The first mosque in Los Angeles was established as “a group of guys who wanted to get together to pray,” as one of the early founders Abed Awad put it. Originally the Moslem Association of America at Los Angeles served a small community of families in a rented building on Fountain Avenue in Hollywood. While the Center’s first Friday prayers featured just a few dozen congregants, a typical Friday prayer today often draws nearly 1,000.
From its humble beginnings in 1952 to its place in history as architects of the American Muslim identity, the Islamic Center of Southern California owes its success to the blessings of God and the tireless efforts of its members and volunteers.
From the leaders and visionaries who left their day jobs to serve and guide the community, to the moms who cooked homemade meals for hundreds of families each night in Ramadan … From the spiritual and civic leaders who inspired us with their moving sermons, to the volunteers who set up prayer rugs at dawn for thousands anxiously awaiting Eid…
This timeline pays tribute to all the founders, leaders and volunteers—too many to mention—who have helped make the Center a vibrant community where diversity, pluralism and the American Muslim identity thrive.
May God bless you for your contributions, leadership and guidance.
According to minutes of the April 1966 Board meeting, the Board of Directors approved bylaws, organized an Islamic library, purchased a Spirit duplicator, started a newsletter and maintained an answering service. It also voted to change its name to the Islamic Foundation of Southern California. With $8,315 in pledges, the community set up a committee to search for a permanent building site in Los Angeles. “I remember a time when there were only 12 families,” wrote Betty Jean Alsabery, the first woman who served on the Board in various capacities from 1958-1967. “We paid the rent, cut the weeds, cleaned the toilets, helped newcomers and led the prayers ourselves. Most of us were students or young working people with families or both. I feel honored to have served with these unselfish people to bring Islam to this country.”
The Islamic Center hired Dr. Mohsen El-Biali, then the Director and Imam of the Washington D.C. Islamic Center, to lead the Islamic Center of Southern California as its director. Dr. Biali was a graduate of Al-Azhar University and a prolific writer and speaker who encouraged the growing community to become more involved in the community at large. It is widely believed that Dr. Biali was the first to initiate an interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Catholics, which was the foundation of a successful and long-running commitment to interfaith understanding and partnerships that continues today and expanded to other interfaith activities in subsequent years.
The Islamic Center moved from Fountain Avenue in Hollywood to a newly purchased building located on City Terrace Drive in East Los Angeles, the first building owned by the growing Muslim community. It was purchased from members of the Jewish community, which also used the building for their congregation meetings. The community continued to grow exponentially during the 1960s and 1970s after Congress enacted a new immigration law in 1968 which opened up immigration to Africans, Asians and Middle Easterners. Many Muslim students applied for permanent residence, and others emigrated from their homelands often in wake of political or social turmoil. In the early 1970s, the property on City Terrace Drive was sold, and the Center moved to St. Andrews Place in Los Angeles, establishing jum’a prayer, a weekend school, Quran classes, marriage and other services to the growing community.
As the Islamic Center community grew and more families flocked to Southern California, the Muslim Youth Group (MYG) became a natural offshoot of the Islamic Center, providing youth with ways to develop their American Muslim identity, socialize with peers and strengthen their Islamic knowledge. The MYG has fostered Muslim leadership and provided fellowship for over 50 years, from the annual ski trip and retreats to movie nights and spiritual events and rallies. The MYG is still active today, with possibly thousands of alumni who fondly remember their formative years spent building lifelong friendships and fellowship.
The community continued to burst at the seams with the influx of new families every year, making the St. Andrews Place location too small for its growing needs. In the mid-70s, the Islamic Center began a fundraising drive to acquire a new location, and in 1976, moved to its present location at 434 S. Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles. The building, formerly the location of an insurance company, still retains its original art deco architecture and signature blue brick arches that uniquely resemble Islamic design. The Islamic Center was proud of its growing reputation as one of the most progressive mosques in the country.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1978, Dr. Maher Hathout began a 40-year tenure with the Islamic Center as chairman, spokesperson and visionary. He became widely known as “Father of the American Muslim identity,” which emphasizes a vision of Islam in America rooted in his definition of home: “Home is not where my grandparents are buried but where my grandchildren will be raised,” he often said. A practicing cardiologist with a big heart, Dr. Maher Hathout was the brainchild behind several auxiliaries and media projects, including “The Minaret,” “Islam” cable TV show and various podcasts, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council. He was later joined by his older brother, Dr. Hassan Hathout, who helped serve the community through his teachings and interfaith partnerships. Like his younger brother, Dr. Hassan Hathout also left the community with big shoes to fill. He was a obstetrician/gynecologist, medical ethicist, scholar of monotheism, as well as a prolific poet and author. He was co-founder of the Interfaith Council of Southern California and was known for paraphrasing the concept of religion in one word: “love.”
