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Religious Walking Tour Maps Out The History Of Muslims In New York City

Oct 12, 2019
Originally published on October 12, 2019 7:12 am

Visitors often get to know Harlem, N.Y., through its many walking tours – from gospel music to architecture to food. But on a recent Sunday morning, two dozen people join their guide to learn about something else in the neighborhood: the history of Muslims.

Since 2014, Katie Merriman has held free walking tours about once a month to remember centuries of Muslim history in New York City. She grew up in the city and is now finishing her doctorate in religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And over the years, whenever she would come across the history of Muslims in New York City, Merriman would write it down.

"So I took all of those little scribbles in the margins, I put them together, and lo and behold a map appeared before my eyes in Harlem," she says.

The history goes back almost 400 years when North African slaves were brought there by Dutch settlers. Stops on the tour don't follow chronological order nor focus on a single Muslim community. Rather, it is more geographic and goes to some surprising neighborhood landmarks – like the Apollo Theater.

"We're here to talk at the Apollo, because there's a large connection between music – especially jazz and Islam," Merriman says, during the tour.

She speaks about American jazz musicians who performed at the theater and converted to Islam in the 1950s after touring abroad. She also plays a clip from John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and explains how some interpret it as a dhikr, or Sufi Muslim remembrance prayer.

"John Coltrane never claimed this as saying 'Allah Supreme,' but many people are sure that he wanted you to not be sure," Merriman says.

A tour participant holds up the lyrics of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme outside the Apollo Theater as guide Katie Merriman speaks about the song's interpretation as a Sufi Muslim prayer.
Courtesy of Marcus Washington

Many sites on the tour are more obscure, and are either unmarked or no longer present.

"Another part of what I'm trying to do is show you what's gone, what's missing, what's been erased," Merriman says.

She takes the group to an empty lot that was once the site of Aqsa Mosque. It had served as a community center for the wave of West African immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s. Merriman also tells the story of Alianza Islámica, the Latino Muslim community that was among the first to wash the bodies of those who died from AIDS.

People who join these tours often have no particular connection to Islam. They're just curious – like Patty Rout. She recently retired and has lived in Manhattan for the past forty years.

"I'm a big walking tour person, because I find it's a good way to learn and I like things about New York. And it's something that I really don't know much about," says Rout.

But the tour has a more personal meaning for others – like Amir Ahmed, a 26-year-old graduate student living in Harlem.

"This is a good way for me to learn about my identity as a Muslim – and as a black Muslim in the United States, but also as a neighborhood member in this community," he says. "There are just a lot of things that you walk by all the time and never really quite know the historical significance."

The final stop on the tour takes the group to what is likely the most prominent Muslim site in Harlem: the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque. It's there that Merriman shares a story of her Irish Catholic father who grew up nearby.

"The day that Malcolm X was assassinated, he was a teenager up there riding around on his bike," she says.

Her father had told her stories of seeing crowds standing outside the hospital in Harlem. She says stories like this emphasize a shared history.

"My dad had no connection to these communities, but there he was on that historical day riding his bike as a teenager in Washington Heights," says Merriman.

This reminds her, and she hopes the people taking the tour, that the history of Muslims is part of the history of New York. And, while not Muslim herself, she says that overlooking this gives an incomplete picture of the American story.

"When we talk about who has made this country and who has made this world, we can't leave people out and claim that we're the only ones who have done it," she says.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Visitors often get to know New York's Harlem through its many walking tours - from gospel music to architecture to food. But one guide offers a tour that spans centuries in the neighborhood. Farah Dosani has more.

FARAH DOSANI, BYLINE: Two dozen people are gathering at the corner of a busy intersection in Harlem near a state office building.

KATIE MERRIMAN: Thanks for waking up and choosing this tour instead of brunch. I'm here to talk to you about the history of Islam in New York City.

DOSANI: Katie Merriman started these Muslim history walking tours in 2014. She's from New York and is now finishing her doctorate in religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And over the years, whenever she'd come across the history of Muslims in New York, she'd write it down.

MERRIMAN: And so I took all those little scribbles in the margins. I put them together. And lo and behold, a map appeared before my eyes in Harlem.

DOSANI: The history goes back almost 400 years, when North African slaves were brought here by Dutch settlers. The tour is not chronological, but more geographic. And it goes to some surprising neighborhood landmarks.

MERRIMAN: So I brought you here to the Apollo Theater. So don't let anyone tell you I gave you a bad Harlem tour. But no, we're here to talk at the Apollo because there's a large connection between music, especially jazz, and Islam.

DOSANI: She talks about American jazz musicians who performed here and converted to Islam in the '50s after touring abroad. Merriman also plays a clip from John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" and explains how some interpret it as a Sufi Muslim prayer.

MERRIMAN: And John Coltrane never claimed this as saying Allah Supreme, but many people are pretty sure that he wanted you to not be sure.

DOSANI: Many sites on the tour are more obscure, and are either unmarked or no longer here. On a street far from the crowds, Merriman stops in front of an empty lot.

MERRIMAN: And so right in front of us here, you see all of - kind of construction fence. And that's there because they tore down a big building that used to include a mosque.

DOSANI: Aqsa Mosque served as a community center for the wave of West African immigrants in the '80s and '90s. She also tells a story of Alianza Islamica, the Latino Muslim community that was among the first to wash the bodies of those who died from AIDS.

MERRIMAN: All right. Let's keep moving.

DOSANI: Many people who come on these tours have no particular connection to Islam; they're just curious, like Patty Rout. She's lived in Manhattan for the past 40 years.

PATTY ROUT: I'm a big walking tour person because I find it's a good way to learn. And I like things about New York. And it's something I don't know really much about.

DOSANI: But the tour takes on a more personal meaning for others, like Amir Ahmed, a 26-year-old graduate student living in Harlem.

AMIR AHMED: This is a good way for me to sort of also learn about my identity as a Muslim and a black Muslim in the United States, but also, like, just as a neighborhood member in this community.

MERRIMAN: We're just going to go back 116th Street and over to the mosque, and that's where we'll finish up.

DOSANI: The final stop on the tour takes the group to what is likely the most prominent Muslim site in Harlem, the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque. It's there that Merriman shares a story of her Irish Catholic father who grew up nearby.

MERRIMAN: And the day that Malcolm X was assassinated, he was a teenager up there riding around on his bike.

DOSANI: Her father told her stories of seeing crowds standing outside the hospital in Harlem. And while not Muslim herself, Merriman says stories like this emphasize a shared history.

MERRIMAN: My dad has no connection to these communities, but there he was on that historical day riding his bike as a teenager in Washington Heights.

DOSANI: The story reminds her, and she hopes the people taking this tour, that the history of Islam in New York is part of the history of America - what made this country what it is today. For NPR News, I'm Farah Dosani in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.