In late March, Palm Coast resident Abdulla Ospanov, a Chechnyan, was visiting his mother in his native country when he made an impromptu decision: to go on umrah –“considered a small Hajj,” he said – to Mecca in Saudi Arabia on the first five days of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims observe sunrise-to-sunset fasting.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” Ospanov said this morning as he joined some 180 area Muslims to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the “festival of breaking the fast,” at the Palm Coast Community Center. Thus they joined Muslims around the world this weekend who, depending on exactly when the crescent of the new moon is first sighted in any certain locality, are marking the completion of Ramadan.
Local Muslims also are unofficially celebrating another milestone: the first anniversary of the Islamic Center of Palm Coast, a Sunni-based mosque which was established in April 2022 by leasing space in the Amaral Professional Center at 4721 E. Moody Blvd. (S.R. 100) in Bunnell. The strip mall, cater-corner from the Target shopping center, is as ecumenical a community as it gets in Flagler County: it is home to Bread of Life Ministry, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Iglesia Pentecostal Ebenezer and, beyond spiritual health, a handful of fitness and wellness businesses as well.
Following a warm-hearted opening address by Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin themed on “common humanity,” the Islamic Center’s acting imam, Moroccan-born Brother Mohamed, who moved from Miami to Palm Coast in 2021, led the congregants in salat (or salah, the Arabic word for prayer) by reciting passages from the Quran in classical Arabic. The tenets of Islam require that readings from its holy book must be in that language, Mohamed said. (The imam declined to give his last name due to the sensitive nature of his past profession.)
During the recitations by Mohamed and his fellow Muslims – men and boys in the front of the rec center hall, women in the back, all with shoes off – they all variously stood, sat on colorful prayer rugs, kneeled or prostrated themselves in qibla, the direction of Mecca.
Mohamed occasionally elaborated on the proceedings by speaking in English during the salah. At the conclusion of prayers, Mohamed called Ramadan a “marvelous spiritual journey” and urged the gathering to “keep this spiritual momentum going for the entire year: our devotion in prayers, Quran recitation, fasting, generosity, charity, compassion, mercy, kindness, self-discipline. Remember Allah throughout the whole day and night. Share what we have with the less fortunate. All of these are things we need to carry on throughout the whole year.”
“This is what Islam calls for. Islam is good for mankind, is good for us, is good for our community, is good for our neighbors, is good for our neighbors of other faiths as well because if we do the things we are supposed to do the proper way, then everybody gets the benefit. Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.” (Allahu Akbar is Arabic for “God is greatest.”)
Following salah, the community feasted on both store-bought and homemade food brought to the gathering by community members: rich and generous gastronomy is a tradition of Islamic feast days and nights. It has special significance on Eid-el-Fitr, following the month-long demands of Ramadan.
“Ramadan is the month where we fast from just before sunup to sundown — we don’t drink or eat,” said Ken Rimestad Jr., a Seattle-born, disabled Army veteran and Palm Coast resident who grew up Christian, served in Iraq in 2003-2004, and “reverted” to Islam after researching “why the American government was putting out so much negativity towards it, especially for the military.”
He met his wife, Shifra, a former resident of Indonesia, online, and traveled to her country in 2011 to meet her after he was discharged from Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The couple married and have three children, and the entire family attended Eid.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and is observed by most of the 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community in commemoration of the first revelation of the religion’s founder, Muhammad (mention of whom traditionally requires the complimentary phrase عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَا, Peace Be Upon Him). The lunar-based observance runs from one sighting of the new crescent moon to the next.
Ramadan is when “Muslims are basically focusing on controlling our desires and understanding what people who don’t have food are going through,” said Rimestad, who handled public relations for the center until health issues forced him to step back from that role, although he has now recovered and occasionally assists with those duties.
Ramadan is also a time when Muslims reflect on “charity, our religion, coming closer to God,” Rimestad said.
According to the website of the Islamic Center of Palm Coast, the place has “answered the long-term dream many local Muslims had been praying for over more than 10 years. Our diverse community of native-born Americans and immigrants from around the world came together to raise the necessary funds to establish the first masjid — House of Allah — in Palm Coast, Florida. In the first year of our existence, we have expanded into a connection space to accommodate our growth and offer our sisters a private worship area.” (Islam mandates that the sexes should pray separately, though there are debates within Muslim communities in the United States as to the validity of the segregation.)
According to the center’s Facebook page, its members “practice according to Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah,” which is a type of Sunni Islam. The center has “about 80 active members, and additional members who attend from time to time,” Rimestad said.
Area Muslims first attempted to establish a center/mosque 10 years ago. That effort, led by the Islamic Center’s current president, Shuhrat Yosin, failed because “there were not enough people,” Mohamed said. “There may have been enough people, but they couldn’t come together, they couldn’t locate each other.”
