Day Two: Acco, The City of Embracing Rabbis and Imams

It is quite unusual to see rabbis and imams hug as dear friends, but in the ancient city of Acco, the unlikely has become the ordinary.

Rabbi Yosef Yashar, the Chief Rabbi of Acco, and Imam Samir Assi, a retired Imam of al-Jazzar Mosque, spent the afternoon telling us about their dear friendship and commitment to interfaith unity. When Assi walked in the door, Yashar rose from his chair to embrace and kiss the imam like a brother. “In Acco,” said Yashar, “we’re different from other places. We believe each person — no matter their lifestyle or religious background — has the right to live as she or he sees fit.”

Acco, a port city in northern Israel just a 30-minute drive from Haifa, is known for its gleaming white stone city walls and intricate mosaics. Though the physical beauty is noticeable, it’s the city’s tolerant population that makes it remarkable. “We hate only one thing in Acco,” said the rabbi. “Hatred. It sounds like a slogan, but we really mean it and live by it.”

Over the past 20 years, Yashar and Assi have formed a genuinely close relationship, which, they say, has bolstered the relationship between their respective faiths. They told stories of visiting each other’s mosque and synagogues, speaking at religious schools, and attending holiday celebrations. For Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the rabbi has traditionally been the second speaker at the celebration in Assi’s al-Jazzar — the second largest mosque in Israel. In Acco, where one third of the population is Arab, peaceful coexistence is a necessity. “Before we have our religious identity,” said the imam, “we have our identity as human beings. That’s what we’re trying to show in Acco.”

In spite of its impressive religious leadership, the city still has its own tensions and difficulties. “We had problems ten years ago where religious extremists tried to derail the relationship between Jews and Muslims, but we have worked hard to get through it together,” said Assi. Years later in 2014, Assi went to Jerusalem with an interfaith coalition after the terrorist attack on a synagogue in the city’s Har Nof neighborhood that left four dead. Upon returning to Acco, Assi found that vandals against his calls for tolerance had thrown acid on his car. In 2016, Assi retired from his position at al-Jazzar, and his successor is much less committed to interfaith dialogues. “The new imam is no longer going to go to churches and synagogues to wish people happy holidays,” said Assi, sadly.

But Assi and Yashar remain undeterred. “Not everyone likes what we do, but we have to do it anyway,” said Assi. “It’s the only option.”

After the meeting concluded, we walked into Acco’s Old City to look at Assi’s mosque. The minaret glowed bright green, and children played football and danced on the street outside. It felt comfortable, even as the cold sea breeze swept over our sunburnt necks.

(Photo courtesy of Leah Feiger.)


In Tel Aviv, Jews join with Muslims in vigil mourning New Zealand dead

Published in RNS

TEL AVIV — Dozens gathered outside the New Zealand embassy in Tel Aviv Sunday night for a somber candlelight vigil to commemorate the victims of Friday’s (March 15) mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“We are a small, bright light at the end of a dark tunnel,” Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Badr said of the event, which was organized by Tag Meir, an all-volunteer Jewish organization dedicated to ending extremist violence in Israel, in collaboration with local Muslim leaders and Israeli-Arab college students at Al-Qasemi Academy.

“We must eradicate this sort of behavior if we are going to live in peace. I hope one day we will be able to walk in the streets feeling safe and free of fear,” Sheikh Badr added.

Other local Muslim and Jewish leaders recited prayers of healing and solidarity in Hebrew and Arabic, while nine Muslim students from Al-Qasemi Academy in Haifa held placards in silence, letting photographs of the slain victims and messages reading “Stop Islamophobia” speak for themselves.

Men participate in a small vigil outside the New Zealand embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 17, 2019. Photo courtesy of Natacha Larnaud

The vigil was part of an overwhelming interfaith response to the attack during Friday prayers, which left at least 50 worshippers dead and dozens more injured. In New Zealand, several synagogues were closed on the Sabbath in solidarity with the Muslim community, and in Pittsburgh, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh set up a fund for the victims of the mosque attacks, similar to last October’s crowdfunding campaign “Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue,” which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for families affected by the Tree of Life massacre.

