The culture of desert communities dot the New York City landscape. At the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Park Place, a transcendent smell of the burning incense takes you away from the world of bustle of Crown Heights. The soft murmur of prayers from the next room delicately teases the ears, while the greeting of peace, “Salaamu Alaykum” delivered with a sincere smile, pats your face with a kiss.
The contrast of this cool, calm cove of Masjid Ul Kawthar from the busy street is sharp. With every movement, a visitor may feel like a disturbance to something holy. The very air here exudes an ambiance of the sacred. Yet, there is also a feeling of instant and open human welcome for all who step through the doors. There is an insistence that you are a guest in this house.
Mosques in the city have a certain type of moral atmosphere inside of them that evokes the hospitality and peace of a desert oasis community. The basic message is, come to our oasis, enjoy the peace, receive cleansing, and fellowship among the friendly personalities of our congregation. The building may be humble on the outside, but the space within is the reality of the place.
The woman who issues the greeting is Mercedes Jaaber, the wife of the mosque’s imam. As A Journey enters, she is arranging platters of pastries and rows of the sweet Capri Sun fruit drinks on a table. She pauses to show us where to place our outside shoes in a stacked cubby. There is still some time before the meeting begins, so we offer to help her lay out the food that will be served after worship. As the preparations take shape, Mercedes tells us about the mosque’s establishment.
Before Masjid Ul Kawthar arrived on the corner of Nostrand Avenue, Muslims had to go to Masjid At Taqwa on Bedford Avenue, a ten minute drive but a longer walk.
According to mosque leaders, the space that they occupy used to house a notorious club that had regular visits from the police. Imam Rasheed Jaaber contacted the owner and asked if the Muslims could throw a few prayer rugs down for daily prayers. People started showing up for prayers, and the environment of the area started to slowly change.
So when Rasheed and his brother Muhammad Jaaber officially opened the masjid in March 2012, they knew that they were bringing a much needed resource to the neighborhood. By the end of summer that year, the regular congregation grew to encompass more than 200 worshipers. Today, the congregation stretches the outer limits of the space with 250 regular attenders.
Imam Jaaber is a home-grown product. He grew up in Crown Heights and New Jersey where his father was an admirer of Malcolm X (Al-Hajj Malik Shabazz). The elder Jaaber helped the fiery radical Black Muslim leader to change toward a more regular Sunni type of Islam and then gave the Muslim prayer at the burial after X’s assassination.
Although the mosque came out of the African American community, the worshipers now have become quite diverse. The administrator Michael Muhammad says that the mosque’s presence is influencing plans of other Muslims and attracts local Muslim businessmen from Yemeni and other Arabic backgrounds. “Muslims are also moving into the area,” the administrator observes, “because they know there is a masjid here…”
He has tried to count how many different nationalities are present. “When I got to three dozen, I thought, dang! It’s got to be up to forty-one.” Consequently, at the Friday services the mosque has imams of different nationalities speak. “Islam is a brotherhood,” the administrator says. Mosque leaders make a point on saying that Islam transcends nationalities.
Mercedes describes the mosque’s plans for increasing its presence in the neighborhood. She says that their vision is to “do our part as Muslims” to reach out to the community, and lists a few of the programs that will be available as the mosque expands. These include monthly open houses during which non-Muslims are welcome to come with questions, merely to observe, or take classes in Arabic for both adults and children. Arabic is very important in Islam for the understanding of the Quran. Most Muslims say that English translations of the Quran don’t reveal the full range of meanings and strip recitations of their nuanced, and divinely-inspired sounds that are found in Arabic.
This past summer the mosque obtained a full time hafiz, one who has memorized the entire Quran, to teach between evening prayers.
Mercedes looks over proudly at where her daughter is peeking out shyly from the next room. “She speaks Arabic very well,” Mercedes says, because the language is offered at her daughter’s school. But Mercedes herself, who grew up in Harlem, does not speak Arabic. When asked if she is going to take advantage of the opportunity to learn at the mosque, she nods emphatically. “Oh, yes!” she says.
The congregation participated in a summer camp in July and August hosted by Islam on the Move. The imam promoted the camps, which are held at different sites around the city, so that the mosque’s kids will have the experience of having fun as Muslims in the world. Mustapha and his wife Amirah Abdul, the founders and administrators of the camp, recalled their recent city adventures. “At Pier 6 we did Water Wars. It was really fun. Fire Zone was riding on the fire truck and donning a uniform.” On Governer’s Island the group threw up some hammocks and just talked. “Very relaxing,” said one of the busy administrators.
