly makes people’s houses and behavior in them regular objects of discourse. Campo argues that because of the moral restrictions on women’s movement and seclusion, a great deal of a house’s sacrality depends on the reputation of its female occupants.

These issues shape the lives of African-American Muslims living in Philadelphia row houses. There are row homes throughout the city, usually three-bedroom, two-story structures, often with no yard, some with small porches (fig. 13). The interior design is largely uniform. There are few houses with central hallways in the areas where Muslims predominately live. Rooms interconnect, with or without doors, with a small staircase leading upstairs to the small bedrooms and a centrally located bathroom. African-American Muslims have lived in these houses for several decades.

Figure 13. Philadelphia row house. Note Islamic signs in window and door. Photograph by Aminah Beverly McCloud.

Stories of the Prophet Muhammad’s life yield a central paradigm for living within the house. The house should be austere and near the masjid. Prophet Muhammad lived in a one-room dwelling, furnished with the bare necessities for living, with access to prayer space.

Al-Hadith regulate the accumulation of wealth and delineate the responsibilities attached to its use; African-American Muslims furnish their homes within these constraints.

Within their homes, Muslims live a distinctive life. Even their concepts of time differ from those of non-Muslims. The Muslim community is seen as a dot on a continuum that began with creation and does not end but shifts focus in the afterlife. Ritual practices define Muslim schedules, beginning with the pre-dawn prayer while most non-Muslim neighbors are sleeping. Fasting during the month of Ramadan has led school officials and neighbors to alert social workers to the possibility of child abuse or neglect, causing some Muslim households to become even more insular.

Life in the house is characterized by cleanliness and minimal consumption. There is only one requirement for Muslim space—a place for prayer. The Muslim not only retreats internally for experiencing taqwa (piety) for salat, but also requires a physical place to face the Ka‘ba and to perform the prayer undisturbed. This space should above all be free from pollution. Muslims have developed some creative strategies for overcoming the physical structure of their homes. They enter this space by removing their shoes, leaving them in baskets, shoe racks, bookcases, crates, or just a designated space near the front door, since most houses do not have foyers. Women, who typically carry an extra pair of socks to wear inside, are escorted to one portion of the house, while the men are escorted to another. The members of the household also divide themselves along gender lines at this time.

The house is usually decorated with Islamic texts and calligraphy, framed as well as unframed, and bronze plates engraved with various Qur’anic suras, much like the Canadian homes described by Qureshi above (fig. 10). Qur’anic recitations are the only music generally played in the public rooms of the home. In most living rooms, families have the latest copies of various Muslim newspapers, journals and pamphlets but not issues of Time,Ebony,Essence, or Woman’s Day. Bookcases hold the Qur’an on the top shelf by itself, at least one set of Al-Hadith, and several sets of commentary by Maulana Ali and Yusuf Ali just below them. Other texts, generally originating in Pakistan or Egypt, are also religious. These books are purchased from merchants, the masjid, and conventions. The bookcase may hold prayer rugs and veils, and may itself configure the room toward Mecca. The qiblah, or direction toward the Ka‘ba in Mecca, may also be indicated by a wall plaque or by some other piece of furnishing, such as the carved screen in figure 14.

Figure 14. Living room with calligraphy, Qur’an, and objects from African and Asian Muslim countries. Photograph by Aminah Beverly McCloud.

Muslim space is replete with Arabic calligraphy, “oriental” rugs, brassware, latticed screens and so on. Since African-American Muslims are not tied to any particular country, they have drawn on the entire Muslim world for interior design. African-American Muslim adoption of a wide variety of Muslim cultural interior designs has generated probably the only “melting pot” of Muslim culture since the earliest centuries of Islamic history. In some homes, the furnishings for seating remind the visitor of a Moroccan restaurant: fat pillows made from synthetic oriental rugs, tables no more than a foot tall, couches with no legs, or mattresses used as couches. Other homes have traditional American furnishings. Living-room furniture is kept to a minimum in order to be able to turn the living-room space into prayer space without difficulty. Dining rooms are often sparsely furnished so that, along with the living room, they too can become a prayer area. In Philadelphia row homes, the dining room is usually situated between the kitchen and the living room; a maida (tablecloth) can be spread on the dining-room floor for meals and a few pillows, usually stacked in a corner, put out for seating.

