A climate of change shines on the region’s growing Muslim community as its members celebrate the holiest month of the year and reflect on their newest house of worship
As Muslims around the world celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, one Muslim mosque in Prince William County spotlights the dramatic shift and influence of Islam in not only the population makeup of the Old Dominion but the United States.
Text by Ubah Pathan / Photography by Razi Ahmed
With a barely audible sigh, putting his hands on his thin knees, working to rise from a prostrate position, Mohammed Ansari stands and shakes hands with the man sitting next to him. They have both just completed their midday prayers.
Dar AlNoor, a Muslim mosque in Manassas and one of the newest additions to the Islamic worshipping community in Northern Virginia, reflects the changing face of the region. “As the Northern Virginia area, and specifically Prince William County, has grown so has the community of Dar AlNoor. It reflects the diversity of Prince William County in all aspects, including race, age groups and professions,” says Adil Khan, 33, spokesman for the Muslim Association of Virginia.
Following a lunar calendar—which causes a yearly shift of holidays—puts Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, in August for the first time in decades. The holiday shines a light on the largest religion in the world, and the role Islam is playing in shaping the ever-evolving definition of American. Currently, it is estimated that between 5 and 7 million Muslims live in America, and research shows that Islam is the fastest-growing faith in the United States. For Northern Virginia, this rising trend has seen the creation of several Islamic centers and mosques around the area. It has also meant that once homogenous areas are now experiencing the evolving complexity of merging Islam into the larger Anglo-Protestant society, which dominates the southern suburbs of Washington, D.C.
“I find it very exciting that Prince William County is seeing such a sharp rise in our Muslim population because it reflects the changes that Northern Virginia has been experiencing for years, and because of the positive relationship that has emerged between the Christian population that has always made up the majority of our community and our new Muslim neighbors,” says Marty Nohe, 38, Coles District Supervisor for Prince William County. Islam has been in the United States since the importation of African slaves in the 1700s, who brought their ancestral religion with them. These Muslims were few and far between and with slave-owners making strong efforts to wipe out any African heritage of their slaves, Islam was made negligible in America till the 20th century. It wasn’t until the 1950s that a real surge was seen with the Civil Rights Movement and the creation of the Nation of Islam among the black American population. Islam was heralded and adopted by many in the black community, and the religion flourished. This increase in American-Islam population was compounded with the waves of immigration from the Middle East, Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia during the 1970s and ‘80s. The residual effect of all the influx was the dispersal of Muslims in America from big cities to other parts of the country.
Muslims in Prince William County
Located 35 miles south of Washington, D.C., Prince William County was not the first port of destination outside of the city for many Muslims who preferred the more multicultural regions of Fairfax and Arlington.
“When I got here in February of 1986, there were very few Muslims. I went through the phone book to find people. The first Friday prayers we held consisted of four people, in the basement of someone’s home,” says Mohammed Rahmani, the founder of the Muslim Association of Virginia. Yet by the 1990s, with the bait of cheaper housing and better infrastructures in place, people of the Islamic faith settled in this once-rural outpost of the nation’s capital. Just a few years after Rahmani had arrived in Manassas, he realized the need for soem type of structure to accommodate the expanding Muslim population flocking to Prince William County. In 1989 that community organized under the banner of the Muslim Association of Virginia.
The immediate task of the association was to find and fund a house of worship. This was a difficult assignment as Rahmani was restricted by Islamic rules that forbid the taking of interest on money, meaning any money saved could not be traditionally invested, nor could a loan from a bank be a method of payment. Instead, the community rallied around the cause of building a mosque and fundraisers were held, from dinners and fairs to selling coupon books.
“Despite our community at that time being small and not very wealthy and it being very hard to raise the funds, with Allah’s grace it was achieved,” Rahmani recalls with a smile.
The first Friday prayers were held on May 7, 1993 at the new mosque, Dar AlSalaam, meaning “House of Peace.” For a few years Dar AlSalaam was sufficient to meet the Prince William County Muslim community needs, while the Muslims in the area remained relatively unnoticed by their larger Ango-Saxon Protestant neighbors.
By 2000 Prince William County was exploding with growth, including the Muslim population within it (roughly from 3 percent to 8 percent of the whole Prince William County population).
