BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- For 40 days and 40 nights, the Muslims of Bedford-Stuyvesant stood guard in front of a strange little store on Fulton Street, a hardware store with no open stock, a place where crackheads sauntered in to pay $3 for the glass stems they use to smoke their ruinous little rocks.
And for 40 days and 40 nights, the members of the At-Taqwa Mosque, armed with walkie-talkies and a powerful sense of religious obligation, posted themselves outside the Laundromat where Jamaican crack dealers hung out, their dreadlocks clumsily tucked under towering leather hats.
Last month, at the end of the Muslims' biblically inspired watch over a poor neighborhood flooded with crack cocaine, the drug dealers began drifting back to their old haunts. The Muslims decided to continue patrolling indefinitely. Their job would not be done, said Imam Siraj Wahhaj, their spiritual leader, until all evil had been eradicated from the streets.
Last Friday night, after the wailing evening prayers subsided from the bullhorn over the doorway of their storefront mosque, the Muslims moved onto Fulton Street, walking the desolate avenue lined with boarded-up shops singly and in pairs.
Like the members of the local Nation of Islam mosque who began antidrug patrols at Northeast Washington's Mayfair Mansions last week, the Brooklyn group aims to intimidate dealers and users, moving them out so others may live in peace. But unlike the local Muslims, whose D.C. patrols got off to a shaky start when they beat a suspected drug dealer carrying a shotgun and assaulted a television cameraman and reporter, the men of the At-Taqwa Mosque carefully lined up support from police and neighbors before beginning their rounds.
The imam visited with police and promised that his men would carry no weapons and exact no justice before calling officers to the one-square block that they hoped to reclaim from the tyranny of crack sellers.
"The police department has no monopoly on solutions," said Assistant Police Chief Louis Raiford Jr., who is in charge of the northern half of Brooklyn. "I'm searching like any other public official for an answer, and the Muslims have made a very clear statement, that this blight can be fought."
That the dealers have vanished from the block between Bedford and Franklin avenues is unquestionable. Where knots of dealers once stood -- terrorizing shoppers and merchants -- women and children now venture alone, for the first time since about three years ago, when crack changed this place.
"People who are doing wrong know the Muslims mean business," said Charlie Riddick, a carpet layer who has lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant for 15 years. "I lost two chains off my neck on this street before they started patrolling. They are doing one hell of a job."
"The people have a smile on their face now," said police Officer Sergio Rivera, who walks a beat on Fulton Street. "Without those Muslim guys, this street would be a mob of dealers. You could not walk here two months ago with all the people drinking and smoking that stuff."
But it is also unquestionable that the dealers forced off the mosque's block are flourishing only a few hundred feet away. On Hancock Street, one block from Fulton, crack users sit nodding on playground benches, occasionally shouting incoherently about Vietnam battles or relationships gone bad.
"Sure, the patrols may clean up around here," said Tony Johnson, a clerk at the Manufacturers Hanover Trust office on Fulton Street, "but the druggies just go to another block. So what's the use? Just a few feet away, the same thing is going on."
Yaisin Ahmed, a 31-year-old D.C. native who moved to Brooklyn last year and now patrols every evening, conceded that "cleaning up one block doesn't end people living in fear. If what we do here does not spread through the neighborhood, then we have failed."
It is not even clear exactly who cleaned up the one block. The same day the imam's men began their patrols Jan. 20, the city put foot patrol officers on the same beat, all day, all night. Last weekend, the Muslims and the police walked past each other dozens of times, sometimes nodding, rarely speaking.
"It's a very funny situation," said Shelly Schneider, who runs Cohen's Pharmacy, a 56-year-old shop that is one of the last white-owned businesses on the street. "Where were all these police prior to the Muslim action? The policemen tell us they're here to make sure there's no confrontation between the Muslims and the crack dealers. But whatever -- they're here and we're very happy."
The Muslims smile when asked why the police suddenly paid close attention to this area. "The police used to come around for raids once in a while with their battering rams and automatic weapons," said Abdus Shakur Jalaluddeen, the mosque's spokesman and a leader of the patrols. "But the dealers didn't go anywhere until we came along. We are forcing the police to do their jobs. If they're here to watch us, fine, at least they're here."
