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.”

 


Thanking God for the big things – and the little ones – at a Harlem church

At the Ephesus Seventh-Day Adventist Church on Lenox Avenue and 123rd Street, the ground was shaking as Pastor Lawrence Brown paced to the crimson-red podium on the stage, armed with his iPad and Bible app. The subway train passing underneath the church caused the rumble, but Alvaro Stewart, a Costa-Rican builder next to me, said that the ground-breaking sound effects made the service “more biblical.” Brown wore a black turtleneck sweater and blue jeans to complete the modern look. The elevated stage was lined with a stunning arrangement of nine oval pots of artificial flowers, alternating red and white, with a U.S. flag on each end.

Stewart had just eaten dinner with the pastor, a meal consistent with the Adventist belief of maintaining a healthy body, mind and spirit. Meat, alcohol and coffee were off the menu, which is why, combined with a day of rest on Saturdays, “we live on average five to 10 years longer than non-Adventists worldwide,” Stewart adds.

Thirteen members of the predominantly African-American community showed up to the Wednesday evening service, far from the 1,300 regulars who fill the spired, two-story Harlem church every Sabbath.

(Photo courtesy of Renee Nixon Simmons)

“Anywhere with Jesus I can safely go,” Brown began chanting, as a West African pianist to the left of the stage played a rendition of the eponymous hymn. “Anywhere with Jesus I am not alone,” everyone answered.

Following the song, Brown thanked the devoted dozen for attending the service in spite of the arctic cold and invited personal testimonies from the crowd. “Would anyone like to talk about the goodness of the Lord?” Brown asked. Customarily, congregants would in two or three minutes explore their relationship with the Almighty by offering examples of the ways God changed their life that day or week. They would thank the Lord for giving them the fortitude to overcome challenges threatening to distract or derail them.

The room was quiet.

Senses were heightened as an ambulance’s colorful, shrieking siren suddenly illuminated the stained-glass windows. The ground shook again, almost in frustration to the group’s momentary reticence. But in the far-right corner of the church, by a book-sized locked gold box inscribed with the words “offering,” an elderly woman aged 74 rose and shouted, “Thank you, Jesus.”

“I lost my wallet today,” she said.

Amen

“But I did not lose my soul. Peace, and bless the Lord.”

Amen, Amen

Then, a middle-aged, olive-skinned man from California, with a scarlet-red scarf draped over his white jumper, got up and thanked the Lord for his spiritual family at this church. “I’ve been away for a few months and it’s great to be home again,” he said.

Amen

Next, a young woman stood up in the front row by the wooden charity basket and thanked God for what he did to her that morning. “I was with my sister until late the night before, maybe 1:30 a.m.,” she said. “And our Savior woke me up at 6:00 a.m. this morning so that I could help my sister who had no heat or hot water in her apartment. My sister and I prayed together, and the Lord revived her water.”

Amen

And as Brown was about to gesture to the pianist to begin playing the hymn “When We All Get to Heaven,”  his personal favorite, an elderly man in a cream suit and tie gently got out of his seat with the help of his granddaughter. “I am happy to say that I just turned 90,” he said, his voice raspy. “But thanks to Jesus, I can walk and I can jump, and I hope we continue this fellowship.”

 


Ahmadi Muslims stand for humility, yet bow their heads in prayer

On a warm Sunday in February, over 200 women, many accompanied by young children, gathered in the women’s prayer hall at a mosque in Queens. They fell to the carpeted floor during prayer, folding in their knees, sitting on their heels, and lowering their heads until they touched the ground.  Some held their hands slightly in front of them, together, pinkies touching, with palms facing up. Some interlaced their fingers, criss-crossing, pressing their hands against their face. Most—except for small children—wore scarves of various colors, partially or fully covering their hair. All sat in a particular, curved, almost upright fetal position in complete silence for several minutes, before slowly unraveling at the collective utterance: “Ameen.”

It was a synchronized moment of prayer and devotion that plays out regularly in this fashion among the men, women, and children of the Ahmadiyya community at Bait-uz-Zafar Mosque located at the intersection of McLaughlin Avenue and the recently-renamed Ahmadiyya Way in the Hollis section of Queens, New York.

Islam’s sect of Ahmadis see prayer as a holistic experience that involves not just the spirit, but the body as well. This “conversation with God,” as they see each of their moments of worship, is communicated through not only what is said from the mouth (like Qur’anic verses) but also what is conveyed without an utterance, through the mere stance in one’s body as they commune with their higher power, Allah. Thus, posture, in itself, is also a form of worship for Muslims.

Imam Mahmood Kauser, the head imam of the Ahmadi sect in New York City at their headquarters in Queens, described the concept of prostration before God. “We Ahmadis believe that the body and soul are connected, and when your body has a certain gesture, it affects your soul.”

Kauser is young, lightly bearded, and sports a karakul hat, which he says is of traditional Indonesian design. Before assuming a high religious position in the Ahmadiyya community, he studied at an official Ahmadi university in Canada.

The prostrations during prayer serve as a metaphor or a reflection of the mind, he explained. “If you have this very arrogant stance, it will depict what you actually feel deep down inside,” said Kauser.

