There was “a piece missing in the mosaic of faith” that is Evanston, says Mohammed Saiduzzaman, President of the Dar-us-Sunnah Masjid and Community Center, 2045 Brown Ave.
Evanston is known as the “city of churches,” Mr. Saiduzzaman says, for its many Christian and Jewish houses of worship. But Islam, the third monotheistic religion, was unrepresented. Until now.
“We are the missing piece,” Mr. Saiduzzaman says of the Chicagoland congregation of Bangladeshi Muslims he leads. It took time and determination, but their masjid, the Arabic word meaning “place of prostration” and translated in English as “mosque,” now inhabits what was the shell of a partially completed Christian church. The masjid, Phase II of its construction nearly finished, provides a window onto the spiritual and civic life of its Muslim congregation.
The building represents a new chapter for some 200 immigrant families from Bangladesh who are scattered across the greater Chicago area. In February 1991, they began gathering in each other’s homes, “an unofficial social organization” whose intent was to meet and “cook something,” Mr. Saiduzzaman says. In time, their thoughts turned to their desire to convey their faith to the next generation.
They envisioned building a masjid/community center where, in the tradition of Islam, they could both worship and serve. They would name the masjid “Dar-us-Sunnah,” meaning “house of the Prophet’s deeds” or “path of the Prophet Mohammed.” And though none of them lived in Evanston, Mr. Saiduzzaman says several things drew them to it. First were its well-respected institutions of higher learning, including Northwestern University and Garrett Evangelical Seminary. Second were the City’s two hospitals, with their impressive histories and numerous Muslim employees. And third were the diverse communities nearby – Morton Grove, Skokie, and Chicago’s north side.
In spring 2006 a Realtor friend told Mr. Saiduzzaman of an Evanston property for sale. He came to look at the building Christ Temple Missionary Baptist Church could no longer afford to maintain. It was listed for $950,000; his congregation had $30,000. Mr. Saiduzzaman says he proposed putting down $3,000 in earnest money if the church would remove the For Sale sign for six months and give him the right of first refusal if a buyer emerged.
Within weeks, the Muslims held a fundraiser that brought in $267,000 in one night, Mr. Saiduzzaman says. On March 20, 2007, they signed a contract for $800,000.
The Baptist congregation went on to build a church at 1711 Simpson St. Real estate agent Lynne Heidt, who says she “loved both the buyers and the sellers,” calls the transaction “my proudest real estate deal.” At the time, she says, Chicago newspapers were full of stories of other suburbs trying to keep mosques out. On the night the matter came before the Evanston City Council, Ms. Heidt says, “I was holding my breath.” Council voted unanimously to allow the Muslims to proceed. “It was a wonderful Evanston thing,” Ms. Heidt says – “a high point for me.”
Other Evanstonians extended a welcome, too. Mr. Saiduzzaman tells of Bob Thompson, Lake Street Church pastor at the time, including him in an interfaith lunch with other Evanston clergy; of Mayor Lorraine Morton inviting him into her home when he rang her doorbell; of a Northwestern chaplain opening the doors of Alice Millar Chapel so Muslim students could pray.
Once committed to the site, the Muslim congregation also committed to the community, engaging in peace and Black Lives Matter rallies and marching from mosque to synagogue to commemorate 9/11. A future soup kitchen and health and tutoring services will be available to all. Though it is the Bangladeshis’ own mosque, they say everyone is welcome.
A Chicago architect laid the “phenomenal structural work” for Phase I of construction, Mr. Saiduzzaman says. It included finishing a multipurpose room and commercial-grade kitchen in the basement. The community met to pray and socialize there between June 16, 2009, when they obtained a construction permit, and 2015, when they first gathered for holiday prayer in the unfinished upper floor.
“God wouldn’t reject us for praying in a basement,” Mr. Saiduzzaman says. “But he taught us to build something lasting. …The goal is to leave something for our children and for Evanston.”
The congregation turned to Khaled Noman and his wife, Ivy, of Noman Architects Inc. in Glenview for Phase II. Their aim, Mr. Noman says, was to transform the skeleton church into a landmark that would signal from McCormick Boulevard, “Now you are in Evanston.”
The wide dome with its necklace of windows is the most dramatic alteration to the former church. Domes, though not compulsory, are typical of masjids around the world. The Evanston Zoning Committee wanted to limit the dome’s height to 3 feet, which Mr. Noman judged impossibly low. To show that his proposed dome was not too high, he climbed up on the roof and held a flag at dome height while someone snapped photos of him from around the neighborhood. The finished dome, 46 feet from the ground and 23 feet in diameter, “adds identity and a public character” to the plain structure and “makes the prayer space very special,” Mr. Noman says.
At some future time, the concrete block façade will be clad in brick or stone, something with “permanence,” Mr. Noman says. At present, the building is as gray as a geode on the outside – and as surprisingly lovely on the inside.
The idea of a masjid courtyard and fountain derives from “the first mosque, which was the prophet Mohammed’s house,” he says. Before prayer, Muslims must perform ablutions, washing their hands and arms and passing their hands over their hair. While once they practiced this ritual at the fountain, many contemporary mosques have separate men’s and women’s facilities for washing. Mr. Noman says he is especially proud of the women’s bath he designed.
Instead of a courtyard, Dar-us-Sunnah has a spacious entrance hall the architects expect will be even more impressive when hung with Turkish lanterns. A built-in shoe rack on one wall signals the Islamic practice of removing shoes before praying.
Muslims are called to prayer at five specific times each day and may pray in any clean place. “If I lay down a carpet in a park, that becomes my mosque,” Mr. Noman says. The mosque itself “is a place of prayer, not a site for weddings or coronations,” he adds.
The prayer hall is ethereal, light-filled even on a dark day. Carpeted in white and empty of furniture, the room soars upward to the huge dome. Along the side walls are tall, arched niches, softened by interior lights and pale wood benches for quiet conversation and storage.
The masjid, and the Muslim at prayer, must face Mecca, the holy city in modern-day Saudi Arabia where Mohammed was born. To reorient the existing church building, the architects located the empty niche called the mihrab in a corner and had thin, diagonal lines woven into the carpet to indicate how attendees should align themselves in prayer.
The Nomans converted the tiered mezzanine at the rear of the hall into a single-level balcony for women. Laser-cut wood screens at the front partially hide the women from below while allowing them to view the main prayer space, Mr. Noman says. Panels echoing the pierced, geometric designs of the screens will animate the otherwise unembellished niches in accordance with Islamic law forbidding statues or images of life.
Two scholars with credentials from the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia are the congregation’s spiritual guides, Mr. Saiduzzaman says. But since they do not speak English, another leader conducts the Friday noon prayer service, the week’s most important.
Dar-us-Sunnah invites the prayerful to leave their worldly baggage behind with their shoes and find spiritual refuge. “If this is a place that makes people want to pray, then it is a success,” Mr. Noman says.