Congregants build a home for their faith

After a years-long search, Muslims establish the first mosque in Howard Co.

September 30, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN REPORTER

Muslims now have a place of their own in Howard County.

Since they first met in 1992 for Friday Jumah prayers in borrowed office space in Columbia's Wilde Lake Village Center, they've been seeking a place like this. Yesterday, more than 100 Muslims gathered for their first prayers at the newly constructed Masjid Dar Al-Taqwa on the border between Columbia and Ellicott City - the first mosque built in Howard County.

"It feels like home," said Sayed Hassan, the mosque's former president.

The 2,400-square foot building, oriented east toward Mecca, will cost $2.5 million once final touches are in place. The mosque's leaders struggled to obtain all of the required permits and inspections to ensure that area Muslims could worship there during the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.

"We like to have a place of our own, so that we can meet every day and every night that we need to," Hassan said.

They took the first steps toward the new space in 1994. By that time, about 30 people regularly attended Friday prayers, too many for the Wilde Lake office, and the management said they were making too much noise.

Dar Al-Taqwa, which means "house of piety" in Arabic, then moved to the Owen Brown Interfaith Center and began to search for land - no easy task in pricey Howard County. They found a nearly 7-acre former turkey farm with a 60-year-old farmhouse and settled on it in 1995.

They modified it and used it for daily prayers, although members continued to meet at the interfaith center on Fridays, where up to 300 people regularly attended Jumah.

Construction of a permanent mosque on the former farm began 2 1/2 years ago, Hassan said. To save money, members volunteered design and construction management skills. In effect, the mosque was its own general contractor, he said.

The mosque will be used for educational classes for children, men and women, in addition to prayers, Hassan said. There is also a media center, a multipurpose room with a kitchenette and a picnic area.

Men and women use separate entrances, and all remove their shoes before entering the worship space. The larger area in the mosque has high ceilings with skylights and alternating stripes of dark and light green carpet covering the floor.

"There is no decoration - nothing distracts you from supplication," Hassan said. "You are offering your prayer to your lord. You're not supposed to have something that distracts you from this."

The imams led yesterday's prayers from a small alcove in the front, called the mihrab. Men and boys gathered in the long room with the mihrab; women and girls stayed in a smaller area connected to the larger room. All women wore hijabs, or headscarves.

People of all nationalities and backgrounds attend prayers at Dar Al-Taqwa, Hassan said, including African-Americans, South Asians, Arabs and others. "That's the beauty of Dar Al-Taqwa," he said.

Yesterday, a visiting imam from Egypt, Ramadan Abdel-Bast, spoke in Arabic, and Imam Mahmoud Abdel-Hady then translated in English. Abdel-Hady told those gathered that "he who builds a house for Allah, Allah will build a place for him in paradise," even if the place was as small as a bird's nest.

Just getting the mosque open yesterday was a bit of a scramble. County officials granted the occupancy permit for the mosque on Thursday. Members made phone calls, sent e-mails and posted a notice on the mosque's Web site to alert others that effective yesterday, all prayers would be conducted at the new building.

Muslims who had attended the service were happy that it had opened after so many years.

"It's a momentous occasion," said Betty Jack, who came to the mosque yesterday with her husband and four children. "It's a testament to the contributions and efforts of the whole community."

She felt especially pleased that the mosque opened during Ramadan.

"It will also be a beacon for all of us during this blessed month," said Jack, who lives in the Columbia village of Harper's Choice.

"It's exhilarating and very satisfying," said her husband, Momodu Jack. "We're grateful to Allah for the opportunity to raise this masjid," which means mosque in Arabic.

Kim Bilal-Rashada of the Beaverbrook community said she has prayed at Dar Al-Taqwa at the interfaith center for three years, and plans to stop by more often now.

"It's closer to my house than the Giant, the mall, the post office," she said.

Islam prohibits its followers from taking or giving interest-bearing loans. To cover the cost of the building, the mosque sought direct contributions and interest-free loans from members. The mosque has about $300,000 in outstanding loans and will need an additional $300,000 to finish its work.

Hassan said the new building may attract more members, perhaps ultimately leading to further expansion.

"Once we open the mosque and people start seeing this is a real mosque," he said, "you're going to start seeing people in more numbers."

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