Muslims of Seattle[1]

Miriam Adeney and Kathryn DeMaster


Seattle is a young city; the first boatload of settlers docked here in 1851. Although the population of the greater Seattle area is less than 2 million people, it is the biggest urban center between Montana and San Francisco. Sizable cities like Tacoma, immediately to the south, and Bellevue, just a few miles east, and the larger city of Vancouver, Canada, three hours north, make this a major urban corridor. In general these cities stretch north and south along waterways: Vancouver along the Pacific Ocean and several rivers, Seattle and Tacoma along Puget Sound, Bellevue along Lake Washington. This elongation has implications for the community life of Muslims in the city.

Seattle faces outward. It is the major hub in the contiguous forty-eight states for Alaskan business. Seattle also sees itself as a Pacific Rim city. Much of Washington states production is raw materials: grain, timber, apples, and other fruits and vegetables. A large proportion of this is marketed to Asia nad the Middle East. The biggest industry in Seattle, the Boeing Aircraft Company, sells globally. The second biggest employer in Seattle, the University of Washington, abounds in international connections. Quite a number of East Asian garment factories have headquarters in Seattle.

East and Southeast Asians make up a significant portion of the citys population. Because Seattle is a sister city to Tashkent in Uzbekistan and hosts an intensive Uzbek language and culture program at the University of Washington, Soviet Muslims visit periodically and have developed friendships with Seattle residents. Several hundred Afghan refugees have settled in Seattle, resulting in visits to and from Mujahideen.




Muslims of Seattle have four major places for Friday prayers: Sheikh Abdul Kadr Idriss Mosque, also known as the Islamic Center of Seattle; the Islamic International House at the University of Washington; the Islamic School; and the South Seattle Islamic Center. The Idriss Mosque is in the north end of the city, and the Islamic International House and the Islamic School are in the middle.

Communities of Muslims, mainly students, are found in the western areas of Tacoma and Lacey. Students also constitute most of the Muslim population of eastern Washington, primarily in Spokane and Pullman. In the tri-cities area of central Washington there are settled families of Muslims, drawn by employment in a nuclear installation. Estimates of the number of Muslims in Seattle vary from 4,000 to 10,000. Of these, a mosque spokesperson estimates that there are 1,500 committed Muslims[i]


South Seattle Islamic Center

The oldest center currently in use is the South Seattle Islamic Center. During the early 1960s, two Muslim men working for the Boeing Aircraft Company noticed each other skipping lunch during the Fast of Ramadan. One was a Pakistani, the other an Iraqi. They introduced themselves to each other and began to exchange social visits in their homes. Gradually other Muslim families were included.

In time this group decided that they needed a mosque. A number of families began to save money, wanting to put a down payment on a building without having to pay interest on a loan. For about a year they each saved $100 monthly, and finally bought a two-story house on a half-acre of land in south Seattle. This became a place of prayer, worship, and community life for Muslims of various ethnic backgrounds.

When the major mosque was built in north Seattle in 1981, most Muslims in the area began to worship there. The South Seattle Center new serves primarily as a worship and educational center for the Chams, a distinctive population of Muslims from Indochina. Nevertheless, some Arabs and others who work at the Boeing aircraft plant in the nearby suburb of Renton also use this mosque for Friday salat.


Islamic School

In 1980 the Islamic School was opened in the South Seattle Islamic Center. Five Anglo American and African American women who had converted to Islam saw the need for Islamic education and organized the school. American Muslim women have accepted a responsibility interfacing Islam with the non-Muslim community, says Amina Saleh, a local Muslim mother, acknowledging that American women have been major movers in many of the local Muslim community projects. A Muslim lawyer put the women in touch with the information they needed to become an accredited school with nonprofit status. One family knew a Pakistani woman in Florida who was a certified teacher. She became the first instructor. Mohammed El-Moslimany, the Egyptian husband of one of the five women, happened to be in Kuwait during this period, where he solicited donations for the school. With this seed money the committee bought a van and initial curriculum materials.

