Muslim community leaders say plans for new facilities are a response to demand
By Zain Shauk
Children ages 7-16 study the Quran and Arabic at Sugar Landâ€™s Maryam Masjid, whose prayer area can accommodate 1,300 people.
Forty years ago, the thought of granite counter tops, marble floors and indoor basketball gyms at Houston mosques seemed unthinkable.
But after decades of growth, the Muslim community is expanding and building new facilities at an unprecedented pace, with features and amenities that rival five-star hotels, leaders say.
Multimillion-dollar plans for major mosque expansions and constructions are moving forward throughout the Houston area, coming on the heels of recently finished developments.
A community in Katy is pushing forward its long-awaited plan to develop a $10 million mosque, community center and school, and a group in Spring is working on a $10 million expansion at a recently built $2.5 million mosque.
Other plans on the horizon include an Islamic center on 10 acres in Pearland, a development that will total at least $1.1 million for the first of multiple construction phases.
Those and other developments are part of a national phenomenon of expansion of Muslim facilities, which has come at a time of intense opposition to mosques stoked by a controversy surrounding the planned $140 million Park51 community center project in New York City.
Nationwide, the number of mosques has surged 57 percent over the last 10 years, from 1,209 to 1,897, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Today, as Muslims begin celebrating Eid al-Adha, one of two major holidays, the Islamic Society of Greater Houston will not hold a central prayer service at the George R. Brown Convention Center, in part because of the increased accessibility of mosques and Islamic centers throughout the region.
Response to demand
Muslim community leaders are keenly aware of the concern over construction of mosques and were quick to emphasize that the communityâ€™s plans for new facilities are a response to demand and not an attempt to conquer land in the name of Islam.
â€œWe are all Americans,â€ said Dr. Aziz Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston. â€œWeâ€™re not taking anything over.â€
Most of the new or expanding facilities did not face resistance, except for the MAS Katy Center. The owner of land next to the mosque property held pig races on the lot on Fridays, the holiest day of the week for Muslims, after the centerâ€™s organizers came forward with a plan for the mosque. Eating pork is forbidden in Islam.
As the Houston Muslim community has grown and matured, members have begun to demand more facilities, closer to their homes and in line with higher standards of quality than the hastily constructed and expanded mosques developed in recent decades, leaders said.
That is what drove a group of mainly HP employees and doctors in Spring and Cypress to build a facility there 14 years ago on 13 acres, said Ahmed Ahuja, secretary of the mosque and a program manager for HP.
Now the mosque is expanding, with the steel frame of Masjid As-Salamâ€™s new section extending out of the current prayer area and outlining a segment that will house a school, health clinic, community hall and other facilities once it is finished, he said.
Community is growing
At least three new mosques opened this year in the Houston area and two are undergoing major expansions. Two new community centers, in Pearland and Katy, are in development.
A plan for a new Islamic center in the Cinco Ranch area is in the works, and there is interest in adding facilities near Atascocita, said Siddiqui, whose organization oversees one of the new facilities.
â€œThe reason for it is just the Muslim community by and large in this country is growing,â€ said Mustafaa Carroll, executive director for the Texas office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Job opportunities in the Houston area have led to population growth in the Muslim community, which has included immigrants filling jobs at energy and information technology firms, community leaders said.
Muslims across the nation are also more financially capable and educated and have more established communities than their immigrant parents did, said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
â€œMost of the mosques that were around in the last 20 years were basically rented-out spaces from industrial parks,â€ he said. â€œThatâ€™s basically what was manageable at the time and now that our parentsâ€™ generation is entering its retirement phase and has accumulated wealth thereâ€™s more money to build nicer and more functional centers.â€
â€˜Running out of spaceâ€™
The local projects are being funded by donations from the community.
Among the Houston area expansions is Clear Lake Islamic Center, which opened in September 2009. The center will double in size to 20,000 square feet, with a planned expansion to include a fitness center and larger community hall.
â€œWe were running out of space, basically,â€ said Ibrahim Ezghair, administrator of the year-old center.
A community near Hobby Airport opened a new mosque, Masjid Warithuddeen Mohammed, before Ramadan in August. Thatâ€™s also when the largest mosque in the Houston area opened: the Maryam Islamic Center â€” New Territory, in Sugar Land. Its prayer area – capable of accommodating 1,300 men and women – is bigger than that of the largest mosque in the nation, the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich.
Siddiqui said there are more than 100 Muslim prayer spaces in the greater Houston area and there is a need for more.