COLUMBIA — The Islamic Center of Central Missouri is packed on Fridays for the midday prayer service — called Jumu’ah in Arabic.
Outside, the parking lots are full, and cars line the metered spots on the downtown streets around the mosque.
Inside the musalla — the main hall where adherents pray — men and boys are on their knees, row after row, column after column.
When there is no room in the musalla, others kneel in prayer in hallways and vestibules. Women and girls are gathered in a separate part of the building, which can be just as crowded.
It is a busy place, especially on Friday, which is the holy day in Islam.
“Any given Friday, we get about 400 people,” said Rashed Nizam, chairman of the project committee at the Islamic Center.
As the city's diverse population of residents and students continues to grow, the mosque has found itself in a tight spot. There are times when it must rent space to accommodate all the needs of its worshipers, especially during the most important holidays.
Founded in 1983, it is still the only Islamic center in Columbia. Today, the congregation includes more than 1,200 adherents.
For at least the last 15 years, there has been a growing desire to expand the mosque to meet community needs, but the solution has been elusive. The center can't sacrifice any of its parking spaces and no suitable space has been available to purchase.
Recently, however, the city approved plans to add more than 8,000 square feet to the mosque after demolishing some buildings on the property, including the current school.
Valued at $1.6 million, the expansion will include new classroom space for the school, which now serves students from kindergarten through fifth grade. The project will also add a large multipurpose room that can be used as a gym, a community center and a place for prayer and celebration.
Construction is expected to take six to nine months, and the center must rent space to house the school while the expansion is built.
"We are pretty much ready," said Nizam. "We are actively looking for a place for school to be held."
Selection of a contractor is the next step, and Nizam said he was optimistic about the prospects: “We think we’ve found the right person.”
The center's first attempt at expansion begin in 1998 with an offer to buy the piece of land that is now Flat Branch Park on Columbia’s west side.
The center wanted to build a multi-use cultural and educational center that would be open to the public, but a local group wanted the land to use as a trailhead for the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail. In the end, the city of Columbia decided not to sell to either group.
Since then, the population of Muslims in Columbia has seen steady growth, although it fluctuates with the number of students from other countries who attend MU. The number isn’t as large as it once was, Mohammad Eldeib, chairman of the center's board of trustees, said. But many international students decide to remain in Columbia.
"They choose Columbia as a place to live because of so many benefits," he said. "The health facilities, the education, the (low) number of crimes make it more desirable than many more places to live."
Although there are different sects of Islam, as with other religions, the Islamic center in Columbia serves everyone. “Islam is Islam,” said Eldeib.
To be a Muslim, one must testify there is no God but one God, observe the prayer, perform charitable works, observe the month of Ramadan and undertake the hajj — a pilgrimage to Mecca — at least once.
The center is open seven days a week to anyone who wants to visit, Eldeib said. During Ramadan, the center is open to Muslims and non-Muslims who want to share in the breaking of the fast at sunset.
It is made available, as well, to members of the community for weddings and special events.
The mosque also plays an important part in charitable works that serve the local community. The Islamic culture is one that encourages modesty, and that modesty extends to charitable works.
“It is part of our culture not to brag on what you do,” Eldeib said.
The center works with local charities such as the St. Francis House, which provides shelter and rehabilitation service for the homeless. Volunteers from the Islamic Center help prepare and deliver meals.
In November, they packaged more than 30,000 meals for needy families. The center also works with other local churches and charities in the Columbia area.
The center has also assisted in local relief efforts such as the one for the Joplin tornado in 2011.
The Islamic Center wants to continue to serve both the Muslim population in the Columbia area, as well as the community at large, Nizam said.
"Whatever God wills, it will happen," he said. "People tried, it didn't happen for many reasons, but at the end of the day we all count on God's will."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.