A New Home


As Muslims today begin a month of daytime fasting, a $2.2-million mosque--the first in Southern California to be built solely with local money--nears its long-delayed opening in the San Fernando Valley.

During Ramadan, the holiest month on the Islamic calendar, able-bodied Muslims are expected to abstain from food, drink and sex from dawn to sunset as an act of spiritual self-discipline.

At mosques, the Koran, the sacred scripture of Islam, is recited in its entirety during the lunar month. Special evening prayers are offered as well.

The Islamic Center of Northridge had hoped to begin those rites today at its new mosque in Granada Hills, but recent rains and winds postponed final construction work and city inspections at the red tile-roofed building overlooking the Simi Valley Freeway. The leaders of the mosque now hope to open it with traditional midday prayers next Friday.

The opening will mark another milestone for organized Islam's growth in a region that had 55 mosques in 1994 and nearly 75 today, according to Shakeel Syed, coordinator of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California.

The new mosque--masjid in Arabic--is only the third Islamic center in Southern California to be designed and built as a mosque, not placed in a converted building.

The other two--San Diego's Masjid Abu Bakr and the $8.5-million Masjid Omar Ibn Al-Khattab next to the USC campus--were built in the early 1990s with major donations from overseas Muslims.

"We took no foreign money," said Masood Rana, immediate past president of the Islamic Center of Northridge, which will also keep its original mosque, a converted house, for additional prayer services and classes.

"The basic reason for raising our own funds was that people don't attend a mosque if they don't have a sense of ownership and participation in its building, and in its maintenance."

U.S. Islamic leaders acknowledge that mosque attendance is not an ingrained habit, especially among immigrants from predominantly Islamic countries. Devout Muslims may fulfill their five-times-daily prayer obligations without going to a mosque.

Other Muslims seeking to reinforce their religious values or educate their children in the religion often have formed makeshift mosques in homes, rented halls and renovated buildings until larger ambitions can be realized.

Ideally, Muslims prefer mosques to have the customary architecture and symbols of Islam, just as Christians want churches to display architectural symbols such as steeples, bell towers and crosses.

Minarets and a dome adorn Masjid Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, where Friday prayers draw 600 Muslims--more than half of them African Americans and the rest Indo-Pakistani, Ethiopian, Arabic, Malaysian and other ethnic Muslims, according to Yahya Abdul-Rahman, who serves as an imam, or religious leader.

When the Islamic Center of Northridge received city approval in 1990 to build a mosque on a narrow, 2.2-acre strip of land in Granada Hills, the permit came with what a zoning administrator called a record 44 restrictions, including limits on how many people may attend events in the first year and thereafter.

The permit was granted only after hearings all the way to the City Council. In addition to neighborhood concerns about traffic, there was pressure on the Islamic Center to build a structure that would blend into the residential area on the northern rim of the Valley.

In response, Islamic Center leaders presented city officials with architectural drawings showing a dome-less building with a Spanish tile roof and stucco walls, a common look in Southern California--a plan accepted by the council.

At the time, Mayor Tom Bradley lamented how the mosque had been forced to compromise, calling it a victim religious intolerance.

But mosque leaders are proud of the facility they have built.

Rana, who last month ended a two-year term as president of the mosque, noted that the city's restrictions do not rule out a minaret, so "we plan to put up a minaret near the front entrance during Phase 2 of our construction."

Although in Islamic countries the tower is a mount from which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, the minaret in America "is significant for its symbolic nature--like a cross on a church," he said.

And although the city prohibited a dome, the new mosque instead has a skylight over the prayer hall.

"That's all right," Rana said, "because you wouldn't see a dome from the freeway, whereas eastbound motorists would be able to see the minaret."

Rana said that one condition will be easy to meet: a prohibition on loudspeakers, bells, chimes and alcoholic beverages on the site. Bells and chimes are not typical for mosques and alcoholic drinks are prohibited in Islam.

For the first year of operation, city permits allow only 150 people to attend Friday services in the main prayer hall--a high-ceilinged room that could accommodate more than 350 worshipers on the ground floor and 50 or more on a balcony level in the rear.

In addition, total mosque membership is limited by the city to 250 the first year and 400 thereafter. But Rana said the Islamic Center will appeal some of the limitations at year's end.

"We want to comply with the conditions, but once the city sees [our] harmony with the rest of the neighborhood, we should not have a problem," said Rana, who is vice president of Van Nuys-based GeoSoils.

The entrance to the new mosque faces an adult education school. One block away is Hillcrest Christian School, an evangelical private school, and what was Hillcrest Christian Church back in 1990.

The Rev. Dudley Rutherford, pastor of Hillcrest before it merged with Shepherd of the Hills Church and moved to Porter Ranch, said his old congregation did not oppose the mosque's right to build.

"It's shockingly difficult for any religious congregation to get building permits, even for churches," Rutherford said. "We were not part of the opposition--not because we agree with [their beliefs] but because we believe in the freedom of religion."

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