Innallaha ma3a Sabireen
Muslims and mosques are putting down roots
Once-tiny population in Capital Region has doubled in 20 years, leaders say
By MARC PARRY, Staff writer
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First published: Thursday, July 5, 2007
TROY -- The mosque, a converted funeral home, is so small it can't accommodate worshipers for the best-attended prayers of the week. On Fridays, they pray in the basement of a nearby college athletic center instead.
They also borrow space for marriage ceremonies. And interfaith meetings. And holidays.
"It's time the community gets its own place," said Abdulkadir Elmi, a trustee and ex-president of Troy's Masjid al-Hidaya.
That should start to happen at the end of this month, with a groundbreaking expected for a proper mosque with a dome and two minarets on more than 12 acres in Latham.
It's a small story about one mosque, but it also reflects a bigger picture of Muslim growth in the area, where you can still count all the mosques on one hand.
Al-Hidaya leaders estimate that up to 6,000 Muslims now live in the Capital Region. That's perhaps double the population 20 years ago, though the numbers are only rough estimates based on holiday mosque attendance.
Some move here for work, often in engineering and related fields, the mosque leaders said. Others come to work or study at local colleges and end up staying.
As an example, Elmi pointed to the president of Albany's Masjid As-Salam. Shamshad Ahmad, born in India, arrived almost 30 years ago for a postgraduate teaching position at the University at Albany. The physics professor raised four kids here. All went to local colleges. One now has two kids of his own.
"Probably most families have a lot more growth than we've had because we haven't really had relatives come over," said Ahmad's son, Faisal, 28, who prayed at the Troy mosque as a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute student.
As a child, Faisal Ahmad first worshipped in the basement of an Albany apartment building occupied by Muslim graduate students from Malaysia. Maybe six or seven people gathered for the Friday prayer service, called Jummah.
Growing up, he said, the Muslim community was so small that people tended to know each other. Now, Ahmad walks in the mall and sees unfamiliar Muslim women wearing head scarves.
"It's reached a point where there's new people coming into the community that we've never really seen before," said Ahmad, who believes the Muslim population is more like 10,000 to 12,000.
People often have to drive significant distances to worship at one of the area's five existing mosques. Once it's built, many will have an easier time reaching the new Al-Hidaya Center on Troy-Schenectady Road in Latham.
The Troy mosque's founders, many of them RPI students, moved into the old funeral home around 1986. The 15th Street building still has the parlor's yellowish tinted front windows.
Once, Friday prayer attendance for the Muslim community of Troy hovered around 100 people, most from the immediate area. Now, as grateful guests in the RPI athletic center, upward of 300 people gather to pray, many from places like Latham and Clifton Park.
Imam Djafer Sebkhaoui cautioned that you shouldn't think of the mosque as a fixed congregation. Someone might work at RPI and pray there during the day, he said, then go home and pray at Islamic Center of the Capital District in Colonie at night.
He also resisted labeling local mosques by the backgrounds of people who worship in them.
"We end up not having mosques that are necessarily distinguished by ethnicity," said Sebkhaoui, an Algerian native who studied psychology at RPI. "You may see that in large cities" -- an Arab mosque, a Pakistani one -- "but I don't think that it's the case in our area."
The new center will offer amenities unimaginable in the existing building, and it will free worshipers from leaning on the generosity of RPI.
Parking, for one. The plan calls for 250 spaces. Women will have multiple worship options: at the rear of the regular hall, or, if they prefer, in the privacy of a balcony upstairs. Their current space is much more limited.
"The mosque in Troy is really difficult for mothers with young children to come," said Faisal Ahmad's older sister, Huma, who surveyed women there to gauge their needs for the new mosque.
The whole project is expensive, so it will be built in three phases.
The first, $3.5 million phase includes the prayer hall and adjacent facilities. Later phases include a gym that could also accommodate large gatherings and a school. The old mosque will remain open.
And after so many years of attending interfaith functions hosted by others, Al-Hidaya members will finally be able to welcome guests to their own.
"We will maybe pay back all these favors that have been done to us," Elmi said.