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)

Comments are closed.

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.