Masjed as-Sabr - The Islamic Center of Portland

Information about this center is no longer updated. This data was last updated on 28 August 2015.

Phone: 503-293-6554
[flickr_set id="72157621814700323"] This research was conducted by students Anne Marie Armentrout and Muntasir Sattar of Reed College, under the direction of Dr. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri. Masjed as-Sabr has the largest capacity among Portland mosques and Islamic centers, serving an estimated seven hundred to one thousand Muslims. The Masjed as-Sabr community is characterized by its conservative effort to apply traditions related from the Prophet Muhammad and his companions to contemporary life. Although the community of Masjed as-Sabr is very diverse, with worshipers from reportedly forty different countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, India, Pakistan, Somalia, Cambodia and the United States, it is generally regard as an "Arab" mosque in Portland because the majority of its leadership and its predominant cultural influence is Arab. In 2002 it came under international spotlight when Muslims who had attended the mosque were arrested and later convicted for conspiring to combat US forces in Afghanistan. History The impetus for the building of Masjed as-Sabr dates back to the early 1970s when students from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and other Arab and Muslim-majority countries, attending Portland State University and the University of Portland, organized a regular gatherings for prayer. They began praying as a group in the apartment of one of the Saudi students. As the group grew they needed more space, so they rented a house in downtown Portland, near Portland State University. Prayers were held on the main floor, and the upstairs of the building served as residence for several of the students. These students offered their Friday congregational prayers with other Muslims at the chapel of the University’s ecumenical center located in the campus ministry building. Some of the earliest organized activities were group excursions to the outskirts of Portland in order to buy and slaughter hens and cows according to Islamic law. In 1979 one of the students from Saudi Arabia purchased a house in southwest Portland for conversion into a mosque; this marked the official establishment of Masjed as-Sabr. The community used the mosque for daily prayers, including the Friday congregational prayer, but not the major Eid prayers. In 1987, the mosque began hosting a Sunday school, which was organized by the Islamic Society of Greater Portland. It became a social center for the Muslim community, and in fact played a role in drawing migrant Muslims to the southwest suburban Portland area. The Muslim community in Portland and those attending the mosque grew quickly during the 1980s. In the late 1980s, Masjed as-Sabr’s leadership realized that the size of the converted mosque was incommensurate with the community’s needs. They began searching for land on which they could build a larger mosque, which would also include a space for social activities and a school for the increasing number of children in their community. Finally in 1991, they purchased a property one block from the converted house. This property was selected because of its proximity to downtown Portland, Portland State University, and Portland Community College. The building of the mosque was delayed for several years because of zoning regulations. Many neighbors objected to the building of a mosque on the property because they feared a loss in the value of their homes and the increase in traffic. A few objected to the inherent Islamic nature of the building. They argued that a mosque, unlike a church, could not be considered a community space because of the separation of the sexes within it. The city, however, approved the re-zoning with certain restrictions. These height and width restrictions necessitated the building of a costly basement in order to give the growing community the space they needed. Additionally they were forbidden from calling the adhan (call to prayer) from the minaret, the height of which was limited to slightly over the height of the main building. Part of what facilitated their ability to finance and build the mosque was a change in the demographics that took place in the mid 1990s; many of the early students by now had become resident professionals, among them medical doctors, engineers, and university professors. Within the local community the fundraising efforts included bake sales and dinners and financial contributions from each community member. Additionally they received out-of-state funding from unspecified Muslim communities in California and Chicago, and overseas funding from individuals in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Their vision of the mosque, a building that would blend Middle Eastern Islamic architecture into a suburban American setting, was completed in the late fall of 1998, costing over one million dollars. It was inaugurated during the month of Ramadan in the winter of 1998. Since then the community has continued to grow, and its leadership is once again looking into increasing its space. The Masjed as-Sabr community uses the original converted house it had purchased as a full-time Islamic school, called the Islamic School of Portland. The school began operation alongside the mosque in the late 1980s with preschool and kindergarten classes. It gradually added grades, and it is currently preparing to add the eighth grade to its curriculum. Due to space restrictions, the earliest grades (pre-k to 2nd) are based in classrooms in the new mosque on the women’s floor and in the basement. Administration Masjed as-Sabr is managed by a Board of Directors, which in the past had consisted of five male members, but currently has only four members. There is no designated number of board members. The Board of Directors administers the mosque while the imam, who is also on the Board of Directors tends to the spiritual and religious issues that arise in the community. The imam is responsible for counseling, marriages, leading the prayers and giving sermons. The position of the amir (president) who oversees finances and management issues was temporarily vacated. The amir reportedly left the country because of concerns over threats to Muslim immigrants' civil liberties; the imam has since subsumed his duties. The other three board members serve as media coordinator, social coordinator and building manager. Voluntary sub-committees are formed to assist the Board of Directors in the management of periodical activities such as those relating to Ramadan, summer school, and Eid events. As a result of the strict segregation of the sexes at the mosque, women are involved in committees through their husbands and communicate with the men’s committees and leadership only through e-mail or phone. The selection of board members is rather informal. Members of the board are selected based on the prospective member’s visibility at the mosque and his expressed interest in fulfilling this role. They are expected to be among the persons who attend the mosque once a day and to carry the endorsement of other established members of the community. A Board of Trustees oversees the Board of Directors, which is comprised of "religious scholars and elders" (shuyukh and ‘ulama’), who live in other cities throughout the United States. The Board of Trustees is responsible for the issues that have a major or long-term impact on the community. Their main concern is that the conservative values of the mosque are maintained and that other sects