Imam Nathaniel Hasan leads the storefront mosque on Harrisburg’s Allison Hill. A soft-spoken son of a North Carolina preacher, he has an accent that makes “imam” rhyme with “ma’am.”

Hasan was attracted to Islam during his college years in the heyday of the black power movement.
As he puts it, “Islam to us means freedom, justice, equality.”

These days, Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and southeast Asia outnumber Muslims like Hasan and tend to dominate public perceptions of Islam in America.

But Islam’s American story has chapters that go back to the early days of slavery, to Detroit during the Depression and to mosques founded in black neighborhoods of cities such as Harrisburg.

Scholars have written that story, but now that very community has written and published its own book about its experience.

“A History of Muslim African Americans,” published last year by the American Society of Muslims, “demonstrates that we are true Americans, that we support the very fiber of what America stands for,” Hasan says.

Next weekend, Hasan will welcome visitors to the mosque, the Harrisburg Masjid, and offer the book for sale, in hopes of clarifying misunderstandings that arise from a complex history and events halfway around the world. . .

Samia Malik of Hampden Twp., who immigrated from India more than 30 years ago, says there are “absolutely no problems” between the two groups of Muslims in the midstate.

She also says “that closeness is not there as yet.”

Malik tells the story of a misunderstanding that arose several years ago when they began to pray together on holidays called eids at the Steelton mosque — men and women separate in the Muslim tradition.

Back in India and Pakistan, many women didn’t go to the mosque at all and weren’t used to congregational prayer, even on eid days.

But the black women were used to it, and they had learned to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in prayer just as the men do, Malik says.

“The African-American sisters would feel offended — ‘Doesn’t she want to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me?'” Malik says. “They did it the proper way. Now we remind each other we’re supposed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder.”

“We owe a lot to the African-Americans,” says Malik, communications director for the local chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.

“Even now, with civil rights, the ones that will take up a case will be the African-Americans,” she says. “They’re the ones bold enough to get into politics … while we still have shaky legs, especially after 9/11.”


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