In a meeting with Muslim community leaders in Wellington, New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed that Friday’s attack was the deadliest in the country’s history, adding that investigators were racing to identify the victims of the shooting spree so that they can be buried as quickly as possible, in accordance with Muslim burial tradition.

“When fanatics make the most noise, our voice is silenced,” warned Rabbi Esteban Gottfried, director of the Beit Tefilah Israeli community in Tel Aviv. Midway through his televised speech, Gottfried encouraged the crowd to sing an altered version of the popular song, “Oseh Shalom,” (“A Prayer for Peace”), adding Ishmael, a reference to the biblical patriarch in Muslim tradition and first son of Abraham, to Hu Ya’aseh shalom aleynu v’al kol Israel v’Ishmael (he will make peace for us and for all Israel and Ishmael).


Redemption in a Quran class on the Upper East Side

Standing under an illustration of a boy brushing his teeth, changing his clothes, folding them neatly and “making wudoo” (ablution), the Quran teacher pointed to a sentence on the blackboard behind her: “‘Waikhfid lahuma janaha alththulli mina alrrahmati waqul rabbi irhamhuma kama rabbayanee sagheeran’. He has decreed that you serve none but Him, and do good to parents, and speak to them generously.”

Students, some struggling to stay awake, nodded their heads. It was a little past 9 a.m. on a recent Sunday.

“We studied Surah [verse] al-Isra last class – how we treat our parents, remember?” said the teacher, who asked to be identified as Ayesha. Silent pause. “But for today, there are two important Suras. I want you to choose one. Put your heads down, we’re going to vote.”

All but one student in class, a girl named Fatima, were happy to listen. With mischievous smiles, 29 students put their heads down, creating sudden, pin-drop silence in what had been the noisiest and youngest classroom in the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. There was a near-unanimous vote for “Surah al-Kahf.”

The cultural center claims to be the first mosque in New York City, built to accommodate a growing Muslim population in the city at the turn of the 20th Century. Founded on the West Side in 1991 and now located at 1711 Third Ave., the center is an architectural marvel, characterized by sleek, diaphanous glass material and postmodern granite designs.

Teaching interpretations of the Quran and Arabic to adults and children, people from all five boroughs attend the prayers, activities and school services of the center, according to Imam Chernor Sa’ad Jalloh who is from Sierra Leone. “I teach Hadith – the lifestyle of the prophet, the way he spent his life, treated his family, his neighbours and companions,” said the Imam, adding that his audience includes West Africans, African Americans, Arabs, Asians and Americans. “We have a culture of inclusivity, it’s hard not to really enjoy teaching a session,” he said.

Ayesha, though, unlike the 10 other teachers at the center, seemed to be having trouble with her class, aged between seven and 11 – particularly with Fatima. In other classrooms, older children were learning other parts of the Quran, and later in the evening, the Imam would hold a Hadith class for adults inside the mosque next to the school.

“I’m counting to two. If you don’t stop scribbling in James’ notebook and laughing, I’ll call your mother and tell her you’re not respecting the teacher,” Ayesha said.

“But I am!” the 10-year-old said, her small face teeming with anger.

“It’s not funny anymore, Fatima.”

Fatima, like the rest of the students in her class, was attending one of seven classes held at the weekend school of the center, which teaches students Arabic and the Quran from pre-kindergarten till sixth grade. The administrative staff says that almost 130 students, who attend regular school through the week, are enrolled in the weekend school. Ayesha, who is 45-years-old, continued teaching her class about Surah al-Kahf, the most popular Quran verse in class. The holy book is divided into 30 chapters and 114 verses.

