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 Surahs. 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,” said Ayesha.

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,” said Ayesha.

“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 continued. “‘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.

 


A church of many languages thrives in Brooklyn

The sounds of Arabic and Syriac could be heard at Our Lady of Lebanon, the Maronite Cathedral in Brooklyn Heights on Sunday, Feb. 10, as the church celebrated the annual feast of St. Maron.

 

At the 11:30 a.m. Mass, the cathedral was brimming with worshipers, some who joined the Mass at different intervals after it had begun. They padded across the church’s red carpets, with grand chandeliers suspended from the arched blue ceiling overhead. Mother Mary, painted above the altar, is crested by the mountains of Lebanon.

 

Unlike Roman Catholic churches, which largely say Mass in English in the United States (some parishes offer other languages, like Spanish, according to their parish needs), Maronite churches such as Our Lady of Lebanon have a Mass (or “Qurbono”) that combines English, Arabic and Syriac. The readings, for example, are recited first in English and then in Arabic.

 

The Rev. Bishop Gregory Mansour’s Sunday homily was one of the only parts of the Mass that was solely in English. On Sunday he spoke on the gospel reading, John 12:23-30. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” Mansour quoted. The passage is often used by Christians to explain why Jesus died. Mansour used this scripture to address the feast day the cathedral was celebrating. “This could very easily apply to St. Maron,” Mansour said, given how the saint’s influence and following grew following his death.

 

In his homily, Mansour described how the legacy of St. Maron lives on. The saint, he said, was an “open air hermit” who travelled into the mountains to be closer to God, and went on to build a church there in the elements. But he said he wanted to highlight the lessons that can still be learned from the saint. He said there was something special about the “particular feeling” you “might be doing God’s work”—a feeling he suspected St. Maron had when he was building his community.

 

Mansour also drew attention to unique history of the Maronite Church. “We are the only church named after a person,” he said of the various Catholic churches, which also include the Roman, Chaldean and Melkite churches. He noted that the Maronite Church is unique because it has no Orthodox or protestant counterpart—Maronites say it has remained united since its founding, and has always been in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. (Some scholars are in disagreement on this latter point.)

 

Mansour said the Maronite church never had the “luxury” of the corruption of the Middle Ages, obliquely referring to the period in which European Catholic leaders sold indulgences, forgiving sins for money. Meanwhile in Lebanon, Maronites were not in positions of power, and instead faced waves of persecution. St. Maron himself was an ascetic who chose a life of poverty. “This great church,” he said, “grew up in simplicity.”

 

This isn’t to say the Maronite Church is in conflict with the Vatican or with Roman Catholics—the Maronite Church is considered  “in full communion” with Roman Catholic Church.

 

But the Maronite Church is an Eastern Catholic church with its own customs. For example, Communion is taken by mouth only and is dipped in the wine that Catholics say has been transformed into the Blood of Christ. While in many Roman Catholic parishes, the Sign of Peace consists of greetings, handshakes and hugs shared by congregants at will, in the Qurbono the Sign of Peace is offered at each pew by an altar server, who clasps his hands over those of the person closest to him. That person brings their hands to their mouths and turns to cover the hands of their neighbors with their own, and the chain of peace offerings continue down the pew.

 

The Maronite church also has its own local jurisdiction. Our Lady of Lebanon cathedral, for example, does not fall under the diocese of the Rev. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, but rather under the eparchy (or province) of St. Maron. Bishop Mansour presides over this area, which covers about 45 Maronite parishes in a vast area that includes the states of New York, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Maine. Both DiMarzio and Mansour serve on the United States Council of Catholic Bishops which reports to the Vatican.

 

In addition to highlighting the distinctive legacy of the church, Mansour seemed to temper outsize devotion to St. Maron. “Some people say St. Maron founded the Maronite church, but that’s not true,” he said. “Jesus is our founder, St. Maron was the follower.”

 


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.”

