Most basement stairways in the Lower East Side lead down to storage rooms, bars or clubs. At a few places there are enigmatic signs, mysteries to the outsider. On Allen Street a security camera looks down at a yellow piece of paper saying “Friday Prayer” duct taped to the door. It may seem out of place to the passerby as there is no religious symbol hearkening the way. Inside the door a collection of kids shoes like that of a gigantic family lays scattered on the floor. Down the stairs into a cold basement a religious revival is going on.
Students as young as six years old are memorizing the Qur'an in this basement, rather grandly titled “Assafa Islamic Center.” The kids study the Qur'an on weekends, in-between their days at the public school. This feat of concentration and memory stands in opposition to national trends all too often seen in our city’s public schools: attention deranged by a constant barrage of media and memory replaced by smartphones.
The students sit in alternating rows of three girls with heads covered with scarves and three boys with heads covered in prayer caps. Some gently rock backward and forward while reading and reciting passages aloud. Others sit with upright alertness. Some are hunched over. All of the students wore their winter coats on this cold January day as the only source of heat in the basement was a small space heater preferentially placed near guests. Neither sleet, nor snow, nor rain nor the gloom of night stop these students from showing up for their studies.
The strength of tradition, assurance and a system of knowledge
Memorization of the Qur'an has always been important to Muslims. “Memorizing the Qur'an is one of the traditions in Islamic history, because that's how the Qur'an is preserved,” said Imam Ahmad Abusufian, the Education Director at Assafa Islamic Center. Wearing a grey sport coat over a long frock, Imam Abusufian sits on legs folded at the knees while instructing the class. At a young age he and his colleague Imam Mufty Luthfur Rhaman Qasimy each memorized the entire Qur'an becoming “guardians” (hafiz) of the Muslim tradition.
In the Muslim holy book God promises to preserve the Qur'an. One way that this ancient text is preserved is in the minds of its readers. Abusufian observes that its memorization is the living “proof that preservation of the Quran is not on the papers and written books. By any count more than ten million have the Qur'an [written] in their heart around the world.” This presence is an enormous failsafe mechanism. “If all the Qur'an is gone, all the books, there will be the Qur'an immediately from their hearts. It’s never gone,” he said. The scriptures persevere even if the paper on which they are written is burned.
Muslims also believe that the memorization creates a sacred oasis of stability in one’s heart in this troubled world.
“When we memorize Qur'an it is part of a special blessing from God. And whoever memorizes Qur'an, we believe that he is always protected. I can not explain what kind of tranquility and peace you feel when you do recite Qur'an.”
Memorization has also long been seen as a way to inhabit a system of knowledge and to sharpen one’s mind.
The recitation and learning means that the preparation of habitual mental processes with which to quickly assess and act in the world. For ancient Chinese Confucians the memorization of the Chinese Classics prepared leaders for effortless response to civil problems. The Romans documented the marvelous benefits of memorization in Rhetorica ad Herennium, and early Christians modeled themselves after Augustine who was said to know large portions of the Book of Psalms.
For Muslims memorization of the Qur’an creates a universal system of knowledge shared and readily available to believers. Critics of memorization say that it can lead to rote thinking and lack of imagination. However, in New York City the hub and bub of city life counters any overly rigid mental trenches. In fact memorization may sharpen urban distracted minds as well as protect against brain-related diseases.
Recent memory buffs such as Tony Buzan have championed new mind techniques and neuroscientists such as Eleanor Maguire have gained a better understanding of the plasticity of the brain in response to memory’s development.
The mental exercise is certainly great in Muslim schools. Memorization of the Qur’an means remembering the 114 Surahs (chapters) with their 6,236 verses comprising some 80,000 words made up of 330,000 individual characters. After the completion of memorization, the student must continue to practice so that he or she does not forget.
Qur'an memorization may help thinking to keep clear and stable for believers because it gives an assurance in a world were Muslim faith isn't always welcome.
After the bombing of the World Trade Center by anti-democratic Muslim extremists, controversies have swirled around local Muslim congregations. The Assafa Isalamic Center itself is one of the mosques closest to the controversial site of a proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero. The controversy culminated with the media hyping the threat by an obscure Florida pastor who promised to burn Qur'ans in protest against the center. Muslims also claim that the NYPD is unfairly spying on peaceful worship services of Muslims. A secular group has posted advertisements in some New York City MTA Subway stops, claiming, “Stop the Islamization of America.”
