ITHACA, N.Y. –– Ithaca and Tompkins County pride themselves on being an open door to the rest of the world. But it can be a challenge to make a new place feel like a home. For the local Muslim community, that challenge is especially profound, as they have long lacked their own masjid, a place of prayer in the Islamic faith.

This is something that the Muslim community has long accepted in the course of living their lives here. Tompkins County is not a highly-populated place, and the local Muslim community is a very small proportion of that. There are about fifty local families who have chosen to settle down in Tompkins County, as well as a sizable contingent of Cornell and Ithaca College students who partake in services as they go about their education. A typical weekly service pre-pandemic would draw something around 220 attendees. For some fifty or so years, the community has graciously made use of the multi-use space for faith services in Cornell’s Anabel Taylor Hall, where the university has kindly opened the doors to both student and non-student attendees.

While the Muslim community is enormously grateful for the space on Cornell’s Campus, it’s still a shared space, scheduled weekly at midday on Fridays between the services of other faiths. It’s not a place of worship they could exclusively call their own. But they dreamed and they saved up and they prayed for their own religious roof. Twenty years later, and their efforts have paid off –– the Al-Huda Islamic Center of the Finger Lakes has opened the doors to the first mosque in Tompkins County.

To get to this monumental occasion has involved many twists and turns, as Mahmud Burton, the President of the Al-Huda Islamic Center can attest. Burton first arrived in Ithaca in 1984, and along with leading the Al-Huda Islamic Center’s activities, he’s an energy analyst with Taitem Engineering downtown.

Around 2001, there were a few community members who founded a charitable trust for the purpose of collecting money for a permanent building for Muslims in Ithaca and Tompkins County. It’s been active for twenty years now, and there have been many efforts made by community members.”

There were clear signs of progress. In 2014, the Islamic Center purchased an acre of undeveloped land on Graham Road in the village of Lansing, to be used for their future mosque. The original concept called for a roughly 4,800 square-foot mosque with Islamic architectural elements. But as always with non-profit concepts and plans, the biggest obstacle isn’t the construction, it’s the fundraising to finance construction. At the time, the costs were estimated to be in the range of $500,000 to $800,000. Along with the substantial task of fundraising that much, are so unique provisions to the Islamic faith. For instance, under Islamic law funds to be used for the construction of mosques aren’t allowed to accumulate interest.

Even with those challenges, the local Muslim community continued to work and donate towards their goal of a new religious home. “A number of organizational efforts were made by individuals in the community with the idea of establishing a mosque. In November 2017, the community took a step as organizing as a religious organization under New York State Religious Corporation Law, which brought our community into the same status as other churches and religious communities in the area. This was done in anticipation that we hoped we would have our new space and a proper legal organizational structure to run operations. The organizational efforts were challenged by the transient nature of much of the community, the continuity of the effort was a challenge with people coming in and out of the picture. There was a contract signed for the new mosque in 2018, but we had been working with a contractor close to a year before with prep work,” said Burton.

In the meanwhile, the challenges with Graham Road site were building. The project went through a few different designs, arguably with less and less sophistication as the project evolved. It went from an elegant Islamic design, to a refitted modular home. Another problem was that the contractor they were working with was more skilled with residential properties than religious facilities, which complicated matters. Eventually, the issues facing the Graham Road mosque plan became insurmountable. “That project failed in its conception phase,” Burton bluntly stated.

But, as good fortune would have it, another opportunity arose for the local Muslim community in their quest for a religious home of their own. “We were looking at alternatives, we were looking at other new construction on Graham Road. But in early 2020, one of our members became aware of the property at Cayuga Vista Road, and we began discussing the poss of acquiring that property instead of doing a new construction project,” said Burton.

“Of course, then the pandemic began and we didn’t do much with it for a few months, but at a certain point it moved beyond discussion and we started actively engaging with the parties involved and we came to an agreement on price and terms. Then we brought the decision to our community, because it’s a big decision and we wanted to make sure we understood the will of the community. So we presented a comparison of the two options and the community voted at 70% for Cayuga Vista. That was in early October, when that decision was made, and we had a short timeline to work with.

We wanted to close before the end of 2020, and we did on the 30th (of December). We looked at the money that had been saved over the years, putting the money into the trust, and we were faced with a shortfall of $250k, and so we went into our fundraising mode and exceeded everyone’s expectations. So we were ultimately successful in gathering the funds to complete the purchase.”

So their mad dash to raise the last funds needed worked out, and they completed their purchase just in time. 2020 was a rough year for many of us, but at least for the Al-Huda Islamic Center and its members, the year had a happy ending. The $625,000 purchase of 10 Cayuga Vista Drive was filed with the Tompkins County Clerk on the 7th.