“Al-Handiu lillaahil-laziii; ‘anzala ‘alaa ‘Abdihil-Kitaaba wa lam yaj-‘al-lahuu ‘iwajaa—” or “Praise be to Allah, who hath sent to his Servant The Book, and hath allowed Therein no Crookedness.” Ayesha recited the verse and then explained how to pronounce each part.

“Surah Al-Kahf will help you. It’ll protect you from bad gods like Al-Masih al-Dajjal, and it has a lot of great stories,” Ayesha said, asking her class if anybody had heard of Al-Masih al-Dajjal, an anti-messianic figure in the Surah.

“I’ve heard about Judgement Day,” said a Senegalese student named Yasin. “That on Judgement Day Al-Masih’s going to come up and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah I am god and you have to pray to me,’ and he’s like, ‘I’m going to kill you and put you back to life!’” he said.

“That’s right, Yasin! Because God gave him the power to do that! Thank you.”

“It’s like a test, right?” chimed in a boy sitting on the last bench.

“It’s a big test, absolutely! He summarized it,” said Ayesha. Al-Masih al-Dajjal represents a big test by God, she added, and people will have to choose between following somebody who proclaims he is God and rejecting him. The latter risk getting punished, and reciting the opening verses of Surah al-Kahf is a form of protection.

“Mu’minii-nallaziina ya’-maluunas-saalihaati ‘anna lahum ‘Ajran hasanaa’ – to the believers who work righteous deeds, that they shall have a goodly reward, wherein they shall remain forever,” the class continued reciting in Arabic.

Fatima continued to disrupt the class. The teacher asked her to leave the classroom.

“She’s always like this. She’s the worst teacher, I hate her!” Fatima whispered while storming out. “She’s always mean. Even when I do something nice, she doesn’t appreciate me like the other boys.”

The class went on. “‘Inaa ja’alnaa maa ‘alal-azi ziinatal-lahaa linabluwa-hum’ – that which is on earth we have made, but as a glittering show for it, in order that we may test them, which are best in conduct.”

While Ayesha picked students to recite the verse aloud in class, Fatima was asked to come back inside. The next class would study the next Surah.

“Fatima, recite this verse for me?”

“Okay, ‘Inaa ja’alnaa maa-”

“That’s beautiful, Fatima. Quiet, everybody else. Come on, alal-azi ziinatal-lahaa. Mashallah, she’s reading the Arabic and not the English translation, I adore that!” Ayesha said. “Give me a five!”

For the first time since the class began, Fatima smiled widely. The class went on.


For Shia Muslims, a special place for Fatimah, daughter of Muhammad

It’s noon on a Friday. Dozens of men in baseball caps and kufis overflow from the men’s section into the main hall of the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center, slowly settling into rows. Behind a curtain, nine women sit on the floor, scattered throughout the expansive women’s section.

 

Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, the imam of the mosque, strides up to a dark wood podium. He looks the part with his clipped graying beard and scholarly glasses. He wears a white turban and a brown flowing robe.

 

“There are a lot of [theories] about the martyrdom, the death, of Sayyeda Fatima Zahra…” Al-Sahlani begins. He speaks a halting but florid English, his Iraqi accent carried by the microphone.

 

He refers to Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad, as “sayyeda,” leader, and “zahra,” lady of light. Fatima is a celebrated figure in Shia Islam as both Muhammad’s daughter and the wife of Ali, the first Shia imam.

 

While mosque-goers gather weekly for a sermon and Friday prayers at Al-Khoei – on the corner of the Van Wyck Expressway and 89th Avenue – today is special. It’s the 20th day of the Islamic month of Jumada al-Awwal, one of the three times a year Shias commemorate Fatima’s death in 632 C.E.

 

“You cannot ignore your history,” Al-Sahlani continues. “You have to study the life of Sayyeda Zahra to find out which is the right road to be followed and where is the wrong road to be followed.” He gesticulates with his right hand for emphasis, his left gripping the podium.

