By TRAVIS LOLLER
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is always a joyful time for believers, but a Tennessee congregation was feeling especially blessed this year as they worshipped Friday.
Opponents spent two years trying to halt construction of a new mosque for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, but a federal judge ruled this week the congregation has a right to worship there as soon as the building is ready.
"Ramadan this year reaches us at a very special time for us as a community," Imam Ossama Bahloul told the congregation at Friday prayers. "We have received the good news about the federal court not standing on our side, but standing on the side of the Constitution."
During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and drink during the daylight hours, breaking their fast at sundown and offering special prayers. Although it is a time of deprivation, Muslims consider Ramadan to be a joyful season. It commemorates the month in which Muslims believe God revealed the first verses of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad.
Bahloul told the congregation on Friday that Ramadan also is a time of forgiveness, urging them to ask God to forgive their sins and to strive to forgive others.
"Do not to hold any hard feelings in your heart toward anyone, even those on the opposition side," he said. " ... Pray for the opposition to get to know us and to change their feelings."
Although there has been an Islamic center in Murfreesboro for 30 years, the new building brought vehement opposition, including a lawsuit, a large rally and even vandalism, arson and a bomb threat.
Islamic center leaders say the new building is needed because they have outgrown their current space in an office park. They say there are about 250 families who use the current 2,100-square-foot building, along with about 400 Muslim students from Middle Tennessee State University.
On Friday, male worshippers spilled out the door of the old site and into the parking lot until Bahloul asked them to squeeze together so that everyone could come inside. Unlike a Christian church where worshippers sit in chairs or pews, Muslims sit on the floor during the service and prostrate themselves during prayers.
Because of the prostration, women are not supposed to sit in front of men. In the current space, that means they must worship in a separate room, watching the proceedings on a video monitor. In their new building, both men and women will be able to worship in the same room, Bahloul said.
College student Lema Sbenaty was among those mosque members celebrating the court victory this week.
"I was thinking we might not be able to go in for a year," she said. "I'm so happy. I'm elated."
Her father, Saleh Sbenaty, who serves on the Islamic center's board of directors, echoed her excitement about the ruling.
"It came like a glass of cold water on a very hot day," he said. "The whole community is celebrating this milestone achievement."
On Friday, mosque members learned that Wednesday's federal court intervention came just in time. A local judge was ready to grant a request from mosque opponents to force Rutherford County to shut down construction. The judge said in an order issued late Thursday that the issue was now on hold indefinitely.
Bahloul said he expects the congregation to be in the new space within days, but joked that there is just one problem. Through their difficulties, mosque members have received so much support from people in Murfreesboro and around the country that there is no way even the new building can fit everyone who has asked to be a part of its opening.
Opponents of the mosque, who used the issue to raise wider arguments against the faith of Islam, have not commented to The Associated Press on the federal ruling.
Joe Brandon Jr., an attorney for mosque opponents, told Murfreesboro newspaper The Daily News Journal that he is exploring options for legal action.