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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. sUMANU ALGHALI

    Its better to use the fist than guns and bombs. Keep up the good work and do not be fazed by your critics

    June 20, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  2. James Black

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGSvqMBj-ig&w=640&h=360]
    .

    June 19, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  3. Joe Camel

    I want to take a moment to thank everyone here posting the truth about Islam. The media has whitewashed it as a peaceful, respectful religion that has a fringe minority who are fundamentalists, and after doing research and studying the subject, I was staring to fall for their lies. Luckily I read this comment thread. How I was so blind, I'll never know. It all makes SENSE now that you've posted out of context quotes from their holy book and made the same arguments over and over. Thank you, everyone, for sharing the truth. I always knew my life would be turned around positively because of somebody on an internet comment thread. God bless you!!!

    June 16, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  4. Joe Christianson

    I amno fan of Islam but good for him for trying to improve people lives and add discipline and order and self worth to the children who show up to box...

    June 14, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  5. Siyajkak

    Bless this man who is helping his community. This is how religion should be utilized, not for war, hate, and stupid laws, but for the integration of the community into a mutually supportive unit. Bless him

    June 12, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  6. Jorge

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyqG7IJHyPk&w=640&h=360]

    June 11, 2011 at 3:19 am |
  7. Jorge

    Here is a piece of work that shows what ISLAM, REAL ISLAM, PURE ISLAM IS..PURE EVIL:

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLjwe2b40YA&w=640&h=360]

    June 11, 2011 at 3:11 am |
    • nicolu

      well done mate!

      June 11, 2011 at 3:22 am |
    • Muneef

      Quran Islam is no evil but people are evil twisting words as it suits their intentions....

      This young man is a paid one to say all this stuff in return as a "Private Dancer Dances for the Money" this war of words are well known and we are not to forget the same pulled act by the nephew or grand son of "B.Netinyahoo" spelling is wrong but sounds same...any way he said what he had to say about Jews Israelies against native Arabs.

      June 11, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • Siyajkak

      This says nothing about Islam! This only talks about a small group of prisoners from a radical faction. Every prison has abuses! this guy said nothing bad about Islam, only Hamas. Every group, Christianity, Islam, Atheists, etc have evil people among their number

      June 12, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  8. Abstract

    Excellent video and article...may Allah reward these brothers and the Imam for their efforts...no matter what your religion is we should all strive to help our community in this way.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  9. GLM

    "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."

    The key to this Imam's and the facility's success will be that they continue to welcome and mentor everybody regardless of faith (or faithless-ness). Focusing on the good universal qualities will only produce good people. I wish him the best!

    June 10, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  10. Jose M. Pulido

    Yeah right...promoting peace through fights. Islam is violent enough anyway. Jesus the Christ is the Only Way to Salvation for eternal life.
    Muhammed was only a human stand-up self-styled prophet who appeared 600 years after Christ; he confused all those who follow his writings.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:41 am |
    • Sakeena

      In the Gospels, Jesus is referred to as the “son of man” 79 times and he didn't come until several humdred years after the Old Testament (Moses). Also Jesus says in Matthew 10:34 "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. Does this mean Christanity is a religion of violence? Lets not forget about all those crusades. Make sure you know what youre talking about before you open your mouth genius.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Ali

      well sakeena WOW nice research cudnt have said it better myself. Learn from this nice lady ok jose

      June 10, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Siyajkak

      its boxing. its a sport. he's not running underground deathmatches or anything. they have this kind of thing at your local community center, which is what this Mosque has become. A benevolent and all-seeing God would not make belief in a single man whom most of the world doesn't hear about until their older and has given no tangible evidence to them a requirement for salvation. attempting to help your fellow man and improve this world is the key to paradise, and closeness to God a good way to direct you along that path

      June 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  11. Gunga Din

    POSITIVE STORY INVOLVING ISLAM IN A SEA OF NEGATIVITY. NICE....

    June 10, 2011 at 7:14 am |
  12. Norm Marks

    Seems like all stories about Mosques/Islam have some positive spin on them and stories about Churches/Christians seem to be usually negative on CNN. Cooincidence?

    June 9, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Sakeena

      I didnt realize this until you said it. Its probably because only things out of the ordinary are considered news. The church is normally associated as good and the Mosque is usually associated with bad, only the opposites of what they are normally porytayed as are in the news

      June 10, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Ali

      AGAIN WELL SAID!!!! and enuf said.WOW

      June 10, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  13. SK

    I do not see a reason why we should be attacking anyone's religion here on this post. We are doing the opposite of what the imam is doing.
    He is pulling all those kids together, getting them away from crime and putting their lives to good use. He is helping the community to become better and the streets to become safer.

    Like "The American Citizen" said – those are like Jesus teachings – yes they are, along with all other prophets as well and good people who came before and after them that walked their path...

    June 8, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
  14. Muneef

    [wp] Hadith on obedience to the parents & intention.

    'Abdullah ibn 'Umar related that Rasulullah (SAW) said:
    Obey your parents and treat them kindly, for if you do so then your own children will be obedient and kind to you.
    (Tabari)

    It is narrated by Anas that Rasulullah (SAW) said:
    If anyone intends to seek blessings of the Hereafter, Allah gives contentment to his heart, takes care of his affairs and the world comes to him submissively. But if someone intends to seek the pleasures of this world, Allah puts poverty before him and disorders his affairs, yet only so much of worldly things as have already been ordained for him come to him.
    (Abu Daud, Tirmidhi)

    A relevant Ayat related to the above hadith is worthy to mention in this regard: 

    Whosoever desires the life of the world and its glitter, to them We shall pay in full (the wages of) their deeds therein, and they will have no diminution therein. They are those for whom there is nothing in the Hereafter but Fire, and vain are the deeds they did therein. And of no effect is that which they used to do. [Surah Al-Hud, Ayat: 15-16]

    June 8, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  15. An American citizen

    This man is doing a great thing by helping these kids. I am a christian and a conservative. Jesus is my Rock and my salvation. But this man does the work of christ, whether he believes it or not.

    Matthew 5:9- Blessed are the peace makers, for they will become the sons of God.

    June 7, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
  16. Klaark

    Hear that sound? Like water running? It's Republicans wetting themselves in fear.

    June 7, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • Ali

      LOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!HAHAHAHAH!!!!!!! GOOD ONE!!!! no but seriously no more disrespecting plz.

      June 10, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  17. Muneef

    What ever the case is here is the True Religion;

    2:0] In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

    [2:130] Who would forsake the religion of Abraham, except one who fools his own soul? We have chosen him in this world, and in the Hereafter he will be with the righteous.

    [2:131] When his Lord said to him, "Submit," he said, "I submit to the Lord of the universe."

    [2:132] Moreover, Abraham exhorted his children to do the same, and so did Jacob: "O my children, GOD has pointed out the religion for you; do not die except as submitters."

    [2:133] Had you witnessed Jacob on his death bed; he said to his children, "What will you worship after I die?" They said, "We will worship your god; the god of your fathers Abraham, Ismail, and Isaac; the one god. To Him we are submitters."

    [2:134] Such is a com-m-unity from the past. They are responsible for what they earned, and you are responsible for what you earned. You are not answerable for anything they have done.

    [2:135] They said, "You have to be Jewish or Christian, to be guided." Say, "We follow the religion of Abraham – monotheism – he never was an idol worshiper."

    [2:136] Say, "We believe in GOD, and in what was sent down to us, and in what was sent down to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the Patriarchs; and in what was given to Moses and Jesus, and all the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction among any of them. To Him alone we are submitters."

    [2:137] If they believe as you do, then they are guided. But if they turn away, then they are in opposition. GOD will spare you their opposition; He is the Hearer, the Omniscient.

    [2:138] Such is GOD's sys-tem, and whose sys-tem is better than GOD's? "Him alone we worship."

    [2:139] Say, "Do you argue with us about GOD, when He is our Lord and your Lord? We are responsible for our deeds, and you are responsible for your deeds. To Him alone we are devoted."

    [2:140] Do you say that Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the Patriarchs were Jewish or Christian? Say, "Do you know better than GOD? Who is more evil than one who conceals a testimony he has learned from GOD? GOD is never unaware of anything you do."

    [2:141] That was a com-m-unity from the past. They are responsible for what they earned, and you are responsible for what you earned. You are not answerable for anything they did.
    -------–

    June 7, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  18. REALITY

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aA7X5VJhSU&w=640&h=360]

    June 7, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • SK

      Here is the response! GOD STRUCK DOWN THE MOUTH OF DEEDAT FOR ALL HIS LIES!!!

      [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hvZEtxjfMuw&w=640&h=360]

      June 16, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
  19. Danté Smythe

    I'm appalled that they would list boxing champions and leave out Bernard Hopkins. He may still be working his way into boxing legend like Liston & Frazier but he is def. a boxing champ that Philly can be proud of.

    June 6, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  20. sid

    The Imam is doing a grand job May Almighty Allah grant him the sstrength and courage to carry on his noble work as Islam is not only a set beliefs but also a way of life,

    June 6, 2011 at 9:45 am |
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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.