For Druze in the United States, Religion is a Way of Life

At Samad’s Gourmet Deli in Manhattan, Wassim Malaeb was talking about the Druze faith when a teenager paid him double the price for the candy bar she selected from the store’s shelves. As she was about to leave, he called out and stopped her. “It’s two dollars, not four,” he said as he returned the extra money. Turning back, he continued the conversation about his faith. “It’s just you and God,” he said. “No rituals.”

 

The exchange, on a recent winter day, spoke volumes about Druze belief and behavior. While the Druze see “ritual” as an obligation for a special caste of believers, religious practices filter down into everyday life. Malaeb does not consider himself religious, but he lives his Druze faith through doing good deeds in the world and passing on his values to his children.

 

“Believing in God and raising a good family,” said Malaeb. “That’s 70 percent of the religion.”

 

Malaeb spoke as he tended to customers while the sun dipped below the horizon outside the deli at 112th and Broadway. Behind him, rows of aromatic spices and freshly baked baklava gave witness to his Lebanese origins — as did a large Cedar tree printed on bags containing loaves of pita.

 

According to Sahar Muakasa of the American Druze Society’s New York chapter, there are only a few dozen Druze living in New York City. That represents a small fraction of the estimated 30,000 in the United States, one of the largest communities outside the Middle East. Of the approximately 1 million Druze around the world, most live in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.

 

Outside of a small number of initiated Druze, known as the uqqal, most members of the faith observe no formal religious ritual. In Malaeb’s hometown of Baissour in the mountains of central Lebanon, the Druze dominate. Here in New York City, where he is part of a much smaller community, there are no houses of worship and hardly anyone formally initiated in the faith.

 

Despite the absence of these outward expressions of the Druze religion, the core tenets live on. “Almost no one here is religious, but we have to keep the community together,” said Malaeb. “This faith is all about the mind, because if you can control your mind, then you can do good things in life.”

 

Many Druze live their faith as a way of life. They attend yearly retreats and gatherings, abstain from eating pork, and refrain from drinking alcohol. But Malaeb sees it more as religious conditioning than ritual. “When you drink, your mind can’t do good things,” he said. “If you can’t control your mind, you lose control over your soul.”

 

To the Druze, the mind is represented by the color green. It is the first of the five colors that symbolize the faith, proceeding in a cosmic order: green for the mind, red for the soul, yellow for the truth, blue for willpower, and white for the realization of that willpower in the material world. These colors are often arranged in a five-pointed star, or in a flag that’s commonly flown in Druze communities.

 

Even those colors, important as they are, are not essential to living the faith. What matters, said Malaeb, is to live according to values such as honesty and altruism so that you are rewarded in the next life. Reincarnation is an important part of the Druze religion, granting believers a new life after this one.

 

Leaning back on his chair during a pause in business, as silence briefly filled the store devoid of customers, Malaeb told a parable that his father had taught him as a young child.

 

“One day there was a wealthy man, who had acres of land and a large, beautiful home,” said Malaeb. “He owned everything except for a tiny plot of land, where there lived a woman who was poor and pregnant. The rich man wanted to kick her out and have all of the land, so he did.”

Malaeb grinned and paused. “Nine months later, the woman gave birth, right after the man died,” he said. “The man was reborn as the woman’s child, but now he returned as a child with no land. He took his own inheritance away from himself.”

 

In the larger Druze community of New Jersey, the same tenets hold true. Wael Fayad emigrated to the United States three decades ago from the small hamlet of Bchetfine in the Chouf mountains of Lebanon, a half-hour drive south from Malaeb’s hometown. While there are few Druze religious leaders, or shaykhs, in the United States, he said he still found ways to live his faith.

 

“Our doctrine is a direct connection to God, 24/7,” said Fayad. “God is within us, and we are reminded of that connection by our values on a daily basis by the way we live our lives.”

 

For Fayad, the most important value is truthfulness. “Truthfulness of the tongue and preservation of the brethren are the key tenets,” he said. Ghassan Saab, a member of the American Druze Foundation’s Board of Trustees who lives in Michigan, echoed his sentiments. “Truthfulness and honorable dealing,” said Saab. “That, to me, is the main tenet of the Druze faith.”

 

Represented by the color yellow, truthfulness occupies a central position in the order of Druze colors and precepts. Fayad’s son, who was born in the United States, wears a necklace bearing the five-pointed star as a reminder of his identity.

 

Even among those who don’t consider themselves religious, these values are an essential part of daily life. “


In New York, a Druze Leader Keeps Her Faith Alive

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.”