Friday prayers at a mosque are mandatory, Mohamed said (to the extent that an individual can accommodate them: the mandate is not unforgiving, just as gthere are exemptions for Ramadan), even though “it’s far to go to Daytona Beach, it’s far to go to Jacksonville, it’s far to go to St. Augustine, which is 20 minutes from my home, but still it’s a long way.”
During fall of 2021, Mohamed was attending Friday prayer in Daytona Beach when, he said, “The imam announced ‘There are some brothers here who are trying to garner support for a local mosque in Palm Coast. If anybody here lives in Palm Coast, please stick around.’ So I stuck around and I see Brother Shuhrat (Yosin) and Brother Humayun (Khawaja). Once we had that initial meeting, I heard their outcry for the need for a mosque, so we exchanged numbers and created a chat group like WhatsApp. You invite whoever you know, and before you know it a community is born.”
The group, which consisted of “around a dozen brothers,” held several meetings “at a gazebo at James Holland Park,” Mohamed said. “We said ‘Here is what we need, can we get it done?’ People said ‘Yes we can, so what should we do? We’re going to need funds to rent.’ So we started collecting money. We did a couple of fundraisers and we met our target. People gave generously.”
The center was incorporated as a non-profit 15 months ago.
Ehab Hashem, a water plant technician with the city of Flagler Beach, renovated the center’s strip-mall space, which includes one large room for males and a smaller one for females, allowing center members to follow Islam’s dictates that the sexes should pray separately. However, the separating wall includes one-way mirrors which allow female congregants to see into the male room where the imam leads prayers – but the male congregants cannot see their female counterparts.
The establishment of the center “means a lot because before we were traveling to St. Augustine, Jacksonville and Daytona,” said Ospanov, the Chechnyan. “But the main thing is that we opened the mosque and got together, we started to know each other. We have many businessmen, professional people, lawyers, doctors, different backgrounds.
“Yes, we have the same religion, but we have different cultural backgrounds. I’m from the Caucasus for example. Asian people are here. People from India, Pakistan – many, many nationalities. Algerians and Moroccans. So this cultural thing is very interesting. I didn’t know these people before. I live in Palm Coast and I used to go every Friday to the mosque, come back home, that’s it.
“But this time it’s different. Every Friday we meet. We talk. We know people, we know each other. That has big, big, big meaning for me. It’s about meeting people, having new friends, your social life, your culture, everything. The business networking, we can benefit from that too. But of course the main thing that unites us is our religion, our religious values.”
Pryor to Mayor Alfin’s address, he told FlaglerLive that a former career took him to the Middle East, and that “this is not my first Ramadan. My family was in the perfume and cosmetic business, and one of the premier markets in the world was the Middle East.”
Alfin, who does his homework ahead of community events as much as he does ahead of council meetings, greeted the gathering with “Good morning everyone,” followed by “Salam alaykum,” which is Arabic for “’Peace be upon you.”
“I heard from the imam this morning that he was inspired, so I must tell you first that I am inspired,” Alfin said. “I know now, after just a few minutes, how little I know and understand (about Islam and its followers). I thank God for allowing me to find you this morning, and also for blessing me with the desire to learn more about your community. I was inspired to see a sea of good people coming together, collaborating with good thoughts and the blessing of God.
“I feel privileged to join you in your post-Ramadan commemoration today as you close your annual observance of fasting, prayer, reflection and community. As I bask in the joy and enthusiasm of today’s celebration, I can also sense an excitement for a new beginning that will certainly unify us all. As your center’s membership is just starting to grow here, and as your attentiveness to mutual morality and respect aligns with our community, I’m honored to represent Palm Coast to recognize our solid alliance. Together I believe we can anticipate many years of bonding for the betterment of our common humanity.
“. . . I wish to close my address by stating Inshallah – God willing — the Islamic Center of Palm Coast will come together with our city residents in an environment of prosperity and compassion that underscores the equality among us. May you all be blessed with peace and health.”
Following the prayers at the Eide celebration, Islamic Center members flocked to have their photo taken with Alfin.
Yosin, the Uzbekistan-born president of the center, moved to the United States in 2007, then to Palm Coast in 2009, where he owns a trucking company.
The center, he said, “is a big thing. Religion is good for the generations. You see what’s going on in the world, right? All religion is good. When you follow religion, God guides you the right way. With all the traveling to Daytona, Orlando, Jacksonville, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, we needed this community for our religion. We started with 10 to 20 people, and look at this right now. We keep growing, growing and growing.”
Eid Mubarak. عيد مبارك
–Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive