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A Place of Knowledge : Religion: After a modest beginning, an expanded Muslim Public Library reopens. Its founder says it is open to all with questions about the Islamic faith.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Muslims throughout the world prepare to observe the fasting and introspection month of Ramadan beginning Wednesday, California’s first Islamic lending library has reopened after doubling its modest space for some 2,000 books, magazines and videotapes.

The Muslim Public Library is expected to aid Muslim families in devotional studies and adjusting to U.S. culture. But it also has--as its name implies--an added goal of acquainting non-Muslims with a religion that some view with suspicion because of terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam and because of what Muslims say is frequently distorted news coverage.

To encourage non-Muslim use of the privately run library, founder-chairman Khaled Ahmed Soliman leased a site on “neutral ground” away from a mosque and also offers classes in subjects such as Arabic and self-defense for children.

The Muslim Public Library opened in October with only 500 volumes and $8,000 in start-up money, said Soliman, a systems analyst for Los Angeles’ Community Redevelopment Agency. Funds for the library came from numerous private donations by area Muslims.

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Situated at 7219 Jordan Ave., a half-block north of a commercial stretch of Sherman Way, it closed recently for two weeks in order to expand into a vacant office next door, giving it about 1,600 square feet for reading and classes. It reopened Saturday.

The project has drawn praise from Southern California Muslim leaders, who say it is certainly the first Muslim lending library in the state, if not the only one in the country.

“Libraries have been an integral part of Islamic civilization throughout history,” said Dr. Maher Hathout, official spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles.

“To see Muslims in America making knowledge available to everybody is an encouraging sign of a positive contribution to U.S. society,” Hathout said in an interview. Hathout, a Pasadena physician, is also the newly elected president of the multi-faith Southern California Interreligious Council.

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Muslims are encouraged during Ramadan to read or recite the entire Koran, or Quran, which Islam says was revealed by God to the Prophet Mohammed, and to fast during the day. The fasting period of a lunar month begins following the sighting of the first sliver of the new moon, which astronomical charts indicate will be visible Tuesday night, Muslims say.

Most adult Muslims abstain from food, drink and sensual pleasure from dawn to sunset during Ramadan, an observance that is one of the five pillars of Islamic practice. Hathout described the period as a highly social time, as families exchange visits and attend mosques in the evenings, as well as a very spiritual time with longer prayers.

Discipline, self-restraint and generosity are among the virtues learned during Ramadan, according to a representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations based in Washington, D.C.

When the fast of Ramadan ends, many Muslims gather for communal prayers on the first day of Eid al-Fitr, a three-day holiday. The Islamic Center of Northridge, the largest mosque in the San Fernando Valley area, expects to observe the start of the holiday on March 3, a spokesman said.

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During Ramadan, the Muslim library will have sunset meals, called iftars, every Tuesday for the 19 children currently enrolled in classes and their parents. At the official sunset hour, (5:31 p.m. on Feb. 7, for instance), everyone will break the fast for that day with milk, water and sweets such as dates, followed by prayer, a meal and small gifts for the children.

“We are limiting our Ramadan observance to Tuesdays because during that month, everyone goes to the mosque,” said Soliman.

The lending library is one of many projects that the Egyptian-born Soliman has backed. Soliman, 43, taught computer sciences at the American University in Cairo before immigrating to the United States in 1982.

He has been on the board of the Islamic Center of Northridge and formerly chaired a foundation that started Al-Falaq Academy, a kindergarten and elementary school in West Hills, in 1993.

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Soliman founded the Muslim Public Library last year under the aegis of the Islamic Schooling Foundation, which he said wants to launch a Muslim-run high school in about two years.

A Canoga Park resident for eight years, Soliman said he hopes other community leaders will join him in proposing to buy the closed and earthquake-damaged Pussycat Theater, a former X-rated movie house two blocks from the library, and turn it into a performing arts theater for children.

“We care about this community and look forward to working with you as neighbors to enhance the quality of life for all,” says a foundation letter sent to neighbors of the Muslim Public Library.

As for the library itself, Soliman indicated that non-Muslim use has been light in its first three months, citing as examples a teacher who borrowed two videotapes to use in the classroom and a UCLA student who checked out some books on Islam for a report.

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Children’s books are plentiful. “We wanted children to come and when they come, they bring their parents,” said Soliman, explaining his strategy to introduce adults to the library.

Islamic books and journals fill several sections, but shelves labeled American history and comparative religion are also stocked.

To potential users, Soliman said he tries to make it clear that the facility was not designed as a tool to win new adherents to Islam.

“As Muslims, it is not our duty to convert people,” he said, citing an admonition in Islamic scriptures, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.”

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