We are joined by Shakeela Jaaber, Mercedes’ gregarious sister-in-law. Shakeela embodies the mosque’s spirit of openness and teaching and is thorough in answering questions. When she learns that this is my first experience in a mosque, she is invigorated with the duty of educating me.
It is obvious that Shakeela takes true delight in learning about Islam. Her experiences of living around the world in areas such as Morocco and Egypt invest a vibrant depth into her teaching of Islam. “It’s the best way to learn Arabic,” she says, “to live with people who speak it.”
The Masjid Ul Kauthar will also offer Arabic programs for the Muslim youth. Mercedes is happily determined about this. “Of course!” she says. “It is very important to teach the children. We should begin teaching them around 7, and children should start praying at 10.” Her daughter is 9 and seems to treat the masjid as an extension of home. Suggesting that I need to start my education over, Shakeela introduces the Muslim idea of going back to your true self.
“I never say ‘conversion’,” she says when asked how long she has been a follower of Islam. “I say ‘reversion’, because we were all Muslim originally,” she says. Shakeela points out that a masjid is a resting place of purity and peace for seekers of the true way.
She explains the ritual of making wudu, a symbolic cleansing of the body before entering the presence of God. She even offers to lend to me a DVD that explores its practice and history in depth. The Muslims of the masjid are also tiding up the site to reflect their sense of order and purity.
The interior was still being renovated when A Journey visited, and one receives the impression of a place in transition. The make-up of the Men's area is a juxtaposition of ornate wall hangings in the main worship area with makeshift room dividers still overlaying the rest of the room. The downstairs area is still under construction. In the women’s section, we finally settled on carpet squares not yet sealed to the floor to listen to the Friday khutbah (sermon). We are separated from the men’s side by a jumble of partitions, makeshift curtains hanging down to the floor and portable screens. (The women's side now has been finished and prayer rugs laid down.)
In the women’s section
The improvised setting doesn’t overcome the hospitable, intimate feel of the women’s hideaway. More women trickle in and greet each other, older women, dressed in long black coverings, and younger women in brighter colored scarves. There is something distinctly feminine in the careful attention paid to dressing for worship and about the way these women lounge around the periphery of the room, waiting for the service to begin. They seem at home. One woman, seeing that she has fifteen minutes before the imam starts, lays her head down on the floor and closes her eyes.
Then, Mercedes bustles into the room to re-pin the curtain partition, eliminating any openings into the men’s side. She asks if we are comfortable. Despite our affirmations, she turns on the fan and sweeps out again. Two little girls take positions in the front row of the room. A mother carries in her young daughter, possibly two years old, and with many pats and much positioning arranges her daughter around her feet so that she can complete her precursory rakat (prayers).
More women trickle in, and the whole room shifts to create seating on the floor. Chairs at the back are reserved for those who cannot sit on the floor. We are offered a spot there “as guests.” We decline, enjoying the vantage point of the floor. The women have all assumed their positions, the room is just about full, and there is little stirring as the khutbah (sermon) begins.
In alternating Arabic and English the imam speaks on neighborly responsibility and goodwill. “Islam was built on the five pillars. But these five pillars are not the building of Islam…they are not Islam. What is our foundation? ‘To have the most noble of manners’.”
Some of the women are nodding as he speaks. Some pull their robes in tighter and touch their foreheads towards God. The little girls up front confide in each other in whispered giggles.
The imam gives anecdotes illustrating the manners for which each Muslim will be assessed both in his life and on the coming judgment day. “When our brothers are asked, What attracted you to Islam?, 80 or 90 percent of the time the answer is, ‘The Muslims are good people’.” Neighborliness is good manners that show good morality and kindness.
The imam’s voice shifts into a faster, more pronounced rhythm as he begins to talk about social injustices that Muslim brothers and sisters are currently facing in America. There is a ripple in the tranquility of the mosque.
Two to three hundred Muslims, he informs his listeners, are facing unfair sentences in American courts of law. Calling those present to put the day’s teaching into practice and act as neighbors to these spiritual kin, the imam begins a collection for the Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA), an association that sponsors good legal representation for Muslims on trial.
He drives home his point about Muslim vulnerability to injustice from the American justice system, “If not every one of us will stand up to that, then every one of us is subject.”
The Friday session comes to a close with two communal rakat (prayers). Mercedes again hurries over to direct us to a proper place to stand, and we watch the women form a line and reverently bend down to press their foreheads to the floor as they repeat responses to the imam’s chanting. The two-year-old girl is nestled in her mother’s lap, and as her mother leans forward she gently tilts her daughter into position as well, perfectly illustrating Mercedes’ earlier comments on the importance of teaching their children. The women whisper peace to the angels on the right and on the left, and the Friday afternoon prayer session is dismissed.