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In Brief

Mosques of America: Ross, North Dakota

29 July 2011

There are almost 1,900 mosques in the United States today, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. This is the second in a series of profiles of American mosques.

Exterior of small mosque with minarets (Courtesy of 30mosques.com/Bassam Tariq)

Historians believe the first mosque constructed in the United States was located on the North Dakota prairie. Although earlier mosques existed, they were in converted buildings. The North Dakota mosque was built around 1929 by Syrian-Lebanese immigrants near the tiny town of Ross.

You may be surprised to learn that the first mosque constructed in the United States was not in New York or Washington — it was on a remote prairie in North Dakota.

The mosque was built around 1929 by Syrian-Lebanese immigrants near the tiny town of Ross, according to historians. (Some mosques were established earlier in the United States, but they were in existing buildings.)

The North Dakota mosque was built to handle rugged prairie winters. It was constructed as a sub-basement to shelter it from wind and cold. It was small — about 111 square meters — and contained a coal stove as well as benches and a rug. Spiritual leaders came from Canada or Minneapolis for a few weeks, living temporarily with Ross families, to teach and hold services.

The Muslims in Ross had planned to complete an above-ground building but were unable to do so because of their economic difficulties during the Great Depression.

Over time, many Ross Muslims settled elsewhere, and others died and were buried in the Muslim cemetery near the mosque. The building fell into disrepair and was dismantled in the 1970s, but one of the town’s remaining Muslims, Sarah Allie (Omar) Shupe, wanted it rebuilt. Her family fulfilled her wish in 2005, after Shupe died. Shupe’s friends, many of them non-Muslims, donated money for the new mosque as a tribute to her memory.

The new structure stands on the same land as the 1929 mosque. It is smaller than the original, roughly 28 square meters, and is topped with a bronze dome and four minarets. Inside are a rug and a poster bearing images of Muslim residents of earlier generations — including Shupe. Today, the building serves mainly as a memorial to those people, although it is occasionally used as a prayer space.

Photo gallery: “Mosques in America: A Blending of Cultures

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)