Admittedly, the building they purchased was not purpose-built for a religious facility. It’s utilitarian and about twenty years old, with 8,860 square-feet of space. It’s also been home to a number of businesses in its brief life. According to Burton, the building was built for a roofing contractor, Excelsior Systems. Most of the space was used as a warehouse. There was also a motorcycle business that has since moved elsewhere in town, and the most recent previous owner was Jump Around inflatables, who have space down around the Triphammer Mall. They did children’s parties, and they were the ones who first put in a commercial kitchen, which was a very appealing feature to the Islamic Center, for whom the Taste of Muslim Culture event at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) is a major avenue for both community outreach and fundraising – the last pre-pandemic hosting of the food festival brought in nearly 7,000 visitors.

Burton noted happily that now that they have a permanent home, there’s not much that needs to be done to the building to make it usable for their needs. “One of the beautiful things about our religion is that it makes many things easy. In terms of space requirements for prayer, we can use the space as-is. There are things we want to do to make the building reflect its religious significance for us. There are places we’d like to install some more windows. For the purpose of our religious services, it has large open spaces to serve our congregational needs, but they’re heated with unit/space heaters. Ultimately we’ll want to re-examine the HVAC system and possibly plan for something that will give us quieter operation, and be able to fine tune the comfort levels in those spaces. We also plan to put Islamic carpeting in, and create a ritual washing place for men and women to do preparational washing (called “wudu”). There’s the commercial kitchen, but the appliances went with the seller. We plan on re-equipping it.

It’s a steel frame construction, so interior partitions are very flexible. We’ll work with a design professional on that. In the short term, we’ll do cleaning and painting, the carpet installation. We can’t use the building at full capacity until the conditions have improved with the pandemic.”

The prayer room being laid out. Image courtesy of the Al-Huda Islamic Center Facebook page.

To stress that point, yes, the Islamic Center is being as responsible as any organization when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19. “We have begun services on a very limited basis. We got the keys in our hand Thursday the 30th, and that evening we laid out the places in the prayer room. What that involves for us is determining the direction of prayer. Muslims pray towards the shortest direction to Mecca, and that’s based on calculations of the Earth’s sphere. For us that’s to the northeast. We also have to optimize safety, and we determined how many we would be able to accommodate for prayer. The next day, we had the first people come in for the Friday service. At this point it’s very limited in use and we have not opened the building for the five daily prayers, but we have been able to hold Friday prayers in a safe way,” said Burton.

Once the pandemic subsides, visitors from the greater Tompkins community will be more than welcome to pay a visit. Burton says the mosque will have dedicated prayer areas (the masjid) and social areas. Going into the prayer areas requires following religious guidelines like the preparational washing, but that wouldn’t necessarily need to be followed in other parts of the building, and in those social spaces the general public will be welcome to come by and say hello.

Along with the long-term goals for renovating the new mosque are goals for expanding and professionalizing their prayer services – as in, hiring an imam, a dedicated clergyman who is a scholar and teacher of the Islamic faith. Here, Ithaca’s worldliness lends to a unique set of challenges in the search for an imam to provide spiritual wholeness for the local Muslim community.

“Currently we rotate around a number of people to meet our basic needs, and we’ve been doing that for decades,” said Burton. “The benefit of having a trained scholar and the background to perform that function would be a big step forward. Ithaca is a unique community in terms of its Muslim population. In many larger cities, Islamic Center are established along cultural lines, first-generation immigrants or second-generation with strong cultural ties to countries where Islam is predominant. People tend to congregate on cultural lines; it’s more convenient and familiar for them. Rochester has three or four (mosques), and for example one was organized by Turkish community. In our community, first of all we’re not large, and second of all we have people from all over the world, I don’t think there will ever be a culturally dominant minority. The choosing of an imam is going to be an interesting search, because whoever it is will have to fill a number of requirements and get along in an environment with diversity.”

For the record, the Ithaca-Tompkins community’s pride in being an open door to the world held true with the Al-Huda Islamic Center. The community was as open and welcoming as they promised to be. “We have consistently been met with grace and goodwill from the village of Lansing and the planning board, and likewise with the town of Lansing. We have actually been active for the last three years with primarily our neighbors at the Lansing United Methodist Church, and the Jewish congregation Tikkun v’Or in Lansing, and we partner with them for a series of monthly community potluck dinners, formed for our communities to get to know one another and the residents of the town of Lansing. Pre-pnademic it became a mainstay, with 60 or 70 people coming for our monthly dinners and getting to know people they hadn’t met before. There’s been a lot of groundwork that we have participated in that has been helpful,” said Burton.

The word “Al-Huda” translates to “the guidance”. For the people drawn to Ithaca and Tompkins County from far and wide, including from Islamic communities all over the globe, having its presence and their new mosque helps make this place feel less intimidating and more like a guide to their new homes and next chapters in life.

“We are community members along with all of the other people in Lansing and Tompkins County. One of the strongest values that exists in Islam is the importance of community. The prophet, when he went to Medina to establish the Islamic community, he had relationships with the Jewish tribes there and the other people there. Being good partners in a community is important, and key to all of our efforts.”

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.