A Pioneer of Local Diversity: University of Houston’s Muslim Student Association 

By Laura Mullis Brown 

UHMSA poses with their trophies after winning first place for the 2022-23 school year at the state-wide MSA Showdown. MSA organizations from across Texas compete in sports, Nasheed (singing), fashion, and more. Photo courtesy of UHMSA marketing coordinator Zuhayr Haq. 

If you visit the University of Houston’s Student Center South on a Monday, you might run into a group of students running the “Dawah Dollar Mondays” table event. The young men ask passing students one question about Islam, and if the participant answers correctly, they win cash. The University of Houston Muslim Student Association (UHMSA) hosts the Dawah table as a form of community outreach and education. The association has existed at the University of Houston (UH) for approximately six decades; however, the organization’s history has seen little coverage in yearbooks and school newspapers. Nevertheless, the Muslim Student Association has substantially impacted Houston, which boasts the largest Muslim population in Texas.

The introduction of Islamic thought in Houston came through the African American-led nationalist and religious movement, Nation of Islam (NOI), which differed in certain ways to mainstream Islam. African American Muslims created the first mosque in Houston in 1945 in a barbershop owned by Charlie Boyd. Barbershops soon became a way to spread the word about the NOI in Third Ward. The location of this Muslim community moved from place to place to accommodate their growing numbers, even settling in the historic El Dorado Ballroom for a time.

The first permanent mosque, Masjid Al-Islam, opened in 1978 in a pre-existing building on Bellfort Avenue that formerly served as the First Church of Christ, Scientist. When Third Ward Muslim community members first set their sights on this building, they lacked the funds to buy the property. With the help of a generous donation from world champion boxer Muhammad Ali and his manager Jabir Muhammad, congregants purchased and quickly renovated the building as a mosque to fit their Islamic practices. The mosque served the community for decades, until Hurricane Ike damaged it in 2008.

Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad addresses followers in 1964. Also present is boxing champion Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay (upper left), who donated money to establish Houston’s first mosque. Photo courtesy of Davepape, Wikimedia Commons. 

Ahmed Sharma, a Fox 26 reporter and UHMSA alumnus, was one of the first to bring this story to light. “The sad truth is, nobody knew [about the first mosque’s founding] except for African American Muslims, because their story was passed down through their community. It kind of upset [me]. Why had nobody told me that Muhammad Ali was part of Houston history? I was fortunate that I got to help tell that story, but that wouldn’t have happened without African American Muslims being so open with sharing their stories with me… I wrote on it, but this is their story.” Sharma has made it his life’s work to continue to share the stories of Houston’s Muslim community.

After Hurricane Ike, a new masjid opened in the same location in August 2010. It was renamed Masjid Warithuddeen Mohammad, after the leader who eventually dissolved the NOI and converted many followers to orthodox Sunni Islam. The building became the “first mosque built in the United States (from the ground up) using West African architecture.”

Masjid Warithuddeen Mohammad is named after the son of Elijah Muhammad, Honorable Imam W. Deen Mohammed. A famous Muslim American Scholar and Islamic trailblazer, he rejected his father’s ideologies, discontinued the aggressive NOI policies, and created a welcoming community open to all practitioners of orthodox Sunni Islam. Photo courtesy of Miranda Ruzinsky. 

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To visit UHMSA’s website, click here.

To hear the perspectives of the organization’s members, click here.

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