 


The value of Shabbat, as illustrated by The Twilight Zone

In the minutes after the Shabbat evening service ended and before the rabbi started his teaching, the atmosphere at Congregation Shearith Israel shifted from solemn to relaxed. Congregants stood up from their seats and conversations broke out in the synagogue, located on the intersection between 70th Street and Central Park West in Manhattan. To listen to Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s message, men and women did not sit separately on the main floor and on the balcony but together on one side of the main floor. Soloveichik himself did not stand on the bimah — the elevated platform from which the cantor prayed — but behind a simple podium facing the believers.

He was ready to deliver his weekly 20-minute shiur, a lesson that teaches a passage from the Talmud. “We’re going to talk about time,” he began, but instead of drawing on Biblical or rabbinic sources, the rabbi proceeded to quote from the hit television series of the 1960s, “The Twilight Zone.”

Soloveichik read screenwriter Rod Serling’s opening narration from the eighth episode. The narration was the first passage printed on pale yellow pamphlets handed out to the congregants. “Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers,” the rabbi said, “A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock.”

Men and women chuckled in their seats as Soloveichik continued to tell the story of Henry Bemis, whose greatest desire is to have unlimited time to read without being interrupted by his boss and his wife. During his lunch break one day, Bemis goes into the bank’s vault in hopes of having undisturbed reading time. A sudden explosion happens outside the vault, and when Bemis exits, he discovers that a nuclear war has destroyed everything and that he was the only person left alive on Earth.

“He’ll have a world all to himself…without anyone,” Serling’s narration read. Soloveichik described Bemis’s despair. Although Bemis now had unlimited time, his loneliness drove him to prepare to commit suicide. At this point of the story, the rabbi delivered one of the lessons of his message. “Time becomes important when we use it at the service of someone else,” he said. In Bemis’s case, the bookish man had no one to spend his life with and serve. Soloveichik added, “It’s only when time is limited does it become valuable.”

His congregants, mostly married couples in their 50s and 60s, nodded in agreement to the rabbi’s words. Soloveichik proceeded to cite the Talmud, connecting the importance of limited time to the Sabbath day — the weekly day of rest when Jews do not work and usually spend time with loved ones. He referenced “Shabbat 33B” from the Talmud, which talks about a rabbi and his son seeing an elderly man holding two bundles of myrtle branches as the sun was setting on Shabbat eve.

Soloveichik read from the passage, “They said to him: Why do you have these? He said to them: In honor of Shabbat. They said to him: And let one suffice. He answered them: One is corresponding to: 'Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy' (Exodus 20:8), and one is corresponding to: 'Observe the Shabbat day, to keep it holy' (Deuteronomy 5:12). Rabbi Shimon said to his son: See how beloved the mizvot are to Israel.” The mitzvot referred to here are commandments in the Torah and the ones quoted in this passage are two of the sources of instruction for observing Shabbat.

The Sabbath day was made significant in chapter two of Genesis, when God finished creating the world on the seventh day. “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done,” Genesis reads. Believers at Congregation Shearith Israel observe the day vigilantly from Friday evening to Saturday evening.

Soloveichik tied the importance of Shabbat to his earlier points. The fact that Shabbat is framed by a limited time, spent not alone but rather in community, makes it more special. “Shabbat time, we bless it and we sanctify it,” he said as he closed the shiur.

Zachary Edinger, the sexton of the synagogue, said that these 20-minute messages originally began in hopes of increasing the participation at Friday’s Shabbat services. “Our Friday night services used to be very sparsely attended, with 25 to 50 people,” Edinger, 40, said. “When the rabbi started a few years ago, he made it a priority to speak on Friday night, something we had not done before. This attracted a good crowd and we now regularly get between 70 to 90 people on Friday nights,” he explained.

Edinger said that thus far, the talks have not had a set curriculum. “Rather we hope people will be inspired and entertained enough to want to keep coming to our services,” he said.

At the message’s closing, men and women stood up from their seats and said “Shabbat Shalom” to one another. They exited the synagogue to return home and observe the blessed and sanctified day of rest, perhaps now with a new understanding that it is especially precious because it is not endless, but limited.