Germantown: The Muslim Community

A Muslim woman leaves the Sister's class on Sunday

Walking down lower Germantown Avenue sometimes feels like you’ve been transported to a predominantly Muslim country. Halal meat shops, Islamic clothing and bookstores line the commercial corridor. Women dressed in black abayas–full-length gowns–and men wearing kufis–a knitted cap–with beards are a common sight. Even young girls wearing hijab– a Muslim headscarf–or a young boy in traditional throbes–a type of linen robe–stroll along the sidewalk with their mothers. Five times a day, the community is called to prayer through a loud speaker where a man called a muezzin chants melodically.

(To hear the muezzin call for Germantown Masjid members to prayer on Friday before the religious service of Jum’ah, you can listen here.)

Vendors sell their wares outside the Masjid before and after prayers on Fridays. It is obligatory for Muslim men to pray at the Masjid during Jum’ah.

Perfumes and oils for sale on Fridays

Clothing, perfumes, artwork and books are sold while hot soup steams on another table. Muslim children run and play on the sidewalk in front of the mosque. The Masjid offers “Islam for beginners” classes, Arabic classes and courses on the role of women in Islam.

The Germantown Muslim community is primarily Sunni-Salafi, although different interpretations may exist even within communities.

Salafism means that people teach and understand the holy texts, the Qur’an and the Sunnah  by learning Arabic and trying to live as closely to the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad as possible. Salafis are often referred to as companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Of course, there are some state and federal laws where they must make exceptions, such as getting photos taken for identification purposes and basically obeying secular law. But most Salafis do not wish to participate in modern photography; it is considered haram, which means unlawful in Arabic.

Overall, this means the interpretation follows the holy texts, including practicing polygamy. Abdur Raqiyb, a robust man who wears a throbe and kufi, almost always grins and excitedly shares his knowledge of Islam.

“It’s actually not very common because if you have more than one wife you must be able to provide for her emotionally, spiritually and financially equal to your first wife, and it’s not easy,” he says.

Calligraphy prayer signs 

Raqiyb came to Islam initially through the Nation of Islam, a black power group founded by Wallace Fard Muhammad in 1930. At first, Raqiyb says he didn’t know much about the religion, but he sold bean pies and thought he was Muslim like his brothers.

It wasn’t until Raqiyb served time in prison that he began to learn more about what Islam meant. He started taking classes while in jail and felt really connected when he was released. “Christianity just couldn’t answer my questions, Islam did,” he says.

Raqiyb volunteers at the Masjid and works for a homeless men’s shelter in the neighborhood.

Muslim men wait before prayers.

A slender, jovial man wearing a kufi and small, rounded spectacles sits in a conference chair. Abdoul Rahman, a brother and teacher of the Germantown Masjid, begins our conversation with a prayer.

Born in the small, landlocked country of Burundi in east central Africa, Rahman was raised as a Muslim and came to Philadelphia 18 years ago to spread the religious word. He speaks humbly, despite his memorization of the Quran and mastering of three languages. He gives regular lectures about Islam and offers counseling through the Masjid.

He says that in Islam there are only two celebrations, the Eid al-Fitr, which is after Ramadan, and the Eid al-Adha. This year the Eid al-Fitr fell on Sept. 11, which sparked some Muslim communities to celebrate a day late in reverence of the attacks. This year the Eid al-Adha began on Nov 17.

“We prepare basically from the first day of [the designated] month knowing that these first 10 days are the most important days in this religion,” Rahman says. “There are people who fast for nine days, others increase in giving to charity, reading the Qur’an and other righteous actions,” he adds.

The Eid al-Adha means sacrifice of the feast. According to the Qur’an, it signifies when Abraham offered to kill his son as a test from God and a lamb was sent and slaughtered instead.

Muslims, if they have the ability to do so, buy an animal to be sacrificed in a halal, or prescribed, way. After the animal is sacrificed one third is for your family, one third is given to charity, and the last third is given as a gift.

But it is not mandatory to slaughter an animal, especially if you do not have the financial means to do so. During Eid a sheep or goat can cost upwards of $200 and a cow is nearly $1,000, so usually a few families will chip in to buy an animal together. Some Muslims buy an animal from a local farm or a Halal slaughterhouse in the city. Al Baraka is the largest Halal slaughterhouse in Philadelphia and many Muslims from Germantown frequent there.

“You know, it’s funny,” Raqiyb says, “around this time every year the brothers and I like to go to a local farm and buy animals for the Eid sacrifice, and the farmers know the Muslims are comin’ so the price goes up on sheep and cows.”

A stack of holy text and a translation tool sit on Abdoul’s desk.

