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Philadelphia Muslims make a statement with opening of first purpose-built mosque

Inga Saffron, Philly.com on

Published in Religious News

Ever since 9/11, American Muslims have struggled with whether they should stay under the radar or assert their identity. Despite the discrimination that has risen to the surface since that terrible day, their ranks in the U.S. have grown substantially, and there are twice as many mosques operating today as there were in 2000. Yet the majority of those new sanctuaries have burrowed into existing buildings -- former churches, synagogues, movie theaters, and storefronts.

Because they're so understated, you might never guess that there are now more than 40 mosques in Philadelphia serving some 200,000 Muslims. Most operate in buildings that don't include any traditional Islamic architectural features on the outside, apart from a touch of green paint or decorative tilework.

That situation changed in October when a group of Ahmadi Muslims dedicated the city's first purpose-built mosque on a skinny plot of land off Broad Street in North Philadelphia. Its pointed arched windows and modest central dome hint at its purpose. But the 55-foot minaret on Glenwood Avenue confirms it. The slender, buff-colored tower stands tall over the adjacent rowhouse neighborhood, a proud and soaring thing to use Louis Sullivan's famous phrase. It is Philadelphia's first minaret, the Ahmadis say, and declares that they have arrived.

Building a statement sanctuary has been a rite of passage for nearly every religious group that has settled here since William Penn welcomed people of all faiths to Philadelphia in the 1680s. Catholics laid the cornerstone for the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in 1846, when hostility against the religion was at its most fierce. The city's Jews telegraphed their growing numbers in 1872 by building the Furness-designed Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street. And two years ago, the Mormons completed a lavish temple compound off Logan Square.

The opening of the Baitul Aafiyat mosque represents a similar milestone for the Ahmadiyya community, an offshoot of mainstream Islam that originated in southeast Asia. The group has endured a long history of persecution in Pakistan and India, and is still not accepted by many American Muslims, even though its membership is now a melting pot of ethnic groups.

Perhaps because of their diversity, the Philadelphia Ahmadis have been expanding fast. By 2011, the group had outgrown its prayer hall in a porch-fronted house on North 10th Street in Olney and was looking for a place to build a mosque. It found a suitable location in the heart of North Philadelphia, on a trash-strewn lot wedged between Amtrak's Northeast corridor tracks and the historic boxing gym where Joe Frazier trained. Congregation members considered it a good omen when they realized that the site, once home to a National Biscuit Co. factory, sits at the geographic center of Philadelphia, the chairman of the mosque's building committee, Abdul Subhan Malik, told me. It's also halfway between the North Philadelphia and Allegheny stops on the subway.

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Since so few new mosques have been built in the region, there was no obvious go-to architect to help with the building. Through word of mouth, the Ahmadis were introduced to Rich Olaya, who contributed to several museums while working for Dagit Saylor. Olaya, who describes himself as a lapsed Catholic, admits he knew nothing about mosque architecture but plunged into the research, visiting mosques in the U.S. and abroad.

He discovered there aren't many hard-and-fast rules. So long as the building faces east, toward Mecca, "a mosque can be anything, from a circle of stones, to the Great Mosque of Mecca," explained Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Even so, the Ahmadis wanted to incorporate traditional elements commonly associated with mosques, including windows with pointed arches, domes, and Arabic calligraphy. Since Ahmadis believe in separate-but-equal facilities for men and women, the new mosque also needed two of everything -- two entrances, two prayer halls, and a screen dividing the community room.

While the Ahmadis didn't want the mosque to overwhelm the neighborhood, they were conscious that they were making history. They felt their new building should make a statement, Olaya said. "Just not a grandiose statement."

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