Muslims in Newark Outraged Over Secret Deal to Sell Historic Mosque

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Branford Masjid Mosque Newark Protest
Left: Saad Admani, a Rutgers Law School Student and former President of the Muslim Student Association, believed the pandemic was used as a pretext to sell the mosque in a backroom deal. Right: A protest sign is taped to the front door of the Branford Masjid, which some members allege was kept locked in order to prepare the building for sale. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

Mosque-goers in downtown Newark are caught in a messy legal battle with its board of trustees who allegedly tried to sell their historic house of worship in a backroom deal.


The Branford Masjid at 24 Branford Place, believed to be the first mosque in the Four Corners Historic District, has been the home of the Islamic Center of Essex County for the past 40 years. It is now the site of bitter weekly protests, where members hold signs that read “Not for Sale” and “Keep Your Hands Off.”

“The history and legacy that sits in this building,” said Dawn Hayes, vice president of the city’s board of education and a third-generation Muslim, at a recent demonstration, “we can’t allow anyone to take that away.”

The 11-story building, designed by well-known architecture firm Guilbert and Betelle about a century ago, was originally used as the city’s Chamber of Commerce. In 1982, however, a Saudi philanthropist, Ali Habeeb Maghrabi, gifted the building as an endowment to the Muslim community of Newark. In fact, the organization’s bylaws state that the building was to be placed in an irrevocable trust, which requires certain protocol before it can be sold, which mosque members claim was not followed.

Branford Masjid 24 Branford Place Newark
Khalilah Shabazz, the so-called mother of the mosque, holds up a protest sign during a recent demonstration outside the Branford Masjid. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

“They want to sell the building for the miserable price of $8 million,” Khalilah Shabazz, one of the plaintiffs. “The building cannot be sold because it was given to the Islamic Society of Essex County — the masjid must stay.”

The friction between mosque members and its board began, Shabazz said, when the mosque’s longtime imam, Sheikh Ismail, passed away this year. Daily interactions became cold, according to Shabazz, who remembers an instance when a board member walked on the musala, or the prayer rug, without taking off his shoes, a show of disrespect in the Islamic faith.

The board declined to comment on these or other matters, citing pending litigation.

“No matter how you slice it, the board acted outside its powers,” said Eric Warner, the attorney representing Shabazz, “and their whole argument is that these plaintiffs don’t have standing.”

Standing is a legal term that determines whether a plaintiff has a right to file a lawsuit. The board has argued before the court that the Branford Masjid hasn’t functioned as a mosque, and therefore has no members to lay claim to the trust.

The building, however, has been closed since March, at first due to the mayor’s quarantine restrictions. Even when the citywide lockdown was lifted, the building remained closed, some allege to manufacture a vacancy in the building.

“Ever since coronavirus started, this is the only mosque that hasn’t been reopened,” said Saad Admani, a Rutgers Law School student and former president of the Muslim Student Association, who believes the intention of the closure was to “serve the mosque on a golden platter.”

Without a place to pray, some members of the mosque have been forced to offer the daily salat, one of five daily prayers, outside the building.

In fact, Shabazz, known as the “mother of the mosque,” said a few members had thrown snowballs at the second-floor window to get the attention of board members who were upstairs, but they never came to unlock the door.

Few understand the important role Newark has played as a cradle of Islamic thought in the United States. Historian Michael Nash, in the book Islam Among Urban Blacks, traces the beginning of this influence back to 1913 with the teachings of Noble Drew Ali, whose worldview had a great appeal to Black Newarkers.

According to Nash’s book, Islam spawned various organizations. The Branford Masjid, which Nash mentions in the book, represents the flowering of the Sunni Muslim tradition in the city’s downtown.

“Initially we were meeting in front of a storefront on Bank Street,” said Shakur Abdul Rahim Ibn Couser, one of the founding members of the mosque, about the early days of his religious community, before the building was donated. “We’ve been around since the beginning.”

Earlier this month, an appellate court judge denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, which would have suspended the sale of the building.

Warner briefly considered appealing that decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court, but instead opted to file an amended complaint, which, if granted, will allow him to add additional evidence and plaintiffs, including the son of Maghrabi, the late Saudi philanthropist who donated the building. Plaintiffs could move to expand the record on appeal, Warner said, but the standard is high, and it is more expeditious to amend the original record. The plaintiffs are now awaiting word from the court, which is currently in recess. 

“So many people have come forward that lend credibility to the plaintiffs,” Warner said. 

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19 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve conducted business in this building in the past, and was less than impressed with its aesthetics. The building, after years of neglect and poor maintenance, is in a sad state of disrepair, and is approaching eyesore status.
    It seems the best available recourse for the masjid members is to pool their resources, obtain financing, and purchase the building for the “miserable” $8 million. Anything less, and this building’s ownership will change hands, and it will be demolished or redeveloped into a mixed-use edifice.
    This building’s location makes it very attractive. Not as a stand-alone parcel, but as a piece of a larger footprint for development in this area.

