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Saturday, January 22, 2022

Database preserves Indianapolis’ Muslim history

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The internet is permanent. Future generations will have access to what modern-day people post, making the internet an important resource for studying history. Last month IUPUI took advantage of the internet’s permanence by publishing the Indianapolis Imam Warith Deen Muhammad Community Collection, a free database preserving mementos of Indianapolis’ Muslim community.

“We are capturing information that otherwise would just go to the dust,” Michael Saahir, Imam of Nur-Allah Islamic Center, said.

Dr. Edward Curtis, professor of religious studies at IUPUI, got the idea for the collection from the trend of academic institutions creating online databases that are free and open to everyone. He believed such a collection could preserve the nearly 100-year history of Muslims in Indianapolis, so Curtis successfully pitched the idea to IUPUI. The collection currently has 1,336 entries, including letters, photographs and 3D scans of clothing, with some entries such as banquet books that are 15 to 20 pages long. 

“I have a longstanding relationship with this community, and together we sat down, and we talked about making the historical sources of the study of their lives available to the whole world, and they were excited about it,” Curtis said. 

From May 2018 to June 2019 Curtis and IUPUI University Library collaborated with Saahir and the local Muslim community to collect artifacts. Sometimes community members gave items to Saahir or Curtis, and other times Saahir hosted donation drives at a local mosque. Then library employees scanned the items, entered them into the database and returned them to their owners. Jennifer Johnson, digital scholarship outreach librarian and interim co-director for the center for digital scholarship at the library, said because local members of the Muslim community chose what items to contribute, they were the curators of their own collection 

 “IUPUI University Library has been working with community and cultural heritage institutions since 2006,” Johnson said. “Since IUPUI is a fairly young university, we don’t have a lot of stuff, so we coined the term, ‘We have the technology, and they have the stuff.’”

Curtis said the collection’s coolest item is a 3D scan of a Fruit of Islam jacket, which signified membership in the paramilitary branch of the Nation of Islam, from the 1970s. The scan allows viewers to see every inch of the jacket’s inside and outside from the creases to the crescent moon and star patches on the shoulders.

Getting the jacket was initially difficult. Saahir said the jacket’s owner was hesitant to lend it because he, like others in the local Muslim community, feel outsiders control the story of Muslims in America more than they do. The owner worried IUPUI would take control of the narrative of Muslims in Indianapolis away from Muslims in Indianapolis. 

Saahir changed the man’s mind when he showed him how IUPUI ran the database. Not only did staff promptly return donations but they also consulted with the community on how to describe each item. Saahir said this convinced many people, including the jacket’s owner, to trust IUPUI.

“For the Muslim community one of the biggest beauties of this project was IUPUI did not dictate to us what could and what could not be included, how it would be described or even the key search words,” Saahir said. “So often one of the biggest fears of smaller groups and minority groups is the bigger society depicts and describes them. We had none of that here.”

Curtis said the database will be an important historical record both for Muslims in Indianapolis and scholars studying the history of Islam in America, but he’s also excited for people who are not Muslim or scholars to use the database. He believes as people see the obituaries, letters and photos of celebrations they will learn that American Muslims are regular people. 

“One of the first things that viewers would notice is just how important men, women and children are to the life of the community and just how beautifully mundane the family relationships are,” Curtis said. “They will see the community celebrating. They will see community members learning together and mourning together. It establishes this Muslim congregation as part and parcel of Hoosier life.”

Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.


Check out the archive

View all 1,336 entries in IUPUI’s Indianapolis Imam Warith Deen Muhammad Community collection at ulib.iupui.edu/collections/IWDC.

Donate to the database

The deadline to provide mementos to the Indianapolis Imam Warith Deen Muhammad Community Collection has passed. However, IUPUI is open to accepting late submissions depending on the item. Those wishing to add to the collection can do so by contacting Michael Saahir at saahir@sbcglobal.net for approval. Once approved, the donation will be included in the database.


IUPUI created a 3D scan of this ‘70s Fruit of Islam jacket for the database, so people can view it from many different angles. (Photo/IUPUI)

This photo of Muhammad Ali (right) campaigning for Representative Julia Carson (left), grandmother of Andre Carson, can be found in the Indianapolis Imam Warith Deen Muhammad Community Collection. (Photo/IUPUI)

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