Philly: 'The Mecca of the West'

I recently moved to Philadelphia last summer to start a new chapter in my life after getting married. My wife grew up in Philadelphia and her family still lives here. They are part of a well-established community of Sudanese Americans residing in North East Philadelphia. They immediately welcomed me into their community with kindness and generosity. In fact, as both a teacher and community member, I have been invited on multiple occasions to speak at community events on educational topics. I love my new Sudanese family and community in Philadelphia. However, this feature focuses on the indigenous African-American Muslim community, whose history and culture I have loved long before arriving in this city.  

On the very first day I moved here, I was greeted with 'Asalam Alaikum Ak" (peace be with you brother) by an African-American brother at a Wawa (Philly gas station/convenient store). He saw my beard and sibha and didn't hesitate to greet me with the formal Islamic greeting. Later on that same day, I saw multiple brothers with beards, izaars, and kufis, and sisters wearing hijabs. Almost everywhere I turned I saw a brother or a sister at a Wawa, a park, or walking down the street. I was both amazed and excited to become part of this incredible community.

This is a dynamic community that has gone through various stages of evolution. Its history in Philadelphia goes back to 1920 when the Moorish Science Temple was established on South Broad St. In the 1950s, temple No. 12 was established as the twelfth Nation of Islam temple and the first one in Philadelphia located on Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia. The son of Elijah Muhammad (former leader of the Nation of Islam) Warith Deen Muhammad and Malcolm X were both appointed as ministers at Temple No. 12. With the establishment of this temple, along with its association with Malcolm X and Warith Deen Muhammad, Philadelphia quickly became a stronghold of the Nation of Islam. 

Shortly after Elijah Muhammad's death in 1975, Warith Deen Muhammad assumed leadership of the organization. As the new leader, he dismantled many aspects of the Nation of Islam including the prophethood of his father, the notion of whites as devils, and the incarnate status of Fard Muhammad. He completed the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca and studied the Quran and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). As a result of these major religious transformations, he gradually led his followers to embrace orthodox Islam practiced by the world-wide Muslim community. In 1976 he even renamed the organization 'The World Community of Al-Islam in the West'.

His redirection of the Nation of Islam to Orthodox Sunni Islam sent shockwaves through his community, with the vast majority following in his lead. This resulted in a mass conversion of his followers to Orthodox Islam. As Philadelphian resident, Abdul Rahim who runs the Islamic cultural preservation and information council said, "Warith Deen Muhammad was instrumental in transitioning African-American Muslims to Islam proper." Under his leadership, all the ministers became imams and the temples became mosques.

The famous African-American Imam Siraj Wahaj actually used to serve as a minister under Warith Deen Muhammad before this groundbreaking transformation took place. Imam Siraj Wahaj was one of the beneficiaries of Warith Deen Muhammad's efforts to educate the community by bringing in Islamic scholars from the Muslim World to teach his followers how to properly pray, read the Quran, and implement the five pillars of Islam. 

Temple No. 12 became the Philadelphia Masjid and its followers fully embraced Warith Deen Muhammad's move to Orthodox Islam while maintaining pride in its roots of self-reliance and African-American culture. This marked a period of significant growth, which led the Philadelphia Masjid to outgrow its initial sites, as well as establishing satellite mosques No.12A, Mosque No. 12B, Mosque No. 12c, etc. in honor of the original Mosque. 

The fully staffed Philadelphia Masjid is now located at 4700 Wyalusing Avenue. It is currently the biggest mosque in the city with a community development corporation, multigenerational affordable housing, an early childhood training center, a culinary program for high-school dropouts and ex-offenders, and a vocational trade program. Referring to her experience at this mosque as a proud 44-year member, Khadijah Hameen said, "You were able to have self-love and self-preservation. We've always been here for each other. It is something we have built and that belongs to us. We are not giving it up. This is our establishment." 

