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Keys to the Kingdom

By Andrew Parsons

American Moslem Women’s Society, 1952.  (Source, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan)

American Moslem Women’s Society, 1952. (Source, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan)

One Friday in 1976, a group of men broke into the Dix mosque in Dearborn, Michigan. They weren’t vandals or thieves. In fact, these men were there to pray.

The men, recent immigrants from Yemen and Palestine, were as shocked to find the mosque closed on a Friday as a devout Christian might be to find a church closed on a Sunday morning. The mosque’s regular members, long in America, found nothing unusual about being at work during the day on Friday, and keeping the mosque locked until they came in to worship on Sundays, like their Christian neighbors.  The break-in highlighted the great difference between the two groups, and became the opening salvo in a struggle to control not only the building, but how Islam would be practiced in Dearborn.

The mosque was one of just a few in the area. It had been built in the 1930s by Lebanese immigrants who came to work at the local Ford Factory. Like many Muslim communities in Michigan, the Dix congregation had developed a distinctly American religious practice that was very different from the Islam practiced in conservative countries such as Yemen.

Scholar Nabeel Abraham has studied this conflict.  He also grew up going to the Dix mosque in the 1950s and 60s. He told BackStory that the mosque functioned a lot like a Protestant church. Unlike many mosques in the Middle East, the basement of the Dix mosque was a place for the community to mingle outside of prayer. It held Sunday school classes for young Muslims, weddings, funerals, and social events where men and women both danced. Some of his fondest childhood memories were of the weddings on his father’s side of the family.

“There would be a fellow with a sword. That always caught my attention. There’s a sword, it comes out of nowhere and doing a Zorba the Greek dance. There would be a lot of sweat and moving and gyrating.”

The mosque also supported an influential women’s auxiliary group, the American Muslim Women’s Society. Looking at pictures of the group from the 1950s, it would be easy to mistake them for a group of Christian housewives, gathered outside their church. They dressed as many American women did in the ’50s: short sleeved blouses, cardigans; skirts that showed leg below the knee. They didn’t cover their hair, except in prayer. At Dix, the AMW was also heavily involved in setting mosque policy, and teaching Arabic to young members.

Abraham says all this added up to was complete culture shock for Yemenis and Palestinians. They were coming from a part of the world that was becoming more fundamentalist in the 1970s.

“The new immigrants were looking at the whole picture and saying ‘this is not authentic. In the old country where we just came from, mosques didn’t look like this. They were open on Fridays, a lot of men there praying. And what’s with the women running around without headscarves, what’s with them raising their voicing and dictating policy or attempting to? What’s with these parties going on in the basement?'”

The immigrants used the elections for the board of directors to take the reins of the Dix mosque. They brought in an imam from Yemen, segregated the men and women and institute strict polices on dress code and conduct.

It was a radical break from the more relaxed, Americanized form of Islam Dix’s original members practiced. Within a few years, many of the mosque’s original congregation left, and started a new Islamic center just down the road.

It’s tempting to read this story as a cautionary tale about fundamentalist Islam encroaching on a moderate congregation. But Nabeel Abraham notes that religious landscape you see in Dearborn of today doesn’t bear that out. There’s not just have a handful of mosques, like there were in the ’70s, but a wide diversity of practice. Plus, the town has become a focal point of Arab-American culture in Michigan and the nation. Halal restaurants, social clubs, and other cultural venues offer less charged places for people to meet and mingle, says Abraham.

“Muslims and Islam are part of the norm. And people who don’t agree with the philosophical line can go to another mosque.”

Really, the story of the Dix mosque looks like very similar to the ways different sects of Christianity have feuded and then co-existed throughout American history, he says.

“It’s part of that trend. It is the Americanization of Islam in America. They’re following the same steps of the Christian churches and you can probably add, the Judaic institutions.”

Hear Nabeel Abraham tell BackStory host Brian Balogh about the history of the Dix mosque, on our episode about Islam and America. You can also read about it in the sister books he wrote for and co-edited,  Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream and Arab Detroit 9/11: Life in the Terror Decade. Finally, you have to check out scholar Sally Howell’s amazingly comprehensive new book about the history of Muslims in Detroit, Old Islam in Detroit: Rediscovering the Muslim American Past. It also includes the story of the Dix mosque and so much more.