  2. If the congregants of the masjid pooled their resources, obtained financing and purchased the building for the “miserable” price of $8 million, they’d have better luck.
    As it stands now, this building is bordering on eyesore status, and is in desperate need of wholesale rehabilitation or demolition.

  3. Sell building to make area better, building is in bad condition and is eyesore. They can find other places to pray. We must make Newark better and more development. This place is dirty and not up to code.

  4. All the negative comments above are from the purchasers themselves!
    They’ve done the same misinformation spread on Reddit and got called out for it! The account that posted all the misinformation posting history is nothing but a paramount assets fluff account trying to skew message and do damage control!

    Reddit post: https://www.reddit.com/r/Newark/comments/kl5edz/more_on_the_series_of_branford_place_protests/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=ios_app&utm_name=iossmf

    The mosque’s “leaders” acted on their own accord and personal interests without consulting one member of the community nor getting any community input! The entire building as a whole is registered with the city of Newark as a place of worship and not just a privately owned building. It’s not theirs to sell! They had no right to sell it as These unelected “leaders” are not representative of the local community at all! They ran the mosque purposely into the ground to force the sale!
    The tenants of the building have also been kicked and locked out of their spaces as well wrongfully given notice to vacate, breaching the lease agreements. Tenants have filed complaints against “ownership” and have had the courts agree that the buildings management has intentionally let it fail !
    Check out Essex County Docket# L-005240-20

  5. For all the negative replies. You either is a so call board member or just a person talking out the side of your neck by not knowing anything about the building. But I smell a trader here and the trader is the self appointed board members and or their wives and family members. We are not going any place. The building is historical therefore it can not be torn down.

  6. Wow, how dare a group of few crooks can sell the place of worship that has served several Muslims for several years. Board is just to run a day to day operations, not to sell the place where people are actively worshiping, especially when this place was bought and donated for specific purpose. This group should be criminally prosecuted for hiding their intention from members and masjid goers.
    I prayed in this masjid almost 2 years while going to school away from my family, this place gave me opportunity to connect with people of all colors, ages and nationalities whom I bonded as a family. This place is at great location for Muslims to come together for prayer.
    I see lots of negative comments, either these people has some interest in selling of this property OR have some sentiment against Muslims. I also see management was intentionally not fulfilling their duties and trying to make it a sell, they should see justice. Masjid MUST stay at it’s current location.

