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