“We see it as a bridge between the Muslim community and the community at large,” said Dr. Ahmad Gill, the president of the Islamic Society of Augusta. “We don’t want people to stand outside and say, ‘We don’t know what goes on behind those doors.’ Our doors and our hearts are open.”
The new mosque sits near the intersection of Old Petersburg Road and Old Evans Road in Martinez, and was scheduled to open in time for Ramadan, which starts Thursday. Construction was delayed after several changes were made to the plans, both to add more features and to reduce the overall cost and size of the project.
The Islamic Society hopes the project will be finished in time for Eid al-Fitr, a holiday that marks the end of Ramadan on Aug. 19. The festival includes special services and a large, celebratory meal, often held outdoors. If all goes according to plan, Eid also will be a time to show off the new mosque and invite the public to an open house and tour.
“We want to say, ‘Come in. Use this facility. It’s for all of us,’ ” said Gill, a local physician and spokesman for the mosque.
The Islamic Society is interviewing for a new imam, or religious leader. After five years in Augusta, Imam Majed Sabke left to lead the Central Mosque of Charleston, S.C., while the Islamic Society of Augusta is currently led by a handful of volunteer assistant imams.
“We hope to find somebody soon,” Gill said. “We’re looking for someone who will be very much involved in the community and in interfaith activities. That’s important to us.”
There have been moments of tension for the Islamic Society of Augusta, Gill said. The night of the Sept. 11 attacks, the mosque was sprayed with profane graffiti, along with the words “coward” and “U.S.A.” Police patrolled outside the mosque in 2003, when the Iraq war began. And after it was revealed that the gunman in the 2009 Fort Hood shooting was Muslim, Sabke said at the time that he preferred to wear a T-shirt and jeans in public instead of his traditional tunic out of concern for safety.
But those incidents are far from the norm, Gill said.
Churches have invited members of the mosque to speak about Islam and its teachings. After the graffiti incident, “the faith groups – Jewish, Christian, everyone – they all came and helped clean the graffiti,” Gill said. “Thankfully, problems are rare. You still meet people who say, ‘I’m shaking the hand of a Muslim for the first time.’ But you have to assume people don’t mean harm. They’re curious.”
Today, the Islamic Society estimates the local Muslim population at about 300 to 400 families. The youth group has 50 members, and about 100 kids of all ages attend Sunday school classes.
The new mosque, designed by a Muslim architect from Houston is being built to serve generations of families to come, Gill said.
“We want to grow into it,” he said.
The mosque includes a central prayer space for 500 people, with overflow room for up to 1,000. That’s three times the capacity of the current mosque off Pleasant Home Road in Augusta.
“During Eid, we need the space,” Gill said. “Right now we have one hall and it’s not enough for us. Our community is growing.”
During Ramadan, crowds gather for daily prayers and evening meals. Muslims fast from sunup to sundown during Ramadan, an exercise that teaches reliance on God and empathy for those who must go without food.
The facility features banquet space for sit-down meals of up to 500 people.
“It’s incredible to see it coming together,” said Aminah Hussain, 20, a member who is home for the summer from college in Decatur, Ga.
“This is definitely something that even as a youth, I really wanted to see happen,” she said. “We’ve been talking about it my whole life. When I was youth group president, we did bake sales to raise money for this. Everyone has worked and waited for so long. It really is incredible.”
The outside of the two-story building is the Islamic statement of faith, which says, in Arabic, “There is no God but Allah.”
“This is a basic creed for Muslims,” Gill said. “Everyone who accepts Islam does it by this creed.”
The inside includes a basketball court that doubles as a multipurpose banquet hall, gyms for men and women, classrooms, offices and bathrooms with footbaths, used for washing before prayer.
“We’re very happy with how it is coming together,” Gill said. “This is a facility that we don’t want people to see from the outside. We want them to come inside. We hope they do.”