 

As the imam speaks, a stream of girls filter into the women’s section in navy blue dresses and light blue hijabs, students from the Al-Iman School next door. Their clothes match but with their own individual touches – different waistlines, pockets, and pleats. Some wear their hijabs like a kerchief, others wrapped like a headscarf. Small children peek glances at the older women. Teens whisper to each other as school staff in stickered nametags guide students into neat rows.

 

Al-Sahlani continues, describing Fatima as a fighter for justice and “the connector” between four major leaders in Islam: Muhammad, Ali, and her sons Hassan and Hussein. He emphasizes her role as a loving daughter, citing one of her reverential titles “umme abiha” or “mother of her father” because she was said to treat her father with a maternal level of kindness.

 

Kids “in this society” are often more rebellious than Fatima, the imam says. And once they become adults, you can’t try to change them.

 

“The tree when it’s raised straight, and you take care for it, it will remain straight,” he says. “But if you leave it for the wind, then it will be curved, and this curve will continue for the rest of their life.”

 

That’s why religious education is so important to him. “When we teach our children, when we teach our daughters,” Fatima should be upheld as a model, he says. “Hopefully they will follow half of what Sayyeda Zahra taught us.”

 

The girls watch Al-Sahlani on a wide-screen TV from the women’s section. The little ones fidget with their scarves. Some of the older girls chatter and giggle softly, gently quieted by teachers who don’t look much older. If they’re aware the imam is talking about them – daughters – they don’t show it.

 

Al-Sahlani goes on to praise the marriage of Fatima and Ali, citing a passage from Bihar al-anwar, an 11th century collection of Shia teachings and stories. According to the text, Ali said he never made Fatima angry, he never forced her to do anything she didn’t want to do, she never upset or disobeyed him, and when Ali looked at her, “all my sadness, all my problems… disappear.”

 

There’s a pause, then a wave of murmurs like leaves rustling. One voice rises, then another and another. The congregation is punctuating Al-Sahlani’s sentence with salawat, a phrase Shias say when they hear the names of the prophet and his family members.

 

“Allāhumm-a Ṣall-i 'Alā Muḥammad-in Wa Al-i Muḥammad.”

 

“Oh Allah, may you grant peace and honor on Muhammad and his family.”

 

Al-Sahlani chuckles. He didn’t pause for people to say salawat, he says. He was just struck by the quote. Who sees his wife and forgets his problems?

 

The men laugh. A couple women smile. The kids continue to look preoccupied.

 

“I don’t know why people [are] laughing,” Al-Sahlani says with the grin of a man who just made a dad joke.

 

In a more serious tone, the imam encourages couples to emulate Ali and Fatima’s partnership, and soon after, the sermon slips seamlessly into Friday prayers. On the women’s side, teachers drop multi-colored rosaries into children’s outstretched hands. They bow together as the prayer leader’s voice rises and falls.

 

As soon as they’re finished praying, teachers usher the girls out of the room and back to school. There’s an announcement in the background. That night and the next, there would be more programming to commemorate Fatima, and the following weekend, a forum on domestic violence.

 


For the devout Shia Muslim, Thursday night is also a time for prayer

On a recent Thursday just after nightfall in New York’s borough of Queens,  cars whoosh by on the Van Wyck Expressway, faintly honking in the distance. But inside the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center, the day is hardly over – even though mosque-goers have already finished the last of their five daily prayers.

 

On Thursdays, Shia Muslims traditionally recite Dua Kumayl, an extra prayer they attribute to Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and the first Shia imam. It’s not obligatory; just a highly-respected custom.  One place where it is taken seriously is  at Al-Khoei at the corner of Van Wyck Express Way and 89th Avenue.

 

In the curtained-off women’s section, a community member, Zehra Zaida, finishes her final prostration, her forehead resting for a moment on her turbah, a traditional clay tablet, before she rises. She finds a spot against the wall of the women’s section and sits down on the plush Persian carpeting, a slim Arabic book in her lap. Her daughter sits next to her and fills in a bubble chart with names of the prophet’s family. Her son holds a book of his own, though he’s hardly old enough to read it.

