This profile was last updated in 2013
Columbus’ thriving Muslim population has been established for several decades. Many came to Columbus as students at the Ohio State University, or as professionals seeking work in the areas of medicine, business, and information technology. At first, Muslim communities generally organized around ethnic lines and remained largely isolated from their non-Muslim neighbors. Many saw their residence in America as temporary, and planned to return to their country of origin as soon as they finished with their work or term of study. Eventually, however, groups like the Ohio State Muslim Student Association began envisioning a center that would foster many facets of communal life and engage dynamically with the broader Columbus community. They sought to find a way to give back to society as citizens intent on making America their permanent home. This vision for a center was met with a great deal of internal conflict and opposition from within the Muslim community in Columbus. Many felt it would take limited funds and worshippers away from already-established mosques and some saw the founding of permanent “American mosque” as a possible betrayal of genuine Islamic values, as they understood them. Construction for the Noor Islamic Cultural Center began in 2001 despite these concerns and with the support of many donors, many of whom were OSU Muslim Student Association alumni who had left Columbus for successful professional positions abroad.
The Noor Center became a forum for interfaith dialogue even before the first stone was laid: the mosque’s founders selected a Methodist architect who specialized in community center projects. Khaled Farag, a founding member, recalls that, at first, the architect felt conflicted as to whether he, as a practicing Christian, should be involved with the mosque construction. His conscience was set to rest during a conversation with his pastor, who encouraged him to take on the project.
Shortly after the foundation was poured, the events of September 11, 2001 threw the US into turmoil and left many Muslims terrified of what possible repercussions might be for their own communities. Internal debates ensued about whether or not construction of the Noor Center should continue. One of the founders then placed an American flag at the top of the construction site. Many within the Muslim community felt this indicated they were taking undeserved responsibility for the attacks and turning the mosque into a political entity, but the message came through clear: the Noor Islamic Cultural Center stood with its fellow American institutions in support of the United States. Aware of the increased need for transparency and open dialogue with the non-Muslim community, the planning committee then redesigned the building plans mid-project. The new design called for interior windows between the entryway and the central prayer space, so it was clear to all visitors that the masjid was a place with nothing to hide.
Thankfully, the construction process went smoothly and peacefully, “without a single act of vandalism,” Mr. Farag reports. Moreover, the site’s non-Muslim neighbors even took responsibility for making sure that all was well. “When I used to come in at night to check on a door in the construction site or some tool that was left open or something like that,” Mr. Farag recalls, “the neighbors would come out with a flashlight, and check who I was and ask me for ID to make sure that I belonged there. They were actually protecting the property.”
Description of Center
Situated in Dublin, Ohio in Northwestern Columbus, just a few minutes away from Interstate 270, the Noor Islamic Cultural Center is an impressive and unexpected sight amidst the suburban sprawl of neighborhoods and shopping centers. A tall edifice with many windows and roofs at a variety of angles and levels, the mosque rests on a broad lawn, flanked by ponds on one side and an expansive parking lot on the other. Two small domes sit on each end, present but do not dominant. The exterior walls are stucco, with a shingled roof. There are no minarets. The center’s unique appearance reflects its self-perception as an “American mosque”: the designers wanted a structure that complemented the primarily residential area in which it was constructed, rather than a building that appeared to be “imported” from another country.
Inside, hallways mediate between the entrance and the prayer space with its high ceilings at the heart of the mosque. There are rooms for women and children to either side on the first floor, and most of the second floor is reserved as the women’s prayer space as well. Though enclosed, tall glass interior windows and a sound system easily facilitate participation. The lower level has space for community gatherings and classrooms, and for the many activities that go on at the Center. Bright posters decorate the walls, discussing Islam’s close historical ties to western scientific discovery, or its relationship with other faiths such as Judaism and Christianity. It is a space that seeks to offer something to anyone who walks through its doors, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, whether a lifelong devotee or a curious Columbus neighbor interested in learning more.
Though the Noor Center was just completed in 2006, there is already a need to expand as the Muslim population in Columbus continues to increase. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA), Columbus’ total Muslim population in 2000 was 6,150. By 2010, that estimate had more than doubled to 15,578. The Noor Center is the largest mosque in Columbus, with more than 500 students enrolled in its Islamic school program alone. As of September 2013, an expansion plan posted on the center’s website proposed an addition that would nearly double the Center’s existing space.
The Noor Center is under the jurisdiction of American Islamic Waqf (AIW), which is governed by a Board of Directors comprised of a chairman, vice president, treasurer, secretary, and compliance officer. As of the August 2013 elections, the Board is headed by Chairman Imran Malik. The community also recently welcomed a new Imam, Hossam Musa, who had previously served in Detroit. Notably, part of the requirements in the December 2012 position announcement was that the ideal candidate should “have experience with people of other faiths,” which reflects the Noor Center’s mission of promoting interfaith dialogue on all levels of the community.
Activities and Schedule
When describing the founders’ vision for the Noor Center, Mr. Farag shared their understanding that the structure they were building was more than a place to pray: “We’re building an Islamic Center, a community center, a service center, a place for everyone.” He hopes that the Noor Center will be a place that welcomes the entire Columbus community, even groups such as the neighborhood homeowner’s association, high schools looking for a space to host graduation, or local drama clubs.
In keeping with these principles, the Noor Center continues to play a vibrant role in the social and religious life of the Columbus community, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Along with daily prayers and seasonal celebrations, such as sharing the iftar meal during Ramadan, frequent events include building tours, courses on Islam, and sending speakers at the request of local schools and other organizations. The center also hosts an outreach program for soldiers about to be deployed to primarily Islamic countries, in order to help them develop a stronger understanding of the religious and cultural contexts in which they will be operating. Furthermore, the Noor Center actively participates in Columbus civic life; the center serves as a voting center for Franklin County (the first Islamic center to be an election precinct) and annually sponsors a float in the Columbus Fourth of July parade, which won a trophy in the Religious Organizations category in 2013.
Other activities more specific to members’ interests include “Singles Mixer Events” for those interested in finding a spouse, group swim sessions for women and children, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, workshops, Saturday/Sunday schools, a Noor Kids Club, a Hifz Program (to help children memorize the Quran), potlucks, Eid festivals, picnics, Islamic Study programs, book clubs, potlucks, speakers, and sports (soccer and martial arts).
The rich diversity among members plays a significant role in shaping community life at the center. Because the Noor Center is the spiritual home for community with diverse language and ethnic backgrounds, the Center’s primary language is English. While prayers are recited in Arabic, the imam offers the weekly khutbah (sermon) in English during the first two Friday Jum’ah prayers (1:00 pm and 2:00 pm), with the third sermon at 2:45 offered in Arabic. Attendance fluctuates weekly but averages 1,000 people for the first prayer, 600 at the second, and 400 for the third. Furthermore, the weekend before an Eid day, the center hosts a “Bazaar Night” featuring clothing, jewelry, and other material expressions of the various ethnicities which constitute Noor’s cultural landscape. A few days before an Eid day, members are welcomed to gather for a “Henna Night.” Both events are, according to Noor’s website, opportunities for “individuals and families to socialize and experience different traditions.”
Leaders estimate that, each year, 200,000 people attend prayers, weekend school, and other programs at Noor Islamic Cultural Center.