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July 19, 2000

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Spreading light through the minarets

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Shanthi Shankarkumar

It has taken nine years and nine million dollars for a dream to come true.

After years of plans, negotiations and fund-raising, the 1000-strong Dawoodi Bohra community of the Chicago area will finally see their Burhani ('Spread of Light') Park masjid completed in mid-August.

The 30,000 square-foot shrine will be one of the largest in the United States and a testimony to the persistence and faith of a community that was determined to see the project through.

Though the planning began nine years ago, construction started in November 1997. After years of meeting in a former lodge, the community, which was growing, felt the need for a permanent testament to their faith.

Mosques have become an increasingly familiar sight in the Chicago area and the United States, as Islam draws more and more followers. In the Chicago area alone, the Muslim population has grown from an estimated 50,000 to about 300,000 in the last 30 years. But the Burhani Park Masjid is dedicated to the Dawoodi Bohra community, which has a strength of about one million worldwide, including about 3,500 families in the US.

"It is going to be landmark in the Chicago area," says Hasan Merchant of Polo Builders. For Merchant, a Bohri builder of repute, the shrine is both a professional and personal achievement. It is a particularly ambitious project for his company, Polo Builders, which he started in his basement in 1986.

Today, the firm has grown into a developer of upmarket suburban homes and apartments. Building a spiritual place is always uplifting; even more so if you plan to worship in it, which is what Merchant plans to do. "It's like building your own house. And that makes it sometimes very difficult," he explains.

Merchant, who was born in Nasik, a town in western Maharashtra, came to the US in 1980-81. After doing his master's in structural engineering in the Illinois Institute of Technology, he went on to design nuclear plants.

In 1986, he started his own firm. Over the years, Polo Builders has grown in strength and today is a name to reckon with, offering homes ranging between $ 150,000 and $ 3 million. Projected sales were $ 40 million this year. Business is so good, Merchant plans to enter the Indian market by next year with ventures in the Nasik, Bombay and Pune areas.

The masjid also tested the resourcefulness of the Bohra community. Since Islam prohibits paying of interest and borrowing money, the local Bohras had to raise almost all of the $9 million themselves -- a target that was met with painstaking determination.

Then there were the public hearings that drew as many as 50 neighbours to council meetings, where they voiced concerns about the shrine. The neighbours were worried that the calls for prayers early in the morning and during the day would be a disturbance.

"We needed to do a lot of convincing and assure people that they would not be woken up at 5.30am. Most of our worship areas carry some kind of prejudice, mostly because people don't know what we do there. We had a number of meetings with the city council," said Merchant.

Snuggled between a Buddhist temple and a church, the sand-coloured, unornamented masjid (the architect of the project insists that it should be called that and not 'mosque', which he says is a French term for 'masjid') is located in Hindsdale, Il. From outside, the shrine is unpretentious enough to miss, but a closer look reveals the thought and planning put into it.

It is less ornate and has more vertical design elements derived from early Islam's influential Fatimid dynasty, which ruled parts of North Africa and the Middle East during the 10th through 12th centuries. The present spiritual leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community, Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin Saheb, believes in promoting and restoring Fatimid architecture.

The masjid has also borrowed heavily from major mosques all over the world.

"The style of the arches is taken from the Al-Anwar Masjid in Cairo, the fourth largest masjid in the world," says California-based architect, Zohair Vajihuddin, 48. "We have also borrowed the design of the minarets from the Al-Juyushi Masjid in Cairo." The minarets, he says, are symbolic of the freedom of expression of religion in the US. The ornamentation around the quibla within has also been borrowed from masjids in Cairo.

Vajihuddin came to the US in 1979 after studying in the School of Architecture, Ahmedabad. He has been working in the California area for the past 20 years and has designed many residential projects and luxurious homes in Palm Springs.

Yet another challenge was to blend the shrine's architecture with the local milieu. "The entrance, dining area and community entrance point to the regional architecture of Chicago -- where the horizontal lines are stretched -- like the cornices are stretched to symbolize the plains of Chicago," says Vajihuddin.

Consideration also had to be given to typical Indian practices. Since footwear is always removed before entering a place of worship, the planners had to include a floor drain in the room where footwear would be removed. This would trap the snow brought in during winter. The kitchens had to be equipped with extra-powerful ventilators to remove the strong smells of Indian cooking.

Light plays a very important role in Islamic architecture, since it is said to be divine. The masjid has large glass windows and as one enters the building, one steps into the courtyard or sahan which has a large skylight. The skylight is usually open in other masjids, but this one had to be closed because of Chicago's winters.

Between artfully managing public animosity, weather conditions and funding, the project called for navigation of another kind too. The mosque had to be oriented towards Mecca, so the Dawoodi Bohras commissioned satellite data to do the job.

"A Global Positioning Instrument used by NASA and the aircraft industry to establish the shortest distance between any two points in the world helped pinpoint the exact location of Mecca," says Vajihuddin.

The earthy colours used in the masjid symbolize the earthly relationship between man and the world. It also testifies to the simplicity of Fatimid architecture. The masjid, unlike many important mosques of the East, does not have inlaid mosaic, or geometric and floral patterns. There will be calligraphy on the walls but again following the Fatimid style it will be simple.

The masjid, when completed, will be more than just another tourist attraction. For the local Bohras, the architect and the builder, it has been an enriching spiritual experience and they hope to convey that to even non-Muslims.

"It was a privilege to design a masjid with a distinctive style of our heritage. Chicago is a city known for its architecture and this masjid will show how traditional Islamic architecture can blend with modern styles," says Vajihuddin.

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