When Masood Ahmad left his job with Dominion Energy seven years ago to start working for a company in Saudi Arabia, there wasn’t a single formal mosque in Henrico County.
Now back in the Richmond area, Ahmad is praying and sharing meals with friends and family at the region’s newest mosque on Hungary Road in Henrico. It’s a proper place of worship for congregants of the Islamic Center of Richmond who for years held prayers and communal dinners at other local mosques and small community centers, as well as some unorthodox places, including hotels and vacant retail buildings.
“This means a lot,” said Salman Lateef, a volunteer at the new mosque. “The community’s excited about this. A long wait is over for them.”
Masjid Yusuf, the region’s newest mosque, opened in May to allow the congregation to observe the Islamic holy month of Ramadan there, about a decade after county officials granted permission for its construction.
The U.S. Religion Census estimated that there were fewer than 3,000 Muslims living in the Richmond area in 2000. Its most recent estimate, which is nearly a decade old, says the Muslim population is about 12 times larger.
Zulfi Khan, a Muslim activist, said there were only two mosques in the Richmond area when he arrived here in the late 1980s: Masjid Bilal in Chimborazo and the Islamic Center of Virginia in Bon Air. Today there are about 12 congregations with their own mosques, he said.
Members of the area’s growing Muslim community say having their own place to worship and gather is a blessing and comfort, but also affords an opportunity to share their culture and become enmeshed in the greater community through outreach.
Over the holy month, several volunteers have helped coordinate food donations to the Salvation Army shelter in Richmond. In addition to fasting and abstaining from habits such as smoking during the day as a form of reflection and self-purification, followers of Islam are encouraged to perform acts of charity during Ramadan to become closer to God.
“This month is about blessings,” said Asmat Ali, a volunteer who assisted with the donations. “It’s about charity, caring for other people.”
Ahmad said those acts of service are a positive sign of his religious community’s growth and integration.
“Immigrant communities usually stick together, but this community is reaching out now,” Ahmad said. “People are serving the greater Richmond community and becoming part of its fabric.”
Several leaders said they see the opening of the mosque as another milestone for a community whose members often feel estranged from mainstream American society.
“These centers give us an opportunity to identify the real Muslim community and interact with the community and society at large,” Khan said.
After recent terrorist attacks targeting Muslims and Christians, respectively, in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, religious community leaders coordinated interfaith services to show solidarity and mourn those who were killed by extremists whose views and methods are generally reviled.
“You build a mosque, but it actually translates into a Muslim community interacting with other segments of the community,” Khan said. “Our existence has to be shown to others.”
Over the past month, Muslims in western Henrico have gathered at the new mosque every night to socialize and eat together after a long day of fasting.
Outside the new mosque at around 7:45 p.m. Thursday, about half an hour before sundown, a few men and several children took turns softly swinging a cricket bat at a tennis ball while waiting to snack on pineapple, watermelon and dates before settling in for the first evening prayer.
About 90 minutes later, the throngs of people who had come that evening ate dinner together at large foldout tables before going back into the mosque to pray again. After the last prayer, nearly everyone would take a cup of tea or chat with their friends some more before leaving.
Over the course of the month, different families and small groups of people took turns bringing the food each night.
“Of course we pray, but the social and charity aspect is huge,” said Noor Moghul, president of the Islamic Center of Richmond.
Moghul said that the breaking of the fast, or iftar, is important for developing friendships and a sense of community, and that it had been difficult to do that in recent years when other mosques couldn’t accommodate all the Muslims who live in the area.
“It’s been easy and comfortable for us because we have our own space that is geared toward our needs — prayer, parking and hanging out when we break the fast. This place is more suitable for us,” he said. “We’re very happy and comfortable.”
There is no official federal government count of the U.S. Muslim population, because the Census Bureau does not ask questions about religion. But the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, which sponsors the decennial U.S. Religious Census, estimated there were more than 35,000 Muslim adherents living in the Richmond metro area as of 2010.
Muslim community leaders here think the number has continued to grow since then, and that the addition of a new mosque still won’t be enough to give all Muslims in the area a place to pray with their community.
There are about a dozen Muslim congregations throughout the region today, but space to worship is still needed in western Henrico, Khan and other leaders said.
Another local congregation, the West End Islamic Center, recently started construction on another mosque that is expected to open within the next two years.
On Tuesday, about 5,000 people gathered at the Arthur Ashe Athletic Center to celebrate the end of Ramadan, a holiday known as Eid al-Fitr.
Members of congregations from throughout the region — represented by numerous immigrants from all around the world as well as Muslims born in the U.S., many of whom are African American — gathered together to pray before going to work or enjoying the day off.
Among the crowd were many children and teenagers, several of whom were being introduced to one another for the first time.
Above all of them, in the rafters of the athletic center, flew an American flag.
“The second generation is coming up,” Ahmad said. “Although this is my adopted country, our kids are American kids. They are American Muslims.”