Imam Makram El-Amin
The Muslim Experience in Minnesota project aims to capture and convey the Muslim experience in Minnesota through oral interviews and photographic portraits. This Minnesota Historical Society funded project documented 40 Minnesota Muslims chosen carefully to represent a diverse collection of experiences.
Continuing in the series of interviews from the Muslim Experience in Minnesota project, in this entry, I feature Imam Makram El-Amin of Masjid An-Nur. Imam El-Amin leads one of the most dynamic mosques in the Twin Cities.
Transcript of Imam Makram El-Amin Interview:
My name is Makram El-Amin. We are meeting here, at my office in Masjid An-Nur, located in North Minneapolis. Masjid An-Nur has evolved, and went through a series of transitions, here, and, from Masjid Mujaddid, to the establishment of Masjid An-Nur, Masjid Ikhlas, and then kind of came back to, you know, Masjid An-Nur, in that particular way.
You know, we came out of a movement, my family and many of the congregation that we joined, we came, here, came out of a movement that, called the Nation of Islam. And, which was a, what would, has been characterized, I would say as more nationalistic, of a movement – and maybe, Islamic prototype, so to speak. It was based on, really came out of the ‘30s, originally in the ‘30s, and it really was an answer, or at least a, it was prescribed as an answer, to the conditions for African Americans, and the social, economic, political, conditions that we were subject to, at that particular time. And, so it took a number of evolutions, you know, in that particular way through the ‘30s and the ‘40s and the ‘50s and the ‘60s, where it really took flight in that particular way, and figures such as Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali, and others who gave prominence, or more visibility to the movement under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad.
My father, my mother, joined the movement, back in, I would say, 1957-58., in 1975 is when Elijah Muhammad passed away, and his son, Wallace Muhammad, we call him Imam W. D. Muhammad, Warith Deen Muhammad, he was ratified as leader, as the leader of the movement at that time, and really began to transition that particular movement to what we would call mainstream, or orthodox Islam for want of a better term – the Islam that adheres to the Qur’an and adheres to the life example of Muhammad the prophet. Imam Warith Deen Muhammad selected my father to relocate from Chicago and to come here to Minneapolis area, to lead the congregation at that time. So that’s kind of how what brought us, here, and again that happened in the mid- to late ‘70s, and my father was a leader for, here for ‘till I think the mid ‘80s or so, maybe ’83-’84.
I have, there’s five of us altogether, I have four siblings, two sisters and two brothers. Most of them, they all live here in Minneapolis, except my youngest brother, who is a professional, basketball player who plays overseas in Europe, so he’s traveling most of the year, but we, again, we’ve grown up here, I think we are, our family is really staples in this community, you know we went to North Community High School, and one of us went to the college and things all in the area, here, so we, I would say we’re by-and-large viewed as pillars in the community here.
We’re thankful that, that our mother and our father have, really laid a, a wonderful foundation for us, in terms of us being independent thinkers, as well as not afraid or shy to forge into a new area, you know, to really, to, to cater to that, you know, there’s a entrepreneurial spirit, that my father has cultivated in us. My mother is a, she’s a, don’t tell her this, but she’s a task master, you know, I mean she’s very, a one who, you know, wants things to be done correctly, and the right way, and those sorts of things which is a wonderful help to me, you know, ‘cause I’m, my mind is, you know, kind of goes out in the stars a little bit, know what I’m, on various things, and she helps to reign me, reign me in, even, even with relationship to the mosque and the work we do here, and how I go about my work, you know, she’s always trying to make me a little more efficient than what I am, and I treasure that.
The community grew, and, it split, it separated, you know, it was in different parts of the city. And, we, all the way until, you know, the early ‘90s, you know, have been split, and then the community came back together, of sorts, and the mid ‘90s as well, and not long after that, not long after that we had an opportunity to get this facility which was a restaurant. We had the opportunity to get this from my Muslim brother, who was from, I can’t recall, maybe from Egypt or overseas, who owned this particular property. And he kind of gifted this property to the Muslim community.
No, my evolution as the leader of Masjid An-Nur came by way of, as I mentioned my father was, was the imam when we transitioned here from Chicago, and then it went through a number of transitions. There were other imams. There was Imam Rashid Bilal, Imam Matthew Ramadan, and then, myself, here. So, it wasn’t direct in that particular way, nor did I have any aspirations, to, to do this kind of work, per se, as I saw my father doing it, so to speak. It wasn’t something that I longed for in that particular way, at least not consciously.
