Imam Abdul Karim Ali counted himself among a small number of Muslims in the Tampa Bay area when he converted to Islam 35 years ago. Many, like him, were African-American.
Dr. Hormoz Saber, who moved to the United States from Azerbaijan in the 1950s and to Pinellas County in 1972, quickly discovered that he was part of a tiny religious minority.
"If I had time to go to mosque on Friday, there was nowhere I could go to,'' the retired internist and oncologist said.
The stories are similar among Pinellas County Muslims, some of whom remember a time when their numbers were small, but now point to many established places of worship for a thriving community of ethnically and culturally diverse believers."
"There's been a tremendous change,'' said Mazen Marie, a Palestinian who moved to St. Petersburg two decades ago. "Honestly, when I came here, I could count the people I knew on one hand that were Muslims. Now they are in the tens of thousands.''
While recent figures are unavailable, anecdotal evidence suggests that the community has grown. Seven years ago, Imam Haitham Barazanji of the Islamic Society of Pinellas County, whose members worship in a former church in Pinellas Park, estimated the number of Muslims countywide to be about 10,000. The data had been compiled from attendance at area mosques, marriages performed, contributions, counseling sessions and other types of participation, he said.
Since then, new mosques have been established in Clearwater, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg. Among the most recent is one in a former United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg's Harbordale neighborhood. Masjid Al Sunnah, the Islamic Society of St. Petersburg, at 24th Avenue S and Sixth Street, has about 120 members, Marie said. He said the group removed crosses, stored pews and installed new carpeting to accommodate their faith.
Old-timers are pleased to see the increased Muslim presence.
"You've got to feel good about the growth and the proliferation in terms of numbers, as long as we don't have anybody coming with any crazy, warped idea of what Islam is,'' said Imam Abdul Q. Aziz, an African-American convert.
In 1990, Aziz and his friend Ali helped found Masjid Al-Mu'minin (the Believers Mosque) at 3762 18th Ave. S in St. Petersburg. Ziad Ahmed, who is from Morocco and has lived in St. Petersburg since 1986, remembers the early days. The building that now houses the mosque had been unused and needed lots of work, Ahmed said.
"We were gathering every penny, and we got it done,'' he said.
The masjid has since been renamed the St. Petersburg Islamic Center and is headed by Imam Wilmore Sadiki, who is African-American.
Ali and Aziz have moved on to form the Tampa Bay Area Muslim Association, a small group that worships in a member's home and focuses on community projects such as mentoring and tutoring.
The Pinellas Park-based Islamic Society of Pinellas County is one of the area's older Muslim congregations. Established in 1986 in St. Petersburg, the group eventually bought property at 9400 67th St. N. "We were a few, and then the numbers started growing,'' said Dr. Ahmad Batrawy, a retired dentist.
These days about 300 to 400 worshipers attend Friday prayers. At major holidays like Eid al-Fitr, which will mark the end of Ramadan later this week, crowds are expected to swell to about 1,500. This year, as has become the custom, people will gather at the nearby Forbes Recreation Center for prayer and breakfast. Members are from around the world, said Batrawy, who is from Egypt.
"This is one of the beautiful things of Islam. It gathers all ethnicities and all types of people from all over the world,'' he said. The diversity is particularly evident during Ramadan, when different families sponsor the evening iftar, or breaking-the-fast meal.
"It's like an international cuisine every night,'' Batrawy said.
Some mosques, though, attract specific ethnic groups. What is believed to be the county's oldest Muslim community developed in the Dunedin area, where Albanian and Turkish Muslims settled in the 1960s. At the American Islamic Center in Pinellas Park, most members are from Lebanon and Iraq, said Stetson Law student Shadi Fackih. The county has at least two Bosnian mosques.
It's often a matter of being comfortable with people who speak the same language and have the same culture, Batrawy said. "The most important thing is we are in contact with each other and we all know each other,'' he said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.