“You can hear the sound of adhan [Islamic call to prayer] here for 25 years or so in this neighborhood,” said the imam.
LAS VEGAS (RNS) — Imam Fateen Seifullah wants to transform Sin City into the City of Light.
The imam, who leads Masjid As-Sabur, the oldest mosque in the Las Vegas area, is quick to clarify: “Not casino lights — I’m talking about noor,” he said, using the Arabic word for light that Muslims often use to refer to God’s divine presence.
Since 2010, Seifullah has led an initiative to develop what he calls a “Muslim Village,” just miles north of the glitz and hedonism of the Strip. His congregation has slowly but surely driven local drug houses and gangs out of the historic neighborhood known as West Las Vegas. Now, the mosque is on a mission to purchase the surrounding properties and transform them into affordable housing.
“The Muslim Village was started as a safe space for the local Muslims and non-Muslims,” Seifullah said, showing off a colorful mural painted on one of the mosque’s walls by one of the Muslim Village’s elderly residents. “Our goal has been to leave a positive physical imprint on the environment, so when people look at it they see what the Muslims have done here.”
While properties were often becoming available, few Muslims in the area saw any value in them — until the imam, who says new construction has an uplifting psychological impact, reframed the development effort as a 10-year project to create a transformative Muslim community.
A third of the approximately 20 Muslim Village renters, most of whom are college students, women and seniors, are not Muslim.
Situated in the neighborhood around Washington Avenue and H Street, Masjid As-Sabur sits just across the street from the city’s public housing projects, where the mosque hosts a regular chess club.
Over the past decade, Seifullah said, the neighborhood has become much quieter and sees less crime. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, whose officers visit the congregation weekly and have participated in the mosque’s Day of Dignity events, said it could not provide data on crime rates but noted that neighborhoods with more active communities are linked to less crime.
“There’s a bond that’s developed between our officers and the mosque,” Aden Ocampo-Gomez, public information officer for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, told Religion News Service. “Some of the officers in that area command sometimes stop by just to stop by. Not because something bad is going on, but just to hang out, talk, play with the kids and be part of the community.”
While other Muslim neighborhoods in the U.S. and Canada, from upstate New York’s Islamberg community to suburban Maryland’s Ansar Peace Village, have faced backlash from some residents, Seifullah said the Muslim Village project has been welcomed with open arms by the local community.
Seifullah began instituting social service projects at the mosque in 1999, when he joined as its imam. He was inspired by influential imam and civil rights activist Jamil Al-Amin’s work reducing crime and gang activity and revitalizing Atlanta’s impoverished West End neighborhood. (Al-Amin, who led one of the country’s largest black Muslim groups, is currently serving a life sentence for the shooting of two police officers.
Masjid As-Sabur has ministered to a handful of Muslim figures with household names, including Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali and the boxer’s daughter Laila Ali. Tyson, who was known for regularly helping vacuum the mosque’s rugs, donated $250,000 to the construction of the current mosque — more than half the cost of the work — in 1997. Muhammad Ali helped with fundraising for the same project.
Like Seifullah, the mosque emerged out of the Nation of Islam. In 1975, after NOI founder Elijah Muhammad’s death, the local African American Muslim community in Vegas split apart, mirroring a national fissure. A faction followed his son, Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, into the broader Sunni tradition of Islam. In 1982, the new community built its own mosque, originally called Masjid Muhammad. The original Nation of Islam temple, Muhammad Mosque #75, founded in the 1960s and now under the national leadership of Louis Farrakhan, is a short walk away on D Street.
“You can hear the sound of adhan here for 25 years or so in this neighborhood,” Seifullah said, the sound of the Arabic call to prayer echoing from the mosque’s speakers. Residents of the Muslim Village begin emerging from their front doors, heading toward mosque to perform their ablutions for the zuhr prayers.
Today, Masjid As-Sabur’s congregation is a mix of African Americans, immigrants and converts of various backgrounds. They’re part of Vegas’ thriving, close-knit Muslim community, which falls somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 in size, per various estimates.
“People don’t believe that there are Muslims who reside in Vegas,” Seifullah said. “But we’re here. We’re giving hope to people who have lost hope for all sorts of reasons.”