The response of the immigrant community was very positive. According to Rafia Khokar, one of the five founders, Just about every family who had a child in that age group sent their children to that first school. The men were more guarded in their enthusiasm than the women, but they gave financial support. The north-south elongation of Seattle, however, meant that Muslims living in the north end needed something more convenient that the South Seattle Center. During the first year of operation founder Ann El-Moslimany traveled to Kuwait for fund raising. Her success meant that in 1981 the community was able to purchase a former Hebrew school building in the more central area of Capitol Hill, where the Islamic School subsequently moved.

Today the Islamic School is a private, full-time elementary school accredited by the school district. It can accommodate 300 students, but are at present only 25, ranging from preschool through fourth grade. Financing remains an issue. The annual tuition of $1,575 covers only 60 percent of expenses, with the remaining 40 percent donated by sponsors. The students, children of resident families have come from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Palestine, Kuwait, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Australia, and various parts of the United States. Non-Muslim students also are accepted.

The teachers have come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, from Singaporean Chinese Muslim to Ethiopian. On occasion, non-Muslims have been hired to teach in the school or in the day care center, but normally in the school itself all teachers are Muslim. The curriculum covers standard subjects, as well as Arabic language and Islamic studies. Accomodation is made for daily and Friday prayers. Islam as a twenty-four-hour way of life is a goal of the co-administrators Mohammad and Ann El-Moslimany, emphasizing the importance of upholding high ethical standards. Religious instruction permeates the whole curriculum, rather than being taught as a separate subject, with Quranic verses brought up whenever they apply. Muslim greetings, blessings, and proverbs are incorporated into daily speech. When the Middle East is in the news, and particularly when media coverage is biased, teachers make it a point to present what they consider to be a more balanced and well-rounded view.

Reflecting on why the five founders felt the need for a separate Islamic School, Rafia Khokar says, We wanted to be the influencing factors in our childrens lives, and we wanted to share that with others. Protecting their children from negative influences in American culture was not a primary goal. Rather, she says, We wanted to be in a powerful position because we felt they needed to be trained for leadership roles.

What is wrong with public schools? The separation of church and state is confusing to teachers, Rafia suggests. Teachers are restructed from teaching in areas that deal with questions of morality. What I see is that when youve got a good teacher shes strangled, Rafia comments. I don't think public schools are about building character, theyre about passing along information.

By contrast, the goals of the Islamic School are

  1. To provide an environment that centers on God, and teaches our place in his creation.
  2. To help children excel in leadership.
  3. To nurture the brotherhood of Muslims.
  4. To teach the knowledge of the Arabic language.
  5. To provide an academically rigorous curriculum.

You just want your children to be God-fearing and sensitive, Rafia concludes.

Beyond its educational function, the school also serves as a general religious center. Several communities make the Islamic School their location for prayer and worship, including a group of Somali immigrants a Shia group of twenty-five fifty people, and an African American group of about twenty people.


Islamic International House

A number of Muslim student associations are present on the campus of the University of Washington. The Muslim Student Association has 30 dues-paying members and performs services for about 100 students. The Muslim Arab Youth Association (MAYA) sponsors occasional halaqas for discussion and brainstorming on Saturdays after maghrib (evening prayer). MAYA also organizes the students to help them attend the annual large national student convention in December.

The International Muslim Student Association (IMSA) started as a Persian-speaking and Shia group. Now it includes Sunnis and non-Persian speakers. Because its focus is political rather than religious, it has moved into a complementary role in relation to other groups. There are also ethnically based Muslim student groups, such as the Cham Muslim Students Union.

During the early 1970s, Muslim students at the University of Washington met regularly at a Methodist church in the university district. With financial help from Kuwait donated through the North American Islamic Trust, around 1980 a committee was able to buy a large fraternity-style house near the university. This is not a regular dormitory, but provides temporary housing for arriving students and visitors. The house is a center for Friday prayers, teaching, social gatherings, and spiritual advice. It introduces non-Muslims to Islam. House affiliates give out informational literature, respond to media coverage, write occasional articles for the university newspaper, and maintain a daily office hour. Arabs are the most involved ethnic group. Followed by Indo-Pakistanis.

