Not just any ordinary mosque…

Since last year when the Mississippi Muslim Association broke ground on five acres of land outside Madison for a new mosque, I eagerly watched the construction process. I was still reporting for The Madison County Herald and made weekly trips to Canton for meetings and assignments. Each time I traveled north on Highway 51, I would look left and see construction crews hard at work. What I love about building projects is how an architectural drawing would come to life through skilled workers. The ground broken, steel beams erected, concrete poured, bricks laid and curbs installed. When spring turned into summer, the Magnolia Islamic Center was nearly finished. I was so impressed! The asphalt parking lot was striped, the wrought iron fencing crossed the front lawn and gates were up signaling that the Muslim community of central Mississippi would soon be able to learn and worship there. And I wanted to visit the mosque and do an article, but didn’t know when. Just last month, my editor Debbie asked me a few times about when the mosque opened and I told her I didn’t have a clue. But I had a contact at Nissan North America in Canton who told me about the construction late last year (I believe).

The Clarion-Ledger and The Madison County Herald ran stories about the MMA’s plans to build a mosque and of course the board was met with opposition and questions. Then the plans were approved in spring 2010 and no follow up story was done after the construction. Last Sunday, I drove to the Magnolia Islamic Center for a tour and interviews with MMA members while Sunday School was going on. Upon walking in (and after being told to button up my sweater out of respect thinking I should’ve changed into some pants), I was impressed with the modern look of the foyer, the large prayer room and the gorgeous Swarovski crystal chandeliers. Dr. Farhan Nafis and Ahmad Choudry walked with me and showed me the kitchen and dining room, game room, offices and classrooms filled with beautiful children. The women, dressed in traditional Islamic attire smiled and greeted us. The children waved and smiled at me, making me feel welcome. The men then led me to another children’s room and we finished the interview.

( Click here to read yesterday’s main story in the Suburban Digest. The goal was to provide an update on how the community received the mosque and what it will bring to the county as far as religious tolerance and diversity.)

Once Sunday school ended we headed outside to see youths playing basketball and the little ones all over the playground set. They also have a volleyball court and a badminton court. After taking more cell phone pictures, I couldn’t help but think of how good a story this would be. I heard nothing but good things about the community’s reception of the Muslims and their new mosque, how differences gave way to accepting similarities and building relationships based on understanding that even though neighbors have different styles of worship, they are the same people under one God. I’ll close this post with some remarks by Millsaps professor James Bowley, chair of religious studies (since there wasn’t enough space in print). He takes his religion students to the mosque in south Jackson and recently visited the Madison mosque. He was pleased about the community embracing the group.

“The space is very beautiful and practical, the students were impressed as was I,” Bowley said of the tour. “The people are very friendly and open about Islam and happy to answer questions and eager to explain things … It’s all about education, knowing who our neighbors are. These are people we work with.”

And professor Bowley had this to say about MMA’s plans for interfaith events:

“Having participated in and organized many inter-religious dialogue events, it has been my experience that dialogue is invaluable for all participants and crucial for our culture and society. It’s the best way for us to get to know our neighbors. So often people make judgments about  people in other religions without even knowing them, without sitting down and acknowledging their common humanity. Too often religious institutions put up walls against, or even demonize those who are not of their same faith, but that is the road to religious conflict and hate. Once we as Mississippians realize that our state is a rainbow of different religions and reject the idea that we should return to the black and white days of one religion (mostly Protestantism), then our state can begin to thrive as we appreciate our religious plurality and embrace it as a positive characteristic, instead of fearing it.”

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