For the past year, passers-by have been curious about the impressive construction project in the 6300 block of Barclay Avenue — a gilt-domed, turreted, two-story edifice.
It is the new place of worship and education for local Muslims, the Islamic Center of Hernando County. And on Saturday, about 500 visitors toured the 10,000-square-foot mosque and learned about Islam and those who practice the faith in Hernando.
The event marked one of the aims of the building project, to "open up more to the community, a bigger place to allow guests," said spokesman Dr. Ghiath Mahmaljy.
The membership had congregated in a modest cinder-block building on the same site since 1985.
"It was too small," Mahmaljy said of the previous mosque, built when only about a half-dozen Muslim families lived in the county. The number now includes about 80 families with 300 to 400 individuals.
While the new mosque's exterior is grand, Mahmaljy said the interior is modest, except for a double-tiered crystal chandelier in the prayer hall donated by member Dr. Husam Shuayb.
"Generally, we don't like to show off," Mahmaljy said, pointing out: "The roots in our teaching is of humbleness. We weren't (previously) trying to hide, but it's now time we needed a bigger place."
Inside, no paintings, images or statuary adorn the mosque.
"Anything that could lead to glorifying others than God is forbidden," Mahmaljy explained.
He referred to the 10 Commandments from the Christian Bible and the Koran: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image."
Several tapestries and a large mosaic in mother-of-pearl decorate the walls of the main prayer hall, which faces east, toward Mecca. The art, Arabic script, spells out chapters of the Koran, said member and tour guide Rydanah Atfeh.
"All the mosque is mainly a prayer room," she added.
The central space, designated for men's worship, rises two stories. Above is a balcony prayer room for women. The tradition of separation is to avoid distraction during prayers, Mahmaljy said.
Otherwise, the mosque includes only a small office and restrooms.
The former mosque now houses classrooms, though there are no plans for a true school on the premises, Mahmaljy said.
Southeast Custom Homes served as contractor on the $1.6 million project. A Muslim precept forbids "usury," so the construction was paid for before it began. The Islamic Center's board of directors proposed the expansion at a business meeting, and at the close of the two-hour session, Mahmaljy said, the total cost was committed.
"All donations were paid from the local community," he noted with pride.
"They'll think we're rich," he said modestly, but pointed out that "a high percentage" of the members are physicians with disposable income.
The Muslim community was giving freely at the open house, not just leaflets about the religion, but free copies of the Koran, other books, CDs and videos with information about the five pillars of the religion, their covenants and customs.
Visitors on Saturday ranged from an Episcopalian who wanted information for "my own edification" to a Lutheran church administrator curious about Islam and a Baptist wanting to learn more about the Christian Bible's base in the religion.
Mahmaljy, who gives sermons and leads prayers at regular services, hopes that others will visit to learn more about Islam and its local members.
The mosque's telephone isn't regularly staffed, so he recommended that anyone interested contact a member personally to learn of prayer and visiting opportunities. The doors are open daily for 9 p.m. prayers, one of the five daily prayer sessions for Muslims.
Beth Gray can be contacted at email@example.com.