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