The police are indeed on hand in part "to prevent confrontation, so the Muslims aren't out there on their own," Raiford said. But he insists the Muslims alone deserve the credit for cleaning up Fulton Street.
"Simply the way they carry themselves has a major impact," the chief said. "Within the black community, the Muslims have enjoyed respect, even by the bad guys. They have a strong sense of discipline and that is one reason I was able to endorse this. That crucial element of discipline may not be in another group."
From their trademark kufis and khamis, the Muslims' woven skullcaps and long, loose-fitting shirts, to their polite but persistent preaching against intoxicants, the patrol members are instantly recognizable and remarkably popular.
"Drug-free, man! You made it drug-free," a somewhat inebriated young man who called himself Jesse shouted at a two-man patrol. "Looks like a different neighborhood now. Yo, brothers, thanks a lot."
The Muslims have profited from their volunteer work in several ways. Although Jalaluddeen said the mosque spent more than $75,000 on radios and other equipment, the group has been inundated with calls from block associations and community groups seeking security advice. And some of those groups have hired the Muslims as private guards, signing contracts totaling more than $250,000, and providing jobs for dozens of members of 11 city mosques.
While the patrols fulfill the Islamic imperative to work against evil and intoxicants, the Muslims also have reaped more concrete benefits from their work. Since the patrol began, the At-Taqwa membership of about 150 families has increased by at least 15 families, many of them include former drug dealers or users, members said.
Those conversions to the strict life of five daily prayer sessions and a month of fasting each year were not the aim of the patrols, Ahmed said. Indeed, the Muslims welcome members of other religions on their patrols, and a few Christians have come along on occasion.
But patrollers "must be willing to sacrifice their lives," Jalaluddeen said. "Our belief in Allah and all of his prophets, from Adam to Moses to Jesus, gives us the strength. This life is nothing but a test for us, preparation for the hereafter."
Many of the Muslims, however, go onto the streets armed with more than beliefs. Jalaluddeen carries a collapsible nightstick, a device that he says he has not had to use.
The patrollers are trained in martial arts in twice-weekly classes and are instructed to radio in for instructions before touching anyone. "Even if people spit on us, you can't go upside their heads," Jalaluddeen said.
Like the D.C. Muslims, who belong to Minister Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam group, the Brooklyn group is an outgrowth of the original Nation of Islam movement founded by Elijah Muhammad. But the Brooklyn Muslims now practice an orthodox form of Islam, no different, they say, from that practiced in Arab nations and by other Muslims around the world.
The Brooklyn Muslims believe that Farrakhan's Nation of Islam organization is not a truly Islamic group. They say they would not have hit someone carrying a gun, as the D.C. patrol did. Jalaluddeen said his group "would only try to outnumber an adversary, take the weapon and hold him for the police."
Raiford said his understanding with the Muslims was that they would not use or carry any weapons. He was not aware that any of the patrols carried anything other than portable radios.
The Muslims' possession of weapons got them into trouble about a year ago, when the imam and three other members of the mosque were arrested when police found them outside an apartment building where the owner had asked them to help evict drug dealers. Two of the members were convicted of illegal possession of guns and are awaiting sentencing; the other cases have not been resolved. The Muslims say the guns police found had been confiscated from the drug dealers they were throwing out.
Even with nightsticks, though, the Muslims must be fearless to walk their self-appointed beats. Friday night, with all quiet on Fulton Street, Ahmed and another volunteer took a reporter inside a crack house two blocks away. It was an abandoned building that the police had tried to seal with cinder blocks.
Someone took a sledgehammer to the police handiwork, making a three-foot-wide hole through which dealers and users crawled. Two men ran off as the Muslims approached, one of them waving a long Kel-lite flashlight that doubles as protection. Inside, there was running water, even heat. And on the floor, perhaps hundreds of empty crack vials.
"All we want is for the police and the people to join us in fighting evil," Ahmed said.
Outside, beneath a billboard imploring passers-by to "Join America's defensive line -- Marines," a junkie, his face a blank, stood seemingly confused. As the Muslims moved away from the crack house, he suddenly blurted out, "Salaam aleikum, brother."