The fourth-graders at the Masjid Darul Qur'an Academy in Bay Shore sat at their desks trying to memorize the Quran in Arabic.
Each of the 10 students, the girls with white scarves around their heads, the boys in blue shirts and pants, took turns reciting passages as their teacher, wearing a traditional long Arabic green shirt known as a jubba, encouraged them.
The school is one of only three full-time, New York State-accredited private schools on Long Island dedicated to instilling the Islamic faith while teaching a basic curriculum. The others are in Hempstead and Valley Stream. The three have a total of about 500 students. The Bay Shore academy offers classes in English, social studies, math and science, along with classes in the Quran, Arabic and Islamic studies.
"We emphasize character building," said the principal, Khurshid Khan, a native of Pakistan who holds degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Pittsburgh. "We try to train them that Muslims have to be moderate, middle of the road."
The school is an outgrowth of the Bay Shore mosque on East Third Avenue, the largest on Long Island with an estimated 2,000 members. The mosque and school reflect a growing Muslim population on Long Island, estimated to be about 75,000, according to Habeeb Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, the oldest mosque in Nassau County. Ahmed said there were about 10,000 to 15,000 Muslims living on Long Island in the mid-1980s. The Westbury mosque began in a house basement in the early 1980s; today, the mosque on the same grounds draws 500 worshipers on Friday afternoons.
The Bay Shore school opened in 2003 with two pre-K classes and now goes up to sixth grade. Student enrollment is up from 117 last year to 145 this year. The school operates out of two houses and a couple of rented trailers about a hundred yards from the mosque. Mosque leaders have submitted initial plans to the Town of Islip to build a two-story school building nearby that would house all the students and go up to 12th grade. If all permits are awarded, mosque leaders say, the new school could open within two years.
The mosque and school, tucked into a residential neighborhood just north of the Southern State Parkway, are not well known to many people in town, said Islip Town Supervisor Phil Nolan. He said the two facilities have helped the neighborhood. "I think they have a very positive impact" on the community, he said. "It's a beautiful building. It's upgraded the area."
Leaders of the mosque say they have overcome suspicions about its presence and helped revive a struggling neighborhood as members move in and rehabilitate houses.
"Initially, there was a little apprehension in the neighborhood," said Dr. Hafiz Rehman, a local pediatrician and a leader of the mosque. But now "the community has really embraced us. They can understand the difference between mainstream Muslims and the terrorists."
Days after the 2001 terrorist attacks, some people threw stones at workers who were constructing the new mosque and work had to be stopped temporarily, said mosque president Athar Suhail.
These days, about the only complaint neighbors such as Carlos Roldan have is about cars parking on the streets during Friday afternoon prayers.
"They have been a very good neighbor," said another neighbor, Mary Reid, a Brentwood library trustee who lives near the mosque.
Across Long Island the Islamic community is a diverse population, and that is certainly true in Bay Shore. After services at the spacious mosque, the faithful gather to chat in Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Hindi, French, Spanish and English. They hail from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Egypt, Morocco, Kenya, Ghana, Mali, Cameroon, Turkey, Syria and the Palestinian Authority. A smaller number are American-born converts and, increasingly, Latin Americans, Suhail said.
In the 1970s, a handful of Muslims including Rehman living on Suffolk's South Shore rented out church basements to pray. In 1988, a member of that community died and donated his house on East Third Avenue in Bay Shore to the group. That house became the group's first mosque. The group eventually bought a house on an adjacent lot, demolished it and began work on a full-fledged mosque. Construction on the $3-million structure began in the summer of 2001.
After the rock-throwing incident, mosque leaders talked with residents to ease tensions, Suhail said. It helped, but still, when the mosque finally opened in 2003, "it was a combination of happiness and nervousness." The school opened at the same time, in the house that used to serve as the mosque.
Today, seven years later, Suhail said, the Muslim community has become part of the fabric of the neighborhood. "The most important thing now is to give our children an atmosphere where they can grow without fear," he said.