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Michigan’s Oldest Mosque

May 7, 2009 by  


State’s oldest mosque celebrating 70 years

By Khalil AlHajal

Capture5-7-2009-6.40.45 PM
File:   American Moslem Society congregation members before praying at an Eid Al-Adha gathering.

When telling about the roots of their experience in the U.S., all the old-timers of metro Detroit’s Arab American community always flash back to times in Dearborn’s south end.

And waves of new immigrants have never stopped moving into that neighborhood, keeping it a center of old-world/new-world culture.

Three institutions have stood as pillars of that community for decades: Ford Motor Co.’s huge River Rouge auto-manufacturing complex, Salina School and the American Moslem Society Dearborn Mosque.

The Dix mosque in 1957 after the dome and two minarets were added. Often referred to as the Dix masjid, the mosque is now in its 71st year of operation.

On May 15, its congregation will celebrate over 70 years of worship and community — 6 p.m. at Greenfield Manor, 4770 Greenfield Road in Dearborn.

Michigan’s oldest mosque, the Dix masjid was established in 1938 by a group of Lebanese-Syrian factory workers.

“It was as much an ethnic club for the Syrians as it was a mosque,” said Sally Howell, a University of Michigan PhD candidate who’s researched the masjid’s past for a dissertation on the history of the Detroit area’s mosques.

Over time, the organization’s cultural activities faded in favor of the mosque taking on a more traditional religious role.

Howell said the Dix mosque was a center of social life for the community in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, but after an expansion added a second floor, an Islamic dome and two small minarets to the building, it became much more symbolically a mosque.

“It became a center of Muslim life for the whole city,” she said.

The following decades would see larger waves of new immigrants, who would demand a full transformation into the conservative, prayer-focused atmosphere of a typical Middle Eastern mosque, with no music, dancing, weddings, parties, or bingo nights inside the building, which had previously been allowed.

While much of the south end’s Lebanese population moved to the city’s east end or to other suburbs, influxes of Palestinian and Yemeni immigrants escaping poverty and political crisis in their homelands replaced them.

“There was always a need for that mosque to be there,” said Nagi Almudhegi, a congregation member and a lead volunteer for the Dix masjid.

“There was always a new influx of new immigrants to the area. The need was always there to expand.”

The building underwent three major expansions, nearly doubling its size each time, in 1952, 1986 and 2000.

The 48,000 square foot building now holds up to 2,000 people.

While its congregation has became predominantly Yemeni American, Muslims of Palestinian, Jordanian, Lebanese, South Asian, European and African descent still frequent the mosque.

“You have a wide cross-section of people,” said Almudhegi.

He said many who have moved out of the neighborhood or out of the city still return to pray at the Dix mosque.

Howell said many Arabs from Detroit and other cities who commute to Dearborn to pray there feel at home at that mosque because sermons are still delivered in Arabic.

“I think also maybe from a historical point of view, too,” said Almudhegi about why many return to Michigan’s oldest mosque. “It’s been there since the late 1930s. It’s kind of like a historic fixture.”

Almudhegi himself grew up in the south end but has since moved to east Dearborn and works for an auto supplier in Troy.

His memories of going to the Dix mosque and attending weekend Arabic school there keep him attached to his childhood masjid.

“When the Al-Furqan school opened at AMS in the early 1980s, my father enthusiastically signed me up. But I was not as enthusiastic,” Almudhegi said. “I told my father that it was too much for me to go to school seven days a week. I had English school during the weekdays and now I had to go to Arabic school during the weekend. My dad’s response — one that I would hear countless times thereafter — was ‘Those who work hard will be rewarded.’ It was only years later that I realized the importance of the weekend school at AMS… I was taught to adhere to the Islamic values of patience, perseverance, faith and morality.”

Howell said that while the mosque holds intense spiritual significance for the newer generations, its historic and nostalgic significance to the old-timers also runs deep.

“It was an ethnic club,” she said. “It was where their kids got married… It was a place where they talked about their identity. This institution was really a home to them. It was very important. I don’t think anyone who was a part of that will ever forget it.”

For more on the American Moslem Society or the May 15 celebration, visit www.masjiddearborn.org or call the mosques main office at 313.849.2147.

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