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Arts & Life

Was Highland Park the home of America’s first mosque? It's complicated

The Islamic Center of America.

Southeast Michigan is home to the largest and most diverse population of Arab Muslims, with 40% of its population identifying as Muslim. Some claim that Highland Park is home to America's first mosque. However, Jillian Reese, the Michigan History Center’s Curator of Exhibits, explained that several mosques claim to be the country’s first.

Possible contenders

The earliest contender is recorded to have been part of the Cairo Street exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. The Cairo Street Mosque had an imam that was well-regarded, as well as a call to prayer five times a day. But, while it is thought to be the first building that was purposefully constructed to be a mosque, the site was more for tourists than for practicing members of the faith. 

“And so it was sort of like a Disneyland-esque exhibition that was made for a Western gaze, and wasn’t necessarily supposed to be authentic, but was supposed to fulfill the fantasy of what the Middle East was to an American audience,” Reese said. 

Following the Exposition, most of those who worked in the mosque returned to their home countries, and the building itself was torn down. 

“It did function like a mosque, but, to me, that’s definitely not America’s first Mosque,” Reese said.

The next recorded mosque was founded in 1915 by a group of Albanian Muslims who were working at the Pepperell Counting House factory in Maine. The mosque was not a dedicated building, but was part of the company town.  

“We don’t know a lot about the Mosque,” Reese said. “We don’t even have an ending date for the Mosque. We just know that it was established in 1915.”

The only indication that a mosque once existed at the site is an Islamic cemetery that sits there today. 

The Highland Park Mosque 

Construction began on the Highland Park Mosque just a few years later, in 1920. Throughout the early 20th Century, Reese said, a wave of newcomers emigrated to Michigan from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. One major factor was the booming auto manufacturing industry. The other was the decline of the Ottoman Empire. 

As the empire fell with WWI and lost influence in eastern Mediterranean countries, many in those countries left Ottoman Empire territories in search of independence. Some ended up in cities like Detroit. Among those immigrants, Reese said, were brothers Mohammed and Hussein Karoub. Mohammed was a real estate investor, and Hussein was an imam who was trained in Damascus.

“The Karoub brothers really wanted Detroit to be the center of Isalm for the United States, and they felt like, to establish the community there, they had to do what the Christians did, which was build a house of worship,” Reese said. 

They raised funds and began construction in 1920. The mosque opened during the Eid festival the following year. 

Though the Highland Park Mosque was highly anticipated -- and even well documented by the Detroit News -- it only stayed open  for a year. A number of factors contributed to the mosque’s decline, Reese said. First, many in the community left the area to move closer to the Ford’s Rouge Factory in Dearborn. Plus, most work schedules clashed with the mosque’s Friday services.

“This group of immigrants, from Syria particularly, were much more secular. So they really looked at the mosque more as a gathering place and a community center than maybe what the imam wanted it to be, which was the holy house of worship,” Reese said. “So Friday services weren't as important to this community of Muslims.”

The biggest factor in the mosque’s decline was the passing of the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, which barred immigration from most islamic countries to the United States. The large flow of immigration to the Detroit area stopped until the Act was lifted in the 1960s. 

The Al Sadiq Mosque

Another notable yet frequently overlooked mosque is the Al Sadiq Mosque in Chicago. 

“If you were to Google, ‘first mosque, America,” it’s not often listed, because it's an Ahmadiyya mosque,” Reese said. “And Ahmadi Muslims are a sect of Islam from Pakistan and India, and it's a minority sect within Islam. Oftentimes they're sort of left out of that story.”

Ahmadi Muslims are recognized as being the first to actively reach out to Black Americans who rejected Western Christianity, which they saw as rooted in white supremacy, Reese said. The Al Sadiq Mosque was started by members of Chicago’s Black community.

So what was really America’s first mosque?

“The oldest existing purpose-built mosque is the Islamic Culture and Heritage Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” Reese said.

Also referred to as the “Mother Mosque of America,” the mosque was established in 1934 and is still running today.

While the Highland Park Mosque is not officially the country’s first, Reese believes the mosque’s history and impact is worth appreciating.

“And I think with the Highland park mosque, the Kroub brothers really wanted to make Detroit and Southeast Michigan the center of Islam in the United States. And I do think today, especially when you consider the fact that we have such a diverse and thriving Muslim community in Southesatern Michigan, that it has become one of the centers for the religon in the United States.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Ronia Cabansag.

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