“The Muslim Sunday school went from 20 students in the early 1990s, to now over 300 students in 2007,” says Talibah Hassan, 58, one of the first teachers of the fledgling Sunday school.
For the tiny house of worship that the Prince William County Muslim community had worked so hard for, this boom translated into having to hold two services, two Sunday schools and even having people praying outside of the building. But aside from these growing pains, there were no other visible difficulties between the Muslims and the larger Prince William County peoples.
A Bigger House
With the crush of an ever-expanding congregation beyond the 100-person capacity of the existing mosque, the leaders of the Muslim Association of Virginia began considering a move to a newer, bigger location. The search was on.
“My son and I were driving on Hoadly Road and we saw this piece of land, we inquired over it, the asking price was right and the owner was agreeable to our Islamic monetary conditions/restrictions,” Rahmani remembers.
The cost for the new house of worship was $2 million. And while the land was bought in 1995, construction for the facility was not started until 2004. Again, it took so long, because of the Muslim law that forbids the organization from borrowing money (due to the interest accrued on loans) to be used to build a mosque. During that time, the Muslim Association put up a sign on the property, announcing the congregation’s arrival.
The announcement prompted grumbling from nearby residents and one angry letter from a neighbor in the housing subdivision behind the land. Supervisor for the Coles District at that time, Terry Spellane, inquired about the validity of putting up the mosque in that location. Facing a new challenge that had not been encountered with the previous mosque, the leaders of the Muslim Association took refuge in the democracy that was, for many of them, denied in their native lands.
“I met with mosque representatives frequently in order for them to obtain all necessary approvals and to address other miscellaneous issues that arose during planning, development and construction of the mosque,” says Sean Cannaughton, 49, who at the time of the development was chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. “We worked to keep the peace with the neighbors by complying with their request to plant trees to buffer our building from their line of sight,” Hassan adds.
The Muslim Association of Virginia reached out to the neighboring community through interfaith actions and taking part in information sessions against domestic violence. By August 2007 the new mosque was officially opened to great fanfare.
The grand opening celebration of the Dar AlNoor Islamic Community Center was attended by over 3,000 community members and neighbors, including Gov. Tim Kaine, according to Khan.
“The opening ceremonies were very special to me because of the work that my office did in helping open the mosque on schedule. I am proud to have Dar AlNoor in the community I represent. Every time I go to the mosque I’m treated like family,” Nohe shares.
For the Muslim Association of Virginia, the organization that built Dar AlNoor, the aim of this new mosque besides being a house of worship will be to serve to “benefit the religious, educational, cultural and social growth of Prince William County and the Northern Virginia area.”
While the Muslims in Prince William County have not had to deal with any direct threats of racism or prejudice in most of their time since arriving to the area in the late 1970s, there have been some recent growing pangs. After Sept. 11, there were a few incidents of intimidation and animosity, but nothing violent. The Association had men sleep overnight in Dar AlNoor for a few months after the terrorist attacks to ensure no destruction of property. And more recently with the growing campaign by Prince William County’s local government to take a tough stance on illegal immigration, the Muslim community has begun to feel the first real strains of its decidedly different and marked minority status in this outpost of Washington, D.C.
“We are definitely concerned as an immigrant community … about any laws that might lead to profiling or other forms of discrimination. We hope for a balanced execution of the law,” Khan says.
“I certainly recognize the concerns that have been expressed by some in the immigrant community and that is why I worked very closely with supervisor Nohe during the final passage of this measure to add additional protections against any form of racial profiling during its implementation,” says Michael May, 33, Occoquan district supervisor of Prince William County.
Also, in 2007, the Islamic community saw the defeat of its first candidate for local government when Republican Faisal Gill, a Muslim, ran against Democrat Paul Nichols. Gill was the only Republican in Prince William County to lose in the general election for Virginia’s House of Delegates, and many of the local Muslims saw it as a direct snub against them and the religion.
However, despite these recent frissons there have been great gains in integrating the Muslim community into the larger Prince William County society with such momentous steps as the first female Muslim policewoman in the county police force and the formation of Muslim Student Associations at the local high schools. As Muslims from around Prince William County fill up Dar AlNoor for the nightly evening prayers which are done during Ramadan, the mosque stands as a monument to the evolving nature of this dynamic Northern Virginia region.