Amir Zahir Yousef, 15, gave the traditional Muslim
call to prayer. The worshipers gathered on a recent Friday afternoon in the mosque's large
prayer room, facing east toward Mecca. Men and boys assembled on the right of a simple
partition; women and girls gathered on the left. Shoes were left outside in the hallway,
and the women covered their heads with scarves.
Washington and its close-in suburbs have a large number of Muslims who attend prayer sessions on Fridays, the holiest day of the week for them. But this particular gathering took place at the Southern Maryland Islamic Center in Calvert County, where the mosque plays a vital role in a small but growing Muslim community that has sprung up amid a mix of rural roads and suburban subdivisions, cornfields and strip malls.
"We have about 15 families who worship here regularly," said Muhammad Haneef, who comes to the mosque often with his wife and five children. "About half of them are new Muslims, converted Muslims. It's open to everybody."
Located in Huntingtown, near Prince Frederick, about 40 miles southeast of Washington, the center opened a decade ago and has a large kitchen, a library and meeting rooms. Its large, hexagonal white building is topped with a minaret, a slender blue dome tower that is visible to traffic on Route 4.
A close community of friends and families share responsibility for maintaining the mosque, which does not have an executive director or any paid staff members. Mosque members take turns leading Friday prayer services, and they just published the center's first newsletter in July.
"It's a volunteer effort," said Rabia Zahir Yousef, Amir's mother. "If somebody has time to cut the grass, they do. We all share in the work that needs to be done."
Mosque members are proud of the cultural diversity of their small Muslim community, which includes people from Pakistan, Iraq, India and the Arab world, as well as native-born Americans who have converted to Islam. Many foreign-born physicians who work across the street at Calvert Memorial Hospital also worship there on Fridays.
Worshipers at Friday services include women in black veils and women in business suits, older men in traditional white pants and shirts and others wearing baseball caps.
"American Muslims are finally settling down," said Abdurahman Alamoudi, executive director of the American Muslim Council. "We used to be mostly students and immigrants. But now, professionally, we are settling down in cities and suburbs. We are not melting in the pot but becoming the flavor of the pot."
Though Islam is not traditionally associated with the United States, it is a religion with an increasing following in this country. The American Muslim Council estimates that 6 million people practice Islam in the United States. There were 843 mosques nationwide in 1992, the last time an official count was made; the council estimates there now are more than 1,500 mosques or Islamic centers.
"When I came here in 1976, there was only one mosque" in the Washington area, said Haneef, a Hughesville heating and air conditioning businessman, referring to the well-known Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue NW in the District. "Now, I have lost count. I don't know how many there are."
The trend in the Washington area mirrors a national demographic shift.
"Our community is spreading out from the urban core," said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group.
"As the community grows, we're getting a lot more suburban mosques. In each community around the country, there's more and more of them popping up."
Other mosques in the area include those in Herndon, Manassas, Falls Church, Silver Spring, Laurel and La Plata. The Southern Maryland Islamic Center has been trying to expand its role as a community center. On Sunday afternoons, families take turns hosting potluck lunches that are open to anyone who wishes to attend. Arabic lessons are taught to the children, for whom Arabic is often not a first or even second language.
Abdul Razaq, an orthopedist, recently moved to Maryland from Syracuse, N.Y.
"Before we moved, we visited the area," said Razaq, who attended the recent Friday prayer service.
"One of the main reasons we chose to live in Port Tobacco was because of its proximity to the center."
Muslims in Southern Maryland, like those elsewhere, are concerned about negative stereotypes. Mohammad B. Yousaf pointed to the pall of suspicion -- since discredited -- that fell over Muslims immediately after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and said he is determined to overcome such popular misconceptions.
"Seventy percent of all Americans have no opinion on Islam," said Yousaf, who runs a small business in Waldorf.
"That provides us with a tremendous opportunity to build bridges with other communities. We would like this mosque to become a symbol of peace and brotherhood."
In June, the center hosted a hajj celebration to mark the religious pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Mecca, considered the birthplace of Muhammad, is the holiest city in the Islamic world, and every Muslim is expected to make a pilgrimage there at least once.
Other events at the center have included a fund-raiser for orphans in Bosnia, a large Thanksgiving dinner and a picnic with members of the La Plata mosque.
Adam Fared Ramza, an African American and occupational therapist who converted from Catholicism to Islam 12 years ago, was surprised and thrilled to discover a mosque on Route 4.
"I was really very happy to find this," he said. "I feel really comfortable here spiritually."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company