“There’s all kinds of science behind it. Sometimes you say you agree, but your head instinctively moves left and right. Scientists and psychologists will say that that indicates that you’re actually disagreeing, but with your mouth, you are trying to agree. When you speak with your father and pump out your chest, you display that you are prideful.” Thus, bowing, in the eyes of Muslims, it is the greatest level of submission and humility. Carl Jung’s book “Psychology and Religion” speaks of a similar concept, though Jung adds that the act of bowing may be a sign of acknowledging greater power and seeking appeasement or “propitiating.”

“We believe that when you are in prostration, it doesn’t matter how arrogant you may be, your soul feels a sense of humbleness,” said Kauser. “You could be the most arrogant man in the world, but the moment you are prostrating in front of somebody, that all goes away. It’s the most intimate posture you could possibly be in our form of prayer.”

This physical state coordinates in tandem with the meaning of the prayers that are recited, silently or aloud, in that position of humility.

“In that prostration, you are literally in the lowest state that you can be in. But what’s interesting is that in that moment, you are reminded to say: ‘Oh God, you are holy and the most high.’”

A significant piece to this posture of submission is also in the hands. “When in a posture of absolute prostration, your hands are asking,” Kauser states, referring to the open hands, palms up, covering the face, as previously mentioned. “We hold our hands as if we are beggars.”

“But we only beg to God,” Kauser adds.

This is something the Ahmadiyya sect particularly emphasizes. “We have exclusively kept this position only for God. As a Muslim, we don’t prostrate in front of anybody else. It doesn’t matter if he is a king or ruler or whatever. We prostrate before God alone.

In other religions, worshippers bow, kneel, prostrate, recite, and show reverence through their hands when communicating with God, but in this one fluid Ahmadi ritual of bodily gestures, Kauser notes, Muslims encompass all those acts within their daily prayers.

(Photos courtesy of Radha Dhar.)


The power of music at a Protestant service in Greenwich Village

NEW YORK — The clock struck 5:00 p.m. when the Rev. John C. Lin stepped up to the wide, sand-colored, theatre stage at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village.

He placed the cream program guide on a black music sheet stand and welcomed parishioners as they hurriedly filled the red seats. He opened the guide, and read a quote from J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”:

 As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all – the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.”

He looked at the congregation and continued on with reflections. This time, with an ode to New York City.

“New York, you got money on your mind, and my words won’t make a dime’s worth a difference, so here’s to you New York.” 

He stopped reading, turning to an audience made-up of a racially-diverse set of young people huddled in winter coats. As they were settling in, Lin paused. Then, he started speaking on a subject all too familiar to New Yorkers: Success.

Success, he said, should not be the way people define themselves. Nor should one’s identity be based in his or her work.

They, he said, are defined by what Christ has done. He told the believers worship, through the singing of hymns, allows them to remember that truth.

Lin called on the congregation to stand. All stood, and flipped open their program guides to the hymnals.

Two women stepped up to the microphone. Four men on the back side of the stage began playing music. The bang of the drums became prominent, but soon enough, piano keys and guitar strums could be heard throughout the room.

The big-screen monitors hung on the right and left side of the stage flashed on. And as four lines of lyrics from the first song selection, Crown You with Praise by Natalie Grant, lit the screen, the congregation got ready to worship and act on the minister’s message.

As the drums thundered louder, the women began singing.

We crown you with glo-ry, we crown you with hon-or

Je-sus, we crown you with praise.

We crown you with song and dance,

We crown you with lift-ed hands,

Je-sus we crown you with praise!

Parishioners followed. Some reading the lyrics from their program guides, while others sung along looking at the screens.

The tempo picked up, and one word was repeatedly emphasized.

Singers: Wor-thy, wor-thy, wor-thy

Parishioners: Wor-thy, wor-thy, wor-thy

Singers: Je-sus, we crown you with praise

Parishioners: Je-sus, we crown you with praise!

The Protestant congregation praised Jesus. In the faith, he is the messiah, the savior for humanity where the believer’s identity is found.

The beat of the drums slowly died down. A transition was happening to a different song, and this one required a gentler touch. The piano keys picked up, and the lyrics on the screen changed.

The singer with the soprano voice began with the first line:

How lovel-ly is Your dwell-ing place, O Lord al-might-y,

For my soul longs and e-ven faints for you. For here

My heart is satisfied with your pres-ence.

With nearly half the congregation looking at their guides, and the other half looking at the screen, they sang the chorus for the song.

Singers & Parishioners: Bet-ter is one day in Your courts,

Bet-ter is one day in Your house, Bet-ter is one day in Your courts

Than thou-sands else-where.

Parishioners continued in unison, looking at the stage, the guides, the screen, and some, at others.

Those arriving late had to walk up the main aisle and approach an usher for program guides. The man smiled, briefly handing out pamphlets pre-made for the 5:00 pm service on February 3rd, 2019.

More people began filling in the seats, and the music once again transitioned to another song.

Rev. Lin looked on from the stage, also singing along.

(Top photo courtesy Redeemer Presbyterian Church of NYC)