Keeping a displaced group closely knit together

A photo essay on Masjid Tajul Huda, a mostly West African mosque in the Bronx, New York.

Boy runs down the stairs during iftar. Photo credit Youcef O. Bounab ©.

Abderafiou Boukari recently sat down after Maghrib prayer at Masjid Tajul Huda, a majority-Nigerian mosque in the Bronx. Ending a long day of fasting, he dug into platters of egusi soup and iyan swallows, which—among other West African delicacies—members made and brought almost every day.

Boukari, a bespectacled man with an unfailing grin on his face, is from Togo. He previously lived in Algeria, where his adoptive father still lives, and France, which he left with his wife and little baby to come to New York a few years ago.

For him, Masjid Tajul Huda, unlike any other mosque “abroad,” feels closest to home.

“It’s better here,” he said. He tangled his hands and raised them above his head. “Here, we’re united.” Then, following a moment of silence, he added, “It’s not like in France. In France, you pray and you leave. Here, no. It’s like we’re au bled [back home].”

Laylat al-Qadr, one of the most important nights of Ramadan, is believed to be the night during which the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Photo credit Youcef O. Bounab ©.
Many observants aim at reading the Quran in its entirety throughout the month of Ramadan. Photo credit Youcef O. Bounab ©.
Congregants, including Imam Shuaib Mohammed Aziz (bottom right), gather to break their fast. Photo credit Youcef O. Bounab ©.

Tajul Huda, also known as the Imole Adini Islamic Society of New York, is a small two-story walk-up that flanks a residential building and a supermarket on East 170th Street. It gives off the appearance of a mere family house at first: the men usually occupy the bottom floor and the women the upper one, while children take up both, running up and down the stairs incessantly.

But the mosque’s proportions have proven worthwhile, as the smallness of the space has imposed an unbreakable sense of intimacy and familiarity. Over the past two decades, Tajul Huda has grown into a de facto community center, where members come even from out of state.

Such is the case of the Bishi family, who would drive there multiple times a week during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, and on other holidays. Hafeezat, 22, is the oldest daughter of the Bishis. Her parents, first-generation Nigerian immigrants, are accustomed to visiting the mosque dozens of times a year.

“When you come to this country, you want to be around people that are like you to some extent,” she said. “That’s why these masjids were erected.”

Man prays alone after maghrib prayer. Photo credit Youcef O. Bounab ©.
Imam Shuaib Mohammed Aziz preaches about zakat al-fitr, the charity required at the end of Ramadan. Photo credit Youcef O. Bounab ©.
Men pose for a picture during Eid al-Fitr at Claremont Park Park. Photo credit Youcef O. Bounab ©.

There are over 20 mosques in the Bronx. A significant number of these are predominantly West African, situated in or near Concourse Village, a neighborhood that has long attracted sub-Saharan migrants.

According to the US Census Bureau, the government’s main statistical agency, more than 16 African languages are spoken in the Bronx alone. But that number, linguists say, doesn’t reflect the real extent of spoken languages in the borough, as it doesn’t take into account different variations and dialects.

Among the Nigerians of Tajul Huda, Yoruba and Hausa can frequently be heard during conversations. But English, French, and Arabic are spoken during sermons and readings and with people from other backgrounds.

In a practice that is not widespread among other mosques, the imam also becomes a mere listener as a microphone is passed between congregants waiting for maghrib prayer. Their discussions touch on a variety of topics, from local news to Elon Musk. Additional mosque activities besides the act of worship are networking, socializing, teaching, and learning from each other.

Hundreds gather at Claremont Park Park for Eid prayer. Photo credit Youcef O. Bounab ©.
Man reciting after Eid prayer. Photo credit Youcef O. Bounab ©.
Green is associated with growth and abundance, and yellow with gold and preciousness. Photo credit Youcef O. Bounab ©.

Other Gambian- and Ghanaian-majority mosques nearby serve very much the same purpose. When a number of them gathered to celebrate Eid al-Fitr in Claremont Park across the street from Tajul Huda earlier this month, people from different mosques proudly wore different dresses and kaftans. Families and groups wore the same colors and patterns, each representing a different mosque after collectively buying Ankara fabric to custom-make their outfits.

Despite adversities—like tribal tensions in Nigeria, among other things—and the many challenges that immigration imposes, Tajul Huda and other mosques are as much beacons to their members as they are symbols of resilience. They single-handedly keep a displaced group closely knit together.

Women from different mosques serve food. Their custom-made Ankara kaftans show which mosque they usually go to. Photo credit Youcef O. Bounab ©.
For many Muslims, it is customary to make or buy new clothes for Eid. Photo credit Youcef O. Bounab ©.

Further Reading