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A closer look at last surviving founder of Lodi Mosque

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Posted: Friday, August 26, 2005 10:00 pm | Updated: 8:34 am, Fri Mar 21, 2014.

It's 2 p.m. on Poplar Street and the sound of a voice leading a prayer can be heard coming through screened windows of the Lodi Muslim Mosque.

The prayer session is one of five daily prayers recited in ceremony in the city of Lodi since 1978 when a small group of Pakistani men converted an empty meeting hall into the Lodi Muslim Mosque.

Chances are, Syed C. Shah, reportedly the last surviving founder of that mosque, has been at most of those prayers.

While he immerses himself in his Muslim faith, the 70-year-old Shah prefers to distance himself from the issues facing the mosque today. The accusations of terrorist ties. A deported imam. The national media. A fracture within the worship center.

He focuses, instead, on daily prayers and family life.

"I'm just coming to pray over here," he said, stroking his beard. "I don't want to come (to the mosque) to come in between these things."

As he gets on in years, Shah's thoughts tend to trail off into stories about the past. Still, he offers his reflections on the differences between the Lodi Muslim Mosque in the beginning and the mosque today.

Cornerstone of faith

In 1978, Shah decided to pursue starting a mosque in Lodi. He enlisted the help of Johnnie Khan, whom he met in Yuba City years earlier. The group was considering property off Eight Mile Road when they learned of an available space more centrally located.

"Somebody told me a church was selling," Shah said. "They showed it to me, and I liked it."

Some 30 years earlier, Shah had traveled to the United States from a northern region of Pakistan called Peshawar. He worked on farms in and around Yuba City, where he met Dorothy, the girl who would become his wife. The couple moved from Yuba City to Lodi in 1964, where Shah earned a living as a labor contractor.

He provided workers for nearby farms and packing plants like Pacific Coast Producers. Fellow Lodi businessman Johnnie Khan, who worked in the same industry, would eventually join Shah and others to form the first mosque board operating under corporation bylaws penned in December of 1978.

A modest brick building at 210 Poplar Street had previously been used as a religious meeting place, when the group decided to buy it. Shah said he put up the $140,000 to pay for the land and building.

At that time, most Muslims in the Lodi area drove to mosques in Stockton or Sacramento for prayer. Some went only on Friday for special services, but others, like Shah, commuted many times each day.

"If we pray at home, we get the reward of one prayer," Shah said in a recent interview. "If we pray in the mosque, we get the reward of 70 prayers."

Not long after the Poplar Street property was purchased, it was converted to meet the needs of its Muslim congregants. Sinks for washing before prayer were installed along the northern wall and an area was made to accommodate more than one hundred people during a single prayer.

Slowly, it would become the cornerstone of faith for area Muslims.

Then and now

On a recent afternoon, Shah sits in a folding chair outside the north entrance to the Lodi Muslim Mosque, enveloped in the shade of its small porch area. In his weathered hand, he holds a crumpled cap made of white cotton.

When he came to the Lodi area, the Pakistani population was a small, close-knit group of people. There were arguments, he says, though attendance at the mosque was regular among nearly all men.

On Fridays, the mosque was packed. And people from the older generation were always willing to help one another. There wasn't as much of a difference between older people and their children.

He said younger people put a lot of emphasis on getting an education and not so much on keeping with the traditions of Islam.

Now, with more than 2,000 people, factions are forming within the Muslim community. Shah acknowledges recent feuding among some of the mosque's members over finances, future building projects and leadership of Lodi Muslim Mosque.

"If they would sit down and talk to each other, there would be no problem," he said.

As he speaks, fellow male congregants begin to file out of the mosque -- some get into cars and drive off quickly, while others mingle along the grassy border nearby Blakely Park, carrying on conversations with one another in their native tongue of Urdu.

The scene is one of relative peace. Tall trees in the park bend to the breeze at the same angle as dark pink crepe myrtles planted in front of the mosque. The sun shines on children climbing the jungle gym in the park under watchful parents' eyes.

It has not always been like this.

Center stage

Just a few months ago, the park and mosque set the stage for media frenzy as reporters looked to mosque for updates on the arrests of five men linked to Lodi Muslim Mosque.

Three of those men, former imams Shabbir Ahmed and Mohammad Adil Khan, arrested on immigration charges, have been or are in the process of being deported to their native Pakistan. Two other members, Umer and Hamid Hayat, await trial without bail and face charges of lying to federal agents about their ties to terrorist groups in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Shah maintains the daily ritual of prayer, keeping his nose clean of local politics. He knew the arrested men, since they were members of the mosque. He kneeled many times at prayer sessions led by imams now deported.

In another recent interview at his Lodi home, Shah talked about the mosque members in question.

As far as he knew, they were good people. He said he saw no evidence that the Hayats were involved in anything political, or that there was merit to allegations that the imams had ties to extremists in Pakistan.

"They wouldn't do these things," he said of the accusations. "For how long I knew them, they never did this."

Regardless of his feelings, Shah made sure not to involve himself in political matters surrounding the mosque.

Now he comes to nearly every prayer held at the mosque that, so many years ago, he helped create. Perhaps he lets slip from his mind the worries of the day and the world outside.

He is not alone -- around him are men who, thanks to him, have a place to worship.

"I'm glad, at least, a lot of people come to pray," he said. "On Friday, there is no place to stand -- that's good."

Contact reporter Sara Cardine at sarac@lodinews.com.

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