Rahman has seen Germantown and the Muslim community change over the years. He says that the number of members has grown dramatically in recent years.

“When this community moved here and began to grow a lot of bad things began to disappear, back in the day there used to be people selling drugs or smoking outside and stuff, but when people came around practicing Islam those people became uncomfortable and left,” he says.

Rahman says that he knows that being Muslim in Africa is a very different experience than living in the United States. Especially after the 2001 attacks there has been much scrutiny of Muslim communities. He stresses that Islam prohibits suicide or violence.

“You see the women who come through here and the way they dress, some of them cover their faces because that’s how it’s been taught here. It is just what we believe to be the correct understanding,” he says. “Some people may see that as extremist, but we believe that to be simply the right understanding of Islam. ”

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Temple Professor Khalid Blankinship offers more insight into the political history of the Eid Al-Adha and the Islamic Calendar.

29 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this story! The authors have done a great job explaining this community and Islam to people who may not be at all familiar with the topic. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to report about religious communities and I am really pleased at the candidness of this article.

  2. I appreciate this story as well as related stories. Because it gives a better understanding to people who assume things about Islam. thanks

  3. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS ARTICLE ABOUT MY COMMUNITY. I REALLY ENJOYED THIS AND I THINK THIS WILL BE AN EYE OPENER FOR SOME. THANK YOU.

  4. This is a great article and was written beautifully. Its great when a writer can write a piece with no signs of bias on such a contreversial issue. My community usually gets opposite reviews and articles, therefore I am very greatful for this read! Thanks 🙂

  5. We are developing a Germantown-only site, which you can access now through the Germantown tab under Neighborhoods. It’s not quite done.

  6. I think for the most part it was a beautiful article except the picture taking of the Muslims. I think it should be published in multiple news papers as well.good job!

  7. Unfortunately insha’Allah, Germantown does NOT feel like a true Muslim country, nor even less so does Philadelphia. The striving for Al Islam is beautiful. However, it is too mixed still with all the American fitna, vice, and poverty and all of the above to be there yet. I make du’ah for the day it really gets to that point, and that I’m alive to see it. The reason I both love and hate Philadelphia is this: in 790 years after the death of Isa PBUH Spain was in the same place insha’Allah. But with the Islamic influx, it became the only civilized country in Europe in the medieval times. Perhaps this is going to happen with Philadelphia insha’Allah.

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  10. I pray Allah Ta ‘Ala will bless this community and allow the African American community of Chicago produce à similar community. The Pakistanies have Devon street and The Palastians have Bridgeview. But wé have nothing!!!! May Allah unite us upon QURAN AND SUNNAH ACCORDING TO THE UNDERSTANDING OF THE SALAF!!

  11. The article was very informative. I learned a few things . I am interested in learning Arabic. Insh’Allah please contact me regarding this matter. Thank You.

  12. this was a very interesting article it really helped explain what my religon was really about thanks 🙂

  13. i hope many people who are a religon that differs from islam have read this very interesting article that will answer all the questions they have about islam and may allah guide us all to the right religon inshaallah

  14. trying too connect with brother Gordon we met at cec where he works inshallah now I can attend jumuah Friday and we can reconnect. brother Gordon washes bodies at naba weya if any one knows him inshallah please pass along that I am looking too connect with him inshaallah 215 501 6039 salam

  15. Im looking for a muslim sister that wants to date a muslim brother an wants to get marry. You can look me up on facebook under Qasim Latif Shabazz ok thank you

  16. Hi my name is Jennifer I am a 31 yr old women who is ready to change her life I want to be Muslim. I read the Quan a little bit. I really don’t know much about being a Muslim but I really want to learn everything about this religion. Can someone help me out and give me some info about classes I can attend or recommend me to someone that might want to teach me.
    Thank You

  17. Even though Germantown may not FEEL like a Muslim country it is a nice Muslim community. There is going to be fitnah and problems no matter where you are at. But at least this is a community doing their best to manifest the Deen of Allah and the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (saws). What they have achieved in Germantown, PA is very good at best.

  18. SHAKRUN I HAD THE PLEASURE OF VISITIN THE DAY AFTER THE EID …I ENJOYED IT..BROUGHT SKME BOOKS GOT N MY CAR..BUT I FELT SAFE..LOVED THE STORY…

  19. As salaam alaikum,this is wonderful I pray we reach this point in our growth in sha allah.I wonder why does the cost of the animals go up instead of down,this seem like exploiting the Muslims.

  20. As salaamu alaikum. I am a new to the religion. I would greatly appreciate advice and knowledge. Please contact me Insha Allah 2678009024

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