By Arao Ameny
Harlem, New York—He speaks passionately, inflecting his voice when talks about mobilizing communities, especially Muslims in New York. Looking over briefly at the men studying the Q’uran, he says that greater unity among diverse Muslim groups is essential and reaching out to non-Muslims is critical to achieve religious tolerance.
Imam Souleimane Konaté was born in Ivory Coast, West Africa. He heads the Masjid Aqsa or Aqsa Mosque on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, next to116th Street. He and his friends founded the masjid in 1996. Becoming an imam was never part of his plan but somehow his life came full circle when he arrived inNew York City in 1992.
Konaté studied Islamic law in Egypt at Al-AzharUniversity, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Cairo,Egypt. He pursued a Communications degree in Saudi Arabia, where he resided for 12 years and worked as a journalist covering West African issues for the Saudi Arabian media. Konaté career as a journalist quickly transformed when he came to America, only going back to community organizing roots after seeing the plight of African immigrants in New York City.
When he came from Saudi Arabia, he studied the Q’uran. “Since my grandfather was a Sheikh and knowledgable person and my uncle taught me the Arabic language and Q’uran, from there I started teaching people and passing the message to people of my generation,” Konaté said. He taught back home in the Ivory Coast for 12 years, studied and then went to Cairo, Egypt, to Al Azhzar University and then to Saudi Arabia.
Konaté studied mass communication. He said he changed his major from Islamic culture or Sharia to journalism because “many Africans are doing the same major and that is when I changed my major,” he said, “I wanted to do something different.” But he would soon realize that his path would reflect his grandfather and uncle’s Islamic studies that he underwent as a young man.
Konaté and 12 young men from theIvory Coastdecided to come together to establish a masjid in Harlem to address the cultural and language needs of African immigrants in Harlem.
Borrowing from experiences he learned from his community organizing days in Saudi Arabia, Konaté began mobilizing the African Muslim community to help build find a space where they could pray in their native African languages or French.
Konaté said that Masjid Aqsa plays a significant role in the African Muslim community in Harlem. “It is not just a masijid, it is also a community center. It is also an Islamic center. If you look around, the men the Q’uran are teaching each other and there is a brother that teaches the sisters. Look you see, and the kids, someone is also teaching them,” he said.
Before coming to Americain Saudi Arabia, Konaté’s role was to mobilize African communities was to bring them together. “We established a club in Saudi Arabia, a club of immigrants, goal of club was to bring all Africans together. Before that, there nothing in place. The local government embraced the idea,” he said excitedly.
At that time, the club organized a soccer tournament among the African countries represented in the group to compete for a prize dubbed the Trophy of Nelson Mandela—since at the time, in the 1980s, Mandela was in jail for defying the apartheid South African government.
“When I suggested the idea to my fellow Africans, they said ‘Konate this is a great idea’ and we started it and the local government and the management was there to there to help us,” he continued. The countries that participated wereSomalia,Ivory Coast,Mali,Burundi,Burkina Faso,Morocco,Egyptand others.
During this time, in 1985, President P. W. Botha offered to free Nelson Mandela if he spoke out against violence, but Mandela refused to comply until the South African government granted black South Africans full rights as citizens and stopped the racial segregation.
Konaté and the club in Saudi Arabiadid soccer tournaments for one year. He reminisces about the Mandela Trophy, quickly clapping his hands. “Let me tell you something, Burkina Faso was fighting inMaliin 1985. The soccer teams were fighting because back home, politically, they fighting,” he said. Konaté and his friends contacted both ambassadors of Mali and Burkina Faso and they agreed to come to talk to the citizens. Konate, himself, gave a speech, saying that “we are fighting for Mandela but to bring unity not only in Saudi Arabiabut in the continent.
His flashbacks of community organizing in Saudi Arabiastop abruptly when he says, “Now we are in New York, let’s talk about the present,” he says with a smile.
Konaté said African immigrants attended African American masjids or other masjids in the area but the language barrier soon became a problem. Most of the West African-born immigrants did not speak English and they wanted to pray in their own native languages or French. Most of the masjids in the area offered services only in Arabic and English.
Another complication occurred in the Harlem Muslim community when Imam Rashid, an African American imam who was very welcoming to the African community suddenly died. Rashid, who served more like a liaison between the African and African American community was gone and that’s when the cultural misunderstands multiplied. “Imam Rashid, he used to love African people and he loved African people, may Allah be pleased with him, African American people and he died, may Allah be with him, when Sheikh Rashid passed away that is when our problems start with African American community and people call us names. They didn’t like us and they call us names in the masjid,” Konaté recalled.
Konaté said that every African in the area, regardless of country, decided to raise money. “Senegalese, Ivorian, whatever, from one dollar to 5 dollar to ten dollar and today we have so many masjids in Harlem,” he said. “We have almost seven African mosques. Al Aqsa was the pioneer.”
Konaté acknowledges that there are many differences between the African and African American Muslim communities, saying that Africans’ main focus is getting housing and a job so that they can send remittances to their relatives back home. “We Africans are concerned about getting our papers [green card], housing,” he said. However he says that these differences should not prevent both communities to come together in the name of Islam.
Currently, Masjid Aqsa is looking to establish programs for youth. Musifa organization for women was recently established with programs to combat domestic violence, health issues and so forth. Konaté said that he is partnering with Dr. Nurah Amat’ullah, founder of the Muslim Women Institute for Research and Development.
The most important short term goals for the masjid is full to capacity, with congregants having to pray on the sidewalk, the basement full and 300 people waiting outside on Fridays to pray. The long terms goals for the masjid include bringing more unity within African Muslim communities and reaching out to Christians. Konaté wants to establish his own Islamic school which focuses on the Qu’ ran and Islamic principles and also teaches African cultures and African languages to American-born children of African immigrants.
Masjid Aqsa holds about 1500 congregants, mostly fromWestAfrica. People of Middle Eastern, Asian and European also attend the masjid. Masjid Aqsa is a member of The African Council of Imams and The New York Islamic Leadership.
To find out more about Masjid Aqsa email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 212-316-9803.