How America’s Oldest Mosque Became an Icon of the Midwest

The Mother Mosque in Cedar Rapids, Iowa has weathered it all — the Great Depression, floods, and the rise in global anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Kiran Misra

February 27, 2020

How America’s Oldest Mosque Became an Icon of the Midwest
Mother Mosque of America in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (Kiran Misra)

America’s Mother Mosque, the oldest mosque in the country, is nestled in the center of America’s heartland in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It’s flanked by a Methodist church a block north and a pet spa a block south, surrounded by homes with yards peppered with Pete for America and Bernie 2020 signs. The little mosque on the prairie, as one community member describes it, bears far greater resemblance to the neighboring clapboard houses than a grandly minareted masjid, indistinguishable if not for the moon-topped mint green qubba atop the white-shuttered, schoolhouse-style building. Midwestern pride runs deep for the mosque’s patrons, and the mosque describes Iowa in the most idyllic of terms, “from fields of tulips…to the field of dreams…from covered bridges…to covered wagon” on its website.

In Cedar Rapids, five generations of Muslim Americans gather at the Mother Mosque, where South Asian Americans congregated four years ago wondering what the future might look like in a country where the president claimed that “Islam hates us” and that he would “strongly consider” closing mosques across the United States. But the Mother Mosque isn’t shaken. It has faced it all and survived — the Great Depression, a global rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric, and a flood that nearly destroyed its history.

In 1888, just 50 years after Iowa was first colonized, the first Muslims arrived in the state from the Ottoman Empire, finding work in grocery stores or by traveling city-to-city peddling small wares. These were among the earliest Muslims to settle in the United States, drawn by the promise of land ownership under the Homestead Act. During the Great Depression, the early Muslim grocers were known for giving credit to those who couldn’t afford to pay for groceries at the time — Muslim or not.