Jan - Mar 2005, Other

The Al-Baqi Islamic Center

By Daud S. Ali

An Arson in Springfield, MassachusettsFor the Muslim brothers and sisters that called the Al-Baqi Islamic Center their home, the arson fire that displaced them on December 8, 2004 at the beginning of winter marks the beginning of a new chapter in the existence of their tight-knit community. In interviews with local and national media, Rasul Seifullah, the imam of Al-Baqi community, has acknowledged that the fire is a test from Allah and that the community will strive to bear it with patience. Members of the Al-Baqi community are united in this view and are well aware of Allah’s reminder in the Qur’an that “with every difficulty comes relief.”

Relief has come in shows of support from various sources, some unexpected. Yusuf Muhammad, minister of Nation of Islam’s Mosque #13 in Springfield, has graciously given the group access to his facilities on State Street, a few blocks away from the Al-Baqi site, for Juma prayers and Sunday Ta’leem. Asked how the temporary arrangement is working out, Sister Donna Lamotte, a member of the Al-Baqi community, remarked that the Nation of Islam (NOI) community is “like family.” In fact, the two groups were once part of the same NOI community under the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. In 1975, after the death of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, his son W.D. Muhammad split from the NOI to form a community of practicing Muslims. This marked the start of the Al-Baqi community, which to this day remains under the leadership of Imam W.D. Muhammad. Initially, many of the members of the NOI followed suit, but a year later Minister Louis Farrakhan re-kindled the NOI, taking back with him some of the original NOI followers.

Imam Seifullah credits much of the support his community is receiving to the many inter-faith efforts that were launched by Al-Baqi prior to the fire. Besides help from the NOI and the Islamic Council of New England, which set up a fund to assist with rebuilding, the Al-Baqi community has received support from, among others, the Council of Churches of Greater Springfield, Alden Street Baptist Church, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Jewish Community Center. Imam Seifullah reports receiving phone calls of support from all across the US, from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Loss to the community

Despite the support, the displacement has been difficult for the aging community, some of whose senior members had been at the Al-Baqi site for nearly 40 years. As one member put it, “We were young ladies when we first came [to Masjid Al-Baqi], now we’re senior citizens.”

The loss of Al-Baqi Islamic Center has been felt by the entire Springfield community. The night of the fire, youth from the Dunbar Community Center, located across from the Al-Baqi Islamic Center, could be seen crying. The youth had volunteered their labor in the past year to help with on-going renovations to the interior of Al-Baqi. In fact, at the time of the fire, the Al-Baqi community had just finished renovating the lecture hall. The result exemplified the love and hard work that went into it. Other renovations included the installation of new carpet, fans, lights and a drop ceiling. The Islamic Center had also made recent purchases totaling about $10,000 for chairs and a home theater system.

For the city of Springfield, Al-Baqi was an historic landmark. Built in 1883, the building opened as the Oak Street School (later renamed the Strickland School in memory of the School’s first principal). In the 1930s, it is said to have employed the first black woman hired as a teacher in Springfield. In the 1950s, Malcolm X (later Malik Shabazz) and others established the Nation of Islam in Springfield and purchased the building to serve as the original Muhammad’s Mosque #13.

Who’s to blame?

Originally, seven 15-year-olds were apprehended for the crime. Four have been released as juvenile offenders and given 160 hours of community service in addition to two years probation. The other three are out on bail awaiting trial. Imam Seifullah would like to have a say in the punishment handed to the three awaiting trial, adding that “they need to understand the consequences of their actions.” He recently contacted Sheriff Michael Ashe, head of the Stony Brook Correctional Center in Ludlow, Massachusetts to inquire about a juvenile offenders program that offers jobs and teaches a sense of responsibility. Imam Seifullah would like the youth to repay the community through their labor for some of the damage to the Islamic Center. It will be up to the judge and the youth’s probation officers whether or not to implement Imam Seifullah’s recommendations.

The Springfield District Attorney decided not to pursue hate crime charges against the suspects, a decision that Imam Seifullah and the community as a whole seems to support. The youth apparently intended to hang out inside the building and steal some valuables. After stealing some $250 in cash and candy, at least some decided to cover their tracks by starting a fire on the second floor. Investigators initially thought they were dealing with a professional arson job because the start of the fire on the second floor ensured that the interior would collapse onto itself, causing maximum damage. In the end, it seems the fire was the result of a senseless act by misguided youth.

There is consensus that the youth ought to be held accountable for their actions, but many including Imam Seifullah have stated that responsibility also lies beyond the seven perpetrators. In a recent article in The Republican, Imam Seifullah blamed adults for their failure to provide proper direction to youth in the community. Others have placed emphasis on the role of the Muslim community. Imam Abdul-Baqi, of the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts, warned Muslims during a recent Friday sermon that they are responsible for attending the mosque for all five prayers, stressing that it is the community’s failure to place the mosque at the center of all activities that leaves it open to vandalism.

A new chapter

“The fire has set us free,” says Imam Seifullah, adding that “this is a new chapter in our history.” Asked if this new chapter presents an opportunity to open the Al-Baqi community to the greater ethnic diversity present in Islam, Imam Seifullah is optimistic. “If we do what we’re supposed to be doing as Muslims, then we’ll reflect the community around us in our makeup.” The community is almost 100% African-American, which is no accident given its roots. But Imam Seifullah views this reality as a necessity for the time being. “African Americans face serious challenges. After 400 years of bondage, during which our family units were intentionally destroyed, there is a lot of repair, a lot of healing that is needed in the African-American psyche.” Still he adds, “I would like to see more Latinos exposed to Islam and more young people.” Given that the seven youth suspected of being involved in the arson were both young and Latino, outreach to the Latino community should be a top priority for Springfield Muslims.

For the time being, the Al-Baqi community is looking for a place to rent. According to Imam Seifullah, the Jewish community is assisting in the search for a location. Imam Seifullah is still awaiting the final determination from the insurance company as to whether what remains of the Islamic Center will be scrapped and rebuilt. All indications are that the building will have to be rebuilt from the ground up, as the damage to the interior is very extensive. That being the case, Imam Seifullah estimates that it may take two years for the community to move in to the new site. He envisions a multi-story Islamic Center with a dome. “I want to have people drive by and immediately know what it is,” says the Imam. Allah willing, the same people will not only drive by, but park their cars and frequent the future Islamic Center in large numbers.

Articles from The Republican and the Boston Globe were referenced by the author in writing this story.

Daud S. Ali, a Mexican American, was born in Los Angeles and then lived in Mexico for eight years. He now lives in Springfield, MA.