New Haven Islamic Center thriving in Orange
ORANGE — The ordinary look of Bull Hill Plaza belies the powerful energy of Islam, culture, diversity and shopping that the 30,000-square-foot center brings to town.
Each week thousands from more than 50 countries worship at the New Haven Islamic Center mosque located at one end of the plaza.
They and hundreds more Muslims and non-Muslims from around the state shop weekly at the other half of the plaza in four retail spaces and soon, a fifth spot that will be occupied by a Mediterranean restaurant.
It’s all owned by New Haven Islamic Center, which is the first in the state to be self-sustaining by combining worship and retail, although the trend is catching on elsewhere, said Islamic Center Board of Trustees member M. Asaf Sheikh.
“For religious non-profits, the financial future is challenging,” he said. “If we become financially independent, we can do more to help the community.”
Although it is not a rule that tenants must be Muslim, there are certain rules of ethics in this Little Islam that commercial tenants must follow, including: no selling of alcohol, lottery tickets or racy clothing.
The New Haven Islamic Center was located on Prudden Lane in West Haven for some 30 years — established by students at University of New Haven — but upon outgrowing the space purchased the plaza in Orange four years ago with a large down payment and an interest-free loan, as Muslims are not allowed to pay interest or receive interest.
With thousands flocking there each week for five daily prayers and mandatory Friday worship services that draw 1,000 to 1,500 alone, there’s an aspect of an automatic customer base.
But more importantly, the center’s leaders say, is that the model of the mosque’s ownership ensures its financial sustainability, rather than depending on money from worshippers.
“We are a financially independent facility. I think it’s a great model,” Sheikh said. “It’s a first for a center of this size.”
When they purchased the plaza at 254 Bull Hill Lane it was run down and largely unoccupied. Sheikh said the price was right, the location is easily accessible to Interstate 95 and Route 15 and there is plenty of parking for the large crowds, including an easement to use an adjoining lot connected to an old, unoccupied building.
Parking is key with so many attending the mosque weekly. On the Islamic holiday of EID — celebrated after Ramadan — 3,000 to 5,000 people pray in the parking lot.
Part of their center’s aim is to help in the community. The social welfare system in Islam puts responsibility on the community — relatives, friends, others, but not the state — so that is a focus. The center recently donated $1,000 to the Orange food pantry.
“The New Haven Islamic center has been very nice and welcoming,” Orange First Selectman Jim Zeoli said.
The Islamic Center’s aim is to educate the public about Islam, said Jamilah Rasheed, a female board member and director of the outreach arm of the Islamic center.
Rasheed is director of the non-profit New Haven Inner City Enrichment Center - acronym NICE - which she said makes everyone smile. The organization is run by Muslim women and supplies food and other items to the needy.
She said there is an inaccurate stereotype that Muslim women are “oppressed and don’t go out of the house.” She said they have already hosted Christian/Muslim women’s breakfasts, will hold open-houses and are becoming involved in the greater interfaith community that brings churches and synagogues together.
“There’s always an opportunity to increase people’s knowledge of what we’re about,” she said.
Imam Bachir Djehiche said the religion is “not what you see in the media,” and “one bad apple” doesn’t spoil the bunch.
Djehiche said the religion, like others Abrahamic religions, is based on the tenetsof freedom of religion; life and health; mind, intellect, education; lineage and family, and wealth and prosperity.
Sheikh added: “We are a God-fearing community and Connecticut is full of God fearing communities,” in churches, synagogues.
Although Muslim women are leaders, professionals and own businesses, they have a separate entrance from the men in the mosque portion of the plaza and worship in a separate area.
On the woman’s side during the Friday service, women are on their knees on the floor during prayer, and their hands touch the ground. They wear long dresses or skirts, head coverings, and shoes are left by the door. But just as in any other place of worship, young children scamper about playing and making noise as the adults pray.
At a recent Friday service — which is like Sunday to Christians and Saturday to Jews — Djehiche gave a sermon or Khutba with a message that would resonate in many circles.
He spoke about how to have a happy marriage and family life, advising the mosque-goers to express their “emotional love,” for their spouses and to be kind, forgiving and to focus on the positive aspects of the other person. He also encouraged them to accept criticism and feedback within the family and the community.
Islamic Center leaders said the Orange community has been welcoming.
Sheikh said last year the Islamic Center received a hateful letter — similar ones went to two other mosques in Connecticut — the greater community supported the center.
“A number of our own non-Muslim neighbors, sent kind notes and gestures,” Sheikh said, noting one woman bought fruit at Orange Farmers Market and passed it out.
“Connecticut and the United States are filled with beautiful people.”
The specialty businesses in 15,000-square-feet of the plaza have drawn a diverse shopping base from near and far, leaders say.
The current tenants of the plaza beginning with the Bull Hill Lane side are:
• Orange Farmer’s Market, a produce store, owned by Murat Karacayli, who said he can offer great prices because he orders fresh, in bulk.
“They treat me well,” he said of his landlords. When the mosque bought the shopping center, it was occupied by only his store and Statewide Pets, he said. When ShopRite opened across the street, presenting him with competition, the mosque lowered his rent voluntarily out of fairness. “That doesn’t happen — not in the United States,” Karacayli said.
Sheikh responded: “We are not like a commercial landlord always interested in profits,” Sheikh said. “We are all looking out for each other.”
• AZ Floor Covering and Bedding, which sells flooring, carpeting and mattresses. Owner Nauman Ali said having the busy Islamic Center in the same plaza was a big draw to the space.
• Halal Meat, a market holding to the rules of Islam in slaughtering meat. Leaders said the slaughtering (not done at the plaza) is done in a way that’s not cruel to the animal and includes a prayer that makes clear the life of the animal is being taken to feed another life. The blood is also drained from the animal before it is butchered. The animals must also be treated well beforehand and not see other animals being killed.
The store is also a grocery of international foods. The owner has a business in New York and saw the need here, Sheikh said. Many non-Muslims buy the meat because its fresh and organic, Sheikh said.
• A multi-cultural boutique called “Modish” that features affordable, fashionable, modest clothing from around the globe, including Africa, the Middle East, Asia. The “Mod” in Modish is for modesty. They sell head covers - or hijabs - and even Burkinis, a modest swimsuit for women. Sheikh’s daughter, Aisha Sheikh, who owns the boutique, said she gets a lot of customers from churches, including clergy, because along with modest dresses and skirts, she sells robes.
Sheikh said she left her job as a public elementary school teacher to live out the advice she always gave students: “To follow their passion.”
Sheikh said retail is her passion — along with dedication to modesty and diversity. It’s important to her that clothes be “trendy and affordable.” “I love it,” she said of the business. The store has a website at Modishfamily.com.
• Bab Al Salam Restaurant, a new Mediterranean eatery, is preparing to open in the space once occupied by Statewide Pets. “We changed everything,” Adnan Akil, one of new eatery partners, said. The inside, under construction, has an authentic Mediterranean feel.
Sheikh said the mosque is attended by people from more than 50 countries, including: Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, China, Russia, Serbia, Bosnia, United Kingdom, France, Yemen, Sierra Leone, Egypt, Kenya, Somalia, Ghana, Spain. The congregtion is racially diverse and includesa range of socio-economic backgrounds.
“We are probably going to be the largest Islamic Center in Connecticut,” Sheikh said. “When I moved here 30 years ago, it was beyond my imagination.”