Halal and a holy book: The Islamic Center at NYU serves up weekly spiritual discussions

NEW YORK — Just after 7 p.m., Sheikh Faiyaz Jaffer enters the fourth-floor conference room at the New York University Islamic Center on Thompson Street in Lower Manhattan. He has a MacBook in one hand and a copy of the Quran in the other. This is Jaffer’s weekly halaqa, a religious gathering for the study of Islam and the Quran.

Jaffer pulls a regular crowd – those who have gathered tonight came to hear his interpretation of chapter 35 of the Quran. He is a renowned scholar of Islam and a sheikh, which differs from an imam by the virtue of having had a seminary education. Jaffer takes his position on the floor and opens his MacBook as the nine other members of the group gather in a circle around him, pulling out their phones and Kindles to read along. They sit on a gray carpet, propped up by dark blue floor chairs. They face out the full-length windows where the Empire State Building is just visible beyond the Washington Square Arch. In the middle of the circle, an iPad supported on a tripod is streaming the event live on Facebook.

Jaffer begins by reading verse five of chapter 35 from the MacBook. The Quran lies on the floor next to him. He reads in Arabic and notes that this verse asks believers to reflect on the concept of “dunya,” the Arabic word for world. Jaffer explains the root of this word comes from the meaning “very low,” which reminds believers that the human world is the lowest of the low. “We as a human being are not only to focus on this real corporeal dimension,” Jaffer says, since in this verse Muslims are reminded there is something beyond this earth that is of a greater nature.

“Surely Satan is your enemy, so make sure you treat him as an enemy,” says Jaffer, moving on to translate verse six. In Islam, Satan is not just one entity but has many forms and exists in humans. Reading this verse in the context of the last, Jaffer says that God reminds believers that if they are deceived by this earthly world, they may fall into the trap of Satan. When you see people cutting corners and focusing on material things, you should steer clear, Jaffer warns.

In the final two verses of the evening, verses seven and eight, Jaffer discusses the role of God in punishing those who do fall into the trappings of the corporeal world and Satan. The balance lies with the believer, he concludes. God will welcome those who take a step towards him but your faith has to be strong. God doesn’t just forgive anyone.

After half an hour, Jaffer closes the conversation with an Arabic saying and turns off the iPad’s stream. The groups ask questions and reflect on the teachings.

And then it’s time to eat!  Individual portions of biryani have been delivered from BK JANI, a Pakistani restaurant in Brooklyn. The night's menu includes a slightly spicy chicken curry served with rice and a yogurt sauce. The group moves to another section of the room and sits cross-legged, eating from takeaway containers using plastic forks. There are two big trays of Dunkin’ Donuts to go with the biryani, which is fortunate, as several members of the group find the dish too spicy. One woman drowns her portion in the white yogurt sauce but still doesn’t manage to finish the meal.  

Although the group meets at NYU, few are affiliated with the university. Muhammed Jawad, 32, has been coming to the center for two years and drives for an hour from his home in central New Jersey to be here. “I get to speak to a faith leader who I can identify with,” says Jawad. “I can’t represent myself until I know what I believe in,” he says, explaining that the halaqa gives him a better-rounded understanding of his faith. He uses these lessons to help him better talk about Islam to his peers, particularly as he feels the religion is often misrepresented.

Ali Alvi, 37, is an entrepreneur and also uses the lessons of the Quran in his daily life. Tonight, the message of remembering not to be distracted by those seeking only earthly vanities has particularly resonated with him. “I’m going through a situation with someone who’s doing that,” Alvi says. Studying the Quran tonight has reminded him to steer clear of that individual, he says, “because Satan is all around.”


Heart and hand in Coptic Queens

NEW YORK — Outside, it was a quiet and nearly frigid Saturday morning in Queens – distinguished only, and only maybe, by being the day before the Super Bowl. But inside Ridgewood’s 606 Woodward Avenue, where the St. Mary & St. Antonios Coptic Orthodox Church sits stalwart but muted in monochrome brick, it was the holy 26th day of the month of Tubah.

A monitor hanging above the pews projected that date along with split-screen transcriptions of the assigned liturgical texts: English on the left, Arabic on the right. From a sidelined podium, adolescent boys read quickly, without looking up, through passages from Hebrews and Peter. “If you endure chastening,” read the first boy, “God deals with you as with sons.” His muffled delivery suggested a plea for that eventual payoff.

The readings shifted from forced to fluid as Abouna Eshak chanted the primary section, Matthew 4:23—5:16, in Arabic from the central podium. Altar boys flanked him with candles, and the words floated out from behind a literal, pungent fog. They graced the ears as burning incense tickled the nostrils, lending the words some kind of multidimensional body.

In these short verses, Jesus travels throughout Galilee teaching in synagogues and healing the sick, drawing and healing crowds of “those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed” from as far away as Jordan. In time, the crowds become overwhelming and Jesus resolves to address them from a mountainside, where he recites the eight Beatitudes from his famous Sermon on the Mount. The selection includes blessings for “those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” and for “the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Abouna Eshak delivered his sermon in alternating Arabic and English. These verses, he said, are key in separating Christ from the Jews who preceded him. Those earlier Jews, said the Abouna, only valued deeds – not what was in “the hearts of the people.” Jesus, in other words, demonstrated an innovative concern for thought, or faith, or words – his eyes saw beyond mere actions. The words that constitute the eight Beatitudes come, Abouna said, “from all the branches of life.”

They are themselves a life force, he continued, compelling their continued recitation all these 2,000 years later. To drive the point home, Abouna worked his way up to reciting the sixth Beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

However frequently or not Abouna Eshak hits this theme, it made sense in a sanctuary that surrounds its congregants with words from the Bible: plaques above the left pews, right pews, and entrance announce verses from Isaiah 56:7, Genesis 28:16 and Genesis 28:17.

But his celebration of words felt detached from his rather soporific, rote delivery. Throughout most of the service, the congregation was a mix of standers and sitters. During the sermon, however, everyone sat and some seemed disengaged: texting, entering and exiting, and looking down short of bowing their heads in prayer. The words floated passively throughout the room and seemed to be over almost as soon as they had started. The sermon induced a palpable loss of energy between the moments that both preceded and followed it: the theatrical ritual of chanting the verses through a haze of incense and – ironically enough –the performative, action-based symbolic exchange between neighbors in the pews.

I was hastily – and apparently quite visibly – completing my notes on Abouna’s sermon when the three men closest to me turned to swipe their hands with mine. One by one, we stuck our hands out horizontally towards one another’s, alternated them until they were clasped, and slid them slowly apart. Noting my ignorance, one of the men explained that the gesture means “we ask forgiveness from each other.”

Abouna was not the only teacher present, and words were not the only tools of faith in use.