Mosque gets makeover for Utah Muslims you may not know about: Bosniaks

Religion • Community uses open house to point out similarities to Christian teachings.

When they hear the word "Muslim," most Americans conjure a Middle Eastern image of Arab features, brown skin, brown eyes, dark hair.

But Islam is a global religion, not an ethnicity. Lots of Arabs are not Muslims, and lots of Muslims are not Arab.

Just ask the Bosniaks, some of them blue-eyed and blond, who are hosting an open house next week at their newly renovated mosque in northwest Salt Lake City.

"People always ask me if I'm Russian," quips Alen Ramovic, who has been in Utah for nearly two decades after fleeing the devastation of the 1990s Balkan wars.

Indeed, more than 7,000 Bosnian refugees, their relatives and friends now call the Beehive State home after seeking shelter first in Europe and then the United States.

They are, for the most part, Muslims.

Now they have remodeled a former Baptist church, which they bought in 2010, into their own mosque — complete with a minaret tower, domes, an iron fence, a large covered patio and prayer rugs.

Here's another thing most people don't know about Muslims: Jesus is a central figure in Islam, not as the son of God, but as a prophet and divine messenger. And they revere the Virgin Mary almost as much as Christians do, believing she was one of the greatest women in Islam.

In fact, Utah's Islamic Society of Bosniaks (as they call themselves) chose the name Maryam for their made-over mosque at 425 N. 700 West.

It was a conscious choice, explains Alija Music, recently elected president of that Islamic society. "It is one of the beliefs we share with Christians."

For Muslim women from Bosnia, wearing hijabs — or the familiar headscarves — is optional, Ramovic says. "In Utah, probably one or two out of five or six do. My grandma does but my mom and wife don't. Some only cover their head during services at the mosque."

The group hopes Utahns of all faiths will see similarities, rather than differences, with their Bosniak neighbors.

The Dec. 10 open house will showcase Bosnian culture, traditions and hospitality.

"As a part of the greater American society, we try to present our religion of Islam and our national Bosnian heritage the best way we can," Music says. "Our dear prophet teaches us to love and respect people around us regardless of who they are."

That's what Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams wishes, too.

"As a place of worship and a cultural gathering place," McAdams says in a news release, "it is a wonderful addition to our many diverse faith-based communities."

Though there are cultural differences with other Muslims, all Islam believers follow the "five pillars":

• Declare that there is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet.

• Pray five times a day.

• Give alms.

• Fast during the annual Ramadan holy month.

• Take at least one pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

And, no matter what language is spoken at home, prayers and worship at the 300-member mosque are all in Arabic — even by Bosniaks.

pstack@sltrib.com Twitter: @religiongal