Kansas is home to thousands of Muslims, but just a handful of mosques.
To keep up with the demands of the slowly but steadily growing Muslim population, one of Kansas’s biggest mosques has been planning a big expansion in Overland Park. This is coming at a time when some fears over the spread of fundamentalist Islam have created a sometimes-uncomfortable environment for Midwestern Muslims. But the Kansas mosque hopes to quell the fears by educating the public.
Just before sunset prayer service on a weekday evening, young students at the Islamic Center of Johnson County practice memorizing the Quran with a volunteer teacher. Like Muslims all over the world have done for centuries, these students practice a couple of hours each day for one to two years, learning the entire book in Arabic, even though most of them don’t even speak the language. The memorization is made a little easier with the help of a melody which accompanies every line of the book.
The Islamic Center is a busy place. In addition to the Quran classes and five prayer services a day, the small ranch house on southern Overland Park hosts religious classes, weekly services and community meetings. One of the Center’s leaders, Arif Ahmad, says the Center serves over three hundred families, and with new faces showing up all the time, their small building has run out of space.
“On Fridays, which is our prayer day, during the afternoon hours - which is almost like the Sunday for the churches - we get full. We have no room for anybody to stand,” explains Ahmad. “We’re jammed packed on Fridays. In fact, when the days are good, people spill out there.”
Ahmad points outside to the patio where worshippers sometimes have to line up to pray during the crowded services.
About three years ago, the Islamic Center started working to expanded beyond the house. Using donations from members, the Islamic Center bought seven adjacent acres to the south and west. It’s currently undeveloped farm land, on the southernmost edge of Overland Park. But Ahmad and other mosque leaders have big plans for the plot of land.
Walking over to some 3D renderings on the wall, Ahmad proudly shows off his vision for a new mosque. It’s a dramatic, two-story building about the size of a small shopping center, with a tall minaret. In addition to a prayer room, the new building will have a community center, classrooms and a gym. But, as Ahmad says, the Islamic Center wants the new building to be more than a piece of brick and mortar.
“We look at the new mosque as a place which will attract our youth, which will become the epicenter of families. So when my dad dies, I should not be sitting at home sulking. I should be going to the Center, and I should be asking people to pray for my dad. When my son has an achievement in life, I should celebrate it with everybody here at the Center. We should be having programs here that should encourage everybody in the community to come. We should have fairs. That’s what we’re thinking in terms of what is the role we need to play.”
The Kansas Muslim population continues to grow despite some challenges. This time last year, the state passed a law that effectively bans courts from enforcing Islamic Law. Supporters say the law protects the state from the spread of radical fundamentalist Islam. Critics, however, call the law anti-Islamic. The law could nullify Islamic-based marriage agreements, wills and business contracts.
Ahmad says that, in recent years, the Islamic Center has been fielding a lot of questions from non-Muslims about the religion. He hopes that the new Center can help educate the public about Islam.
“That actually is a personal dream of mine: Once we have the building next door, the building you’re sitting in – I would convert that into a place which would invite non-Muslims to come and learn about us, just to showcase our religion.”
Ahmad admits that mosque members are sometimes subjected to drive-by harassment in the parking lot, but he says the Center has mostly had a strong, positive relationship with the greater community of south Overland Park and local government.
But online, the Islamic Center has recently been on the receiving end of some not-so-friendly articles.
Earlier this year, members discovered their new building plans were the subject of a couple of articles by an anti-Islamic blog. The blog calls the project a “mega-mosque” and suggests its members are trying to spread fundamentalist Islam. Arif Ahmad considers the accusations ridiculous. He says he doesn’t read the blog, and he encourages other not to either.
“The more you go there, the more you help their cause. You give them more merit when you respond. We’ve taken the attitude of taking the high road, let’s put it this way. And I think when you take the high road, things fall in place, over a period of time.”
The Islamic Center of Johnson County hopes to break ground on the new building in the next few months. Ahmad says center will be built in stages and that it could be several years before it’s completed.