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Naples Muslim congregation thrives after year with first imam

By Alena Maschke, For Naples Daily News , On 07 August 2017, Read Original

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Imam Nour's voice rings through the women's prayer room, melodic and almost trance-inducing. About 10 women and several children roll out prayer rugs and sit down, chatting.  An electronic sign on the wall lists the day's prayer times. There are still a few minutes left until jumah, the Friday prayer, begins.

Imam Muhammed Nour, 28, came to Naples from Egypt in June 2016. Nour moved to Florida to serve as the imam at the Islamic Center of Naples, the congregation's first official leader since it was founded in 2000.

"To recite the Quran, you might find it difficult to understand something. So you need to ask the imam, like a pastor. That is the importance of the imam," Nour said.

But it is not only the interpretation of Islam's holy book and leading the five daily prayers that the imam is tasked with funerals, weddings and Quran classes, which teach children and adults the Arabic language and the interpretation of religious scripture, are integral parts of Muslim communities across the globe.

"Those things we could not accomplish because we did not have an imam," said Mohammed Usman, administrative director of the Islamic Center. 

Before the center was founded in 2000, Usman and his wife invited people to their house for Friday prayer.

"It started with a guy at a grocery store. He asked: 'Are you Muslim?' " Usman recounted. 

They decided to get together for prayer every week, but their group quickly outgrew the confinements of their home.

 

"First it was three or four people coming to my house, but we grew, and in the end, we had about 16 people," said Razia Usman, Mohammed's wife.

"There was not enough space to park the cars," her husband added. 

For 20 years, Usman and some of the other congregation members led prayers and tried to create a community around their faith.

"It was challenging," Usman said.

With the presence of Imam Nour, the center was able to expand its outreach.

"We also work with the other religions," Nour said. "For example, if something is happening for the Jews, we go there. If something is happening for the Christians, we go there."

Nour conducts his sermons in English, but all prayers have to be led in Arabic.

"People always think that Islam is only for Arabs, but here we have people from every country you could think of," Nour said. 

Because children and adults in the community come from a variety of backgrounds, Quran classes are necessary to help them understand religious scripture. 

"If they don't know how to read it and how to translate it, how are they going to be good Muslims in the future?" Usman said. At the Friday prayer, the children had a hard time concentrating. While Nour delivered a passionate sermon about the importance of family and the holy task of respecting one's parents, a group of two girls and one boy took turns balancing a fidget spinner on their foreheads. 

This year 30 children signed up for the two levels of Quran classes — basic and advanced — offered by the center. 

"This is a big accomplishment, something that we've never been able to do at the Islamic Center of Naples," Usman said. 

With an imam to lead the congregation, Usman observed a positive change.

"Our community has grown considerably," he said. "People are more apt to (be) visiting the center and praying together, which brings harmony and community."

"A lot of young families are moving in, a lot of new faces," Razia Usman said. 

Jennette's family is one of them. Jennette grew up in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, right under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

 

After moving to Naples, Jennette and her husband began exploring religions. According to her, references to a second prophet in the Bible and the Torah led their spiritual journey to Islam and its prophet Mohammed. 

Her Puerto Rican mother was surprised when she noticed Jennette wearing a hijab, one variety of the headscarves Muslim women wear to cover their hair.

"She said: 'Is it cold down there? Because you're wearing that scarf on your head,' " Jennette recounted, laughing. 

Not everyone is accepting of their newfound faith. Jennette and her husband preferred to keep their last name private, out of concern for their family's safety. She said a sense of fear is present in the mosque as well. 

"When the door gets swung open in an unusual way, the women jump. Nobody wants to be killed while praying," Jenette said.