 

On a large, flat-screen TV, Zaida can watch the prayer leader sitting on the floor of the men’s section just behind the gold curtain, a microphone angled toward him. His voice rises mournfully in a minor key:

 

“Bis-millahir-rahmanir-rahim…”

 

“In the name of Allah, the all-merciful, the all-compassionate…”

 

The other worshippers read the words quietly to themselves from their books and iPhones.

 

“Oh Allah, forgive me for those sins which draw down adversities.”

“Oh Allah, forgive me for those sins which alter blessings.”

 

“Oh Allah, forgive me for those sins which hold back supplication…”

 

As the singsong notes waft over the divide, the tone of the room shifts. An older woman in a checkered headscarf, a tissue balled up in her right hand, seems to hold back tears.  Zaida’s wide brown eyes are serious, her long black hijab draped around her. She also sniffles quietly.

 

“Oh Allah, I find no forgiver of my sins, nor concealer of my ugly acts, nor transformer of any of my ugly acts into good acts but you,” the prayer leader continues.

 

“There is no God but you.”

 

The prayer goes on to appeal to God’s mercy. It asks God to forgive the reader for “every sin I have committed and to every mistake I have made,” to enable humility and gratitude. It begs God to come close, to build a relationship with the reader despite her human frailties.

 

“Some part of it makes us scared of our sin,” Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, the imam of the mosque, explained later that night. “Some part of it gives us [a] kind of hope [in] the mercy of God.”

 

Dua Kumayl also poses an argument to God, Al-Sahlani said. “If Your mercy is everywhere, where will You put me to punish me?” The prayer reminds people to do better, but also reminds God that punishment is against the divine nature, he said. Dua Kumayl ultimately “gives a hope and also gives a precaution.”

 

According to Shia tradition, Imam Ali imparted the prayer to his companion Kumayl Ibn Ziyad Nakha'i, who memorized it and shared it with others in the seventh century.  Eventually, it was written down and named for Ali’s friend. While Shias can recite Dua Kumayl anytime, it’s customarily said on Thursdays, the eve before Jummah or Friday prayers. It’s also recited on the 15th day of Sha’ban, a holiday in the lunar month before Ramadan. Traditionally an auspicious day for God’s forgiveness, Shia communities spend the entire evening in prayer.

 

Zaida has been reciting Dua Kumayl every Thursday night since she was a kid. Now she brings her own children to the mosque to hear it. It’s a commitment. The prayer generally takes up to 30 minutes to read. There are only five other women there, compared to the 20 or so men who also braved the below-zero cold that evening. But it helps her to introspect and set her intentions for the week.

 

“We try our best to do all the good deeds, but still, we are human,” she said. “We do so many sins and mistakes… Every Thursday, it’s a reminder for us that we have to [stay] away from the bad deeds and stay on the right path. It’s constantly asking for forgiveness.”

 

The imam’s voice rises and falls, and Zaida continues to murmur. She occasionally leans toward her son to playfully bump foreheads, breaking the night’s somber tone if just for a moment.

 

Twice, the room joins together in a refrain set to a simple tune that sounds like a sigh.

 

“Ya rab-bi ya rab-bi ya rabb.”

 

“Oh lord, oh lord, oh lord.”

 

It’s 9 p.m. Zaida has been at the mosque since nearly 7:30. After a few more interludes of private prayer with the imam’s voice alone in the background, the congregation  joins together for the final words of Dua Kumayl.

 

“Bless Muhammad and Muhammad's household, and do with me what is worthy of You.”

 

“And Allah bless His messenger and the holy Imams of his household, and give them abundant peace.”

 

Zaida and the other women exchange kisses on the cheek and filter out of the mosque, the Van Wyck Expressway a little less busy now. They’ll be back next week.