Sahar Muakasa’s eyes grew wide with wonder as she flipped through the carefully scanned pages of one of the six Hikma, or Druze holy books, on her computer. Each page was meticulously handwritten in Arabic calligraphy, the beginning of each new chapter marked by larger, more ornate characters vividly painted in the five colors of the Druze faith.

“In Lebanon, every family will have at least one of the six books in their home,” she said, sitting in a worn office chair in her office on the second floor of a nondescript glass-and-steel building on 38th Street and Eighth Avenue. “These books cannot be printed, they must be handwritten. Opening the book is a ritual in itself.”

 

At least one Saturday evening a month, Muakasa holds religious meetings for the handful of Druze who live in the five boroughs and upstate New York. When the group can’t find a hall to rent elsewhere, they meet in Muakasa’s small office, which also serves as the New York chapter of the American Druze Society. Inside a narrow room with a low ceiling and harsh lighting, a beige sofa and wicker chairs sit arranged around a small coffee table.

 

Dressed in a gray sweater and blue jeans, Muakasa, 66, comes across as an unassuming figure.  When she is not juggling her roles at the head of three Druze charitable and religious organizations, she is on a quest to find a permanent house of worship to replace the drab halls and tiny rooms that currently act as a makeshift spaces for the community.

 

Usually, a shaykh, or Druze religious leader, is present at these meetings to read and interpret the Hikma. Most American Druze are unable to read Arabic, and it is forbidden to translate the six epistles of wisdom into other languages. Muakasa sees it as her duty to answer the questions of the congregation, many of whom come from as far away as Syracuse to learn more about their culture and religion.

 

“I see what they need, I follow and participate,” she said. “If a woman wants to ask a private question, then I answer them.”

Chuckling, she recalled the questions of younger Druze Americans who sometimes challenge the precepts of the faith. “The younger generation asks why they can’t marry a non-Druze,” she said. “We organize retreats for them every year, and so many people meet their future spouses there.”

 

On a recent Wednesday evening in February, Muakasa told me that meetings had been suspended until next month due to the absence of the only shaykh in New York. He was in Syria, and the sessions could not be held without him.

 

“Religious” is a fluid term for the Druze. While only a small minority of believers chooses to formally read the holy books and wear the clothing required to join the ranks of the initiated, many more practice their faith to varying degrees of intensity. Muakasa began studying the six epistles when she was young, and her fascination for her faith continued to grow into adulthood.

 

Despite the lack of a formal meeting, Muakasa fielded questions about the Druze. As I perused my notes and mentioned the seven commandments I had read about, she abruptly stopped me. “They’re not commandments, that’s wrong,” she said, shaking her head. “They’re traits. There are no commandments in the Druze religion.”

 

Over the course of three hours Muakasa expounded on her faith, covering everything from the mundane — no consumption of pork — to the complex, like the inner workings of reincarnation. “A lot of people talk and haven’t read the books,” she said. “I read the books, I study them, and then I teach.”

 

Swiveling her chair back towards her computer, she paused to admire the pages displayed on the screen. “Many Hikma are written by women, and they scribble notes in the margins to explain the teachings,” she said. What she described as scribbling was in truth elegant penmanship, small annotations slanting upwards from the main text.

 

Next, she opened YouTube and searched for a Druze religious song. “We sing them only on Thursday nights here,” she said, referring to the evenings that mark the beginning of the Druze day of rest on Friday. “We praise people from the Hikma, all the prophets and good souls who came before us.”

 

After a brief moment of silence, a melodic chant echoed through the room. Only the shaykh sang at first, soon joined by a chorus of believers chanting in unison. Muakasa smiled and sang along under her breath, adding her voice to the ethereal choir.

 

When the music ended, she returned to teaching. Comparing the chants to Christian hymns, she harked back to her youth as a student in a Catholic school in Beirut. Those were fond memories for her, even as a Druze. “Every day, we had to attend mass in church,” said Muakasa.

 

For someone who belongs to a religion as codified and dogmatic as Catholicism, it can be difficult to comprehend the practices of the Druze. Almost scoffing, Muakasa brushed this concern aside.

 

“In every religion you have your own identity, and if you’re born Christian, then you’re Christian, that’s just a fact of life,” she said. “But there’s more to religion than that.”

 

Pointing to the large stack of books about the Druze she had prepared for me to read on my journey home, she cut a contrast between her faith and mine. “Some religions are about beliefs, like the Ten Commandments or the Five Pillars of Islam,” she said. “For us, religion is a way of life.”