An Exhibit at the Museum of Durham History Chronicles the Oldest Muslim Community in North Carolina | Durham County | Indy Week
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An Exhibit at the Museum of Durham History Chronicles the Oldest Muslim Community in North Carolina 

click to enlarge Benjamin (left) listens to recordings with his brother Isaac at The Museum of Durham History.

Photo by Caitlin Penna

Benjamin (left) listens to recordings with his brother Isaac at The Museum of Durham History.

West Chapel Hill Street has changed significantly since Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center opened its doors in 1971.

Where the Islamic Center once operated a bakery and loaded up its food truck (the third in Durham, the story goes) stands The Cookery, an event space and culinary incubator. Ar-Razzaq's fish market, mechanic shop, restaurant, and music venue are also gone from a stretch now home to a coffee shop, grocery store, and frozen yogurt place.

The history of Ar-Razzaq—the oldest Muslim community in North Carolina—is chronicled in Building Bridges Through Good Faith, an exhibit at the Museum of Durham History, on view through August 11.

It's a story that hadn't been compiled before but embodies Durham's place in African-American history and its roots in entrepreneurship, activism, and tolerance.

"The members of Ar-Razzaq have lived their lives in a way to make Durham better, and so that bridges were built between Muslims and non-Muslims," says Naomi Feaste, who, as a college student involved in the civil rights movement, joined Ar-Razzaq in its early days.

As co-curator of the exhibit, Feaste put out a call to the community to unearth the "history in their heads and their attics" that now covers two walls in the small museum. The exhibit includes the arrival of Muslims in America, the founding of Muhammad's Mosque #34—as Ar-Razzaq was known when it formed in the late 1950s as part of the Nation of Islam—and its influence on Durham and beyond.

"There wasn't that kind of documentation of the Muslim community in Durham, and we really wanted to let people know they've been here for a long time and they continue to be great, contributing neighbors," says museum executive director Patrick Mucklow.

When the mosque opened in its current space, the West End, once home to some of Durham's wealthiest families, was struggling like other central neighborhoods from the closure of the city's factories and the construction of the Durham Freeway. So members began a community patrol (they pestered drug dealers until the dealers reported them to police for harassment, according to lore), a soup kitchen, and "clean-up squads" so thorough members say the city didn't need to sweep the streets.

While those efforts have dissipated as the neighborhood changed, Ar-Razzaq still operates a weekend school, serves about one thousand kids through a summer feeding program, and delivers meals to seniors.

When the now-controversial Nation of Islam split in the mid-1970s, the mosque changed its name to Ar-Razzaq and transitioned to mainstream Al-Islam, which emphasizes religious study, community service, and racial tolerance.

"Many times when people think of Al-Islam—at least today—the first thing that comes to mind is 'foreign,'" says Imam Greg Rashad. "Yet here is a city where Al-Islam was started by African Americans. That's a message we're trying to teach the community—that at least here in Durham, the first Muslim community was started by African Americans, and with that came business growth, economic growth, and community growth."

The area was bustling with businesses, eateries, and a cultural center that hosted jazz and other live music, all run by the Ar-Razzaq community.

To spur employment and healthy eating, the mosque joined the Nation of Islam's fish program, which imported whiting from Peru for distribution across the country. Men loaded their pickup trucks and raced to deliver it all before it defrosted (relics are featured in the exhibit). Members also manufactured shea butter—memorialized in an obscure nineties rap song by Da Golden Rul included in the exhibit—with nuts brought from Africa.

Longtime member Roman Shareef, who drove a catering truck, recalls dishing out meals like navy bean pie (somewhere in between chess and sweet potato) and all-beef "Unity Frank" hot dogs—with French fries inside the bun—to the likes of Kool & the Gang, Chaka Khan, and Parliament Funkadelic when they visited Durham. Gil Scott-Heron and his band "bought everything I had on the truck," he remembers.

Photos in the exhibit show author James Baldwin outside the mosque's original Pettigrew Street location, attracted to a sign reading "Choose for yourself: Truth or hate," and Malcolm X debating local civil rights leader Floyd McKissick Sr. Not pictured are visits by legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, who reportedly dined at Ar-Razzaq's restaurant, Shabazz, and stayed with its founding family, waking them early with his trademark banter.

"Those are the kind of people that came through this community as a result of a lot of the work that was going on not just here in the Islamic community, but also as part of the whole social movement here in Durham," Rashad says.

Ar-Razzaq also had the effect of spurring and strengthening Muslim communities across North Carolina. "Durham was like the hub," Feaste explains. "People came here for classes. They came here for information to find out what going on nationally."

As of 2010, there were about twenty-six thousand Muslims in the state, roughly half of whom live in the Triangle, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives.

Ar-Razzaq's membership has changed in recent years. Once majority African American, Friday night services are attended by "people from all over the world," says Rashad. Its role in the community has also shifted, although it has continued interfaith exchanges that have brought students and congregations from other religions through its doors, and vice versa, for years.

"It's important, especially taking the temperature of the nation as it is right now, the fact that this exhibit demonstrates that communities like Ar-Razzaq have existed peacefully for decades in towns just like Durham, large and small, across the U.S.," says Mucklow.

swillets@indyweek.com

Admission to the museum is free. A closing reception will be held August 10 from 6:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.

Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Ar-Razzaq manufactured shea butter as part of a Nation of Islam program. It was part of a national collective purchasing project under the late Imam W.D. Mohammed.

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