Wilde Lake mosque is a focal point for Ramaden

February 11, 1994|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

Before visitors step inside Suite 415 in the Wilde Lake Village Center, they remove their shoes. Once inside, they kneel and pray.

Suite 415 is a sacred space called Dar-Al-Taqwa, a mosque for the county's estimated 200 Muslim families. Opened in August 1992, it serves as a convenient place of worship for local Muslims who previously had to travel to Baltimore, Laurel or Washington.

"This is the first and only mosque here," said Sayed Hassan, a native of Egypt who is president of the Dar-Al-Taqwa congregation.

And, starting tomorrow, the suite will be a focal point for many county Muslims joining the estimated 1 billion Muslims around the world in observing Ramadan.

Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, marks the revelation of Islam's holy book, the Koran, to the Prophet Mohammed.

The 30-day observance begins with the spotting of the moon. From dawn to sunset each day, Muslims must abstain from food, beverages, sex and bad behavior, said Rahsan Wardley, a membership coordinator at the American Muslim Council in Washington.

"It's basically abstaining from all those things that you like and showing piety and loyalty to God," he said.

After Ramadan, Muslims gather for Eid-ul-Fitr, an end-of fasting feast.

The United States is home to about 7 million Muslims, including about 35,000 in the Nation of Islam, Mr. Wardley said.

Dana Shourbagi, 31, of Long Reach is a convert. A former Christian, she married a Muslim 11 years ago.

"There is a purity, and combination of mind, body and soul with this religion that is truth," said Mrs. Shourbagi.

She rejects the commonly held notion that Islam restricts women.

"It actually frees me," she said. "I know that sounds strange, but I feel I have much more rights and much more respect."

She noted, for example, that she kept her family name when she married.

In addition, although Mrs. Shourbagi is allowed to work, Islam has a specific prohibition against her husband pressuring her to work -- and whatever she earns is her own.

Although non-Muslims may find the idea of fasting harsh, Muslims say it isn't.

"It shows will power that you can do it," said Aatif Hayat, 14, putting on his shoes outside the mosque in Suite 415 one recent day. "Other kids say, 'Don't you hate it?' I say, 'No.' "

Muslims fast to obey Allah, to feel the hunger of the poor and to be healthy, said Mr. Hassan, a native Egyptian.

"It's healthy to give your body a break . . . and cleanse your system," he said.

Farrukh Sharif, originally of Pakistan, said, "It gives us a chance to pray and beautify our souls and make new resolutions."

The first Muslim families moved to Howard County in the late 1960s, many of them from overseas, Mr. Hassan said. During the 1980s, the Muslim community grew, its members settling mainly in Ellicott City and Columbia.

To keep pace with the growth, area Muslims want to build a free-standing mosque within the next five years, Mr. Hassan said.

In the meantime, the suite in Wilde Lake offers a central gathering place.

Each Friday, many of the county's Muslim children leave school early and workers leave work, going to the mosque for obligatory congregational prayers. An imam leads the group in prayer.

Many in the small community say they have adapted well to a non-Muslim society that supports religious freedoms.

But many are tired of fighting the stereotypes that others hold about Islam, which members stress is a peaceful religion.

"When people ask me what religion I am, they're like, 'Oh, you're a Muslim. Are you really a terrorist?' " said Aamer M. Qayyum, 15, a 10th-grader at Wilde Lake High School.

The day after some Muslims were arrested in connection with the World Trade Center bombing in New York, for example, he heard derogatory jokes.

"I heard your uncle bombed the place," he was told.

To fight such stereotypes, Muslims plan to visit the Unitarian Universalist Society of Howard County in March to speak about their religion.

"No religion teaches or preaches violence, so we don't understand why people link Muslims and Islam to violence," said Sajida S. Qayyum, Aamer's mother.

Seventeen-year-old Aamer Hayat is another proud Muslim.

Because he and his brother Aatif are the only Muslims at Hammond High School, he began to study the Koran diligently to answer questions about his religion.

The Koran "is a guidebook if I'm lost," he said, adding that it teaches him about life.

"You think about the future because everything has consequences," he said. "It's not your life to live. God has given you something special to do your best."

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