But, so for some reason, it kind of evolved, you know I had, taking a real interest in religion, and scripture, you know, due to my own journey, personal journey and etc., and have become very captivated as a student of scripture and religion, and it’s something that, as a means of helping myself to improve, but also to, as a means of helping, you know, those around us as well, too. I mean I had really begun taking a strong interest in that particular way and became, really, students of Imam W.D. Muhammad and his religious commentary and explanation of the Quran, the life of Muhammad, and just really our view of the world, you know, and helping us to embrace Islam in a very, very authentic way, that’s true to us, and the experiences of our people, but at the same time, being an asset to humanity at the same, so it was a wonderful, but yet complex journey, in that particular way, but all of this captivated me, all of this did.
Masjid An-Nur is definitely a part of this outer community. You know I think from the very outset, we started, we wanted to be seen as an asset, so for example, in 1996-97, not long after we became imam, there’s a small, modest project that began as a food shelf, serving 20, 25 families, at best. And that food shelf, you know, has, grown over the years to where it presently is right now, of 275 to maybe 300 families a month. And this is a complete, you know, of by-and-large, a volunteer effort to, to pull this kind of thing off on a day-to-day, month-to-month basis, and it’s something that really we have become known for. 95-plus percent of the families that we serve, whether it’s the food shelf, or any other thing that we do, are non-Muslims, are non-Muslims, you know, we’re trying to get the Muslims to participate a little bit more.
I’m a member of the Minneapolis Downtown Clergy, you know, myself, and Father Michael O’Connell, and Rabbi Zimmerman, and Tim Hart-Andersen, Jim Gertmenian, a lot of, you know, very prominent leaders in Minneapolis in the religious community, and all of them, have histories of, you know, a hundred years, and very, they’ve been around for a very long, long time, you know, and though we have, been around for quite a while, now so it’s growing, we don’t compete with them yet in terms of longevity like them, but also not an establishment, in terms of infrastructure and those sorts of things that allow us this as a life. We’re still evolving in that particular way, you know, we hope, our hope and our prayer is that, that we be one of the contributions that we will ultimately make to our community, is to help to build this kind of infrastructure, this kind of institutionalization that allows it to perpetuate itself over the course of time, and to bring the resources, garner those resources to support a leader and a staff, an administration, and also these, all these wonderful aims, you know.
I am a professional life coach, so I work with men, who are about 22 men right now, that are coming from incarceration, and long-term homelessness, as well as underemployment, unemployment and underemployment, and providing assistance to them in terms of helping them to facilitate their own prosperity, you know, in that particular way. But, again, my interest at this point in my life, is to focus more on that institutionalization of the mosque, you know. Just recently, for example, we have incorporated a, another entity, called Al-Ma’oon, which is, it means, in Arabic it means, the neighborly needs, community outreach services. You know, and a lot of the things we’re, we’ve been doing, kind of intuitively, in small measure, we’re bringing together as our social service arm, you know, and inviting other Muslims from around the metropolitan area to join and help lead this effort, so it wouldn’t, it won’t just be something centered at Masjid An-Nur, per se, it’s something that would, has, you know, far-reaching tentacles, you know, so to speak, and we hope to garner support for that idea, so that we can really, live, and be focused on the life that, that we feel that we’re called to do.
You know, again, one of the other staples of Masjid An-Nur is in the area of interfaith and interfaith dialogue. Imam Muhammad, who I see as a, as a teacher, you know, a mentor, you know, a leader that meant so much to my own personal development as a human being, but also religiously, religiously. He began to do interfaith dialogue many, many years ago. So as we watched him evolve, and be involved in various things, in terms of interfaith, and interfaith dialogue, and these kind of things, he was really teaching us that, that Islam is – we shouldn’t view it or present it in such a way that it is seen as contrary to the values of the American public, and also, God is really commanding us, really, to work for peaceful coexistence, in a really authentic way, that transcends tolerance. It really transcends tolerance. God says that ‘He has made you different that you may know one another, that you may come to know one another, you know? The best of you, is the one who is most conscious of God.’ So, not that I’m looking to be better than you or that, but to know, to know you, but to also acknowledge you too, you know, because we can know things, and depending on disposition, we won’t acknowledge them, you know? But this language, and, scripture says ‘to know and to acknowledge,’ you know? So this is simply what we’re trying to do. So it takes shape as interfaith dialogue, or some community project we might do together, a trip to Jerusalem, you know, some other kinds of, Thanksgiving prayer services, things of that nature, it takes the form of that, but what I tried to lay out just a moment ago, was kind of what the aim is behind all those things. That’s how they express themselves, but that’s what, this is what we’re aiming for, so to speak.
