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Since moving to Springfield, Sultan Zahirsha has fostered a dream.
Upon entering a back office at American Dental Solutions LLC, evidence of this dream is everywhere – in sketches and elevations, framed and otherwise, and in stacks of paperwork.
Zahirsha has another office up the hall – he is the CEO of the dental practice of his wife, Dr. Mehjabeen Zahirsha, known to her patients as Dr. Zee. But this one is strictly devoted to bringing the dream of American Momin Park to fruition.
Central to his vision is a mosque, plus what he says would be the only Muslim cemetery in the city.
On 5.5 acres in west Springfield, construction work began Oct. 23 for a 10,500-square-foot building with a worship hall as the centerpiece, as well as a fellowship hall and school.
The site also will be dedicated as a Muslim cemetery. Sultan Zahirsha anticipates the mosque will open its doors within 18 months. The park is located at 1441 S. Moore Road, north of Sunshine Street and across West Bypass from Rutledge-Wilson Farm Park.
Zahirsha, a civil and structural engineer and information technology professional, has labored over every aspect of the design. He plans to use a steel building for cost savings – he’s currently budgeting it at $800,000 – but he wants to make sure it looks polished and welcoming.
“It is a God place, so make it beautiful,” Zahirsha said.
Zahirsha personally donated $1.5 million for the land purchase and to put toward the cost of the building. The money came in part from the sale of his family home in Chennai, India. Zahirsha also has formed a nonprofit, American Momin Park Inc., to raise funds for the project. The organization owns the land where the mosque will be built.
Dr. Zee moved to Springfield in 2004 to join a dental practice, and Zahirsha followed her three years later, relocating from Los Angeles. Zahirsha said a lot of professionals in the IT and medical fields hail from South Asia – Google CEO Sindar Pichai also is from Chennai – and some bring their skills to the United States.
When those professionals arrive in Springfield, they find a mosque, the Islamic Center, at 2151 E. Division St., which Zahirsha attends regularly. He notes, though, that there is no Islamic school for members and no cemetery for their deceased loved ones. This causes many of them to complete a residency or assignment and then leave, he said, rather than making Springfield their home.
Zahirsha estimates the Muslim population in the Springfield area at 1,000, but that may be a generous figure. The Association of Religion Data Archives reported 308 Muslims in Greene County in 2010 – that’s 0.11% of the population – and 2020 figures have yet to be posted.
Additionally, Springfield is expecting 100 Afghan refugees following the U.S. armed forces evacuation of Afghanistan in August, according to a presentation from the International Institute of Southwest Missouri.
Zahirsha would like to see the Muslim population of Springfield rise by at least two – his sons, who left the city to pursue their education and careers elsewhere. One of his sons lives in Chicago, with a thriving Islamic population and several mosques and schools to choose from.
Most professionals share his sons’ desires, according to Zahirsha.
“They want to go where their kids will grow ethically and religiously,” he said. “I felt the same thing.”
One of the most important features planned for American Momin Park is its cemetery, according to Zahirsha.
“Any Muslim who passes away here, we don’t have our own cemetery,” he said, adding the nearest Muslim cemeteries are in Joplin, Kansas City or St. Louis.
Zahirsha explains the Islamic faith has requirements for burial. Mainly, the dead must be buried quickly, generally within one or two days of passing. Zahirsha notes everyone wants to be close to their dead loved ones, and Springfield’s lack of a Muslim cemetery has pushed potential residents away. He hopes to change that with American Momin Park.
Torrential rains fell Oct. 23, and the ground at the American Momin Park site was covered with mud. But that didn’t keep Mayor Ken McClure from coming to the groundbreaking and offering heartfelt words about the importance of belonging.
“Developing a culture of belonging is essential to any healthy community,” he told the crowd.
He noted Springfield is a diverse community – nationally, ethnically and culturally.
“We continue to celebrate diversity and inclusion as it brings strength to our community,” he said.
Taj Suleyman, Springfield’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion, also addressed the crowd, which he said included people from other faith communities.
“To me, it felt great that the community recognized the value that they have,” he said. “I thought it was powerful.”
He said he looked around the crowd and saw some older people who were weeping.
“They were crying with happiness that they felt they could finally call a place home,” he said. “They felt a stronger connection to the community here.”
It’s important, Suleyman said, for people to identify with the place they call home.
“This will inspire people,” he said. “They see themselves in this community and that they can thrive; they belong here.”
Zahirsha said one of his goals is to provide an open place of worship for everyone. A key part of this is offering what he calls a “sister-friendly” mosque – one that allows women to enter through the front door and includes them equally in decision making.
The Islamic Society of North America has called for women to have access to worship spaces without physical barriers separating them from men. The 2011 American Mosque Report, produced by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, shows 66% of mosques use dividers to separate women’s prayer spaces.
Zahirsha clarifies in many mosques, women must enter by a separate door, often in the back. He can’t imagine building a mosque and telling his wife, Dr. Zee, to enter in the rear. “She would slap me,” he joked.
He envisions festivals and interfaith meetings in the new mosque, though finding available contractors to work on the property has been a challenge.
For her part, Dr. Zee said she is looking forward to the new, modern mosque, where the plans are for women to share fully in the life of the community.
“Everyone is excited,” she said. “Families now will start staying here. I can’t wait.”
SBJ interviews the interim dean at the William H. Darr College of Agriculture at Missouri State University.