IF YOU GO
What: Observe the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Holy month of Ramadan, with the Islamic Center of Naples at a community picnic.
Where: Vineyards Community Park, 6231 Arbor Blvd. W., Naples
When: 2:30 - 5:30 p.m. Sept. 4
Information: Email the Islamic Center of Naples at email@example.com, or call (239) 732-7136
In a nondescript strip mall, somewhere along Davis Boulevard, the lights burn bright in two storefront windows. All the other shops closed a few hours ago, but units D and E still buzz with life. Nestled between a nail salon and a soon-to-open brewery, these two units aren’t retail spaces at all; instead, they make up the Islamic Center of Naples.
From the steamy Southwest Florida evening, women and children bearing covered potluck dishes pour into the unit on the right, shedding their shoes at the door as they enter. The room they walk into is small, but comfortable — a well lit 1,250 square foot rectangle with plush blue carpeting. And while the walls are still a bit bare — a reminder of how new the space is — a few girly touches, like a leopard print box and a floral umbrella holder, mark it as decidedly feminine.
The Islamic community in Naples is not large. A few years ago, this congregation stood at only six to eight regular members, with prayer services held in a garage, but their numbers have steadily risen. Islamic Center president and founder Rasim Kut attributes this to new immigration and an increase in the center’s visibility.
“Many of our members were already practicing Muslims here in Naples, but they didn’t know there was a community. As we’ve grown, more people have found out about us and joined us,” Kut says.
Over time they grew out of the garage and into a single unit in the Davis Boulevard shopping complex. It worked well for them except for one issue: in the Muslim faith, men and women are not allowed to worship together. As a result, a small section of the already petite room had to be cordoned off for women with a curtain.
The space was small, cramped, and not ideal for how involved the Muslim prayers can be.
“Praying, for us, is a full body activity,” says Sabah Zidal, one of the Islamic Center’s sisters.
Kut, the center’s president, explained the separation of men and women during prayer as a result of one of Islam’s key values, subscribing to modesty in thought, action and dress for both genders. The prayers, which include significant bending and kneeling prostrations, would be overly distracting for any man praying directly behind a woman.
“Would a woman feel comfortable with me watching her pray? Probably not.” Kut says, adding, “Humans have nature, feelings. I’m not above these feelings. By separating men and women in prayer we can keep the focus on Allah. The concentration is on good and nothing else.”
He gestures around the room where women dressed in gorgeous silk head scarves sit eating and chatting post-worship, and asks, “Do these women look oppressed to you?”
“In the Qur’an there is no difference between man and woman. Allah does not put one of them first, but instead says that the best difference between us in not man or woman, but is instead the deeds we perform,” says Kut.
But equal in stature or not, the space for women at the Islamic Center of Naples was undeniably second-rate, and the effect of the cramped, isolated, sectioned off space took a toll on the center’s female attendance.
“It was really small — you could barely fit any people in it,” said Maliha Avais, a teenager, practicing Muslim and student at East Naples Middle School.
For new convert and new Naples resident Dao Tran, her first few visits to the center’s women’s section were disappointing.
“I came once and it was a lucky day because there were two other women, but often they didn’t have any women come,” she said.
Nigi Kapadia chimed in, “Often, there were very few women, sometimes just one or two, and you’d feel like you were totally alone.”
These days, any feelings of worshiping in isolation have been banished. The new room — which doubles the total space of the worship center — is full of women tonight. Here for Ifthar, the meal which breaks the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan, the women will eat a small bite after the sun sets, then will join together in prayer.
As the loudspeaker crackles to life and a deep, melodic voice recites the evening’s prayer in rhythmic Arabic, the women put their food aside, kneel on the floor and turn towards Mecca. For the next few minutes the room is in total rapture, the rest of the world tuned out, their devotion to Allah total.
“The space is a great improvement,” says Kapadia, between bites of Halal (prepared in accordance to Islamic law) food, after the evening’s prayers have ended. She adds, “More women have really started to come, and it’s really grown the community. Before, I didn’t get the opportunity to meet other women, but now I know that there are other people here, Muslim people.”
And for people of the Islam faith, community is beyond important; forming a community is an order from Allah.
“God ordered us to get together in the Qur’an, to get together as one body, one heart,” said Sheikh Issa Mohammed Abdlhamid, who was visiting from Egypt specifically to conduct last Saturday’s prayer session. He added, “We are obeying the rules to get together. We want to bond with everybody. There is no difference between Christians, Muslims and Jews. We are one community.”
It’s a singular community that the Islamic Center of Naples hopes to grow. Along with hoping to open its doors to discussion with other religious leaders in town, the center envisions a day when it can offer comprehensive services to the community, both Muslim and non-Muslim.
“Insh-allah (God willing), we would like to establish a school for our children, funeral services and medical services. We want to ensure that everyone has a place to go that’s secure to practice their religion. And we want the community to know that our doors are open to anyone who wants to talk about Islam. You want to come talk? Come talk. We are all human,” Kut says, adding, “Allah is not concerned about the details, Allah is concerned about humanity.”