Annapolis group plans for prayer center, library and area's first Islamic high school

Breaking ground for hope, understanding

October 06, 2006|By Anica Butler | Anica Butler,sun reporter

Right now, it's just 20 acres of exceptionally green, overgrown vegetation and a few mounds of red dirt.

But in the middle of the wide, lush field, near the junction of two highways in Millersville, is a large sign that's difficult to miss. It reads: Future Home of Makkah Learning Center.

It might take several years, and several million dollars, say members of the Annapolis Islamic Society, but here will stand the Baltimore region's first Islamic high school. Next to it will be a media center with radio and TV stations, sports fields and a library. And, maybe one day, a small college.

The Makkah Learning Center - named for Islam's holiest city - has been a dream of the society's members for more than a decade. But the vision gained urgency after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

"This is our way in the Muslim community to fight back against terrorism - by education," said Mohammad Arafa, president of the society.

Hoping to open the prayer center later this month, during the holy month of Ramadan, organizers say they want to create a place of solace and learning for local Muslims while building a bridge to the community at large. The planned high school will accept non-Muslims and the library and sports fields will be open for public use. Interfaith activities are planned for the center as well.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the national Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, said that nationally, there is a growing demand for Islamic schools, and high schools in particular.

"A stand-alone high school has not been accomplished very often in the United States. A facility of that size and nature would be almost unique," Hooper said. "It would be a great step forward for the Muslim community."

The completion of the prayer center follows the recent opening of the first mosque built in Howard County.

Creating centers for local Muslims to congregate has become more important as the local community has grown. The Islamic Society of Annapolis currently counts about 130 families as members, and Hooper puts the regional population - in Maryland, Washington and Virginia - at more than a quarter of a million people. It's difficult to say exactly how much the population has grown, Hooper said, but added that this area has one of the larger Muslim communities in the nation after Chicago, Detroit, and California, Texas and New York.

"It's definitely growing," said Hooper said. "It goes along with the growth in the Muslim community nationwide."

The national population, Hooper said, is estimated at 7 million.

The Annapolis society began in 1991 as three men who joined together for daily prayers in a living room. Over the years, as the group's membership has grown, organizers rented increasingly larger spaces and now lease a 1,800-square foot space on Riva Road. Even after the Makkah center is completed, the group hopes to keep an Annapolis office open.

Though it will take some time to raise the $6 million needed to complete the entire center, construction on the first phase, a 6,000-square-foot prayer building that cost $1.5 million, is nearly complete, said Rizwan Siddiqi, project director of the Makkah Learning Center.

The building, toward the rear of the 20 acres, has separate prayer areas for men and women, a kitchen, offices and four classrooms that will initially be used for Sunday and evening school.

Though Muslims pray five times a day, Siddiqi said the center likely will be open for only four prayer times during weekdays, in the morning and in the evening, but not at midday. But the weekends are expected to be bustling.

"From Friday prayers until Sunday evenings, we will stay open and busy," Siddiqi said, estimating that a few hundred people will probably come then.

The group has raised more than $1 million for the project. Donations have come from Muslims and non-Muslims alike, organizers say, but more are needed: The rest of the center will be built as funding allows.

The group also envisions a 25,000-square-foot facility that will be home to separate boys' and girls' high schools and a sports complex. The third phase will be a 25,000-square-foot community center. Planners hope to build in stages, adding a grade a year at the high school. When finished, the school will be able to accommodate 250 students.

"It would be same as a regular high school except it would include some Islamic teachings and would have some religion courses," Siddiqi said. "But anybody would be welcome."

Siddiqi believes that Muslim parents will bring children from all over the region to attend the high school.

The Millersville site, purchased in 1998, was chosen for this reason - it sits near the intersection of Interstate 97 and Route 32 in Anne Arundel County.

There are now two Islamic middle schools in the greater Baltimore area, and others in Washington and Northern Virginia, but the region has no freestanding high schools. Of about 240 Islamic schools nationally, five or fewer are high schools only, according to Karen Keyworth, director of education for the Islamic Schools League of America. However, high school courses are offered at many K-12 schools.

A high school is "usually a little more difficult to establish than a K-5 school because they have different requirements," she said.

Typically, Keyworth said, children who attend Islamic institutions for elementary and middle school attend traditional high schools, because there aren't enough Islamic high schools. But that may be changing, she said.

"It's a very young demographic community. As the community gets older, there's no question that there will be more high schools created," she said. "It will become easier to find one."

anica.butler@baltsun.com

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