“On the evening of December 17, Yasiin Bey, one in a long line of speakers, took the lectern in the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton New York, near Rockefeller Center, and before a Muslim audience of more than a thousand people, recalled spending certain Saturdays as a child with his grandmother walking the avenues that intersected Fulton Street in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, searching for an uncle who was addicted to drugs. “It was like another world,” he explained. “It was a completely other world. Skid row times a thousand. Filled with criminals, the poor, indigent, addicts. Just a lot of misery. And I would venture to say that as a child it was probably one of the worst neighborhoods in New York City.”
Some thirty years later, and largely because of an aggressive approach by the evening’s host, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, to moving crack dealers out of the neighborhood—an approach that involved muscle, which in 1987 landed the imam and several associates in jail—this piece of Bed-Stuy is a completely different place. Fewer drugs. More small businesses. More Muslims. At the center, on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Fulton Street, sits Masjid at-Taqwa, or “mosque of God-consciousness.” Wahhaj’s home base is a bustling mosque that began as a clothing store and a squat house for junkies and now, with the funds raised at this thirtieth anniversary event, is looking to build the five-story Taqwa Center, complete with basketball courts, an Olympic-sized pool, and room enough in the upper floors for a charter school.
Bey, whose connection to Imam Wahhaj and the mosque goes back to the mid-90s, was there as an entertainer to help raise funds; he’d been preceded on stage by Sheik Hamza Yusuf, a founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, the nation’s first four-year Muslim liberal arts college. The famous Hamza Yusuf, with his tight goatee, horn-rimmed glasses, and a black kufi with white trim, was the real headliner of the night, entertaining the crowd with stories of traveling through New York as a young convert, witnessing a gunfight in Harlem and an altercation between a friend, Abdul Qadir, and some New Jersey johns that ended with Qadir saying: “I’m a Muslim. We don’t hit first, so you go ahead and take your best shot.” But there was more. Yusuf witnessed that in the late-70s New York’s black Muslims—Muslims like Abi and Imam Wahhaj—“were right there on the front lines, and they were taking it to the streets,” he said. “They were talking about Islam with people, selling incense and giving dawah,” that is, inviting people to the faith.” – Yasiin Bey