and schools of thought do not gain control of the mosque. All board members and committee members serve on a voluntary basis except for the imam who is, at the time of this writing (August 2004), the only salaried Imam in Portland. Originally the imam was not salaried but was financially supported by the community. The salaried position was created after he was wrongly arrested by the Joint Terrorism Task Force when leaving the country for Dubai. He was indicted for having traces of TNT on his luggage, which was later found to be untrue. While he was acquitted for the original charges, he was charged for illegal use of a social security number and unlawfully possessing government documents, for which he was sentenced to five years of probation. A term of his probation is that the support he receives from the community be in the form of an official salary from Masjed as-Sabr. Description The mosque is located in a suburb of Portland, about a ten-minute drive from downtown and Portland State University. The mosque is surrounded by single-family homes, retail businesses, Portland Community College, and two apartment complexes, where a number of the community members live. It is a two-story gray stone building with a basement and an eye-catching minaret. The top floor is primarily the women’s area and has an unmarked separate entrance in the back. This floor houses several classrooms for the Islamic School of Portland, a kitchen, a bathroom with a special area for ablutions, and a women’s prayer room, which overhangs the men’s prayer area and has a frosted glass window facing the qibla (point of orientation for prayer). The main floor has a large prayer room for men, a library, and an office. The basement has a big hall that is used for community events and for student activities during school hours. Additionally there are several more classrooms, a kitchen, another office and a room that is used for preparing the bodies of the deceased for burial at the Islamic Cemetery of Oregon in Corvallis. Demographics The Masjed as-Sabr community reports a membership of seven hundred to a thousand persons hailing from forty different countries. Currently, the Muslim community based around Masjed as-Sabr is comprised of a large Somali community, mostly refugees, who have joined the community within the last ten years. The imam is Somali and an active member of the Somali community. There are also a significant number of Arabs, South Asians, and converted African-American and Euro-American Muslims. Despite the strict segregation of the sexes in both social and religious activities of the mosque, women are very involved in the community and frequently participate in women’s events; nearly one hundred women attend congregational prayers on Fridays. Activities The mosque is open between the time of the morning prayer and the time of night prayer. The imam of Masjed as-Sabr regularly leads prayers. Friday prayers draw the largest number of Muslims (about 1,000) among the mosques in Portland. Sermons are given first in Arabic and then translated into English, and the topical focus is generally community issues, such as remaining faithful in a secular society, treatment of women, child rearing, and the necessity of performing religious duties. Major Eid prayers are performed in the Portland Convention Center with Muslims from other mosques and Islamic centers in Portland. Eid feasts, however, are held at Masjed as-Sabr. They invite non-Muslims for the breaking of the fast at sunset during the month of Ramadan. The entire community is invited to socialize at picnics at least once a month in the summer. The Islamic Society of Greater Portland, an umbrella organization for Muslims in Portland and Vancouver, WA, sponsors a Sunday school at the mosque, which teaches Arabic and the Quran. The mosque itself sponsors a summer camp in which children study Arabic and the Quran and learn about "Islamic values" as well as cooking, crafts and sports. There are periodic sports outings, fishing and camping trips, and weekly karate classes for boys at the mosque. A non-Muslim woman at a nearby karate studio teaches bi-weekly karate classes for the girls and the women. These self-defense classes were established in part as a response to the community's concerns regarding hate-crime against Muslim children and women. The imam of the mosque has a license from the city to perform marriages, so marriages and marriage parties are held at the mosque, as well as graduation parties for the youth and parties to celebrate children’s memorization of sections of the Quran. Weekly social dinners used to be held at the mosque, but now are held on a less frequent basis. The mosque informally provides various forms of community service, such as marriage and youth counseling, computer classes, lectures on various health topics and assistance to refugees in the community. The women participate in numerous women events. Every Friday night there is a tajwid (Quranic recitation) class followed by a lecture on a passage from the Quran or the Hadith (collection of the Prophet Muhammad's sayings and deeds) by one of the women and a discussion of the lecture. Occasionally, the women at the mosque have "ladies lunches" at one another's houses. Every Friday evening the men have a study circle and study the Quran, the Hadith, Islamic law, or Arabic. From time to time one of the men will give a lecture. Outreach While most of the activities at the mosque are self-consciously geared toward fostering a tight-knit Muslim community in a non-Muslim society, the events on and following September 11, 2001 have pushed the community into greater association with non-Muslims, especially in response to the scrutiny they have received from the media and the surrounding community as a result of the so-called "Portland Seven," and the arrest, and subsequent acquittal, of their resident imam. Nonetheless, their encounters with the larger non-Sunni Muslim community are still very limited by other Portland mosques' standards. Muslims from the community at Masjed as-Sabr have been invited to give lectures in churches, schools and colleges in Portland. They indicate that they feel an obligation to change misconceptions of Muslims, and they consider it a responsibility to create awareness in American society of Islam and their own presence. They have outreach programs, which consist of inviting visitors such as student groups, interfaith members, local and national politicians, and neighbors to the mosque for talks, meetings, and dinners. Leaders at the mosque report that they have gone from being a minority and focused on their pressing community issues to a community which is struggling to define its role in the larger Portland community and its civic life. Civil Rights Activities In an effort to protect and secure their civil rights, Masjed as-Sabr has been working with the ACLU and has hosted seminars involving lawyers and the ACLU to discuss civil rights with community members. The mosque is also represented on the Arab/Muslim Police Advisory Council (AMPAC), which was begun in response to backlash facing the Muslim community after 9/11. Additionally, the tasks of the media coordinator from the Board of Directors now includes following the way Muslims are presented in the local press and meeting with members of the media to give them feedback and corrections about their representation of Muslims. Masjed as-Sabr filed a lawsuit against the Oregonian for defamation with the help of a prominent Portland Muslim attorney and has also joined an ACLU lawsuit against former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller.