Finished with Friday afternoon prayers, the Muslims filed out of the Knights of Columbus hall in Canoga Park. Pictures of past Knights presidents decorated the walls, along with plaques and flyers.
"I hate to come here," Mohammed Mohiuddin, president of the Islamic Center in Northridge, said about the hall that has served as his religion's temporary house of worship for the last two years. "We know we don't belong here. We're praying in a rented hall."
Not for much longer. In 1991, the Muslim community in the San Fernando Valley--an estimated 6,000 people--will move into a new $1.8-million mosque on a 2.5-acre site in Granada Hills recently approved by the Los Angeles City Council. Its significance to the Valley's followers of Islam is already apparent.
"When we first came here," said Amina Mulla, of Northridge, who emigrated from India in 1970, "we went around all L.A. to people's homes, and now we will all be together in one place, our own."
Like Mulla, much of the Islamic community arrived in Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s in pursuit of better education and opportunity. Today, they occupy middle-class jobs in the worlds of business, medicine and education; many are highly skilled engineers. But it would be presumptuous to stereotype Muslims. They come from all countries of the globe, and are scattered throughout the Valley.
"Muslims do not live in ghettos," Mohiuddin said. "We are in Canoga Park, and Sepulveda, Van Nuys and Granada Hills."
What binds them together is their allegiance to Allah, his messenger on earth, Muhammad, and the rules and regulations that comprise their faith. They believe in complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol, and oppose premarital sex. They maintain public modesty; women are encouraged not to show their hair or legs, although they have the option. Mulla chooses to leave her hair uncovered, although many Muslim women do keep it hidden.
"We don't like to see our women go out into the world half-naked," Mohiuddin said. "We have no such thing as dating, holding hands, this kind of nonsense."
During prayers, held five times daily for about five minutes at a time, men and women are segregated.
Yet Muslims insist women receive a lot of respect in the family, and in the community. "The Koran teaches men they must respect women," said Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. "Women run the family, and many have regular jobs." Mulla, for example, is a licensed medical technologist.
For the most part, while maintaining their connection to Islam, Muslims assimilate deeply into American culture. Of the estimated 4 million to 6 million Muslims living in the United States, Al-Marayati said, about 750,000 reside in California. And they proudly boast their credentials as United States citizens. Mohiuddin said: "We teach them to become good citizens here. This is a great country."
At the same time, though, their first loyalty is to Islam. "If you try to be better Muslims," said Saadiq Saafir, a Muslim messenger, or iman , from Los Angeles, at a recent Friday prayer service, "you'll be better Americans, but if you try to just be better Americans, you may not be better Muslims."
Furthermore, Muslims believe America, for all its religious freedom and openness, needs their spiritual guidance. "It's a far better place to live," said Hassan Khan, a volunteer at the Northridge center who came from Pakistan, "but that doesn't mean it can't be cleaned up." Khan referred specifically to rampant drug abuse and lawlessness.
According to Mohiuddin, Americans stick to negative myths about Muslims, mistaking all of them for Arabs. It's true millions of Muslims come from the Arab world, with Mecca in Saudi Arabia as the religion's holiest shrine, but as Mohiuddin told worshipers recently: "We are not the same people on television seen hijacking planes and terrorizing people."
In fact, in a statement from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Iraqi invasion was criticized. "We condemn the abuse of the name of Islam to justify actions by the rulers of the region," it said, although adding "we oppose foreign military build-up of the gulf and call for U.S. withdrawal from the region, to be replaced by a peacekeeping force, since human blood is more valuable than oil."
Approval of the mosque is a long-delayed triumph for Mohiuddin. For 12 years, he has been trying to find a permanent house of worship for followers in the San Fernando Valley. At first, a Muslim offered his nursery school in Sepulveda for prayer services and Islamic education classes. But, as the number of Muslims swelled, that space became too small.
Then, in 1980, the community got approval for the Islamic Center in Northridge, which, along with the Knights of Columbus hall, they have since used.
But their need for more room kept growing. Frequently, during the Eid prayer, the feast held after a month of fasting, there wouldn't be enough parking space at the small Northridge facility. And on Fridays, afternoon prayer has to be split between the center and the Canoga Park hall. "The whole point," said Ahmed Elgabalawy, a center volunteer from Egypt, "is to get everyone together in one place." Typically, about 200 gather at the hall, with several dozen at the Northridge center.
About 150 community members pay $50 annual dues; donations are also routinely collected after prayer. Youth education classes in Islam are held for two hours each Sunday, and organizers hope to expand them to afternoons during the week. Community members socialize a lot with each other.
"We spend most of our time with other Muslims in the Valley," Mulla said.
Mohiuddin said the $1.8 million required for the new mosque will be collected during community fund-raising drives.
In approving the mosque, the Los Angeles City Council required Spanish-style architecture, forcing the Muslims to forgo the traditional domes and minarets. The congregation's lobbyist, Robert Wilkinson, attributed the council's decision to prejudice, and members, while excited about the new home, aren't completely satisfied, either. "It would be better if we could do whatever we want," said Joseph Qadamani, a Palestinian who arrived in California 11 years ago. "We want people driving by to see it."
There is hope. Mayor Tom Bradley criticized the council for placing the architecture restrictions, and left open the possibility the city might permit a dome and minaret.
"But domes and minarets aren't the issue," Mohiuddin said. "We are here to stay, and now we have a place."