HILLIARD, OHIO (AP).- The commanding white structure sits on the edge of cornfields in the suburbs, striking in design yet puzzling in its purpose. One of the largest new Islamic worship centers in the country doesn't look like a mosque, at least at first glance.
And that's what its developer was aiming for, especially in a post-9/11 world. "We went to the architect and explained that we didn't want a building that stood out as a mosque," said Khaled Farag, who also is one of the mosque's founders.
"We wanted something that fit into a residential neighborhood. We wanted an American mosque," Farag said.
The result is a cultural contradiction: a building that is not immediately recognizable as an Islamic house of worship, but is one, as well as a facility that functions as a seven-day-a week interactive museum about all things Islam.
"It's not your traditional-looking mosque, because it's not just a mosque," said Abdul Aburmaieleh, a regular worshipper who also custom-built his home in a nearby upscale subdivision.
"Prayer is done as one function," he said. "It's a community center, a cultural center."
Fair or not, Muslims building a new mosque face far more scrutiny than Christians erecting a new church. Plans to create an Islamic cultural center near the site of the terrorist-destroyed World Trade Center caused an uproar last year. The developer of that center, which opened last week, says the biggest mistake was not involving the families of 9/11 victim from the beginning.
Central Ohio is home to a growing Muslim population of more than 25,000, or more than double what it was 10 years ago. Census figures show a majority are from Somalia Columbus has the second-biggest U.S. Somali population after greater Minneapolis along with immigrants from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, among other countries. The region's relatively stable economy and comfortable lifestyle have long been a draw.
Plans for the Noor Cultural Islamic Center were well under way before the Sept. 11 attacks. After the tragedy, the center added interior glass walls and additional windows and launched an aggressive community outreach program. Farag says the goal was to make the building more user-friendly for non-Muslim visitors.
The $7.4 million center opened five years ago this month. During the August celebration of Ramadan, the annual Muslim holy month of fasting, supporters raised the final $360,000 to pay off the construction debt.
Ohio's best-known mosque, built by the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo in 1981, sits near Interstate 75, visible for miles with its striking dome and minarets, the tall towers used historically to call worshippers to prayer.
The Noor center deliberately lacks minarets, and its domes hug either side of the building in understated fashion. Its gabled roof echoes the peaks of barns that dot Ohio's rural landscape. Its many windows make it easy for visitors to look inside and once they're inside, to observe worshippers in the large prayer hall.
Architect Bob Apel says his marching orders were clear.
"They didn't want to impose themselves on everybody else," he said. "They wanted to be part of the community."
About 2,000 people attend prayers weekly, including packed services each Friday around midday.
It sits on the border between two well-off Columbus suburbs and was developed as part of an upscale subdivision whose homes are popular with Muslim professionals.
Educational posters line walls inside the mosque. "What do Muslims think about Jesus?" reads the title of one. "Who are American Muslims?" asks another.
The center hosts a variety of activities for Muslims who attend the mosque, including legal and health clinics, weekend Arabic classes for children, counseling services and parenting classes, among others. For non-Muslims it holds a weekly "Islam 101" class and tour each Saturday, bringing in members of local churches and synagogues.
"One of the keys to preventing bigotry and so on is when you have an opportunity to sit and learn with someone," said Michael Ungar, a Columbus rabbi who has co-taught classes at the mosque with Muslim and Christian leaders.
The center is hardly the first mosque with a nontraditional design in the U.S. or abroad. The Islamic Society of North America's headquarters in Plainfield, Ind., is a modernist building nearly three decades old.
Last year, the Islamic Society of Greater Valley Forge opened a new $1.5 million mosque in suburban Philadelphia that, like the Noor Center, lacks minarets and brings to mind a community center, not a house of worship.
Other mosques have chosen a more traditional look. In 2005, the Islamic Center of New Mexico reopened with a traditional dome-and-minaret building after the previous structure, a simple, modern-looking facility, was torn down.
In Dearborn, Mich., in suburban Detroit, home to one of the biggest Arab-American populations in the country, tall minarets and gold domes dominate the Islamic Center of America.
Islamic studies expert Akbar Ahmed said the Noor Center put aside rich cultural traditions with the design, he said.
The result is a message that says, "'Look, we are a distrusted community and we are vulnerable and we need to hide our identity,'" said Ahmed, chair of the Islamic Studies Department at American University.
Farag stands by the center's unorthodox design.
The feeling among the mosque's founders was, "We're in the United States, we need to do something different, we need to first make it do things that mosques ought to do in the United States, and also it's got to look like something that comes from the United States," said Farag, 49, who emigrated from Libya as a youth.
"Something always bothered me about a mosque that looks imported from somewhere," he said.
The Noor Center sits at the entrance to the Silverton Farms neighborhood, where homes start around $300,000. Residents are a mix of faiths, with a majority Muslim.
Shannon Pollino, a non-Muslim who lives within walking distance of the center, bought a house in the neighborhood in 2006. He questioned the idea of moving near a mosque but decided that wasn't how he should live his life.
"I'm sure a lot of people opposed it I personally could care less," said Pollino, 39, a telecommunications sales engineer. "I'm not going to stop anybody or feel any different towards an individual because of their belief."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.