On Friday afternoon, worshippers pack Masjid Bilal Ibn Rabah on Russell Cave Road. Just outside, the mosque's future site is being built — a $1.5 million, 8,000-square-foot structure, complete with dome, that will hold about 500 people.
It will be the first purpose-built mosque in Lexington. Money is being raised locally, including an initial $800,000 in pledges.
The mosque should be finished by May, according to Ihsan Bagby, a member of the Masjid Bilal board of trustees. Masjid is the Arabic word for mosque. Bilal Ibn Rabah was the name of an Ethiopian slave freed by the Prophet Muhammad and chosen by him to recite the call to prayer.
From its beginnings on Georgetown Street in 1978 — in a building it retains as its Share Center, which provides outreach and coordinates activities including serving food to the homeless — the congregation moved to a 2.4-acre spot at 1545 Russell Cave Road in 2004.
The mosque outgrew the building on Russell Cave Road shortly after the congregation arrived there, Bagby said. Additional space was needed, and because the congregation already had acreage and one building on Russell Cave, it decided to place a new mosque in front of the old one.
"We fill every nook and cranny for the Friday prayers," Bagby said, referring to the faith's formal sabbath service.
Friday prayers proceed in a manner familiar to most religions. There are prayers and genuflections, some liturgical elements, a message (on a recent Friday, a call to the congregation was given to explain its Muslim faith to a community that views it with post-9/11 wariness), a report on church member activity and finances, and a post-service social gathering with cookies and fruit.
Masjid Bilal's congregation plans to retain the first building for use in Sunday Islamic school, small group study, office space and fellowship gatherings.
The congregation has about 100 members, but Bagby said Muslims have a different idea about church membership. The mosques belong to God rather than to a group of people.
And that group of people is getting larger. As the congregation filed in for the Friday prayers, the worship area filled with hundreds upon hundreds of people.
When the new mosque is completed, Bagby said, "We hope to use it as a coming-out party for the community, like a springboard" for Bluegrass-area Muslims to attain a higher profile within the community.
Already, Muslim congregations have been established in Prestonsburg (Masjid Alfarooq), Somerset (Islamic Center of Somerset), Elizabethtown (Islamic Center of Elizabethtown), Bowling Green (Islamic Center of Bowling Green) and Louisville (various sites; the city is estimated to have 5,000 to 10,000 Muslims).
The Kentucky Islamic population is growing because of an influx of diverse populations for hospitals, colleges and other employers, Bagby said.
Shahied Rashid, a religious leader, or imam, of Masjid Bilal, has been involved in Lexington's Muslim community since 1975, even before it moved into its Georgetown Street quarters.
The new construction "has got a good vibe to it. My wife says it's like the angels are in it," Rashid said.
Russell Cave Road has seen a burst of new building during the past decade. In 2008, a $7.4 million public library branch opened. The former library next door became the University of Kentucky/Lexmark Center for Innovation in Math and Science Education.
Near the mosque is the 1,300-member Consolidated Baptist Church, which opened a worship center in 2003 and built a $4.5 million expansion in 2008.