  7. FACTS ABOUT THE
    SALE OF BRANFORD MOSQUE
    January 1, 2021
    1. The Mosque located at 20 Branford Place, Newark, NJ was donated to the Newark Muslim Community by Ali Habeeb Maghrabi in 1982 and is an irrevocable trust.
    2. The doner stated that the 2nd and 3rd floor were to be a masjid, and the remaining floors were to be income-producing in order to support Mosque expenses and services.
    3. The Mosque was one of the first in the Greater Newark area and has played a large role with the Muslims of the Area. Over 30% of Newark Muslims can trace their routes to Branford Place.
    4. One of the founders of the mosque was Hajj Hisham Jaber who led Malcolm X’s funeral prayer. 5. The Mosque has maintained 5 daily prayers since 1982. The Jumma prayer is attended by over 300 Muslims every Friday.
    6. A $400,000 upgrade was done to the Mosque’s prayer hall in 2018.
    7. The Mosque has been closed since the start of Covid. Even though state health guidelines allow it to open for prayers.
    8. There has not been a town hall meeting with the community in 7 Years.
    9. The board swore in court that the building is not a mosque.
    10.The Board of Trustees never held one public meeting to share their plans with the community and seek approval.
    11.The Board of Trustees consists of 6 Individuals:
    a. Chairman: Attiah S: 6-year board member. Presently lives in Maryland. He only attends prayer when he gives khutba. He is 90 years old. Voted to Sell the Mosque.
    b. Vice-Chairman: Omar R: 6-year board member. Lives in Princeton, NJ and has never attended the mosque, other than board meetings. Voted to Sell the Mosque. c. Secretary: Ahmad A: 6-year board member. He lives in South Jersey and has never attended the Mosque other than board meetings. Voted to Sell the Mosque.
    d. Treasure: Yousif K: 3-year board member. Lives in Paterson, a Rutgers Alumni, and sometimes attends Jumma. Voted to NOT Sell the Mosque.
    e. Omar B: 1-year board member. He lives in Newark and attends Jumma. Wasn’t on the board at the time of the Vote.
    f. Osman A: 40-year board member. He lives in South Jersey and no longer attends the mosque other than board meetings. He is 95 years old. Voted to Sell the Mosque. Financial Facts:
    1. The building is valued at substantially over $8,000,000 and had no outstanding Loans, Liens, or Bills.
    2. After a full renovation of the upper floors, the building is estimated to be worth $24,000,000 3. The real estate taxes are approximately $50,000 per year.
    4. It is purported that the building was sold on Friday, Dec 18th at 7pm.
    5. It is purported to have been sold for $2,500,000 in cash and four smaller buildings in Newark:
    ○ 30 Central Ave – Valued: $1,300,000
    ○ 26 Halsey St – Valued: $765,000
    ○ 223 Washington St – Valued: $400,000
    ○ 225 Washington St – Valued: $600,000
    ○ Total: Cash: $2,500,000 + Buildings: $3,135,000 = $5,635,000
    6. The board purchased 9 Hill Street for $6,500,000. They gave the seller $1,500,000 in cash and now have an outstanding loan for $5,000,000.
    7. The Real Estate Broker, Sami M. (one time board member) from Madina Realty, was the broker for both Branford and Hill, and is purported to have received a commission of $700,000 8. The Broker evicted all of the building’s commercial tenants during Covid even though evictions were restricted by the State of New Jersey during the pandemic.
    9. The old Tenants have sued Medina and ISEC for illegal eviction and have won. Legal Facts:
    1. Community members filed for a Temporary injunction on Nov 5th.
    2. The matter was before Essex County Judge Jodi Alper on Dec 8th on Plaintiffs motion to place a preliminary injunction on transfer of property.
    3. New Jersey statute Section 16:1-6 states a religious organization must provide notice and seek community approval before any sale of property..
    4. On Dec 8, represented to the Court that our 40 year old Masjid, isn’t a Masjid. 5. The Judge ruled that the Masjid is only a prayer hall in an office building, and it has no features typically found in Mosques, like a dome or minaret, therefore it’s not a mosque, or iconic. The motion for preliminary injunction was denied.
    6. The following day an emergent appeal was filed with the New Jersey Appellate Division and it was denied.
    7. Presently, the community has filed a motion for reconsideration with the trial court and are waiting to hear back.
    Note: All sale documents have been kept confidential and not shared with the community. We welcome the board of trustees to provide documents proving any of these facts to be false.

  8. Pray in a mosque while Black folk killing each other in this city on a regular basis. Yeah ok, the prayers are not working. thats muslims klling each other too.stop pretending like you care about living such a sinfree life. There are tons of muslim and christian gangbangers, grown men going to mosque and church and turn around to kill thier brothers over nonsense. WHY THE HLL YALL NOT OUT PROTESTING THAT.KIDS AND WOMEN BEING SHOT DEAD, PROTREST THAT. WHERE IS ALL THIS ENERGY THEN. AND YALL WORRIED ABOUT A FRKIN MOSQUE, WITH ALL THE DEATH, STEALIN, SHOOTIN, SECTION 8 , MENTAL ILLNESS AND POOR PPL IN THIS CITY AND YALL OUT PROTESTING FOR A MOSQUE. And then when someone wants to make the neighborhood better, house ppl, renovate, and have business space; ignorant folk wanna chime in. Sick and tired of peole trying to keep the city poor and underdeveloped for thier own vanity and insecurities. They bought a much better looking office building like 3 blocks away.Have you guys investigated the possibility that building could be a new place of prayer. What about the other houses of worship. They know dmn well the ppl posting here are not the sellers or the buyers. its real citizens of Newark fedup with Newark looking and acting like crap to please all the ignorant special interest.

  9. Johncp is absolutely right, I’m being living in Newark for the past 25 years and every time developers wants to bring new ideas and new improvements to the city someone is against.
    This property was never erected as a Mosque, Its a commercial building not a Mosque.
    For a commercial building 50k is nothing in taxes for the City.

  10. That’s the old Chamber of Commerce building. A symbol of a time Newark was such a powerful City ,it commanded it’s own metropolitan area within the New York City metro.

    Newark has a massive population of what I like to call the ghetto Lobby. These are looser residents that hate Newark and call it a piece of garbage but then make a 180 degree turn and appear at every city hall event protesting every Redevelopment project as an attempt to chase them out!

  11. they dont want the redevelopment unless they can live there for low rent or in some cases no rent.then they come with thier section 8 vouchers and tear the building up with bad habits and bad kids. Then blame it on the landlord. its the same story, over and over.

