The Islamic Center of Virginia (ICVA), located on Buford Road in Richmond, is the largest Masjid in the Central Virginia area. Although ICVA has existed only since the 1980’s, the Muslim community in Richmond far older and has a rich and diverse history. It is not known when the first Muslims organized into a group in Richmond. However, accounts from current members of the Islamic Center of Virginia date the Center to at least the early 1960’s. During this time, there were few Muslims in Richmond. Most of these Muslims were young immigrants, many of Arab ethnicity, and they were not well connected to one another.
In 1969, a small group of five to six Muslims met to discuss the formation of an organized Muslim community. They decided to start having regular meetings, and organize prayer services. Two years later, a larger meeting was held, this time with an attendance of around fifty people, and the first large Eid prayers were organized. Everyone shared a vision of a Community Center that would serve as a central place of worship for Muslim in Richmond. The following year the Muslim Community began collecting funds for the construction of a building. This move was slowed by the reluctance of the Muslim Community to pay interest, a practice forbidden in the Islamic faith. It was about 1975 when another small meeting was held where long term vision and mission for the Muslim community was discussed. Those present outlined several goals and needs for Muslims, including an Islamic School for the youth, and a Muslim Cemetery. The first Islamic Sunday school in Richmond began soon afterwards and was held every Sunday afternoon at a church on Kensington Avenue.
By the mid 1970’s, the Muslim community in Richmond had collected sufficient funds to purchase about three acres of land on which to build their community center. The community continued to fundraise to pay for the actual construction of the building. By this time, the Community was having regular monthly meetings of its Executive Board. The board usually met one Sunday every month at Becksby Restaurant on Twelfth Street near the Tobacco Company Restaurant. The community began growing significantly during the late 1970s and through the 1980s (although officially there were only 25-30 families registered as “members” of the Center). During this time, Muslim families began moving into the community in large numbers. Most of these newcomers were of Indo-Pakistani descent. Many were well-educated professionals, and their presence added a new dynamic as these individuals and families became more active in the community. The ethnic makeup of the community was roughly two-thirds Indo-Pakistani and one-third Arab, along with smaller groups representing various other ethnicities. The death of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, also brought many African-Americans into mainstream Islam, and this shift could be seen at the Islamic Center as the number of African-American attendees increased. Nonetheless, most of the members of the Muslim community were immigrants. Despite these differences, the community was united around faith and continued to meet socially despite the lack of a community center. Among these activities were the Eid Prayers, prayed twice every year and the Annual Picnic. The prayers were held in various churches and hotels, while the Annual Picnic was usually held in public parks. During this time, the community was still in the process of fundraising for the construction of the Islamic Center of Virginia. Without a facility of its own, the community had to pray in various places, such as hotels, churches, private homes, and schools. Among the issues impeding the process of attaining a place of worship was tension with the neighbors adjacent to the construction site. Some of them were uneasy about the construction of an Islamic community center and the influx of more Muslims.
By the early 1980s, the first stage of construction of the Islamic Center of Virginia was underway, and the foundation was laid at the groundbreaking ceremony on Thanksgiving Day of 1984. The community continued to fundraise as it did not have sufficient funds to complete construction. The community fundraising efforts were successful, and in June of 1985 the first phase of the Islamic Center of Virginia was finished. After this phase of construction of the Islamic Center was completed, the community was able to have regular Friday (Jummuah) prayers for the first time. The Center’s central location made it much easier to hold regular prayer services, and prayer attendance started to increase as the word spread. The construction of the Center also attracted more Muslims into the area and thus increased community growth. The existence of the Center also allowed the community to stabilize the location of the Weekend Islamic School, which had been ongoing since the 1970s. Attendance at the Eid prayers rose to between seventy and one hundred worshipers.
Within two years, the Islamic Center of Virginia had already become too small, and the community began mobilizing for the second phase of construction. Phase one of the Islamic Center included what is currently the multi-purpose area. Phase two was started and completed in 1991 and expanded the building into its current size, which includes six classrooms and a larger master prayer hall. The community continued fundraising as construction progressed. Phase three of construction expanded the parking lot to accommodate the increased traffic.
