When Salim Patel decided to offer burial services at the Chicago Sunni Muslim Society, he was sure of two things: first, that there was a need for an undertaker following the strict washing-and-wrapping procedure Islam requires; and second, that he would offer those services free to anyone who needed them.
In May, he applied to rezone the Muslim Society’s building in Albany Park to allow burial preparations in addition to the services he already offers, such as the teachings of Islam and prayer arrangements.
The growing Muslim population in Patel’s neighborhood and the city mean a corresponding increase in services aimed at that community.
“Around us there are so many restaurants and grocers serving Turkish, Pakistani or other Middle Eastern dishes and that’s creating new centers for the community,” said Patel, a director of the Chicago Sunni Muslim Society. “I’ve talked to a lot of people in my own community, and they’re very joyous to have a place in (Albany Park) that will provide these services.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations estimates Chicago’s Muslim population at between 300,000 and 500,000 people, or between 11 percent and 18 percent of Chicago’s population. As for mosques, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago says there are 52 within the city’s limits, but that number varies.
“Chicago is a diverse place that sets itself up as a welcoming city and it provides services (to new immigrants). In communities, we’re seeing a number of new mosques pop up every year,” said Sufyan Sohel, deputy director and counsel of CAIR. “As the population grows, they’re seeing more of a need for these services that may not have been priorities before.”
Fueled by a surge in immigration, the city’s Muslim population started growing about five years ago. Second- and third-generation Muslim families have also contributed to the boom.
Faryal Khatri, communications coordinator of the Islamic Society of North America, said that the growth could be related to the loosening of immigration laws in the 60s and a desire to learn more about the religion by people of all faiths.
“It’s the nature of history. The ’60s were a time of a lot of immigration — laws changed and that opened doors for a lot of people and there were waves of immigration,” said Khatri, whose group recently held its annual convention in Rosemont. “Now, people are more interested in learning about Islam. We’ve seen a growth in Islamophobia, but we’ve also seen a growth in people seeking a greater understanding of Islam and seeking to build bridges.”
The expansion of services is not only happening at Patel’s mosque. Since Nazim Mangera became the imam of Chicago’s Muslim Community Center two years ago, the center has added a second daily service at its Elston Avenue location, serving about 300 people by the end of its daily prayer services; 600 total counting the two services at the center’s Morton Grove location.
The increase in services goes hand in hand with the increase in the city’s Muslim population, Mangera said.
“Chicago, compared to other large cities, has fewer mosques so that’s why we have more people in our centers,” Mangera said. “The number of services we offer, and the number of people who come, has been increasing since I started working here.”
The growth in Chicago’s Muslim population is starting to be reflected in the city: restaurants like Epic Burger serve halal meats, grocers near mosques have English and Arabic writing on their windows, and businesses like Nike and Uniqlo have added hijab lines. The number of halal grocers in the city has grown but still lags behind other big cities like New York and Los Angeles, according to Zabiha, a website that keeps track of halal restaurants, grocers and other businesses.
Sohel believes this is a good step and shows that businesses are becoming more inclusive and “companies are getting smarter.” For Patel, the expansion of the community, and his role in offering vital services is creating excitement. The measure to rezone passed.
“It’s good to see the area becoming more multicultural,” Patel said. “When we come to the U.S. to raise our kids, we want them to know different cultures, races and religions. It’s exciting to offer these services and to help the people who need them.”