The country’s most well-known American Muslim was a frequent visitor of the Islamic Center when he often stopped for prayers and connecting with the community from his nearby home in Hancock Park in the 1980s. “Muhammad Ali was not only the world’s most famous Muslim person but also a great ambassador of Islam. He was so adored for being an American and being a Muslim,” says longtime member Levent Akbarut, who was an assistant for Ali during public appearances promoting Islam and peace in the 1980s.
As the community settled in Southern California and their families grew, the challenge arose of how their children would be educated in Islamic knowledge and values. In 1984, the Islamic Center founded the New Horizon School as a preschool in a leased building in the city of South Pasadena. Three years later, NHS moved to a building attached to the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles. As the school expanded, its elementary grades moved back to Pasadena in 1989, though the preschool and kindergarten remained in Los Angeles. Throughout the years, other New Horizon campuses were established: Pasadena (1984), Los Angeles (1987), Westside (1995), Irvine (2001). The schools now serve pre-school up to 8th grade and are fully accredited by the California Association of Independent Schools and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
In response to the growing misunderstanding about Islam and Muslims, the Islamic Center launched the Muslim Political Action Committee in 1986, led by Dr. Maher Hathout and Salam Al-Marayati, a Muslim Youth Group alumnus. Its name was changed to the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), becoming one of the most prominent organizations established by the Islamic Center. MPAC works diligently to foster a vibrant Muslim American identity and to represent the interests of Muslim Americans to decision makers in government agencies, media outlets, interfaith circles and Hollywood studios. MPAC has since opened various chapters and offices. Salam Al-Marayati continues to serve as President and is a prolific writer and public speaker who is a frequent guest and writer on many news outlets. In his Sept. 2, 2015, Op-ed in CNN.com titled “No, ISIS doesn't represent Islam,” he said that “American Muslims must consistently do more to define Islam to the broader public, rather than simply responding to each outrage by an extremist group. ISIS should be treated with no more credibility than any other group of fanatics.”
When renowned Islamic thinker Dr. Fathi Osman moved to Los Angeles in 1987, he became a resident scholar at the Islamic Center, advancing the credibility of the moderate-thinking institution. Dr. Osman served the community through his prolific sermons and academic lectures that advanced the understanding of progressive Islam, including the understanding of women’s issues in Islam, Judao-Christian-Muslims relations and the permanent and transitional teachings in Islam. Among his many works, his most noteworthy is "Concepts of the Quran" (1996), a unique English-language commentary that explores topical subjects in the Quran. His last work, “The Permanent and the Transitional in the Islamic Sources: A Study of Jihad and Hudud,” was completed in 2016 based on a series of lectures by the late Dr. Osman and edited by his daughter Dr. Ghada Osman.
Three weeks before the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the Islamic Center along with the Muslim Public Affairs Council led the effort in creating the 9/11 Remembrance Quilt in honor of the 3,022 victims whose names are embroidered in the quilt. Handmade and created with a “twist ‘n turn” pattern, the enormous care that went into piecing the quilt together symbolized the work needed in our country to heal and move forward. Since it was completed, the quilt has been exhibited at various churches and interfaith gatherings across the country. Today it’s on permanent display at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York.
The Islamic Center has long welcomed women in participation and leadership roles throughout the organization’s history, with Betty Jean Alsabery being the first woman who served on the Board in various capacities from 1958-1967. The trio of Alice Audeh, Pat Awad and Ruth Akbarut were considered the community’s mainstay in the early years. Another milestone was reached in 2016, the year a woman was elected Chair of the Board. When Hedab Tarifi arrived at the Islamic Center in 1992, she was struck by the sense of community, outreach, service and family. “I remember walking in and was immediately put to work helping the community. I loved it and knew that I was home,” she says. Since then, she has dedicated countless hours to the community, spearheading the creation of the 9/11 Remembrance Quilt and serving on the board for the Center as well as the Muslim Public Affairs Council. She was elected Chair in 2016-17 and also 2017-18.