Young and old, they left their shoes and cares at the door and filed into rows — men in front, women to the rear — bowing once toward Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
As others slipped into place, the 40 or so worshipers knelt on the soft, white rug, bowing twice more. An evocative call to prayer filled the space with solemnity.
People are inherently sinful but have choice of doing right or wrong, said Omar Rezk, a UNC master’s degree student in nutrition and public health, speaking from a wooden pulpit in the Chapel Hill Islamic Center on Stateside Drive.
That is why Muslims seek “Tawbah,” or repentance, he said, so that one day they will not stand before Allah having committed sin or without knowing him.
“What’s wrong is for us not to repent for those sins,” Rezk said, “because when we do repent for those sins, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala (“Allah, the most glorified”) has given us this opportunity to turn back to him and to actually ask him for forgiveness, and in a way this makes us closer to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.”
As the sermon ended, Rezk led the members in prayer. They answered his words with a loud “amin,” praying softly when he paused.
Roughly 60 people belong to Orange County’s first Islamic Center, which opened this spring. Rezk is among the men who take turns leading the prayers and a sermon at noon every Friday.
Muslims can pray anywhere five times a day, but the Friday prayer is done as a congregation, said Hadi Haddad, chairman of the Chapel Hill Islamic Society’s shura, or advisory council.
“The prayer, you have to do it as long as you’re alive,” he said. “Even if you’re dying, just laying down there, you can just move your eyes and pray.”
This week, many members are celebrating their first Eid al-Fitr, or the end of Ramadan — a month of fasting, prayer and introspection — by visiting with friends at mosques in Durham and Raleigh. A second celebration — Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice — comes at the end of August.
Some members attended other mosques for years. Others met in members’ homes and in rented space at Chapel Hill’s Presbyterian Church of Reconciliation and United Church. An earlier effort to build a mosque on Eubanks Road fell through in the 1990s.
In 2010, they bought the four-bedroom home and about an acre of land on Stateside Drive. After getting Chapel Hill Planning Commission approval in 2014, the members undertook a major renovation that removed walls to build a mosque and made it wheelchair accessible.
Having a prayer center close to home is the culmination of a 20-year mission, members said. They hope Muslims and non-Muslims alike will visit, said Malek Khan, vice chairman of the shura.
“Come and join and share, and feel the peace in the community here,” he said.
In truth, the Koran and the Bible aren’t that different, said Nafisa Husain, an Indian native who converted from Catholicism about 25 years ago. The differences, she said, lie most in what is required of a believer in each faith, from acts of charity to prayer.
“In the Bible, a lot of things you read, you don’t get an answer,” Husain said. “In the Koran, if you read, you get all the answers for what you want, because the Koran is the last book” revealed by God through the prophet Muhammad.
The ability to freely practice their faith in America is a wonderful thing, members said. There is the occasional negative comment, but most people are friendly and sympathetic. Their children still struggle with isolation at school, however, where it’s tough to make friends if you’re different, they said.
“It’s more like parents need to teach them to be more accepting of diversity,” Ghazala Haque said. “If you teach your kids acceptance of diversity and different religions, then I think they’re more accepting.”
They want people to know that Islam is a religion of peace and happiness; the terrorists commiting violence in the name of Islam are twisting its meaning.
“People who are on the job or our neighbors know that we are not here to fight or anything bad,” Haque said. “We are very peaceful. We have kids, we have families. Those people who are doing (violent) things, those are crazy people. I don’t know what they are. Definitely, they’re not Muslims.”
The 5 pillars of Islam
All Muslims are expected to keep the five pillars of Islam as a sign of commitment to their faith:
▪ Shahadah, or testifying that Allah is the only God and Muhammad was his prophet
▪ Salat, or the five daily prayers at dawn, noon, late afternoon, sunset and night
▪ Almsgiving, or paying zakah of 2.5 percent of the believer’s assets
▪ Sawm, or fasting, during the month of Ramadan
▪ Pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca during a prescribed period if financially and physically feasible