Keene’s first mosque opened to worshippers earlier this month, fulfilling a goal of local Muslims who for years have made do with temporary prayer spaces.
“Here we are today, we have our own place, we conduct our worship and we can praise Allah,” Ahmad Alabbadi, a Walpole resident and active member of the local Muslim community, said in a sermon Dec. 15, during the mosque’s first Friday prayer.
Mixing in an Arabic word, Alabbadi added, “This is all qadar. It’s fate.”
“Fate” is a fitting description for the unusual way the mosque came together.
The Masjid al Latiff and Interfaith Community Center, or MALIC Center, occupies part of a two-story house at 659 Marlboro Road/Route 101 in Keene. The property’s owner — the Shire Free Church: Monadnock — is a self-described interfaith organization whose ministers are local libertarian activists. (The Keene Board of Assessors has denied a different church-owned house tax-exempt status at least twice.)
Last summer, one of those activists, Ian B. Freeman, got to talking about the New Hampshire Muslim community with a Tennessee-based radio host named Will Coley.
Coley, 36, converted to Islam in his 20s and co-founded the religion-inspired libertarian advocacy organization Muslims4Liberty. He said he met Freeman through the Porcupine Freedom Festival, an annual libertarian gathering in Lancaster.
According to the two men, Freeman offered to donate the Shire Free Church-owned house for use as a mosque if Coley, then based in Tennessee, would relocate and become its imam.
After moving in September, Coley worked to ready a space for worship. That has involved cleaning, putting in drywall, painting and laying down carpet. At least a dozen volunteers, including non-Muslims, pitched in, he said.
The prayer space is two conjoined rooms at the front of the house. The off-white walls are adorned with dark-red trim and, in a few places, Arabic calligraphy.
A green carpet with rows of arches angles diagonally to point toward the holy city of Mecca, which Muslims face during prayer.
Behind the prayer space is a nursery room — still unfinished — for worshippers’ kids. Shelves in the nursery hold the kernel of the mosque’s library — Islam-themed picture books for kids, tomes on religion for adults and holy texts from different faiths.
The work so far has cost about $25,000, funded by individual donations and by money from the Shire Free Church, Coley said.
Muslims in the Monadnock Region have tried to establish a mosque before. According to Parvez Musani, a former area resident who used to host prayers in his basement, a previous campaign raised about $30,000 — a decent sum, but not enough to purchase property.
The donated building, along with Coley’s efforts, made the crucial difference, Alabbadi said in an interview Wednesday. “It was a generous gift.”
The local Muslim community is not large, but enough to supply a small congregation. Musani, in an August interview, estimated 30 to 40 Muslim families live in the Monadnock Region and adjacent parts of Vermont and Massachusetts.
Friday prayers held in rented rooms have tended to attract about 10 people, Alabbadi said. But he sees a permanent house of worship eventually attracting new residents to the area.
More than 20 people attended the mosque’s Dec. 15 opening, Coley said. Mohammed Ali recited the call to prayer that day. “I can’t forget that moment,” said Ali, who owns Curry Indian Restaurant in Keene.
After living nearly a decade in the city, never able to pray in a mosque, Ali said he was overcome with emotion. A few people of other faiths who had donated or volunteered labor came, and Ali thanked and hugged them with tears in his eyes.
With the prayer space mostly finished, Coley has various other renovation plans, including a room he hopes to convert to an “interfaith area” where Quakers and other minority faiths can pray.
He also has some paperwork to get to.
Coley said the Shire Free Church will transfer ownership of the Marlboro Road house to the MALIC Center within the next few weeks. He plans to apply for tax-exempt status for the property in the spring. And he expects to resolve a permitting issue with the city early next year.
In November, Coley filed an application for a sign permit with the city’s Code Enforcement Department. Plans Examiner Gary Schneider told him he could not process the application, as Coley had not filed for a change of use. The 659 Marlboro Road structure is listed in city records as a single-family home.
Coley said city employees had previously told him the sign permit application was the only required paperwork. Initially, he vowed to put up a sign in defiance of city regulations, citing the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.
But he later softened his stance — in part, he said, because members of the local Muslim community were wary of confrontation.
Coley said Wednesday that he plans to file the change-of-use paperwork after he wraps up several other projects and finds the time.
Meanwhile, city officials are waiting for more information before moving ahead with a sign permit for 659 Marlboro Road.
“We’re not really sure what’s going on,” W. Rhett Lamb, the city’s planning director, said last week. “Right now we’re treating it as a single-family home. If they’re having a private prayer meeting, that’s fine.”
Despite frustrations with red tape, unexpectedly arduous renovations and New England’s frigid air, Coley said he is happy he made the move.
“Being able to see in the eyes of the local community how happy they were, how moved they were, the unfiltered joy … all that was completely worth it,” he said, “for the looks on their faces the day that we opened.”