When Hafez Turk moved to the Valley in 1965, there was only a scattering of Muslims. At times, only two or three gathered for Friday prayers in space provided at First Congregational Church of Phoenix.
"I hoped some more would show up," said the Tempe real estate agent and native of Palestine. "It was lonesome, but I felt if I stopped holding them, nobody would know where to meet" when more Muslims came to the area.
It wasn't until 1981 that the area's first mosque was completed, Masjid Jauharatul-Islam in south Phoenix, under the leadership of Imam Abdur-Rahim Shamsiddeen, who still leads it.
Now, a small group of Muslims has founded the Arizona Muslim Historical Society and have set out to gather stories about Muslims statewide.
"We've realized that many of our elders are getting old, and our history would be lost," said Aneesah Nadir of Mesa, a longtime voice for Muslims and leader of the history project.
On Friday, their "Jewel in the Desert" historical and heritage exhibit opens in Tempe City Hall, in partnership with Tempe Historical Museum. Through art, religious items and information panels, Muslims' place in the area's cultural tapestry is being told. It will remain on display until early April, and the public may see it during regular weekday hours at City Hall, 31 E. Fifth St.
A "Get to Know Your Muslim Neighbors" block party will be 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday in Sixth Street Park next to City Hall. It will showcase Islamic culture in arts, entertainment, food and games, and the City Hall exhibit will be open. Public tours of the Islamic Cultural Center and its mosque across from City Hall will be offered. The celebrations come the first weekend after the end of the Muslims' holy month of Ramadan.
That masjid, or mosque, half the size of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, was dedicated in 1984. Tempe now has three masjids. In recent years, other new mosques have been built, including the Islamic Center of the Northeast Valley in Scottsdale and the Chandler Community Mosque.
"In the early '70s, they said there were about 200 Muslims" in the Valley, Nadir said. "Today we are talking 50,000 to 70,000," although no accurate census has been taken, and mosques keep no membership rolls.
"There is no way of determining the size of the Muslim community," said Muna Ali, a doctoral student in anthropology at ASU and native of Somalia, who has been doing part of the research. "Often those numbers, domestically, are estimated by how many go to mosque." She has discovered "how interconnected the community is" and how mosque communities have been spinning off new ones in the Valley.
Arizona State University and Valley high-tech industries have been leading magnets for Muslims choosing to settle in the Valley, Nadir said. "We have had a lot of foreign students who came initially and they have wanted to maintain their cultural identity," she said.
Nadir and Ali have sought to show that, like Catholicism or Judaism, Islam began in other parts of the world, but has developed into distinct American faith communities. It is incorrect to call it a "foreign religion," Nadir said. "It has been portrayed as a foreign religion and a religion of foreigners. Even people who have come from other places have now gained their citizenship."
One part of the Arizona Islamic history is the distinct "black Muslim" movement founded by Elijah Muhammad, who moved here from Chicago in 1961 for health reasons, but died in 1975. Minister Louis Farrakhan, who eventually succeeded Muhammad and founded the Nation of Islam, lives part of the year in the same south Phoenix home.
Dan Miller, exhibit coordinator for the historical museum, said the Muslims' own quest to compile history on its Arizona past, has coincided with the museum staff's own efforts to broaden its exhibits on distinct ethnic groups within the community.
"We consider ourselves a community history museum, so we love to tell the stories of Tempe and the East Valley and especially the specific groups," Miller said, noting that past exhibits have focused on Southeast Asians and Hispanics in the community. The museum is undergoing renovation, and with the changes will be displays with timelines about pluralism and diversity in Tempe, he said. Nadir, who came to the Valley in 1981, said she hopes to "take the exhibit on the road" to more widely tell the story in Arizona. She plans to visit other Arizona communities, including Tucson, to do research and collect oral histories.
Muna has found some Valley Muslims "are a little nostalgic for the old days" when their community was smaller and people shared their commonality togheter as Muslims, despite diverse cultural backgrounds. "The larger the community grew, the more the ethnic enclaves were created," she said.
"In the old days, we had everybody introduce themselves" when new faces turn up for weekly prayer or other activities, said Turk, whose son is an imam for a large mosque in Los Angeles and a Muslim scholar. That's no longer done because of the larger size of the Muslim community today, he said.