  12. Jeeez guys read the article and all your ignorant comments are answered.
    Spoke to someone very familiar with what’s going on….They also posted a fact sheet about the deal on their Instagram page. (https://www.instagram.com/p/CJhrgAxFIUI/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link )
    Here are my thoughts:
    – That FB page was last updated in 2017…seems like BS and they’re only updating it now due to the pressure.
    – The Branford mosque is a beautiful historic building, the prayer area just had a $400k renovation a few years ago.. the prayer area has windows all around, the building is on a corner lot not squished between two buildings, Minbar/Pulpit is in the corner giving it a pretty nice layout. Photos posted above on the FB page are literally a dingy former basketball court… See photos of Branford interior here ( https://www.google.com/maps/uv?pb=!1s0x89c2537855c3e3fb%3A0x6049975a4c59f781!3m1!7e115!4shttps%3A%2F%2Flh5.googleusercontent.com%2Fp%2FAF1QipPdPihR2Xf0gkW98qxOOZtmS6SMtXln3QdjXj8A%3Dw107-h108-n-k-no!5sislamic%20society%20essex%20county%20-%20Google%20Search!15sCgIgAQ&imagekey=!1e10!2sAF1QipMFno2wvYuQC2PXUUDE3DkXTJog6YOFRq4J2NHG&hl=en )
    – The mosque was donated to the community by a donor making it a “Waqf” which from what I understand means it’s community property everyone needs to be on the same page/hold a vote on any action involving real property etc.
    – The listing broker is/was:
    – the buildings property manager: which he got sued and lost (Essex County Docket# L-005240-20) for terminating the other tenants in the buildings valid leases basically overnight and locking them out to deliver building vacant
    – the listing broker was a former board member who made over $700k in commission and only left the board to finalize the sale
    – None of the board members live in Newark besides one who just joined less than a year ago
    – The board members didn’t notify not one community member of this transaction to get input or feedback about the move.
    – The Branford mosque had NO debt on it free and clear
    – At the 11th hour, the deal changed completely from being a straight cash deal for ~$7-8MM with the mosque having some money left over for improvements to become a crappy trade for four paramount properties that were purchased bought in late 2019 and early 2020. Not to mention one of them being a bar HAHA imagine that a mosque owning a bar and liquor license lol bringing the total building transaction to a measly $5.6MM def a steal for the buyers
    – None of the board members have real estate as their day to day job or well versed in complex real estate transactions like this neither did they get any consultation or input on such a deal.
    – The board (which had issues managing ONE single building) Now not only do they have a mortgage note (interest loans are not allowed in Islam) to pay on a building most of the community is boycotting and high net worth donors are not donating due to the boards lack of competence with this whole situation. The board now also has 4 different buildings across town to manage, rehab, carry and be liable for.
    – The board is just as guilty as the developer that purchased it knowing the contention in the community with two lawsuits pausing closing twice, still moved forward and even made the deal a bigger win for them knowing the mosque had no way to manage and carry the 4 properties he gave them that he bought at a steal further sweeten the deal for him. Just not ethical business on their end
    – The closing took place on a Friday evening at 7 PM ?? When has that ever happened in a real estate transaction??
    and I’m done…By far the most bizarre and interesting transaction I’ve ever looked at..Hopefully, this saga gets settled soon..

  13. Newark isn’t a monolithic city, contrary to this narrative of a single “community”. Instead, it is a city of many “communities”, more appropriately referred to as neighborhoods. That being said, too many in this city, act as if we all think alike and have the same priorities. We do not. While there’s a sizable population that practices the Muslim faith, there are more that do not. While there may be “outrage” amongst Muslims over this building’s sale, there is concomitant disgust at the state of our city, and the prevalence of dilapidated buildings, ineffective City leadership, asinine development policies and attempts to codify poverty.
    So, while some on here may disagree with the fact that many city residents would be happy to see this building sold, demolished and property redeveloped, they will not move public opinion or gain support through insults, disruptive behavior, nor an unwillingness to intelligently debate the merits of economic policy.

  14. I’m pro development but this isn’t being done in the right away and goes against inclusionary development which is very much the image that the current administration wants to project. Others amongst us who are pro development have countered the argument of displacement by stating a lot of what’s being developed has been on empty or vacant lots. And I think you can arguably and logically justify that. This, however, is an exact case of displacement for the sake of development and it’s ugly. Yes it can be a painful and sometimes costly process to involve the community, but developers almost always get the project done with some concessions and they foster good will by involving the community. If the mosque goers have legal standing in their dispute, then I hope they win. BUT, they should use that opportunity to raise funds to renovate the building, clean up the area and offer increased services (both faith based and secular) to the community. You’d have to be blind to not think that area in need of some redevelopment. If we don’t want our neighborhoods gentrified, then we need to be better stewards of them.

  15. This seems like a situation where decisions were made without consulting the “little people”, which is not unusual. I hope that my Muslim brothers and sisters prevail because it appears that rules have been broken.

  16. The Chamber of Commerce is a beautiful building. I hope they bring it back to what it used to be before. It would make sense to make as a commercial building the same way they did it to the Ironside Property in Route 21.

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