“Cut From a Different Cloth”: Masjid An-Nur as a Beacon of Light During the Pandemic – Imam Makram El-Amin

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By: L. Nur, Freelance Journalist

North Minneapolis’ Masjid An-Nur is a local trailblazer when it comes to combining worship and community service. It’s the first Twin Cities masjid slated to become eco-friendly, it was one the first local masjids to provide Muslim ASL interpreters for deaf and hard-of-hearing congregants, and it took the lead in temporarily ceasing Muslim prayer services in March, out of concern for the health of its congregation due to COVID-19.

Photo of Masjid An-Nur. Credit to masjidannur.org.

Imam Makram El-Amin, who leads Masjid An-Nur, said he recognized the tension between serving his community’s religious needs, and the urgency of reducing the spread of coronavirus. He added that Muslim prayer is intimate, with worshippers standing shoulder-to-shoulder and in close-knit lines, which would defeat national and state measures to contain the spread. 

Photo of Imam Makram El-Amin taken from Masjid An-Nur’s website 

“The natural inclination for the Muslim community, particularly in times of stress and chaos, is to gather and come together to find comfort,” he said, adding that the decision to stop services “was a challenge between being accessible and being safe, and balancing the potential judgments from the community.”

The Masjid as a Place to Serve All Human Needs 

A culturally diverse and African American-led congregation, Masjid An-Nur has a rich history of intersecting Islam with racial justice, with roots in the Civil Rights Movement. 

“I would be outside of my identity as an African American Muslim for me to turn a blind eye on what I see, or to put my head in the sand [during difficulty]. That’s just how we’re cut, we come from this,” Imam El-Amin said. 

An-Nur’s jum’ah (Friday) prayer usually attracts 200 to 300 people, Imam El-Amin said, and the masjid “easily” engages a minimum of 5,000 households across services and events in a typical year. That’s why the decision to end in-person services eight weeks ago has been so difficult.

Still, Imam El-Amin has been able to continue offering his digital weekly jum’ah lectures on Facebook Live Fridays at 1pm — a continuation of the masjid’s live streams in place prior to the pandemic, as a matter of diversifying access for the community.

“The masjid at the time of the prophet was a shelter for people. It was not just a place for prayer,” Imam El-Amin preached during a recent live lecture. “It was a place where people came to get their needs met. Their basic needs, and their spiritual needs, their intellectual, mental and social needs.”

With the passionate gusto of a religious preacher, he continued, “[The masjid is] a place [where] all things human happen. Any concern that we have as a human being that is innate to human life, whether it’s social, human, economic or educational, if it pertains to the betterment and furthering and progress of human life, the masjid is the place for it.”

Racial Inequities and COVID-19’s Impact on North Minneapolis 

So far, the impact of the coronavirus on Imam El-Amin’s congregation has been deep, as Masjid An-Nur plays a central role in North Minneapolis beyond just offering religious services to Muslims. 

He said the pandemic has further exacerbated North Minneapolis’ historic inequities, like access to healthcare, education, and income and housing inequalities. The lockdown in particular has affected people’s ability to earn income, and that working from home is in and of itself a privilege the working class does not have, he explained. 

Through the Masjid’s decades-long Feed North Minneapolis and Al-Maa’uun Food programs, Imam El-Amin is seeing a steep uptick in working class families seeking support who were never a “part of the system” prior to the pandemic, he said. 

Photo of food packaging at Masjid An-Nur for meal delivery and examples of hot breakfasts and lunches served. Up to 300 served per day on some days. Credit to the Masjid An-Nur Facebook page.

“I’m not [even talking about] the poor, [these are] not people dependent on any system. These folks work everyday, but this circumstance has put them in a situation where they have to be supported,” Imam El-Amin explained. 

So much so that, since the quarantine, many North Minneapolis families are contacting Masjid An-Nur for meals and services — basics like home and hygiene supplies — support they are requesting for the first time in their lives. 

“I mean, thank God there’s a moratorium on evictions right now! Thank God, because this would be catastrophic otherwise,” he said. “We’re feeling and getting live feedback that people are desperate.”

Al-Maa’uun — Providing Meals to Vulnerable Families

The Al-Maa’uun Food Project has been one of Masjid An-Nur’s staple programs, providing vulnerable minors and seniors with meals, food shelf access and support with public services. A newer service is the “Iftar Curbside Meal Pickup,” providing free iftar meals for Muslims in North Minneapolis who are in need this Ramadan. 

With Al-Maa’uun, the masjid prepares, packages and delivers all hot meals, delivering up to 300 per day on some days, and 4,000 meals per week, with a record of 15,000 meals delivered in April alone, according to Imam El-Amin. It’s all volunteer-run, with requests for more volunteers to help

El-Amin said Masjid An-Nur was in some ways prepared for the pandemic because of the programs and services regularly offered prior to the crisis, the neighborhood’s long-time experiences with systemic racism and disenfranchisement, and deep connections with community organizing in the African American community. 

Black Muslim ‘Grit’

He also pointed to a cultural element. 

“We come from people who sacrificed everything to do the right thing. [Our history as Black Muslims] has afforded us a level of grit that we’re not easily gonna tap out when things get difficult,” he said. “We push forward to exhaust our means to find a way, and we trust in Allah. Our message is the same as all of the masajid (mosques): we need to be a beacon of light in this moment of darkness.”

He mentioned the Qur’an also has several verses that enjoin feeding the poor, giving in charity, and being on the side of justice, even — especially — when times are tough.

“Advocating for what is good and just as much as possible [is] an obligation on us as a community and congregation, to make ourselves an asset, as a body,” Imam El-Amin said. “This is not an option.” 

Connect with Imam Makram El-Amin here, here, and here 

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Sign up to volunteer to prepare/package meals Sign up to donate to Ramadan 2020 Iftar Sponsorship

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