Because of some administrative difficulties, the West Coast representative to the North American Islamic Trust visited in October 1991 to mediate a dispute between U.W. Muslim students and community members. An interim governing board was appointed to serve for one year, with the aim of developing a system that transfers the authority to the local community based on policies and procedures instead of individual whims[ii]

Periodically Muslim students at the university organize a dawa program to provide information about Islam. Sun an activity took place for four days in October 1991. Booths were set up in a large room in the central student union building, where books and pamphlets about Islam were made available. At one end of the room, rows of chairs were arranged in front of a podium where prominent local Muslims gave talks throughout the day and engaged their listeners in discussions. A number of university students perused the exhibits, many were non-Muslims with internationally focused major. On the grounds in front of the student union building members of the politically oriented IMSA engaged in load soapbox-type oratory, targeting especially U.S. support for Israel.


The Islamic Center

The major mosque was built in 1981, endowed by a Saudi whose daughter lived in Seattle. Today it is sometimes crowded during Friday prayers, with estimates of as many as 400 attendees. The overflow congregation is forced to pray in the basement. Striking against the sky are the octagonal dome and narrow minaret. Both are sheathed in copper and topped with crescents. As one commentator describes the building:

Clear-cut volumetric composition is one of the buildings chief attributes: through careful massing the small building appears much larger and assumes a public importance unusual for its size. The buildings classical air is no accident: the architect derived the proportions using the Golden Section

The red brick walls are banded with buff brick and pierced by tall glass-block windows, which are topped with concrete lintels in the shape of Moorish arches. An abundance of brass, copper and celadon green ceramic tile highlight and define the main entry.[iii]

Inside there is a large room for salat, with a latticed balcony for the women. In the basement is a room for ablutions, a large space for social activities, and a room for the womens halaqa with a separate entrance from outside. The mosque commands attention as it sits on a corner lot and forms a transition between a busy retail shopping street and a residential neighborhood.

The mosque is governed by a democratically elected committee. It has a constitution that specifies the offices of the Executive Committee and the procedures for the annual elections; any Muslim who pays membership dues of $10 per month may vote. In addition to the Executive Committee, there are committees for Shura Council, Islamic Education, Zakat, Cultural-Social Functions, and Sisters. The Imam is not a professional scholar but a graduate student who volunteers his service. At present, the muezzin and the custodian are the only employees of the mosque.

The largest ethnic group at the mosque is Indo-Pakistani, with the Arabs second in size. Many other backgrounds are also represented. This is, however, a Sunni mosque. Shiis are welcome to come and pray, but not to introduce distinctive doctrine. Also, there is an unwritten rule that no political activity is to be allowed in deference to the U.S. policy of separation between church and state.

Activities at the mosque include Friday night halaqa after salat, childrens classes on Sunday mornings, and occasional youth or student meetings. A Muslim Womens Association called Sisters United Through Islam has recently been formed and holds occasional potluck dinners on Saturdays. In calling the downstairs part of the building the community center or community area, members recognize that the mosque is important as a cultural center even for Muslims who are not religious.

During the halaqa after salat, men and women meet in separate rooms. They start with a short prayer, then take turns around the circle reading the Quran. The meaning of a passage also may be discussed. Religiously knowledgeable people may break in the reading to correct pronunciation or expound on a point. In addition to halaqa meetings, the women have other gatherings to discuss such subjects as parenting and CPR. Eid celebrations, especially the Eidul-Fitr, the Feast of Breaking the Fast, are coordinated through the mosque but held in larger facilities. As many as 1,500 people have participated in this celebration.

The mosque also publishes an eight-page English-language news magazine several times a year, featuring articles on such subjects as financial investment, the Quran and the Sunna, and topics of current political interest.




A unique presence that distinguishes the Muslim community in Seattle is that of several hundred Chams, Muslims from Viet Nam and Cambodia. They first arrived in Seattle in 1978, fleeing the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Communist regimes. Out of 1,000 Chams accepted by the United States in the first influx, about 400 came to Seattle, with more arriving from1979 to 1982. Today it is estimated that there are at least 100 families of Chams in Seattle.[iv] Many of the men are employed in the fishing industry, in auto mechanics, or in interior remodeling. Women often work in sewing factories or in seafood-processing plants.

