Sheikh Osman And The Shop That Caught On Fire

Sheikh Osman Adam outside Masjid At-Taqwa, where he spends most of his time. (Photo: Zainab Iqbal/Bklyner)

BEDFORD STUYVESANT – On March 1, the Zam Zam Stop & Shop store on Fulton Street caught on fire in the middle of the night due to an electrical issue. It is a small shop attached to the well-known Masjid At-Taqwa. The shop’s owner, 57-year-old Osman Adam, was in bed sleeping when a neighbor called him, letting him know smoke was coming out of his store. Adam, more commonly known as Sheikh Osman, got up and said, “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.” To Allah, we belong, and to Him, we shall return. He then ran out of the home and to his shop to see what was left of it.

Adam was at Masjid At-Taqwa earlier that night. He had officiated two weddings that day and came to the Masjid at around 10 p.m. He then went by his store, right next door and part of the same building, to check up on something. And then he went home. After getting that dreaded call and running back to the store at around 12 a.m., Adam was met with big flames and smoke. But the store wasn’t what he was worried about; it was the masjid.

“I ran and was concerned because I thought the fire would damage the masjid if it spread,” he recalled. “But the fire department came right away, and the fire didn’t touch the masjid. I feel very happy about that because that would delay everything. But, we are Muslim. I am a believer, and I believe this is the decree of Allah. When something is written, you can’t escape it. You have to accept it and ask Allah to compensate.”

Everything inside the shop – stuff like soap, body oil, black seed products, books, and rugs – burned down; everything except a copy of the Quran. The copy is now placed right next to him in his small office inside the masjid.

The Zam Zam Stop & Shop store is right next door to Masjid At-Taqwa. (Photo: Zainab Iqbal/Bklyner)

Adam set up Zam Zam Stop & Shop in the neighborhood in 1996, and it has been serving the community ever since. Adam is also the assistant imam at Masjid At-Taqwa and has been for the past 24 years. The store was given to him by the Masjid as compensation for his work and is his sole income. It was not worth much, and at the time, everything was cheap, Adam explained. The store needed some fixing up to do, and Adam said he’d take it. He fixed it up and told them that instead of taking a salary, the store would be fine with him.

“I know the community is not that rich, and they don’t have that much. So I will not ask for a full salary,” he said.

Adam was born and raised in Sudan and came to Brooklyn at the beginning of the 1990s after graduating from college studying dentistry. He has lived in Bed Stuy ever since and has given his all to the community he loves dearly. The Masjid’s lead imam, Siraj Wahhaj, is quite well known throughout the world and is also the leader of the Muslim Alliance in North America. Wahhaj is often traveling, and when he is, Adam takes over.

“Actually, all my time is spent for the community,” Adam told us. He’d often start his sentences saying “actually” and would let out a light laugh when recalling a story from his past.

“Imam Siraj, he’s international. So, I’m the one here all the time at the masjid. I am the one who deals with all the issues like if somebody wants to get married, I perform weddings. If a husband and wife have issues and need a consultation, I sit down with them. When someone dies, I perform the Janazah prayer. Giving the khutbah (sermon) and leading the prayer, this is how my time is spent.”

He explained that because he’s been doing this for the past two and a half decades, he is attached to the community, and the community is attached to him. He often guides men who were previously incarcerated and have no family. He works with people who are trying to get off drugs. He offers his help where it’s needed and is a pillar of the community.

Harith Morgan, 22, agrees.

Morgan is currently in Indiana studying mechanical engineering at graduate school. But he grew up in Park Slope. Almost all of his time was spent in Bed Stuy with Adam’s sons at Masjid At-Taqwa. Adam’s sons and Morgan attended Islamic school together. Adam’s wife was Morgan’s kindergarten teacher. Morgan remembers spending his time at Adam’s home, feeling welcomed. He remembers sometimes going for tarawih prayer with them and sometimes just fooling around outside the masjid playing football instead. He has known the sheikh for as long as he was a kid, and as a result, he feels super connected to Adam and his shop.

Some of Morgan’s fondest memories are from Ramadan. After iftar, or after Jummah prayer, people would congregate outside the masjid at the shops nearby. If someone were hungry, they’d go to Abu’s Homestyle Bakery. If someone needed a Quran, they’d go to the bookstore around the corner. And if someone needed soap or oil, they’d go inside the Zam Zam Stop & Shop.

“So much of community life is centered around that shop,” Morgan said. “For that resource to be missing, it essentially handicaps the community. More importantly, it means that we cannot support Sheikh Osman in the way we have been able to support him. We can’t even attempt to pay him back for so much of the effort he has put into keeping the community and Masjid At-Taqwa alive. He’s not the face of the masjid, but he is so critical to its operation.”

Zam Zam Stop & Shop is located on Fulton Street and Bedford Avenue. (Photo: Zainab Iqbal/Bklyner)

Shortly after the fire, Adam got sick. His wife and four children urged him to go to the hospital, but he did not want to spend six hours waiting in the emergency room. “I told them, ‘I’ll just take a Tylenol’,” he recalled. When he was not getting better, he decided to go to an urgent care facility. The doctor informed him that his oxygen level was very low, and he needs to go to the hospital.

Later that same night, his son drove him to New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, where he was diagnosed with the coronavirus. He stayed in the Intensive Care Unit and was on oxygen for eight days. He knows of eight people in the Brooklyn Sudanese community that also had COVID-19 around the same time. All eight of them died. He is doing much better now (though he says he lost a lot of weight) and is smiling. We asked him if he was scared at the time.

“Actually, I’m a practicing Muslim, and you have to get ready for death all the time. You have to prepare yourself all the time. You prepare yourself the way you prepare for an exam when you are in college,” he said. He explained that sometimes he’d think about his youngest son, who is nine-years-old. He was the only one Adam thought about because he is so young and “needs someone to help guide him… and I’m just attached to him.” But other than that, “Nobody can escape death. There’s no exception.”

Now that Adam is back on his feet, his focus is on getting his store back up and running. After all, it is his only source of income. It is how he supports his family.

“The fire happened amidst the beginning of the pandemic, so there was a lot of heavy news to weigh at the same time. It was another devastating reality to come to terms with,” Morgan said. “And I know Sheikh Osman was facing health concerns as well. All of this together was a lot to process as someone who cares deeply about the people involved. I think supporting Sheikh Osman’s business is just the bare minimum of what we can do as Muslims who frequent this establishment, and just as Muslims seeing another Muslim who is striving for the sake of Allah to create a space for Muslims.”

Masjid At-Taqwa’s insurance policy did cover for some partial renovation of the shop. But, much more is needed to be done. They are trying to raise at least $75,000 to restock the shop, create an online/mobile presence for the store, and tend to the essential living expenses like rent and food (until the store is running again). To donate, check out the LaunchGood page here. 

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Zainab Iqbal

Zainab is a staff reporter at Bklyner who sometimes writes poetry in her free time || zainab@bklyner.com

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