Window shades, curtains, and drapes are always closed to exclude the view of neighbors in adjoining row houses. When visitors are not present, women are free to unveil and wear any appropriate clothing. When there are visitors, if there is even one adult male in the house, all the women will remain in the kitchen. They only leave to serve food or to pray.

The kitchens may accommodate a small dinette set, which doubles as a space for food preparation, an ongoing event. Halal meat (meat raised and then ritually slaughtered according to Islamic law) is purchased at great expense, either shipped in (by United Parcel Service or U.S. mail) or, in some communities, slaughtered by designated men in contractual arrangements with local farmers. Families then buy portions of the slaughtered meat. Breads are often homemade or are purchased from immigrant Muslim bakers or grocery stores. Dietary restrictions are strictly adhered to in all communities, and a great amount of time is thus spent in grocery shopping. Storage of foods is a critical skill. Vegetables are usually bought fresh and cooked daily. Foods regarded as Muslim food include falafel, couscous, humus, curry, lentils, pita bread, and basmati rice. Muslims prefer to cook elaborate dishes with spices, learned from immigrants, and avoid fast foods. Women highly esteem culinary skills.

Muslims do not linger in the bathroom (hamam) where jinn (creations of fire and thought in general to be evil) are thought to be present. Bathroom doors are kept closed for this reason. Those entering a bathroom wear special shoes or slippers. The bathroom is a space both of pollution and purification. The believer enters with the left foot, acknowledges the dangers of the space with a du‘a, performs the necessary acts, and leaves on the right foot, reentering prayer space. Some people place pictures or other decorative items in bathrooms that could not be placed in spaces for prayer. There may also be signs with instructions on ablution. In some homes, a curtain or screen is positioned around the toilet to separate it from other facilities in the bathroom, while in others a closed toilet lid suffices.

Full participation in the Muslim community requires certain responses in the domestic space. Homes must reflect Islamic injunctions on prayer space and diet. They must also reflect Muslim prohibitions of certain kinds of art, social entertainment, and mixing of men and women. Muslims recognize some shared values in American life, such as charity, but in general they find non-Muslim values, especially in relation to sex, overwhelming. They seek an ideal Muslim atmosphere inside the home that is wholly separate.

Unlike most of the Muslim world, which welcomes television and radio, African-American Muslims try to shut out Western values and open the door to Muslim values. Fear of compromise of Islamic values prompts many parents to prefer either Islamic education or home schooling, so that in several communities, children have had only brief contact with the larger community.

Dress is also distinctive. Women may wear long-sleeved blouses under short-sleeved dresses or pants under dresses that are above the ankles. Men occasionally wear long shirts reaching the thigh under suit jackets with traditional Muslim headwear. Young girls wear scarves as an early deterrent to assimilation into “Christian” society (cf. Slyomovics, fig. 40, this volume). To enjoy public entertainments, Muslims may rent an entire roller rink for the evening so that girls or boys can skate, or hold an outdoor picnic in some remote part of a park.

African-American Muslims have taken small portions of various Muslim cultures and woven their own tapestry. Living rooms may contain Berber-patterned rugs, rattan furniture, Victorian lamps, Indian brass vases, and Arabic calligraphy on walls, all together an enthusiastic mixture of worlds. Arabic has mixed with black English. The expression “Masha’allah,” which is generally understood to mean “It is what Allah decreed” in happiness over some event or occurrence, is used by most African-American Muslims only as a lament.

African-American Muslims have clearly found that their American nationality is but one small aspect of their identity as prescribed by Islam. They are part of the larger Muslim world and interact with immigrant Muslims, while at times clashing with them and even encountering racism. African-American Muslims are likely in the near future to seek a greater blending of African Islam with African-American Islam and thus to engender an even more distinct African-American Islam. Then, as now, the home will be central to its expression and will be seen—whether explicitly signposted or not—as a separate and explicitly Muslim space.

Works Cited

Ali, Noble Drew. 1927. The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple.

Campo, Juan E. 1991. The Other Sides of Paradise: Explorations into the Religious Meanings of Domestic Space in Islam. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press.

Friedmann, Yohanan. 1989. Prophecy Continuous: Aspects of Ahmadi Religious Thought and Its Medieval Background. Berkeley: University of California Press.

“This Is a Muslim Home”

Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.