Chiese records and Sanskrit inscriptions make mention of the kingdom of Champa in southern Viet Nam as early as the second century A.C.E.[v] Chams speak a Malayopolynesian language, the only sizeable group to do so in mainland Asia north of Malaya.[vi] Their earliest known kingdoms were Indianized civilizations with Hindu rulers. From the ninth century on the Chams found themselves sandwiched between two powerful and frequently aggressive neighbors the Khmers of Cambodia and the Vietnamese of Tonkin and had to fight hard for survival.[vii] When the Vietnameze won, Sinicization went forward. From 1400 on Islam moved into this milieu, spreading out from Malacca in Malaysia through traders, teachers, and intermarriage.

Over 50 percent of the Seattle Chams came from three villages in Indochina. The decision to emigrate was a communal one. The elders met together and encouraged an exodus, mainly of the youth, in light of the suffering that they were enduring under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Communists in Viet Nam. Chams were singled out fro torture and barbaric mass killings because there were a minority ethnic group, because their claim to be from the historic kingdom of Champa smacked of aristocratic pretensions, and because they insisted on being religious. One way the Khmer Rouge detected them was by observation at community meals. Anyone who washed in a ritual way or who did not eat pork would be suspected of retaining Muslim allegiance and would be killed. In Viet Name the Cham wanted to escape from compulsory military service in the army of an atheistic regime. It is estimated that in a three-year period, from 1974 to 1977, the total population of Chams dropped from 1 million (60,000 in Viet Nam, 700,000 in Cambodia and the rest elsewhere) to 200,000[viii].

When they arrived in the United States, then, the Chams came with a sense of heritage, destiny, and community support and communal obligation. In the early days they had no idea how to find other Muslims. In Pike Place Market, Seattles renowned central farmers market, some of them discovered a shop sign in Arabic. Going into the store they met Muslims from Pakistan. We were so happy, reported one of the Chams. They were like family to us, [even though] we couldnt communicate.[ix] After this initial contact local Muslims came to visit them, among the Iraqi-born Jamil Abdul-Razzaq and the American convert Ann El-Moslimany.

At that time, in the late 1970s, Muslims were meeting in the older two-story home that became known as the South Seattle Islamic Center. Since then the more substantial mosque in north Seattle has been built and most Muslims now pray there. Because the Chams live in Ranier Valley in south Seattle, however, they continue to meet in South Seattle Islamic Center. Here the elongation of the city along north-south waterways correlates with ethnic differences to encourage separate worship centers.

In contrast to Muslim students and immigrants from some other countries, Chams have maintained a strong sense of community cohesion. In Seattle they live close together, many occupying adjacent units in the same government-subsidized apartment complexes. As a result of having to struggle for their identity throughout their history they maintain a strong allegiance to Islam and are deeply devout.

Because even the South Mosque is too far to visit very often, the community recently has purchased another two-story house just blocks away from their major apartment complex. They intend to transform this into a mosque, school, and general center. Right now classes are held on Sundays for the children at the South Seattle Mosque. It is reported that some 10-year-old Cham girls have learned to recite the entire Quran in Arabic and have gone to Malaysia to compete in Quranic recitation competitions where they have won over native Arabic speakers. A few Cham parents hope to send their children to universities in the Middle East.

Because they were able to keep their extensive community support system intact when they immigrated, because preserving their distinct identity is something they have had to struggle for so hard and long, and because they prize orthodoxy and piety, the Cham hope to create a true Islamic neighborhood in Seattle.



A Druze community of about 200 is located in Seattle. In 1908, seventy-six Druze men met in that city to start the first Druze organization in the United States. Some were new immigrants to the United States; others had come from other states. No Druze women lived in Seattle in those early years. The organization founded in 1908, El-Dirziat, was a social and cultural association. Its officers were Hassan Farris, Milhem Bshir, Hussein Kassem Yahia, and Salim Najm Jaber. For worship, these men met each Thursday night, the eve of Friday, in a designated home. Here they prayed and read the book of wisdom, Al-Hikma.[x] During the 1960s a wave of Druze families arrived, with still more arriving in the 1970s and 1980s, especially after the beginning of the war in Lebanon. Because they are a small community, there is no official worship center. Each family prays at home although they do celebrate Eid al-Adha, their only religious holiday, as a group. A close-knit community, they also socialize together a great deal throughout the rest of the year.

