tampabay.com

Embracing their faith

A diverse community of Muslims mixes traditions from around the world to celebrate Ramadan.

By JULIA KUMARI DRAPKIN
Published October 29, 2006


NEW PORT RICHEY - "Turn right after the sign for DJ's Auto."

During the holy month of Ramadan, which ended a week ago today, that was the best way to find Pasco's least known place to pray. It's off State Road 54 in an ordinary strip center containing doctor's offices; and it's where, as the evening blue crept into the sky, shoes would pile up in front of the office doors and where, behind the doors, blossomed an American brand of Islam.

All month long, congregants met just before sunset at the Islamic Center of New Port Richey for Iftar - the breaking of the 12-hour fast and evening prayers. Children played football outside, women in bright head scarves and their husbands unloaded aluminum serving trays and boxes filled with tastes from the melting pot: Chicken biryani and boxes of Dunkin' Donuts; jerk chicken and macaroni and cheese. Palestinians and Syrians made lamb rice and hummus one night. A Pakistani family brought Pizza Hut and chicken wings another night.

"When we first came here there was nothing, so we started our prayers in our offices," said Dr. Abdur Rahim, one of the founding members of the Islamic Center, who moved to New Port Richey in 1983. "Then we found there were other people besides us, and we started to invite them."

From three doctors praying in their own offices, they moved into the house of a pharmacist, which they quickly outgrew. They rented one office in the strip mall off State Road 54 and then a second office for the women. Today about 100 families come to the center for prayers.

Few of the Muslims here speak Arabic, the language in which the prayers are recited. But everyone is eager to understand the true meaning of Islam. After dinner, diverse dialogues of faith took place on the synthetic commercial grade carpet.

"This is truly an international religion," said Dr. Hormoz Saber, originally from southern Azerbaijan and now a resident of Trinity. "In Azerbaijan, everybody speaks Turkish. I'm glad to know these Arab people, because they teach me a lot."

Nobody in the congregation went to school to memorize the Koran in its entirety, so they brought a visiting Imam from Cairo to lead the Tarawih - the special night prayers recited during Ramadan.

With their children, they bent their bodies in unison to the floor, in submission to God.

"Here there are no differences- the young, the old, the poor, the doctors," said Nazim Ali, a retired landlord from New Jersey. "We are all equal," said Ali, who came to the United States from Trinidad in 1988.

Yet when Muslims from all over the world bring their different brands of Islam together, it is hard to manage the choices: Middle Easterners prefer to do only eight cycles of Islamic prayer during the Tarawih; South Asians prefer 20. Conservative women wear the hijab all day; teenagers wear blue jeans to pray. Some, but not all, are happy about the election of the first female president to the Islamic Society of North America.

"In many of the societies -whether it is India, or the Arab world, or Indonesia - the societies are all alike," Rahim said. "People have grown up with this religion, and they have same languages and customs. They follow different Imams who have taught Islam in a different way." He said he tries to settle community differences by consensus and compromise.

"Now we have to find a way that we can still practice and find common ground and not be dogmatic that mine is the only right way," Rahim said. "There is no single authority of Islam. We don't have a pope. We don't have any one person who speaks for Islam. Everybody has their own choices."

For now they choose to be together, embracing their differences. And the community is growing, which can be measured by the parking lot. On the last Friday of Ramadan, cars blocked each other and spilled over the medians of the strip mall.

Inside, so many people prayed they had to open the refrigerator to keep cool. But that's just for now. Already the air conditioning has been installed at the county's first mosque, under construction on Grand Boulevard.

Inshaallah - God willing - it will be ready for Ramadan next year.