The Islamic Center of Northeast Florida is Jacksonville’s largest gathering spot for Muslims, and will celebrate its 30th anniversary of serving the community next year.
It’s a vibrant campus that houses both a school building and a large community center with space for meetings and group prayers.
Just down the street, the center also operates a free health clinic called Muslim American Social Services – the clinic is open to all, regardless of religious affiliation.
Most impressively, the entire center is a product of pure fundraising – Islam forbids the borrowing of money, meaning everything was built with the help of donations from the community.
The keeper of the center’s rich history is the chairman of its Board of Trustees, Ashraf Shaikh.
Shaikh has watched over the years as Jacksonville’s Muslim community grew from less than ten families to its current size of over 8,000 residents.
Having grown up in Pakistan, Shaikh immigrated to the United States in 1966. By ’74, he’d found his way to Jacksonville and quickly fell in love with the city while working at the Shipyards.
ICNEF’s history begins in 1978, Shaikh explains, although at the time it was more of a concept than a reality. Slowly the organization progressed along – first in 1979 with the purchase of burial plots for their members, then in 1982 with the purchase of actual land to build on just off of St. Johns Bluff Rd.
The land was cleared, but their funds were exhausted. By this time, the Muslim community had expanded to around 50 families.
Daily prayers were conducted on an uncovered slab of concrete. With Islamic tradition calling for five prayers each day, poor weather was simply a reality to be accepted by members.
And when the rain came, members continued with their prayers undeterred by the conditions.
Gradually, the center’s main building was constructed bit by bit with the help of donations – as well as money awarded to ICNEF as the result of a lawsuit against the state related to the construction of I-295 right behind their property.
The most recent addition to the main building – a large, aluminum minaret – was installed around seven or eight years ago.
The center also added a school building around the turn of the century. The school serves students from pre-kindergarten to 8th grade, with plans to construct a high school in the future.
“I’m in awe sometimes,” says Shaikh of the progress that’s been made.
Of course, the amazing progress that ICNEF has made would go to waste without a thriving community to make use of it.
It’s estimated that are around 8,500 Muslim residents in Jacksonville. This makes Islam the second-most practiced religion in Jacksonville, behind the various denominations of Christianity.
ICNEF, the largest of seven mosques in Jax, has members that come from over 30 different countries.
ICNEF’s members take an active role in the community. As previously mentioned, they operate MASS, a free health clinic that focuses on offering care to residents that fall below the poverty line and are uninsured.
Since opening in 2010, the clinic has served more than 2,000 patients. It features a staff made up entirely of volunteers – both Muslims and non-Muslims, and also partners with We Care Jacksonville to provide specialty services for other free clinics.
Shaikh himself was previously the Chief Financial Officer at First Coast Cardiovascular, which he says has been helpful in finding doctors to volunteer their time at the clinic.
In addition to MASS, the center provides meals for the city’s homeless population six times a year at the Sulzbacher Center. They usually serve around 400 people per visit.
The center has also been active in interfaith dialogues around the city, seeking to foster peace and growth among the different faith-based communities in Jax.
The Response, and How to Learn More
In turn, the Jacksonville community at-large has been extremely supportive of Muslims, says Shaikh.
ICNEF tries to aide in the process of understanding the Muslim culture through its monthly “Explore Islam” meeting.
The meeting, which takes place on the first Saturday of each month, aims to introduce non-Muslims to their Muslim neighbors. It started around two years ago, and attendance usually ranges from 20 to 50 residents.
You can learn more about ICNEF and its events at its official website: https://icnef.org