Several thousand Iranians live in the greater Seattle area. About fifty Shii families are known to practice their faith in Seattle itself. They meet for worship at the Islamic School, were they rent space. During Ramadan they sponsor activities two or three nights a week. They also meet to celebrate the birthdays of Imams and prophets. During Mharram up to 100 people may gather for the evening events. Because they lack an Imam, these Shii govern themselves by an executive committee composed of five elected officers. They operate within the guidelines of a local constitution. Elections are annual, and a majority vote decides an issue.

Alongside the regular worship meetings, the group runs a Sunday school for their children. Looking to the future, they make it a point to worship in a combination of Arabic and English. All languages are Gods languages, says Masood Irani, an engineer and a member of this worshipping community. So we try to use English/Arabic, and try to stay away from Persian, Urdu, Afghan, Pushtu. Were English-speaking. That is our goal. We defeat ourselves otherwise. We must create a religious culture based on the English language. We are American Muslims: we need to see it that way for our kids.

African Americans in Seattle number only about 50,000, and many are dispersed throughout the general population. Muslim African Americans worship with other Muslims or in small groups of their own. Syid Askia is one who meets with about twenty other African Americans for regular Friday prayers at the Islamic School. Askia has watched the Nation of Islam for many years. When Warith D. Mohammed took over the leadership, Askia says, there was now no excuse not to be a Muslim. He formally accepted the faith in 1976. At that time a group of African American Muslims were worshipping in a local school building on Martin Luther King Way in Seattle. Askia joined them. With the national change of leadership and reorientation, he remembers tremendous confusion, fragmentation, decentralization, and falling away. However, in his view, this was also a positive time for releasing energy and realizing potential, for relearning religion. Now his group is trying to internalize the message.

Askia believes indigenous American expressions of Islam are vitally important. Islam in Seattle is dominated too much by immigrants, students, and visitors from outside the country, he believes. Many of these people are mesmerized by the West and do not adequately empathize with how African Americans have had to struggle to overcome their environment. Many immigrants came from colonized countries and therefore view religion in a different way. Some immigrants come from countries where everything is provided and thus tend to depend on donations. Even Northgate Mosque was a gift from outside. Such people are not used to having to create their own conscious community situation, says Askia, who also feels that too much use of Arabic can create a priest class.

Askia reflects on what being a Muslim means to him in the American context. Al Islam by contrast took away the inferiority complex (nurtured by racism), the biggest blockage to performance. Now the challenge is to create a model Islamic community through education, business, propagation, and empowering individuals. Our motto is: If you see a dirty glass, set a clean one next to it; don't blame the dirty glass, he suggests. Askia points to models in Atlanta and Oakland, but observes that African American Muslims in Seattle have not been as successful in moving toward this model community because there is not a lot of collective anything here. Also, African American Islam often has grown stronger by absorbing the poor, he says, but this does not work so well here because Seattle is a very generous city.




In the past few decades, there have been some incidents of prejudicial behavior from non-Muslims. An anonymous telephone call announced a bomb threat at the north mosque. A couple of shots have been taken at the building, and some beer cans thrown at it. At Seattle Pacific University, a Free Methodist school, there was an exchange of heated comments in 1985 when some students objected to Muslim students praying on the Christian campus. Occasionally an individual has been asked, Why don't you go back where you came from? Muslims in Seattle as elsewhere express their sense of frustration when only Jewish experts on the Middle East are featured in national and local media and resource information centers.

Overall, however, anti-Muslim incidents stand out as exceptions. Seattle Muslims often try to be involved in local events, addressing schools and organizations and influencing local libraries, media, and cultural institutions. Speaking as president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in 1987, Riad Kayyali said, In Seattle, we are very lucky that there is really a decent atmosphere for everyone to express their opinion.[xi] According to news reporter Carol Ostrom, Seattle, say those monitoring violence against and harassment of Arab-Americans, is an oasis of reason and understanding compared with many other cities, partly due to efforts by groups such as the Church Council of Greater Seattle and individual influential churches. In 1986 a formal coalition was formed by the Church Council of Greater Seattle, the Islamic Center of Seattle, and the Western Washington Board of Rabbis. This occurred in the aftermath of a visit from the late Meir Kahane, then a controversial member of the Israeli Parliament. As key members have moved away, however, the coalition no longer is active.