On any given Friday, you know, we’ll have Muslims from West Africa, East Africa, indigenous Muslims, African-Americans, European-Americans, Malaysian, Turks, just, Somali, wherever, you know what I mean? So we’re very much a, a buffet, so to speak, you know what I mean, here in that regard, and we experience very great diversity here, but this is really just a sign of the universality of Islam, to be able to come together. We have very, very different backgrounds, very, very different circumstances, but there’s a commonality, a common tie, thread, that weaves us together in that particular way. And I think that’s really the miracle, the modern-day miracle, that, we have a belief system that transcends our own individual circumstances, you know, our own individual uniquenesses, you know, but we have a belief system that, that really transcends these things, and we’re able to gather together and, and really be of service to one another, yeah. One of the major challenges is for us to really, put the proper face on Islam, you know, to communicate in very simplistic, but authentic ways, of what Islam is, ok, and henceforth, what is not. With a lot of rhetoric and things about Islam, in media and these kind of things, you know, first of all, first thing we realize, quite frankly, is that this is not a new phenomenon, you know, the idea that that which is new is seen as maybe a threat, you know.
All I see right now is opportunity for us, and any, anything that comes in the media, or, or, you know, something that’s presenting as, as a negative, with Islam, in terms of that particular way, I think that these are, are easily dealt with, by the strategy of engagement over the course of time. So, we talked about interfaith dialogue a moment ago, and, really, the investment that takes, that’s a major investment, that’s a major, major investment. That’s an investment of time, energy, and resources, but also forging relationships that allow for, if there’s some, if there’s a problem within the Muslim community, if there’s something that takes place, and Muslims are being unfairly scrutinized for this, or that, or whatever the case may be. I’m not alone, we’re not alone, you know we have, we have friends. We have the Church of the Ascension, which is up the street, and the Basilica, that’s downtown, and the temple which is down south, and etc. That we will, we will call upon our friends to stand with us, to help to support us in this particular way, and likewise, they can call upon us to help if there’s something that challenges them in that particular way. So, I think that what challenges us is the same thing that challenges any person, any citizen, in any city that we live in, you know, poverty challenges us, crime challenges us, unfair laws challenge us, you know? So, they’re more general in that particular way, and it’s something that we can all unite to really face and meet those challenges, now. So, that’s how I would present that, maybe.
My experience, of Islam, here in Minnesota, is one that I’ve seen evolve over years, over the course of years, you know, there was, there used to be much less diversity, than what it is right now, and I think many of this is the influx of people really coming, to Minneapolis, you know, relocating, and the population has really, you know, have grown in that particular way. I think that my experience has been that, that, seemingly Islam was a small matter, when I was young, in the ‘80s, in Minneapolis specifically, with marginal influence, etc. Over the course of time up to now, we’ve seen that morph, you know, and emerging leaders, men and women in Islam, here, that have really allowed for us to, “us” meaning the Muslim community, to really, to grow, and to change, and to take form in ways that I would say, you know, twenty years ago, twenty-five years ago would have been hard to imagine, the recognition, of, for example, the last month of Ramadan, the mayor, called us to his office for the fast-breaking meal, you know, and, a very, very gracious host, and you know, these things didn’t happen twenty-five years ago, you know, the idea of, of a Muslim being a part of the downtown clergy, historically, that, that didn’t happen.
So, I, I think that this is really has shown how Minneapolis has always been a leader, a vanguard, in this way, to, to really, really, embrace its citizens, you know, in this way, and I think that we’ve just witnessed this, you know, we’ve seen this come true to form. We’ve seen Minneapolis, in its spirit, and it has stayed true to form in that way, and, but also I think that Muslims in general are much more likely to be outspoken now, about varying things, particularly our young Muslims, I mean, when I say “young” I mean, you know, college students, and high school, college students, and I think that there is a new wave coming, you know, it’s like a, this is, again, this is my view, we would just try to survive, and stabilize, in the ‘80s, you know, our anti-conscious began to get piqued, in the ‘90s a little bit about, you know, “What could we be?”, “Who could we be, really?”, you know, and the last, you know, ten years, I would say is that, that has just taken off, you know, to, to a level, now, of engagement and inclusion, you know, I mean there’re, there’re Muslims doing a lot of wonderful things, in a lot of different areas, you know.
I think that the influence here is beginning to expand a little bit, and when I say influence, you know, not in a coercive kind of a way, but an idea of that we’re being included in the discussion, about matters, issues that matter, you know, not only to Muslims, but also to others, in that particular way, so all these things, that’s been my experience, like a very marginal one, to really, the sky’s the limit right now, in that particular way, and I’m, I’m a optimist by nature, maybe, you know, but I think that our future is great, here in Minneapolis, you know, and even the work that IRG, for example, is doing, I mean this historic project that they’re working on right now, this, you know, these are things that, that we couldn’t really think about, we couldn’t fathom this, you know, that we would be important enough, big enough, you know, twenty five, thirty years ago, that it would make sense to even embark upon something like this, and then, and then the MN Historical Society, you know, to provide support for something like this, you know what I mean. All these are signs that, that we’re ushering in a new era, of time, you know, and we welcome it, we welcome it, so.