By Rasul Miller
In a well known oral tradition attributed to Prophet Muhammad (s), it is said that he exhorted his followers to treat their mothers with respect and deference, informing them, “Your Heaven lies under the feet of your mother.” That Khadijah Faisal is almost always referred to as ‘Mother Khadijah’ by members Muslim communities in Brooklyn, New York and around the country who she impacted is a testament to the respect and admiration garnered by her tireless efforts as a community servant. These efforts span over the course of five decades.
Mother Khadijah Faisal was born in Bermuda around 1899. As a young woman, she migrated to New York City. There, she met a fellow Afro-Caribbean immigrant with whom she shared much in common. Both were talented musicians — her being a vocalist and he a violinist. The two also shared membership within a small community of Black American Muslims who lived in the city during the early 1920’s. Sheikh Daoud Ahmed Faisal and Mother Khadijah Faisal, as they came to be known, got married in 1924. They would spend the rest of their lives working together as an incredible team sharing their faith and serving their community in numerous ways.
During the 1920’s, the two worked together to run a concert bureau in Harlem where they utilized their artistic background to educate students. Later in the decade, they moved to a brownstone in the Brooklyn Heights section of Brooklyn at 143 State Street — a location that would achieve a special place in the history of Islam in America. After opening their home to serve as a school of elocution for neighborhood children, they converted the property to a mosque, the Islamic Mission of America, in 1939. This site served as New York City’s largest and most prominent mosque for roughly two decades, and it is still used as a Muslim house of worship today.
In addition to serving as the place where scores of American converts to Islam in New York City would learn the foundational practices of their religion, The Islamic Mission of America was an inspiration for a number of other Muslim communities that would emerge in New York City and surrounding areas during and after the 1960’s. Mother Khadijah was an attentive teacher to countless Muslim women and young people over the course of her life, earning her the title of ‘Mother’ with which she is affectionately remembered. In addition, she was the mosque’s secretary and treasurer.
The contributions that Mother Khadijah made to her community along side her husband were not limited to Islamic instruction. Rather, the Islamic Mission of America functioned as a kind of community center where American and immigrant Muslim families gathered and received institutional support. American Muslim converts sought out legal services and advocacy from Sheikh Daoud — probably the first Muslim religious leader to be recognized as a clergy member in the state of New York, while immigrant Muslims and international students became acclimated to their new environment. Mother Khadijah would continue to be a pillar for this vibrant community until her passing in 1992.
Arts and culture were also celebrated within Sheikh Daoud and Mother Khadijah’s community, which was attended by a number of prominent local artists who were part of Brooklyn’s thriving jazz scene. Specifically, the women of the community planed and hosted cultural shows throughout New York City that introduced residents to Islamically-inspired clothing and the music of West Africa and the Middle East. As the head of the Muslim Ladies Cultural Society, Mother Khadijah provided women in the community with a model for active and engaged community leadership. Traveling with her husband around the country and speaking to groups of women, as well as mentoring two generations of Muslim women in New York City from the late 1930’s until the early 1990’s, Mother Khadijah had an immeasurable impact on the spread and development of Islam in the region.
Upon her death in early September of 1992, hundreds of Muslims attended her funeral. Both the size and the diversity of this crowd, which included Black American, South Asian, African and Middle Eastern Muslims, reflected the community she built along with her husband, who died twelve years prior.
The work and accomplishments of Sheikh Daoud Ahmed Faisal still have not received the degree scholarly attention that they warrant. And of course, as is often the case, even less has been written about the efforts and contributions of his wife. However, members of the community remember them as a dynamic duo who supported one another in their shared passion to work in service of their community and faith. In another tradition related from Prophet Muhammad (s), he responded a the question regarding how one should honor the rights of his or her parents after their death by saying, “You must pray to Allah to bless them with His Forgiveness and Mercy, fulfill the promises they made to anyone, and respect their relations and their friends.” Today, the young people that Mother Khadijah taught and nurtured have grown to maturity. They continue to pray for the woman who acted as a mother to an entire community, and implement the lessons that she instilled in them over many years. Many of the women among them have become professionals and educators, built families, and raised children of their own. Through their example, Mother Khadijah continues to remind us of the powerful and dynamic scholars, organizers, and leaders that Black Muslim women have always been and continue to be.
Rasul Miller is a PhD student in History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests include Muslim movements in 20th century America and their relationship to Black internationalist thought and West African intellectual history.