The Seattle Public Library has made efforts to improve its Islamic collection and reach out to the Muslim community. It has purchased Islamic books and audiovisual materials, published lists of books on Islam for both adults and children, sponsored an Islamic art display and a talk on Islams contributions to the sciences, and hosted a workshop for children on the Eid holiday. During the Gulf War, the Seattle Public Library was one of the few libraries in the United States prepared to help people cope with the trauma of the Gulf War, according to Amina Saleh, one of the founders of the Islamic School.

The Seattle Childrens Museum included a series of workshops on the Eid during its Africa exhibit in the summer of 1991. The University Bookstore, one of the largest west of the Mississippi, has introduced a section on Islamic books and continues to expand its selection of titles on Islam.

Focus on Islam is a TV talk show which airs at 9:00 P.M. Sundays on TCI Public Access Channel 29. The host is a second-generation Seattle Pakistani. It is an issues-focused educational program with a discussion format. Local Muslims appreciate the fact that it is on the air, but give it mixed reviews in terms of quality. The public station does not want to use tapes developed elsewhere, but requests local production. The station previously did run a series of tapes by Jamal Badawi, an internationally known apologist for Islam. These tapes are now available through the Seattle Public Library, thanks to a local American-born Muslim who made the connection.

A particularly difficult issue for Muslims in the United States relates to burial of the dead. Islam calls for burial on the day of death, but government regulations make this difficult. Over time the Muslim community in Seattle has worked out arrangements with certain funeral homes that are able to provide this service to the Muslim community. Currently some effort is underway to buy a cemetery for Muslims. In Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, which is now used, a section is set aside for Muslims.

To illustrate community relations in this part of the country, we note in conclusion two incidents related by local Muslims. Whether apocryphal in details or not, these contemporary legends are cited by local Muslims to illustrate the way they feel about their place in community life in Seattle. The first concerns a Palestinian from the West Bank who has been attending Washington State University in Pullman. Recently Israel called the student home. When he arrived, he was tortured and detained in custody. His American wife sought help from the community. To get the Palestinian back, the local sheriff issued a warrant for his arrest. The sheriff sent out an All Points Bulletin to pick up the young man. Soon the U.S. government was asking for the return of this offender. Israel sent him back and he was reunited with his wife and supportive community. In another case, a gas station in Seattle hired a Muslim. Eventually, the Muslim wanted to move on. When he did, the owner asked for another Muslim to fill the position. Im willing to pay $1.00 more per hour if necessary, he is reported to have said. I want a Muslim because I want somebody honest.









[1] Published in Muslim Communities in North America; Haddad, Yvonne and Smith, James, eds.; SUNY Press, 1994. Chapter 8.



[i] Interviews with many Muslims in Seattle were conducted during October and November 1991 by Miriam Adeney, Kathryn DeMaster, and Robin Poling.

[ii] Community News, Al Huda: Newsletter of the Islamic Center of Seattle 14, no. 7 (November 1991) p. 8.

[iii] David Schraer, Northgates Mosque: A Monument on the Strip, Arcade 2, no. 2 (JuneJuly 1982), p. 2. The golden section to which Schraer refers is the most famous axiom for achieving pleasing proportion in the history of architectural design. According to this axiom developed by the ancient Greeks, a line should be divided into two unequal parts for which the first is to the second as the second is to the whole (Encyclopedia Britannica Vol. 17, p. 5).

[iv] Timothy McCarthy, Islamic Lecturer, South Seattle Islamic Center, interview, October 1991.

[v] Brian Harrison, South-East Asia: A Short History (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1967), p. 12.

[vi] Robbins Burling, Hill Farms and Padi Fields: Life in Mainland Southeast Asia (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965), p. 121.Hil

[vii] Harrison, South-East Asia, p. 35.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Carol Ostrom, The Moslem Way, Seattle Times (March 16, 1989), p. E-4

[x] Sami Abulhosn, notes form personal research in Seattle Druze records, November 1991.

[xi] Carol Ostrom, Arab-Americans Find Seattle Accepting, with Exceptions, Seattle Times (October 24, 1987).

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