The remarkable story of America's oldest standing mosque

An unprepossessing building in Iowa's Cedar Rapids is a powerful symbol of Islam's long-standing place in the US

The oldest surviving mosque in America

Drone image of Mother Mosque of America in Cedar Rapids, Iowa
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Inside a small wooden building on a quiet street in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Albert Aossey looks at a black-and-white photograph of a group of young Muslims praying.

“Top row, second one in, that’s me,” he says, pointing to a young man wearing a white T-shirt, his head bowed in worship.

The photo was taken in the 1950s, close to where Mr Aossey, 84, is now standing.

It is one of dozens of images displayed in the basement of the Mother Mosque of America, chronicling the ups and downs of the country's oldest standing mosque.

Mr Aossey has been inextricably linked to the modest square building near the corner of 9th Street and M Avenue since birth.

His father, Yahya, immigrated to the US from Nabatieh in what is now southern Lebanon in 1907, and eventually settled in Cedar Rapids in the 1920s.

Yahya, who went by the name William in the US, banded together with a handful of other Muslims from the Levant to build Cedar Rapids' first mosque.

The white clapboard building, which resembles an old schoolhouse, was not the first mosque built in the US. That was in Ross, North Dakota, constructed in 1929, but it fell into ruin last century.

Construction for the Mother Mosque also began in 1929 and work was finished in 1934. The mosque has earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

“I will say that the building itself is a very simple building,” said Imam Taha Tawil, who has led services at the mosque for more than three decades.

In what is to this day a working-class neighbourhood, the original Muslim community here was made up of peddlers and farmhands.

They did not possess the skills to build an ornate structure, so they went for functionality.

“There are not many Islamic features because we did not have artists in the community,” Mr Tawil told The National,

The mosque has two floors. The main level, essentially a square room, is for worship. A small area in the back is for people to perform ablutions before praying.

A narrow stairwell leads to the basement, where there is a small kitchen, bathroom and main seating area for the community to gather.

The mosque still very much resembles the building that Mr Aossey’s father helped to build nearly 90 years ago.

The proud Muslim, who speaks with a thick Midwestern accent, has warm memories of coming to the mosque as a small child.

“Every Thursday night, there would be coffee and there would be sandwiches or rolls or doughnuts,” Mr Aossey recalls.

“Someone would read from the Quran for a half hour down on the main floor then they’d slide the chairs back, they’d get the tables out and they’d play pinochle until 10 or 11 at night.”

The building served as a gathering point for the expanding Muslim community until the 1970s, when numbers began to outgrow the small space.

They eventually built a larger mosque in a different part of Cedar Rapids and sold the original structure.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the building was a refugee centre for Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge, and then as a Pentecostal church, before falling into disrepair.

That’s when Imam Tawil rallied the community to buy back the building and restore it as a functioning mosque.

Mr Tawil, who is originally from Jerusalem, said he was inspired to reclaim the mosque by his childhood in the ancient city.

“I thought of history and of the next generation,” he said. “I thought we need to preserve this building and keep it going as a lighthouse.”

While the city of Cedar Rapids has long been supportive of the Muslim community, which now numbers in the thousands, the mosque weathered an Islamophobic backlash after the September 11, 2001 attacks and more recently when Donald Trump was president.

“Mr Trump caused a lot of pain and a lot of suffering for us as Muslims in America, in his policies and right-wing policies,” Mr Tawil said.

The imam believes the mosque, which has stood for nearly a century, is proof of Muslims' deep ties to the US.

“This building is an American entity and an institution,” he says. “We need to keep it so people cannot say, 'Go back to your country'.

“This is our country and this is the proof. The building is proof that we are here and our forefathers have been contributing to society.”

For Mr Aossey, the building is a tangible connection to his beloved, late father.

“He taught me the importance of life and family,” he says, in the familiar space of worship that has kept him rooted in Cedar Rapids for eight decades.

Updated: March 24, 2023, 7:03 PM