This profile was last updated in 2006
This profile was prepared by student researchers Erica McDonald, Anita Nair, and Geoff Platta of Valdosta State University, under the direction of Dr. Richard Amesbury.
Islam may not be as prevalent as Christianity in Valdosta, but its contributions are just as essential. The Muslim community here is small and unique, and it meets on Friday afternoons for prayer. In addition to local residents, the Muslim Cultural Center attracts many out-of-towners and provides Muslims from a diversity of cultural backgrounds with a place in which to come together and pray.
The Muslim Cultural Center is housed in what one member jokingly describes as “non-pedigreed architecture.” The building is a small, single-story house in an economically disadvantaged part of town. In accordance with the customs of the community, men enter through the front door and women enter through the back door, after removing their shoes. Inside the Muslim Cultural Center are two main rooms — a kitchen and a large open room. The large open room serves as a space in which to pray, socialize, and eat. Most sit on the spacious floor, which is decorated with a dark green carpet. The only furniture in the room is the pulpit (from which the imam delivers his sermon) and a piece of office furniture. There is also an intriguing piece of art on the wall. It is a beautiful but functional piece, which includes five clock dials, set to the times of prayer for the day (based on the sun’s position). The large room easily accommodates the 15-25 people who attend afternoon Friday prayer.
The building that has been utilized by the Muslim community in Valdosta for the past 20 years has a peculiar history. It was originally used by a community organization called the “Mary Church Terell Club.” During this time, the building was also often rented out for baby showers, wedding receptions, and the like. As the members of this particular organization aged, they met less and less frequently. A local Muslim woman named Amal Rashid noticed this and asked the group if she could begin using the space as a daycare center. The owners agreed in 1983. At this time, Amal and her husband Hassan Rashid thought that they were the only Muslims in Valdosta. On one fortuitous occasion, Amal went to a doctor’s office to ask questions about some medicine she had been prescribed. She wanted to make sure that it would not interfere with her fasting during Ramadan. However, as soon as she mentioned Ramadan, the physician let her know that she too was a Muslim. The two couples quickly got together and decided that they needed a place to worship. When the day care center closed, they approached the landlord of the building and asked permission to turn it into a Muslim Cultural Center. The landlord agreed, and in 1986 this building became the place of worship for the Muslim community in Valdosta.
The Muslim Cultural Center advertises itself as a “Universal Islam” center. Almost half of the membership is comprised of African-Americans. The other half is made up of an astounding array of immigrant groups from around the world: Malaysians, Bangladeshis, Iranians, Pakistanis, etc. There are both Sunnis and Shiites in the community. Members occupy a broad range of vocations, including business professionals, college professors, physicians, and psychiatrists. Some are retired. There are also some international students who attend Valdosta State University, but they are not as numerous as the elder members of the group. Despite the Center’s location in a town with a predominantly Christian population, members say they have suffered no major challenges or hostility from the broader community. The next closest place of worship for Muslims is located about 90 miles away, in Albany, Georgia.
Activities and Schedule
Members primarily gather at the center on Friday around 2:10 p.m. for the afternoon prayer (this is the third of the five daily prayers). There is often an accompanying discussion of the Qur’an, known as a khutba, led by an imam. The “sisters” get together on a much more frequent basis than the men. They are a rather close-knit group who meet at least once a month to dance, sing, do henna, and engage in other communal activities. Ramadan is the primary holiday season in Islam. It occurs during the ninth lunar month of the year, which causes the season to fall about 10 days earlier every year. Ramadan begins when the new moon is sighted, and the first day of Ramadan is often the subject of controversy. Muslims who have immigrated to the United States from elsewhere often prefer to start Ramadan when it begins in their country of origin, whether or not the moon has been sighted in the United States. Since the Muslim Cultural Center is comprised of such a diversity of Muslims from around the world, a “moon committee” was established. The committee is responsible for going out at night and looking for the moon. When it is sighted they call the Center and inform everyone that fasting for Ramadan will begin the following morning. Once the actual first day of Ramadan is established, the rest of the holiday is filled with prayer, fasting, and late meals. An increase in participants at the Center usually occurs during Ramadan. Fasting lasts from sunrise to sunset every day for 29-30 days. Large communal meals are usually eaten after sunset. At the beginning of the month, a calendar is posted in the entryway of the Center so that everyone can sign up for a day to bring food. Because the Muslim Cultural Center is small and there is only one standard-size stove, the women usually cook through the night in preparation for the large meal (or iftar) for 30-40 people the following evening. Non-Muslim visitors are often invited to the Center to join in these fast-breaking celebrations. Dishes range from Malaysian and Pakistani cuisine to “Soul Food” and reflect the wide diversity of cultures and ethnicities represented. Eid is the first day after Ramadan. In Valdosta, it is celebrated at Mathis Auditorium. The occasion is typically attended by about 150-180 people from the region — including Alabama, North Florida, and Georgia — all of whom are dressed in their best garb. Many immigrants choose to model the clothing worn in their home country. Because there is such a diverse mixture of Muslims from around the world, it is important for everyone to respect differences in Islamic practice. Because Sunnis and Shi’ites pray in slightly different ways, the Center organizes two different prayer sessions, and those not praying during a session just wait respectfully in the back of the room for their turn.