The streets of West Philadelphia bustle with shoppers mingling at African markets, restaurants, music stores and hair salons. Several times a week, residents crowd into the half-dozen or so mosques set up in otherwise non-descript row homes on tree-lined side streets. For the several thousand West African Muslims in this city that is home to more than 55,000 Africans, the mosque is the place where they can stay connected – not just to their religion, but to their culture and identity.
Imam Yusef Doumbouya moved to Philadelphia from Ivory Coast two years ago, when another Ivorian Imam asked him to help guide a growing congregation that numbered more than 500. "They figured out that we have a lot of African Muslims here in Philadelphia, so they figured out they needed two Imams not only one Imam." When he arrived, though, he realized Philadelphia's Muslims needed religious education in addition to religious guidance. Many of those from Ivory Coast, Senegal and other Francophone countries still spoke mostly French, and without English they had difficulty connecting with other Americans including other African immigrants. Imam Doumbouya also recognized that the language barrier hindered their understanding and practice of Islam. So he began offering weekly religion classes in French and Arabic, weeknights for adults and on Saturday for children.
Imam Doumbouya's emphasis on teaching the basic tenets of Islam to his congregation is shared by other West African imams in the community. Liberian Imam Sheikh Abubakar Sheriff, who has lived in Philadelphia for 10 years, said their priority is "to educate them, to engage them … so people can be 'Islamically-sound.'" He said he was amazed to learn how many in his congregation of more than 400 West Africans and Black Americans did not know how to correctly practice the rituals of Islam. "A lot of people, they just don't know their religion yet," he says, shaking his head sadly. "They don't know the practices. They don't know how to make the Salat. They don't know how to fast correctly. They don't know how to go to Hajj correctly. They don't know how to believe in the oneness of Allah." Imam Sheriff uses his weekly sermons to teach what he thinks his congregants should know.
A different understanding of Islamic culture is found outside the mosque, as well. Tiguida Kaba is from Senegal, where being Muslim is part of the national identity. After nearly 20 years in the United States, she still feels disconnected from the American Muslim community, especially black American Muslims. While many converts to Islam have adopted the traditional covered dress seen throughout the Middle East, Ms. Kaba follows a more modern approach. But by choosing to wear a hat covering her hair rather than a jalabiyyah over her entire body, she's feels she is sometimes perceived by more conservative members of her community as being less Muslim. "I will not let anybody else think I am not Muslim because I am not covered," she said, dismissing that perception. "For me, being a good Muslim is doing what Allah asks you to do and I am doing that. So I'm a good Muslim. I know if they open the paradise door, nobody will go before me," she laughs. "I will be there."
Religious leaders in West Philadelphia are taking their education efforts to the larger community, as well. Imam Yusef Doumbouya makes space at his prayer service every Friday so non-Muslims can come and learn more about Islam. It's his way of bringing Africans, Muslims and Americans together.
Imam Sheik Abubakar Sheriff understands the importance of staying connected to the West African community while also becoming an American. "Every community needs that," he says. "Those connections are very important to keep you going in the new environment, otherwise you are completely lost." As West Africans continue moving to Philadelphia, their spiritual leaders plan to build larger mosques and continue efforts to increase understanding of their religion and culture among all the communities in their new home.