When Zakir Sayed moved to Bentonville in 2004, he was a part of a group of men from Wal-Mart and the local supplier community would drive to the Islamic Center of Northwest Arkansas in Fayetteville for Friday prayers. It meant a 35-minute (or more) drive down there, prayers, then the return trip back.
They would take an extra-long lunch hour so they could participate in this important weekly Islamic ritual. That proved to be time-consuming and impractical so some of the men who worked in the Bentonville area started meeting in local homes for the prayers.
More people heard about the gathering and joined in, to the point that they outgrew the ability to fit comfortably in someone’s home.
“Our group grew that we needed to rent office space,” Sayed said.
At the same time, the group became registered with the appropriate local, state and federal agencies to be a non-profit, establishing the Bentonville Islamic Center. This was in 2005 and after just one year, the group had grown so much that they had to move to another rented location. Another small growth spurt meant they had to move to a local dance studio for their center. The Bentonville Islamic Center is operated by a board elected from among the Benton County Muslim community.
The nature of the prayers means they can make just about any open space work, Sayed said.
“All we need is an empty hall,” he said.
Over time the group grew from about 8-10 to be about 150 people, said Ali Mohammed, one of the original founders of the center. Mohammed works for IBM and Sayed works for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Mohammed moved to Bentonville from Chicago but is originally from India.
The group eventually learned of a property on Northwest Second Street in Bentonville that they purchased and renovated. That building serves as the central meeting place for area families who are of the Muslim religion.
Most of the community members are from the Wal-Mart and supplier community, Sayed said. Many are Middle Eastern or from Southeast Asia, he added.
There is a regular group of about 50 people who participate in Friday prayers at the Center with larger groups participating in festivals and other gatherings. For example, there are Sunday classes for children where they are taught more about the Quran. There are two key festivals every year, Ramadan (which recently ended) and the upcoming Eid-Ul-Adha, which is Oct. 29. Non-Muslims are welcome to visit the center to learn more about Islam.
The center is also open so that members can come for daily prayers, which are scheduled according to the sun’s rotation. Morning and after-sunset prayers are the most active times because it’s the times people can most easily get away from work.
“Getting this place has been a blessing for the Muslim community,” Sayed said. “We’ve seen a huge growth as people have gotten to know about it.”
Growth in the last year or so has leveled out as most people in the community have come to know about the center, Sayed and Mohammed agreed.
Sayed said that there is a large turnout from the supplier community but that the community members are “constantly fluctuating.”
The reason for the fluctuation is that many vendor employees from other countries are in the United States for a short-term visa that allows them to stay in the United States as long as their project is in progress. Once that project is complete, they return home.
With its growing Muslim population, Northwest Arkansas offers something that most only find in bigger cities like Dallas or Kansas City – a vibrant community where Muslims can gather and offer their families religious training and an enjoyable quality of life around people of similar beliefs. The region’s unique economic demographics compared to the rest of the state contributes to the ability to have increased diversity, Sayed said.
“There are job opportunities here and it’s mostly white collar,” he said. “It’s all due to companies like Wal-Mart, Tyson and J.B. Hunt.”
With increased diversity of nationalities, cultures and religions, there has been a more noticeable effort to spread awareness about the various differences, Sayed said. International festivals and workforce sessions are two examples that contribute to the better understandings between cultures.
Sayed recently participated in a forum at Wal-Mart that featured people of different faiths. Fellow employees were able to learn more about each other and about each other’s beliefs, he said.
The growth of the Muslim community in the region has economic benefits, including an increased ability for local supplier companies and Wal-Mart to retain employees.
“It helps employee retention,” Sayed said. “If a (Muslim) community doesn’t exist in an area, people will leave because of a proper place to raise their children.”
There are larger Muslim communities in the larger towns and many who have been in NWA for several years probably would have tried moving to those areas if the Muslim community was not thriving here.
According to the Pew Research Center, about two-thirds of Muslims are first-generation immigrants and slightly more than one-third are U.S. born. Projections made in a 2011 report by the Center said that by 2030, more than four in 10 of the Muslims in the United States are expected to be native-born.
“In the United States … the population projections show the number of Muslims more than doubling over the next two decades, rising from 2.6 million in 2010 to 6.2 million in 2030, in large part because of immigration and higher-than-average fertility among Muslims,” the report reads.
As the Muslim community grows nationally and in Northwest Arkansas, it also means growth in restaurants and stores that cater to their needs. Sayed and Mohammed agreed that when they first moved to Bentonville, it was hard to find food that was appropriate to eat. Now, there are several restaurants and stores that offer food that fits both their cultural and religious needs.
A major need is for halal meat, which is meat that has been prepared according to Muslim law and pertains to the manner in which the animal was slaughtered.
“Before, it was a big challenge to secure halal meat but now there are plenty of options,” Sayed said.
There are four Indian restaurants in the area, two Indian grocery stores that offer halal meat and at least one Super Mercado in Rogers that also offers the meat.
While the food options have increased, other stores such as those that sell native clothing are not as readily available yet. Mohammed said it’s common to travel to Kansas City or Chicago to shop, or when people return to visit their home countries community members will ask them to make purchases and bring the items back to the United Sates.
Rekha Kothagunbla moved to Bentonville with her husband in 2001 because of his job with Wal-Mart’s IT Department. She has memories of working with her father at his store in India.
That, and the apparent desire for food that fits the needs of various cultures and religions, led her to start India Plaza, located in Bentonville. It is a partnership with a friend of hers in Dallas, she said.
Herself a Hindu, Kothabunbla said that the store offers fresh vegetables and meat as well as spices and other food items popular throughout India. This includes halal meat.
“I’ve been told there are more than 500 families (in all of Northwest Arkansas, including Fayetteville),” she said. “This business exists only because of Wal-Mart (and the supplier community).”