The Weekend Islamic School was initially held in the multi-purpose area in the Islamic Center during its phase one existence. These accommodations were not ideal as it was crowded and disorganized. The phase two expansions helped to organize the Weekend Islamic school through the addition of six classrooms. From the beginning, the Weekend Islamic School (also referred to as the Sunday School) was not very organized in terms of curriculum or administration. Lack of volunteer teachers and the growing number of students made it difficult to maintain continuity. There was little or no curriculum, no documentation, no official committee or group that was assigned to the task. Volunteers were often approached and asked to teach whatever they wanted or could teach. However, in the early 1990s this changed. The increase in community size and the influx of more professionals into the community brought with it experienced volunteers who were able to add more professionalism to the educational system at the Center. Currently there is a principal who oversees the School, an established curriculum, volunteer teachers who receive training, a book list and official school policies that are implemented.
The late 1980’s also witnessed a growing emphasis on cooperating with other Muslim congregations in Richmond. Masjid Bilal, a smaller Muslim congregation in the Church Hill area of Richmond, had purchased a small building. The Islamic Center of Virginia, cooperating with Masjid Bilal, decided to raise funds to help pay off the remainder of the mortgage in order to avoid paying interest. That goal was reached in 1988.
Once the Islamic Center of Virginia was built, it was primarily used for the Eid prayers, Friday (Jummah) Prayers, Ramadan Activities, and any community meetings. In 1989, the Center began its first study circle for adults. Called the “Adult Halaqah” (the rough translation of ‘Halaqah’ from Arabic is “study circle”), it was very popular, and was initiated to meet the needs of adult Muslims in Richmond who desired more knowledge of their religion. The study circle continued for the next seven years.
During the early 1990s there was a renewed emphasis on youth activities. In 1993 a Youth Study Circle (Halaqah) was established at the Center. The mid-1990s also witnessed a major event that would change the Islamic Center of Virginia, the hiring of a full-time Imam. Again, the growth of the community began placing additional demands on the Islamic Center. Not only were Muslims attending the Friday prayers, but many were attending the study circles held every week. In addition to this, Muslims began appearing for the five daily prayers. The Center started out with volunteer Imams. Ever since its opening in 1985, the Islamic Center of Virginia had some part-time volunteers who would act as the “Imam(s)”. Around 1992, the prayer attendance had increased to a level that required the hiring of a part-time Imam. However, this still did not meet the demand, and the Center saw the need for a full-time qualified Imam to act as the Center’s religious spiritual leader. It was also apparent that this person would need to live near the Islamic Center. In 1993 the Islamic Center of Virginia constructed a house on its grounds to serve as the home of their Imam. In 1995, the Islamic Center hired its first full-time Imam to act as the spiritual leader of the Community.
The addition of Phase 2 to the Islamic Center and its six classrooms enabled the community to realize its vision of having a full-time Islamic school. The community began mobilizing behind this project in 1996. The community was convinced that having only two to three hours of Islamic education every weekend was not sufficient to provide the requisite Islamic training/education (a concept known as Tarbiyyah in Arabic) for young Muslims in the United States. The Weekend Islamic School took place 2-3 hours every weekend for two semesters, not including summers. The Center tried to supplement this with the Youth Study Circle, however that still did not meet community needs.
To organize this new educational initiative, the Islamic Center held a town hall meeting where the plan was presented to the community for review. The project was then assigned to specific people and the work began. In 1998, the Community passed a resolution at a General Body Meeting to officially organize the full-time school under the auspices of the Islamic Center of Virginia. In that year the school was opened for the first time, and 94 students were enrolled. Originally called the Islamic Academy of Virginia, the name was later changed to the IQRA Academy of Virginia. ‘Iqra’ is the Arabic word for “read” or “recite” and it is also the first word of the Qur’an that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). With the increase in the size of the community, the Center also felt that the needs of new Muslim converts were not being adequately met. In 1999 the Center began holding a weekly “New Muslim Halaqah”, a study circle to help educate new Muslim converts.
