In contrast to its quick early growth in the Middle East, the spread of Islam in West Africa was gradual, members of the Ebun Abass mosque point out. Merchants and traveling scholars brought the religion with them.
“They first asked people to accept that there is no god except Allah,” said Djounedou Titikpina, founder of the African People Alliance. “It was very flexible, and little by little, they upgraded their Islam.” Titikpina immigrated from Togo, a country where Christians, Muslims, and adherents of native faiths, generally maintain peaceful relations.
Islam acts as a uniting force for a variety of ethnic groups in West Africa, where everyone prays in Arabic and observes the same fasts, viewing themselves as a single ummah, or community.
To promote local Muslim unity, Soulemane Konate, secretary general of the Council of African Imams founded the Harlem Shura, a council that acts as a bridge between African immigrants and African American Muslims.
The theme of Muslim unity is reflected at Masjid Ebun Abass. Among its non-African members is Adbul Rauf, a Puerto Rican convert who works at the nearby Lincoln Hospital. “Everything you see here is created by Allah,” Rauf said, adding that in his heart, “I was always a Muslim.”
An Islamic lifestyle is a far cry from the Latino cuisine he grew up with, in which pork is abundant and alcohol is permitted. Habib Trawaly praised the few converts. “When they enter Islam, their hearts are pure,” he says.
The mosque’s attitude towards converts hearkens back to the gradual spread of Islam in West Africa.
This attitude is also evident in the rejection by the local congregation of terrorism. “Islam does not teach force,” said Musa Pokum, a decorative painter. “We know in Africa; we teach to respect people.”
A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of the Mott Haven Herald.