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North Dakota Is Home to First U.S. Mosque

Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States, and there are more than 1,200 mosques around the country, with at least one in every state. The vast majority are in major metropolitan areas, especially in New York and California, but America's first mosque was built in one of the least populous states - North Dakota.

Like many immigrants, the Lebanese who arrived on the flat plains of North Dakota in the early years of the 20th century came in search of economic opportunity. Hassan Abdallah says his parents didn't plan to stay. "They always talked about how they came to the United States. They were going to get rich and go back to Lebanon. It didn't work out that way. Nobody got rich."

The Abdallahs weren't the only ones who came here from Lebanon hoping to make their fortune and go back home. "There was a bunch of them (who) came," Mr. Abdallah says, "not at once, but they kept coming, helped each other out. There were quite a few here years ago."

And sometime around 1929 or 1930, when they realized they would be staying in North Dakota, working as farmers and raising their families here, the Lebanese community decided to build a mosque.

"What they built was essentially a building that would keep them warm," says Joan Mandell, a filmmaker who has documented Arab communities across the United States and is currently working on a film about Arab Americans in North Dakota.

Ms. Mandell points out that they didn't have indoor heating in rural areas back then. "Can you imagine coming from a warm Mediterranean climate and ending up in northwest North Dakota in the middle of winter?" she asks. "North Dakota is really windy, so they built a basement." The rough wooden building that stood above ground, Ms. Mandell says, was just 1.25 meters tall.

"It was huge down in the basement. It was really big where they prayed," recalls Hassan Abdallah, who was just a young boy when the mosque was being used. "Men would pray and the women would sit off to the side. Us kids would go outside and wrestle. I always thought there were 15 or 16 old-timers that stood in line and prayed."

He recalls that hardly anybody had a car back then, so people arrived at the mosque by horse-drawn wagons and buggies.

"Back in the 30s," Mr. Abdallah says, "they all got together and prayed for rain. And we had an accident before we got home it rained so hard, so I always figured that helped."

The old-timers Mr. Abdallah talks about are now long gone, most of them buried in the Muslim cemetery that adjoined the mosque. Most of their children, who grew up in and around the small towns of Ross and Stanley, moved away.

Now 80, Hassan Abdallah is one of the few Muslims still living in the area. He says by the 1940s no one was using the mosque any more. In the 1970s, the younger members of the community - grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original immigrants from Lebanon -- voted to tear it down.

"We shouldn't have torn it down really, but we thought it looked -- an eyesore they said," Mr. Abdallah says. "All we had to do was make it look better and we could have kept it. It looked so empty after we tore it down."

But it doesn't look empty any more. At the urging of Mr. Abdallah's sister, Sara Omar, who died last year, a new mosque was built where the old one stood. About 80 people attended the commemoration this summer.

Half the size of the original mosque, but above ground, the building is made of concrete faced with stone, topped with a bronze dome. Inside are four minarets, waiting to be put on the corners of the building and a framed poster bearing images of all of the dead who are buried in the cemetery, including Sara Omar, who never got to see the new mosque completed.

Hassan Abdallah says although he occasionally says prayers in the new mosque, it's really more of a memorial.

According to documentary filmmaker Joan Mandell, the second mosque in the United States was built five years after the one in Ross, North Dakota, by immigrants to Rapid City, Iowa. The simple, white-framed building with a green dome is still standing in the middle of a residential community.

"People refer to that as the first mosque, so it is the first mosque still standing." But the filmmaker says, no one -- including the Muslim community of Rapid City -- has come forward to challenge North Dakota's claim as the home of America's first mosque.

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