Left: Saad Admani, a student at Rutgers Law School and a past president of the Muslim Student Association, believed the pandemic was being used as an excuse for selling the mosque as part of a backroom deal. Right: A protest sign is posted on the front door of the Branford Masjid, said to have been locked by some members to prepare the building for sale. Photo by Darren Tobia / Jersey Digs.

Mosque-goers in downtown Newark get caught up in a chaotic litigation with the Board of Trustees allegedly trying to sell their historic place of worship as part of a backroom deal.

Considered the first mosque in the Four Corners Historic District, Branford Masjid at 24 Branford Place has been home to Essex County’s Islamic Center for 40 years. It is now the site of bitter weekly protests, with members holding signs saying “Not For Sale” and “Hands Off”.

“The history and legacy of this building,” Dawn Hayes, vice president of the city’s education committee and third generation Muslim, said at a recent demonstration. “We can’t allow anyone to take that away.”

The 11-story building, designed by renowned architectural firms Guilbert and Betelle about a century ago, was originally used as the city’s chamber of commerce. In 1982, however, a Saudi philanthropist, Ali Habeeb Maghrabi, donated the building as a foundation for the Muslim community in Newark. In fact, the organization’s statutes state that the building should be placed in an irrevocable trust that requires a specific protocol before it can be sold, which the mosque members claim was not obeyed.

Branford Masjid 24 Branford Place NewarkKhalilah Shabazz, the so-called mother of the mosque, holds up a protest sign outside the Branford Masjid during a recent demonstration. Photo by Darren Tobia / Jersey Digs.

“They want to sell the building for the abysmal price of $ 8 million,” said Khalilah Shabazz, one of the plaintiffs. “The building cannot be sold because it was given to the Essex County Islamic Society – the Masjid has to stay.”

The friction between the mosque’s members and its board of directors began, Shabazz said, when the mosque’s longtime imam, Sheikh Ismail, passed away this year. Daily interactions went cold, according to Shabazz, who recalls a case where a board member went on stage musalaor the prayer rug without taking off one’s shoes, a sign of disrespect in the Islamic faith.

The board declined to comment on these or any other matters and referred to pending litigation.

“No matter how you slice it, the board has acted outside of its powers,” said Eric Warner, the attorney who represents Shabazz, “and their whole argument is that these plaintiffs have no standing.”

Stand is a legal term that determines whether a plaintiff has the right to file a lawsuit. The board has argued before the court that the Branford Masjid does not function as a mosque and therefore has no members to claim the trust.

However, the building has been closed since March, initially due to the mayor’s quarantine restrictions. Even after the citywide lockdown was lifted, the building remained closed, some claim to be creating a vacant space in the building.

“This is the only mosque that has not reopened since the coronavirus began,” said Saad Admani, a Rutgers Law School student and past president of the Muslim Student Association who believes the intention of closing was “to close the mosque.” serve “on a gold plate. “

Without a place to pray Some members of the mosque were forced to offer the daily newspaper salad, one of five daily prayers outside the building.

In fact, Shabazz, known as the “mother of the mosque,” said some members threw snowballs at the second floor window to attract the attention of the board members who were upstairs, but they never came to unlock the door.

Few understand the important role Newark played as the cradle of Islamic thought in the United States. Historian Michael Nash, In the book Islam Among Urban Blacks, the beginning of this influence is traced back to 1913 with the teachings of Noble Drew Ali, whose worldview appealed to the Black Newarkers.

According to Nash’s bookIslam gave birth to various organizations. The Branford Masjid, which Nash mentions in the book, represents the flowering of the Sunni Muslim tradition in the city center.

“At first we met in front of a shop on Bank Street,” said Shakur Abdul Rahim Ibn Couser, one of the mosque’s founding members, about the beginnings of his religious community before the building was donated. “We were there from the start.”

Earlier this month, an appellate judge denied plaintiffs’ motion for an injunction that would have suspended the sale of the building.

Warner briefly considered appealing this decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court, but chose to file an amended complaint that allows him to add additional evidence and plaintiffs, including the son of Maghrabi, the late Saudi philanthropist who donated this Building. Plaintiffs could try to expand the protocol on appeal, Warner said, but the standard is high and it is faster to change the original protocol. Plaintiffs are now waiting for news from the court, which is currently on hiatus.

“So many people came forward to give the plaintiffs credibility,” said Warner.