The thriving African-American Muslim community in Philadelphia has influenced the city in many ways. Omar Woodard, whose grandfather Elijah Woodard was Malcolm X's bodyguard, is an African-American Muslim philanthropist and professor at Temple University. He comments on the famous 'Philly beard' as a product of his community's influence. He says "Everyone rocks a beard because they say its a Philly thing to do. Well, it's a Philly thing to do because we've got a lot of Muslims here. And we drive the culture."

Perhaps you are familiar with the Philly Muslim rapper Freeway. In 2015 Freeway launched his own line of facial hair cream called the Best Beard. In his article "The long reach of the Philly beard," Hisham Aidi says, "The rapper says he wears his beard for religious reasons but is delighted to see how the Sunnah- as the beard is called in Philly - has caught on even among non-Muslims." Freeway is just one of many rappers that come from this community. Other rappers that have emerged from this bustling scene of Philly African-American Muslim artists include Beanie Sigel and Tone Trump. Tone Trump wears Islam on his sleeve, unapologetically expressing his faith every chance he gets. He is also very hands-on, playing an active role in the community through numerous charitable projects. 

Elders in the community can provide you with a long list of legendary African-American Muslim jazz musicians that come from this heritage including McCoy Tyner, George Jordan, the Heath Brothers, Lynn Hope, Pharoah Saunders, Sun Ra and more. As Mr. Aidi notes, "The history of Islam in Philadelphia is reflected in the music. Some artists were openly Muslim, others more private." Not only have Philadelphians adopted the music and the Sunnah beard, but also phrases like "whats up ak?" and even give their children Muslim names like Kadija, Kalil, Ayesha, Malik, etc. The rolled-up calf-length pants, kufis, izaars worn over jeans, and long T-shirts are all parts of a familiar fashion seen in the streets of Philly, a style that underlines a rich cultural past. Whether it is language, music, or style, certainly, the African-American Islamic cultural influences have reached Philadelphia and beyond. As Abdur Rashid, the leader of the city's council of mosques puts it, "Young Muslims in Philadelphia have always been photogenic. For some reason, the world is only now noticing." 

The community's influences don't stop there. In 2007, Curtis Jones Jr. was the first African-American Muslim to be elected city councilman of Philadelphia. He is the most prominent Muslim in the political scene of Philadelphia. When he was sworn into office as a Councilman, he famously asked for a Quran. He currently is in his third term as Council member and has led many beneficial initiatives, namely passing a bill calling for Philadelphia to recognize the two Islamic holidays of Eid el Fitr and Eid al Adha. With the help of an active community member sister Aliya Khabir, who played a fundamental role in the overall success of this petition, these two holidays are officially recognized in all Philadelphia public schools. 

Philadelphia is indeed the Mecca of the west. It has a huge Muslim population, 85% of which comes from a rich and dynamic African-American heritage. Islam brought dignity and strength to a community suffering from unabashed discrimination and oppression. Its teachings empowered a community struggling for justice and equality. In turn, this African-American Muslim community has enriched both the greater Muslim American and African American communities at large. We should all be grateful and aware of its linguistic, musical, religious, cultural, and stylistic contributions to Philadelphia and the world. As a newcomer to Philadelphia, I am truly honored and blessed to become a part of this enlightened community that has so much to be proud of. If you do no not live in Philadelphia, stay connected with The Ak-City A-rag. Get yours today! Please find resources including articles and videos on this great community below.


Purchase The Ak-City A-rag

AragAcademy is a collection of travel blog posts and academic resources. We invite you to read about the personal experiences people have had in different African and Arab countries, as well as places influenced by these cultures. 
In addition to being a travel blog, AragAcademy offers access to academic resources including books, articles, lectures, research papers, and documentaries covering a variety of topics related to our collective history and cultural legacy. The purpose of AragAcademy is to revive a forgotten history and to empower our communities with the knowledge to reclaim our untold narrative.
If you have any traveling experience, we encourage you to share your reflections. Please send your written pieces to Your blog post will be featured here, and you will also get 15% off your next purchase!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published