Seeing such travails in this world as a harbinger of the end times, Muslims find encouragement in Quran memorization because they believe that knowledge of the Qur'an will help them transcend troubles on earth even on the day judgment. God will hear a hafiz who advocates that his family and friends be allowed to enter paradise.
Teaching the Qur’an
From the first lesson the teachers challenge their class. The students are given fifteen minutes to memorize as many lines as possible. “If you can memorize three lines in fifteen minutes, that means you can memorize an entire page in forty five minutes,” the teachers say encouragingly to the class. The large task is cut down to finite possibilities. They paint a complete picture of how many years or how many days it will take to memorize six hundred pages.
The program, four hours long on Saturdays and Sunday, is completed in five years which is longer than other programs in Muslim controlled countries where kids are able to solely concentrate for a few years on memorizing the Qur'an. In the United States the students also need to do public school studies. “We do it on weekends because all the kids go to regular school too,” said Abusufian. The program also includes instruction on prayer and life from the Qur'an.
Some teachers and students say that a divine energy pushes them along while reading the holy scripture. “It’s sort of miraculous, when somebody starts to memorize it, it easily comes to their heart, and it stays,” said Imam Abusufian. The verses of the Qur'an also resonate within the milieu in which the students live. They make sense of the way that their parents and friends think and act. The Qur’an teachers, however, point to a different resonance that makes Qur’an memorization easier. The verses are fitted to the human heart as if by a divine shoehorn. “We have memorized other books like poetry, but it doesn't stay in the heart this way. Qur'an has this uniqueness, whoever tries it. It comes.”
Many of the students are seeking to become a hafiz. The teacher’s first hafiz was a high school student who memorized the entire Qur'an in less than a year. Soon he proved to also be an outstanding student at Hunter College as an accounting major. Some of the students have already memorized a large portion of the Quran. Some of the students have competed in local competitions. According to Abusufian students from non-Arabic speaking countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and even the United States have won prestigious international competitions hosted in the Middle Eastern countries. The program’s reputation has grown resulting in the initial small group swelling to over thirty.
Plans for the future
However, the center is limited by space and can no longer accept new students. A thin drape separates the area for prayer from the area where the students are reciting Qur'an. The growing masjid has only a table in the corner for an office. Friday prayers are have been held in the East Village at a Housing Authority facility, the Mariana Bracetti Plaza Community Center, but even in that larger space the congregants awkwardly spilled over into another room.
Assafa Islamic Center Secretary Imam Qasimy hopes to be able to expand the class in the near future. The group broke ground on a six story building on Eldridge Street in 2009 and is nearing completion. The new center will allow not only space to expand, but a wide range of additional activities. In addition to expanded space for prayer services for men and women the center will provide general education compliant with the standards of the NYC Board of Education, interfaith events, space for weddings and funerals as well as community services.
The center has become an important place for families in the community. The center is a place to seek help for issues unique to an Islamic family. “We grow up in different parts of the world but the kids are born here, they grow up here, this is their society their community, so how do you relate to them?” Imam Abusufian finds that he is often involved in building a bridge between generations. Also sometimes families need encouragement in facing down negative stereotypes. The Assafa Islamic Center helps them to respond.
The center has found the Lower East Side community receptive to their presence. “Especially when it comes to the Lower East Side and this neighborhood, we have very good interfaith relationships.” Some people expressed anger after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, but largely, New Yorkers were understanding. “New York is a very diverse city, in the world and people understand each other more than most other places and they accept each other, better than any other places,” the imam said.
Abusufian grew up in Bangladesh and like many young people moved here when he was twenty. “We feel this is our home and we appreciate the people who are around us that support us always.” He fondly talks about the impact on himself when he became a citizen of the United States. “I feel myself an American and a New Yorker,” the imam recounted.
He often tells a story of praying in secret when he started going to a public school in the city. He was afraid of the response if people found out he was praying regularly at the building. Yet, he had been spotted on a security camera and the principal came while he was praying. To his surprise the principal alleviated his fears and encouraged him to keep praying saying “don't worry, wherever you find space do it.”
During a trip back to Bangladesh, people asked Imam Abusufian if he felt safe in America. He told his family and friends, “that the core essence of this country is that you be what you want to be, go where you want to be. And that's why I said I feel better in America than over there.” For the imam his basement class is America in action at its best.
If you would like to help the Assafa Islamic Center to complete their building, you can go to their website here.