Ahmed Noor, a trustee of the Mosque and Islamic Center of Hampton Roads, demonstrates a smart pen Quran. Noor said using technology will help members of the mosque, built 30 years ago in November, engage in their faith in the modern age.
On Friday afternoons, weekly prayer services at the Mosque and Islamic Center of Hampton Roads on Tide Mill Lane in Hampton draw attendees from about 200 to 300 families in the area.
Before they pray, attendees take off their shoes and put them in racks near the entrance. Men and women traditionally pray apart, separated by a partition in the room, and begin the worship service with a call to prayer that begins by chanting "God is the greatest" in Arabic.
After leading the crowd in prayer on a recent Friday, Ahmed Noor, a trustee of the mosque who is also an aerospace engineering professor at Old Dominion University, gave a sermon about pluralism in Islam, tying in the recently deceased Nelson Mandela's efforts to end apartheid in South Africa to Muslim values of respecting the diversity of humanity and peaceful coexistence.
Today, hundreds of families attend the mosque, but before the building was completed 30 years ago in November, Muslims on the Peninsula were praying in each other's homes.
Noor and his wife Zizi, who were among the founding members of the mosque, didn't know anyone when they moved to the area in 1971. However, that changed one day when an Indian-Muslim family called the Noors after finding their name in the phone book.
The Noors, who are Egyptian, bonded with the family over their common faith, and soon, a small group of Muslim families began meeting regularly in each other's living rooms. Today, the mosque includes members from about three dozen countries.
From there, the meetings grew, and by the mid-1970s, they began to think about acquiring a larger meeting place. Eventually, the community was able to raise enough money for land on Tide Mill Lane and started building the mosque, with the groundbreaking taking place in April. The project, which was funded through donations from members of the local Muslim community and Saudi naval personnel stationed at Little Creek naval base at different stages of the process, wrapped up in November 1983.
As Muslims on the Peninsula set out to build a house of worship, they also began hosting outreach events and dinners at ODU and throughout the community to give people the opportunity to learn about their faith.
"We are a part of the community," Noor said. "They didn't know us as strangers."
For the most part, the Hampton Roads community has received Muslims well, Noor said. Members of the mosque have participated in outreach efforts with local churches and synagogues over the years, as well as in citywide organizations such as the Hampton Citizens Unity Commission, which seeks to foster understanding among diverse groups.
Michele Woods Jones, the executive director of the commission, said her organization has been working with Noor and others at the mosque for 16 years, and said the two organizations have had a "positive and lasting relationship."
Jones praised them for opening up the mosque to visitors and being open to people of different backgrounds.
"They are a congregation that has been receptive and warm and welcoming to those who are of Christan faith and different ethnicities," she said.
Even in the aftermath of 9/11, when one of the mosque's members received a death threat, people throughout the community stood up for the man, local police sent more patrols to monitor the area of the mosque, and churches sent flowers, Noor said.
For Noor, one important way Muslims should carry out their faith is to address the practical needs of the local community they live in. The congregation has done that in a number of ways, from hosting health fairs to creating a website called the Help Ecosystem, where visitors can search for food, clothing, medical and other services in each of Hampton Roads' major cities.
"As a Muslim, what can someone do to alleviate suffering?" Noor said of the motivation behind those projects.
Noor also considers it important to keep members engaged in their faith, and one of the major ways he does that is to incorporate technology at worship services and other events at the mosque.
During weekend school, where attendees learn about Islam, Noor uses PowerPoint presentations that are put together with the help of his wife. He also hopes to engage the youth through tools such as viewable lectures, avatars and a Quran with a smart pen. By pressing the pen on top of the number of a verse, the pen "recites" a translation of the verse from the original Arabic.
Noor sees them as a way to enhance the mosque as a "learning center for our generation and future (generations) to learn more about their religion."
Neirmen Alzubi, a member of the mosque, moved to Virginia with her family four years ago and has been attending worship services there since.
She said she was not religious when she started going there, but that changed under the guidance of Noor, who she described as "intelligent and open-minded," and said projects like the Help Ecosystem demonstrate a concern for the people in the community.
Since joining, she has begun to wear the hijab, or the headscarf worn by Muslim women. Unconvinced by arguments from others that she would be punished for not wearing it, she was eventually persuaded by Noor to do so by the argument that dressing modestly allows people to get to know her beyond her looks.
"You can just be who you are," Alzubi said.
For the next 30 years of the mosque and beyond, Noor looks forward to teaching others about his faith and being a positive force in the greater community.
"That's what I'm hoping, more interaction with the community, to work with the community at large."
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