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Abundant Faith, Shrinking Space

Mosques Turn to Synagogues, Ballrooms to Accommodate Growing Membership

Muslims facing a lack of worship space lease a Jewish synagogue in Reston, prompting an unexpected cultural exchange.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 2009

They stream in through the doors every Friday -- a sea of Muslims pouring into a synagogue in Reston.

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The men roll out long prayer rugs on the synagogue floor. An imam stands up front and praises Allah. And as the faithful begin whispering their prayers in flowing Arabic, their landlord, a rabbi, walks by to check whether they need anything.

This unlikely arrangement between a burgeoning Muslim congregation and a suburban synagogue is what happens when you combine the region's rapidly growing Muslim population with a serious shortage of worship space.

As area mosques prepare for the start of Ramadan this weekend, many are simply bursting at the seams. Every available inch -- even in lobbies and hallways -- is being used. Parking is impossible. Traffic afterward is worse than postgame gridlock at FedEx Field.

Nobody knows how many Muslims are in America -- estimates range from 2.35 million to 7 million -- but researchers say the population is growing rapidly, driven by conversions, immigration and the tendency for Muslims to have larger families. One study by Trinity College in Connecticut shows the percentage nationwide having doubled since 1990. In the Washington area, the increase might be even sharper, local Muslim leaders say.

A building boom has brought new mosques to suburbs such as Manassas and Ellicott City, but many have been full from the moment they opened. So, desperate for room, Muslim communities have started renting hotel ballrooms, office space and, yes, even synagogues to handle the overflow.

"We say our prayers, and a few hours later they meet for Sabbath and they say their prayers," said Rizwan Jaka, a leader at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) mosque in Sterling, which added services at two synagogues last year. "People may think it's strange or odd, but we are simply grateful for the space."

The extra room will prove crucial this weekend with the beginning of Ramadan -- a month of fasting that often draws hundreds to mosques in addition to regular members. Anticipating the throngs, many mosques have hired off-duty police and rallied volunteers to handle the traffic.

"Just like you have Easter Christians, Hanukkah Jews, we have what we call Ramadan Muslims. They just come out of the woodwork on the holy days," said Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, outreach director at the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church.

Last year at the height of Ramadan, Abdul-Malik had to turn many away to avoid violating occupancy rules, which limit his mosque to 2,000 worshipers. When asked how many he expects this year, the imam chooses his words carefully: "I'd rather not say because of the fire marshal."

Things weren't always so tight.

The ADAMS mosque -- which now rents space in two hotels and a wedding hall along with the two synagogues -- began in 1985 in a Herndon school cafeteria with a handful of Muslims. But since 2000, its numbers have swelled from 300 people to 4,000 attending services throughout Northern Virginia on Friday afternoons, a sacred time for prayer and sermons.


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