The late 1990s also saw a new era of outreach for the Islamic Center of Virginia. The Outreach (Da’wah) committee was reorganized to include a subcommittee for Prison Outreach in 1999. The ICVA began visiting Prisons and giving presentations about Islam. One presentation given to the Virginia Department of Corrections was taped for later use. Some other activities included the ICVA acting as mediators between the Muslim inmates and the Prison Administration and Department of Corrections. The facilities the Islamic Center visited include Haynesville State Prison and the Juvenile Detention Center near Rhobius Road in Richmond. These efforts have created a continuing relationship of goodwill between the Islamic Center of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Other areas of outreach also included reaching out to other faith groups around the Islamic Center. Prior to these efforts, outreach at the Islamic Center of Virginia was passive and not well organized. There were loose efforts to reach out to other faith groups, but mostly outreach was reactive in nature, dependent upon contact from an outside group. For the first time, in 1999, the Islamic Center began a pro-active outreach effort to invite and meet with leaders and members of the neighboring faith groups. Members of the community began visiting other churches, and people of other faiths began visiting the Islamic Center to learn about Islam and Muslims. Other congregations that the Islamic Center of Virginia has worked with include St. Edwards Church and the Bon Air United Methodist Church.
September 11, 2001 is a landmark date in the history of the Islamic Center of Virginia. Prior to that date, despite all of the changes in the organization and activism of the community, the Islamic Center was a quiet and relatively unknown community on Richmond’s South Side. The media spotlights that were turned upon all Muslims in the United States after the attack on New York City did not miss 1241 Buford Road. September 11 th demanded much change of the ICVA in a short amount of time. For the first time, members of the Islamic Center had to be prepared to deal with the media, an encounter for which the primarily immigrant population of the Center was completely unprepared. It was for this reason that the Board of Trustees of the Center took the exceptional step to allow the President of the Center to run for a second term, in order to provide for continuity and stability in leadership through these uncertain times.
Immediately after September 11 the ICVA held a media conference, and for the first time the Islamic Center of Virginia had a public image. The community felt that now, more than ever, it was critical for the ICVA to promote a positive image of Islam. During the following month, the ICVA was bombarded by the news media. Previously, the ICVA received media coverage only once or twice in its entire history. In October, 2001, the President of the Center was interviewed thirty to forty times. In addition to news interviews however, the President also wrote letters to the editor, and the interaction with churches and other faith groups increased dramatically. A year after the attacks the Islamic Center of Virginia, in cooperation with Jewish, Christian and other faith groups, and the Muslim Students Association of Virginia Commonwealth University, held a candle light vigil and prayer meeting at the Center. The guest speaker was then Lieutenant Governor Timothy Kaine.
Beginning in 2002, outreach activities of various kinds sponsored by the Islamic Center of Virginia have increased. In 2002 the President of the Center conducted the first ever seminar on Islam for the Chesterfield County Police Department. The Center continues to provide seminars to other law enforcement agencies working towards the larger goal of establishing and maintaining good relationships with law enforcement agencies as well as the Department of Justice. The ICVA is now an active partner and contributor to many charitable institutions such as Habitat for Humanity and Caritas. The Center also holds a yearly canned food drive for the Central Virginia Foodbank. In 2004, the ICVA held its first ever blood drive. It also hosted the Care-a-Van from the Bonsecour Hospital Group. This van provides free healthcare for people without insurance. The van visits the Center once a month. An official Boys and Girls Youth Groups was also established as part of the structure of the Islamic Center in 2004. Observer seats on the Executive Committee were extended to the youth groups. Funds were allocated for youth participatation in the annual Muslim Interscholastic Tournament (MIST) Competition sponsored by the Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada (MSA National). In 2004 the ICVA also began gathering funds to sponsor members for trips to Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, which is mandatory for Muslims to make at least once in their lifetime. The Center was able to send three people to make Hajj who otherwise would not have been able to afford the trip.
IslamiciCenter Of Virginia
1241 Buford Road
Ineterviews with center members
Profile prepared by Ali Faruk