Islam in Nevada

In the mid-twentieth century, the number of identifiable Muslims in Nevada was limited to a few professionals in the north and, in Las Vegas, a small cluster of African-Americans affiliated with Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam. Since then, Islam in Reno organized itself as the Northern Nevada Muslim Community with its own mosque. Southern Nevada, which experienced explosive growth since the 1960s, now has five mosques incorporating a diversity of ethnicity and practice.

Islam in Northern Nevada

The beginnings of formal public worship in Reno are traceable to Ahmed Essa, English professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who shortly after his arrival in 1967, joined in prayer with Professor Nazir Ansari and later, Salim Akhtar. In 1971, Essa arranged for recently matriculated Iranian university students and interested faculty to worship regularly at the ecumenical and interfaith Center for Religion and Life adjacent to the campus. Muslim staff, students, and families utilized the Center, until the local Roman Catholic bishop returned the facility to its original use as a Newman Center in 1984.

Reno Muslims subsequently rented a house on College Drive, several blocks west of the university. Because of disagreements between Sunni and Shi'ite members on matters of worship and organization, the Sunni group departed and rented an apartment at Tenth and North Virginia Street. The dwindled Shi'ite community abandoned the house on College Drive and some joined the Sunnis for worship. The apartment's small size, concerns about sanitation in the apartment complex, and continuing tension between the Shi'ite and Sunni members made this location less than ideal.

Through the efforts of Nadiah Beekun and Dr. Yunus Cengel, as President of the Northern Nevada Muslim Community (NNMC), a reunited Muslim community subsequently purchased property at 1295 Valley Road, and in a few years it acquired adjacent land to include two old buildings on 17,000 sq. ft. of land. Imtiaz Ahmad, a local building contractor, helped renovate the property and transform it into a working mosque.

In 1997, the group had sixty members, with many more attending Friday prayers. The mosque's small size, as well as structural and safety concerns, soon rendered it unsuitable. The community successfully petitioned for a zoning change and raised funds to design and build a new mosque on the site. However, the effort failed due to internal disagreements and the limitations of the property itself. The result, under the leadership of Tariq Quraishy, was relocation to 1855 Oddie Boulevard in adjacent Sparks, Nevada, which is the present home of the Islamic Center of Northern Nevada.

Islam in Southern Nevada

The Muslim community in Southern Nevada had a presence predating that of the Reno area and reflected Southern Nevada's growing population. The first Muslims in Las Vegas were African-Americans in the 1950s who affiliated with one or another group emerging from the Nation of Islam. They established the first Nation of Islam Temple in the early 1960s at D Street and Jackson Avenue. A split between followers of Louis Farrakhan and W.D. Muhammad led the latter group to build the mosque, Masjid As Sabur, in the late 1980s. The total number of African-American Muslims in Las Vegas has been estimated as high as 5,000 by one of its leaders, Mujahid Ramadan.

Muslims, like many others, moved to the city for better jobs, cheaper living costs, and business possibilities. The year-round convention industry also attracted Muslims from all over the world. However, each ethnic community had its version of the history of Muslims in Las Vegas and each had a different pattern of moving to the city. For instance, the people of Indo-Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin traced their presence in the city to the small student community that came to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in the early 1960s to pursue higher education. Many of them decided to settle after completing their educations. The Iranians marked the mid 1970s as their beginnings in Las Vegas, resulting from the Iranian student population and the subsequent migrations due to the political regime change in Iran.

Afghans traced their history to the exodus following the occupation of their country by the former Soviet Union between 1975 and 1985. The Albanians dated their presence in Las Vegas to World War II, when Albania was declared a communist state. The Bosnians arrived during the Balkan war in the mid 1990s. The Somalis, Ethiopians, and Eritreans immigrated to the area during the period of political instability in their countries in the 1980s and 1990s.

It was no longer unusual to see a Muslim woman in a head scarf in big shopping malls or to find bearded Muslim men from different ethnic backgrounds operating businesses on some of the city's busiest streets. One could find restaurants serving special religiously permitted food in more than ten locations in the city. Commercial signs for Islamic goods and services appeared in English, Bengali, Arabic or Persian; and Lebanese, Persian, Moroccan, Pakistani, Middle Eastern, Indian, African, Bosnian, and Malaysian restaurants abounded. Cable television offerings included Arabic, Urdu, Bengali, Persian, and many African language programs.

The Las Vegas Muslim community was one of those few that reflected the broad ethnic diversity of the city. At an April 2000 gathering of Muslims at Masjid As-Sabur (As-Sabur Mosque) on Morgan Avenue, a young doctor transplanted from Egypt challenged his ethnically and philosophically diverse audience to unite around a common platform. Indeed, he was talking about a multi-ethnic community that traced its ethnic ancestry to Sub-Saharan Africans, Caucasians, Hispanics, Indians, Pakistanis, Lebanese, Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Somalis, Bangladeshis, Algerians, Moroccans, and more.

The September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center occasioned a period of great stress for Nevada's Muslims, as Islamic communities across the country came under scrutiny by federal agents and the general public. Although there was local community support for Muslims in Reno and Las Vegas, there were incidents common at both ends of the state. Authorities detained people attempting to travel by air, some people stigmatized veiled Muslim women, and others applied the terrorist stereotype to all Muslims.

The FBI conducted investigations of Las Vegas Muslims, leading some to be deported. A number of immigrant families returned to their native countries after September 11, fearing what a war on terrorism might portend for Muslims in general and Middle Easterners in particular. Of those who remained, some adjusted their behaviors to avoid confrontation by shying away from the mosque or changing their names. Others, like Aslam Abdallah, directly challenged radical Muslims as unworthy of Islam, in the pages of the Las Vegas Review-Journal or at sponsored forums condemning violence in the name of Islam. In this respect, Nevada Islamic communities were both the suspects and the government's partners in the war against terrorism.

Current Muslim Population

In 2008, the number of worshippers for Friday prayer in Reno exceeded 200, and the local mosque was overflowing on the major feasts. The estimated numbers of Muslims in Northern Nevada ranged widely between two and four thousand people—a significantly lower percentage of the state's population than in Las Vegas.

The Los Angeles Times 2004 five-part series on Islam in Southern Nevada estimated a population of 10,000 Muslims in Las Vegas, and local Muslim community leaders raised that figure to 18,000 in 2007. They are served by five mosques, which include a public information center frequented by the city's Muslim visitors.

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