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May 27th, 2011
10:12 AM ET

Imam fights street crime with mosque fight club

Editor's Note: This piece comes from a new CNN special “Stories: Reporter.” Tune in Saturday at 7:30PM EDT to see the full story.

By Eric Marrapodi, Dan Lothian, Chris Turner & Tom Foreman, CNN

Philadelphia (CNN) – Listen to the FBI and you will know that violent crime dropped over almost the whole country last year; murder, aggravated assault, forcible rape. Listen to people in some parts of Philadelphia and you will know that the Northeast is not part of that trend. Here the numbers keep climbing.

Violence comes to their streets as surely as sunset. Abandoned houses share corners with makeshift memorials to victims; often young men who get caught up in events they don't anticipate and can't escape.

"Around here it's not every safe to walk up the streets," one kid said. "Someone could come up to you and start shooting at you for no reason; just 'cause you're from that 'hood."

That is why Imam Suetwidien Muhammad chose this place to start hitting back.

"I came up in this neighborhood," he said sitting in the morning sun on the steps of a former plumbing supply warehouse. "This neighborhood was averaging six murders a month. There was a lot of violence, a lot of trash. We needed to bring about change."

So 10 years ago he started Masjid Muhammad of Philadelphia, a mosque in the old rundown warehouse. As he sat and explained how the mosque had grown to 500 members, workers above him pushed and slapped stucco into the three story stone facade above him. They started by fixing up the inside so people could have a safe place to come and pray.

Congregants said the place perennially smells like fresh paint because the imam is always busy fixing or improving something.

Inside the doors from what was once the plumbing supply loading dock are a small deli, a barber shop, a hair salon, a restaurant and a sprawling prayer space. But Imam Muhammad's pride and joy is upstairs, above the worship space; a boxing gym where the children of the neighborhood come every day.

"It's so unusual that we come under a lot of fire from even a lot of Muslims," he said. "Muslims will say, 'Muslims aren't supposed to engage in boxing.' They'll say, 'You are not supposed to hit a person in the face.'"

He smiles and points out that the gym is named after one of the most famous Muslims in the world: Muhammad Ali. "I don't look at it as such a violent thing, and I know the real violence is in guns and weapons and different things that happen in our community."

The young boxers are a range of ages. Some were raised Muslim, some Christian, some follow no faith, but all are welcome. The lessons are free and not just about boxing. Imam Muhammad talks endlessly about discipline, respect, education and commitment; about young people turning into responsible adults.

He knows all too well that just outside the doors others are pushing different messages, about gangs and drugs, and young boxers must run the gauntlet to come train. So he wants to get good habits established early.

"We don't have a lot of time to waste," he said. "When you come into this gym, this is where serious stuff starts. We want their commitments to be serious. We want them to be serious parents. And it all starts here."

Certainly, boxers like Jeremiah Kendrick take it seriously, if only because it gives him a safe harbor. "I'd rather be here than standing outside. You know how Philly is; the crime rate and everything. If I can avoid getting shot at and fighting I'll avoid that anytime of the day."

The snap of leather gloves on the heavy bag rings out. A steady thump from jumping rope hits the floor.

Worshippers can hear the sparring overhead as they pray their five prayers a day below, but the gym is something of a natural fit. Imam Muhammad was an amateur boxer who weathered almost a hundred fights, winning the vast majority, before hanging up his gloves. He was 88-8.

"I probably lost three times and was probably robbed five times," he said with a broad smile.

Philadelphia itself has a rich heritage of boxing that dates back well into the 1800s, producing champions such as Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier. But boxing clubs are closing. A few miles down the road, Frazier's famed gym is padlocked. On the faded concrete you can still see the outline of the letters that once hung above its door.

As he watches his young proteges jab and duck, swing and move, Imam Muhammad makes no apologies. He says he hears the critics, but he has seen too many young men walk in full of troubles and headed for more. "My hope for them is that they will immediately turn their life around."

He knows this is the fight of his life, and theirs too.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Islam • Leaders • Muslim • Pennsylvania • Prayer • United States

soundoff (398 Responses)
  1. RUF

    All religions are good,the thing that is bad are the people who are in that religion for following their lusts and the devil.

    November 1, 2013 at 10:20 pm |
  2. terapi imam muda

    nothing happen...

    hanoy is the cure ..inside al quran...

    October 2, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  3. John

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_6PxnvaySw&w=640&h=390]

    August 15, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • .....

      Don't bother viewing this junk it's not worth your time, click the report abuse link to get rid of this troll!

      August 15, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  4. Name

    This, unlike the video bellow, is not garbage. It contains high quality information. Just look at 1:03.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=videoseries&w=640&h=390]

    July 27, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • .....

      Don't bother viewing this junk either it's not worth your time, click the report abuse link to get rid of this troll!

      August 15, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  5. LuckyOne

    Oh god! Instead of praising the effort of a man to curb violence in his community, lets all jump the bandwagon of "Islam is bad....."
    More power to him....

    And trolls sitting on their computers, doing squat... U SUCK!

    July 22, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  6. JG

    I really could care less about the religion of these kids, boxing as always been a great way for kids of all races, ethnicities, and relgions to keep off the streets and create structure on their own lives. Some go on to be professionals and even champions. Sometimes all it takes is a role model.

    Amir Khan is a Muslim from the UK who is currently a young champion and may be on his way to being a star, certainly in the UK. Not saying you only ave to root for your own, but if you are a young muslim boxer and looking for a role model – check out Khan he is fighting on HBO on this saturday 7/23

    July 18, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  7. Alex

    Islam is the evil for society, especially for the Western society! We have to seek the real God of Christ and not go to cults, like islam.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Faz

      God of Christ is the God of Muhammad and Islam you fool. Christ is our prophet too and Bible our book also. get your facts and knowledge on the line. all these terrorists are not following islam.

