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Durham Museum Chronicles Oldest N. Carolina Muslim Community

DURHAM – The Museum of Durham History has decided to chronicle and celebrate the earliest Muslims in North Carolina through its new exhibition named “Building Bridges Through Good Faith”, and scheduled for August 11.

“The members of Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center have lived their lives in a way to make Durham better, and so that bridges were built between Muslims and non-Muslims,” IndyWeek quoted Naomi Feaste, the co-curator of the exhibit.

The college student, involved in the civil rights movement and joined Ar-Razzaq in its early days, put out a call to the community to unearth the “history in their heads and their attics” that now covers two walls in the small museum.

The exhibit includes the arrival of Muslims in America, the founding of Muhammad’s Mosque #34—as Ar-Razzaq was known when it formed in the late 1950s —and its influence on Durham and beyond.

Photos in the exhibit show author James Baldwin outside the mosque’s original Pettigrew Street location attracted to a sign reading “Choose for yourself: Truth or hate,” and Malcolm X debating local civil rights leader Floyd McKissick Sr.

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Not pictured are visits by legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, who reportedly dined at Ar-Razzaq’s restaurant, Shabazz, and stayed with its founding family, waking them early with his trademark banter.

The organizers believe that the exhibition represents a story that hadn’t been compiled before but embodies Durham’s place in African-American history and its roots in entrepreneurship, activism, and tolerance.

“There wasn’t that kind of documentation of the Muslim community in Durham, and we really wanted to let people know they’ve been here for a long time and they continue to be great contributing neighbors,” says museum executive director Patrick Mucklow.

The American city has changed significantly since Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center opened its doors in 1971. Where the center once operated a bakery and loaded up its food truck (the third in Durham, the story goes) stands The Cookery, an event space, and culinary incubator.

Ar-Razzaq’s fish market, mechanic shop, restaurant, and music venue are also gone from a stretch now home to a coffee shop, grocery store, and frozen yogurt place.

Flourishing Community

When the mosque opened in its current space, once home to some of Durham’s wealthiest families, was struggling like other central neighborhoods from the closure of the city’s factories and the construction of the Durham Freeway.

So, members began a community patrol (they pestered drug dealers until the dealers reported them to police for harassment, according to lore), a soup kitchen, and “clean-up squads” so thorough members say the city didn’t need to sweep the streets.

While those efforts have dissipated as the neighborhood changed, Ar-Razzaq still operates a weekend school, serves about one thousand kids through a summer feeding program, and delivers meals to seniors.

The area was bustling with businesses, eateries, and a cultural center that hosted jazz and other live music, all run by the Ar-Razzaq community.

Members also manufactured shea butter—memorialized in an obscure nineties rap song by Da Golden Rul included in the exhibit—with nuts brought from Africa.