      July 13, 2011 at 4:32 am |
    • D

      It is very sad that you are so ignorant, Alex. I hope one day you will be shown the reality of what it is to exist on this planet, instead of the fantasy world you live in.

      August 1, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • Shaun Goldstein

      Islam and Christianity are both the evils of today's society. So you, Jesus, Muhammad, and the Virgin Marry can kiss my ass and go straight to hell.

      August 13, 2011 at 5:10 am |
  8. Edward

    This is how Islam works. First Islam came to new neighborhood with a friendly face and after being accepted into the community – bang – they will force sharia laws into your throat. I don't judge people by their religion but of all the religions in this planet, there is only one religion that teach being a suicide bomber will earn you 72 virgins in heaven. Oh and once you became a muslim, you can't leave with whatever reason. Leaving Islam (murtad) mean you'll loose your head. If you think I am joking, just check with former Islamic people and ask them or better yet just read the Quran yourself.

    June 28, 2011 at 6:45 am |
    • JB

      Have you read the bible? If we were to literally interpret every single man-written law laid down, then almost all of us would be dead. How many people do you see working on Sunday that are still alive and unpunished? Each religion has its flaws and skirts around the literal interpretations and laws of its bible-equivalent. Picking one specific religion to bash while ignoring others that are praised as "correct" and "good" that do the same thing is just plain stupid.

      June 28, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Learning

      I am considering accepting Islam. My family is Christians and I have been reading the Quran. I have not seen where it is Okay to commit suicide or kill innocent people. I am keeping an opened mind and therefore am asking you if you could please give me the verse from the Quran says its okay to commit suicide.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Shaun Goldstein

      Edward, you're right. I know several mudslimes who have been killed by their families just for not wanting to be mudslimes anymore.

      August 13, 2011 at 5:11 am |
  9. John Doe

    Is this what religion has come to people? A way to label? I am reading these comments and all I am reading is Muslims are capable of this and that. This is what is wrong with religion, it has not become a faithful ritual, but a gang. A gang that shows prejudice against those who do not believe. How do I know this? If I said I am an atheist, who here will try to reason with me. Most of you will simply comment,"Atheists are evil" and etc. This story had as much religion in it as the movie Blade. Muslim is mention, but the story does not revolve around it.

    June 27, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  10. whatsup

    hey, a mosque has a fighting clup, GO FIGURE THEY ARE MUSLIM!!! of course they wanna fight... thats all they know how to do

    June 26, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • rudolf

      do you call murdering innocent people, fighting?
      and besides, they are very good a breeding, like rabbits.

      June 27, 2011 at 4:54 am |
  11. JAMES

    Didn't Bill Cosby say in his 'Poundcake speech' to "Bring back the Muslims, bean pies and all. They are the only ones who've ever had any success cleaning the ghettos. The Christians never did anything"

    June 23, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
    • Alex

      "The Christians never did anything" This could only be said by an ignorant person! Christianity is the roote of all good things in this Civilisation. Real Christianity! You go to schools, use hospitals and study in universities, all are the fruit of Christianity, apart from million good things happening every day, on which many parasites live. Be honest!!

      July 12, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • adam

      thanks james but alex christieanity has banned the use of painkillers in the 13 through 14teenth century because 'messed with the natural proccesses of life' christianity as purged science mathamatics ect. to hold it back b 1000 years christanity says steam cell reaserch is taboo because its 'killing a babe' yet the cancer patient dies even though that its shown the mother dosent lover her child or care for it christins have also justified killing of muslims and jews in thier 9 crusades to recapture the holy land from 'infideils' and duriing justified slavery of blacks so ya islam is evil

      July 14, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  12. D

    There are 2500 thousands version of Bible, who wrote its, who modified it, you think GOD changed it very time because he missed some thing earlier. YOU ARE FOOL, if you think like that.

    True Bible is a part of QURAN, which is only one. This is a miracle that millions of millions people memorized QURAN by heart even you changed the book, QURAN will not change.

    Is there any book (size like Quran) in the world memorized by millions of millions people????
    Most of the people who memorized are not non Arab speakers, Arabic is not there first language. This is another proof that this is a book of GOD (ALLAH).
    Wake up guys accept QURAN is a latest version of Bible & Torah like same concept of Microsoft product window 95 to window Vista. QURAN teaches us to love Jessus and Mosses. When Jesus will back to world mulsims will behind him. If you will be behind jessus too why not you join Muslim now too. Both are followers of Respected Jessus (PBUM).

    June 22, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • JWH

      There is one Bible. Men have tried to rewrite it, but good or bad, at least we do nt try to murder them for doing that.
      You sound like Jseph Smith, one who hijacked an existing religion.

      June 26, 2011 at 6:41 am |
  13. Kerygma

    This doesn't change ANYTHING!!!

    June 21, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • IMHO

      it seems to have changed some things. Now these young guys have an outlet, that's definitely a change.

      June 22, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  14. 14Mickey

    The Nation of Islam, a Muslim extremist sect usually known as the "Black Muslims", often said they would keep street crime down by recruiting criminals to their faith. However, racism and assassinations (like that of Malcolm X, who strayed to mainstream Islam) was the name of their game. I hope the group in this article isn't like that.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  15. KC

    I'd very much like to hear from one of the women who escaped, otherwise you're hearing from those about to drink the kool aid.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.