September 27th, 2010
07:00 AM ET

A look inside NYC Islamic center imam’s mosques

Editor's Note: CNN Belief Blog co-editor Dan Gilgoff files this report from New York.

The controversy over a proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan has spiraled into a global debate over Islam’s place in the United States, but the arrival of a mosque a couple blocks from ground zero was driven mostly by the simple need for more space.

As the Muslim population of downtown New York has shot up in recent years - especially during daytime working hours - worshippers at Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s small mosque in the city’s Tribeca neighborhood found themselves stuck in lines outside the door during Friday afternoon prayers.

Rauf’s storefront mosque, called Masjid al-Farah, had started out holding one weekly prayer service but had ramped up to three or four Friday services in recent years to accommodate the surging crowds.

Even then, many worshippers inside said they felt rushed, knowing there were people outside waiting for a space to pray, while those in line worried about getting back to work on time.

Rauf’s hunt for a bigger prayer space is a reminder that, for all the uproar unleashed by his proposed 13-story Islamic center, the project is largely about a clergyman and his congregation.

“Feisal’s been waiting for decades to find a space,” said a man who gave his name as Mustafa, an employee of a Sufi order that still meets at the site of Rauf’s former Tribeca mosque. “There’s very limited space for prayer around the city.”

At Park51, the site of Rauf’s proposed Islamic center (pictured), Rauf and hundreds of other Muslims - including many from Masjid al-Farah - have already begun meeting for Friday afternoon prayers, called Jum’ah, on the building’s ground floor. Rauf and his congregation haven’t met at the Tribeca mosque since last year, Mustafa said.

Park51 is a former Burlington Coat Factory retailer two blocks north of where the World Trade Center once stood.

Rauf declined interview requests for this story.

Born in Kuwait, Rauf arrived in New York in 1967, at age 17, and began serving as imam at al-Farah in 1983.

His father, an Egyptian-educated imam, had run some of the most prominent mosques in the U.S., including the Islamic Center of New York and the Islamic Center of Washington.

Rauf’s masjid, or mosque, was far more modest.

It occupied a storefront space that’s inconspicuously sandwiched between two restaurants off Canal Street. Most passersby didn’t notice it.

The space is owned by a Sufi order that’s not affiliated with Rauf and that still meets there on Thursday nights. For years, the order let Rauf’s congregation use its building on Friday afternoons, according to representatives of the order.

Inside, behind streetfront windows hung with always-closed venetian blinds, the mosque consists of brick walls and a coffered ceiling painted white and green wall-to-wall carpeting that’s overlaid with red floral-patterned rugs.

That’s more or less it. The place couldn’t hold more than 100 people.

But in a city of mosques organized around ethnic lines - a Pakistani congregation in Brooklyn, say, or a West African congregation in Queens - Rauf’s former masjid, like his new space near ground zero, was different.

Rauf’s congregation attracts Indians and Pakistanis from Wall Street and African merchants from Canal Street, and many other Muslims from different parts of the world.

“Our congregants come from all over the world and from every walk of life, from congressmen to taxi drivers,” Rauf said earlier this month in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.

That openness and diversity has appealed to younger Muslims who’d been born or raised in the United States or Europe. “Most mosques in New York will have services in English but they’re really catered to the foreign-born,” said Mustafa, who was drawn to al-Farah by Rauf. “If an outsider comes in, it’s hard for him to follow.”

Not Rauf’s congregation.

“The one theme that kept coming up was how to adopt Islam for America,” said Behrooz Karjooravary, who attended al-Farah in the 2000s, describing Rauf’s sermons. “The main idea was that there is no conflict between the two to begin with.”

After prayers at al-Farah, the soft-spoken imam would adjourn to a nearby Malaysian bistro with a handful of worshippers. “Over dinner he’d talk about food,” said Karjooravary, 35, a former Wall Street trader who left the mosque when he got a job on Long Island. “Serious talks would only come up if someone asked a question.”

Masjid al-Farah’s neighbors said the place never caused a stir.

“Feisal only ever talked about one subject: love,” said Sayed Abdalla, who has worked at the Tribeca Park Gourmet Deli, a couple doors down from the mosque, since the 1980s. “Love of God and love of the Prophet.”

Al-Farah is 12 blocks north of the former World Trade Center.

“The twin towers defined our skyline and our neighborhood and were part of our daily lives,” Rauf said in his Council of Foreign Relations speech. “….On September 11th, a number of (our congregants) tragically lost their lives. Our community grieved alongside of our neighbors, and together we helped slowly rebuild Lower Manhattan.”

But few would describe Rauf’s congregation as a tight knit group. It mostly attracts worshippers who work downtown but live elsewhere.

“The congregation is just there to fulfill prayer obligations,” said Karjooravary, referring to his years at the Tribeca mosque. “Most people just came to do their obligations - it’s not even open outside of Thursday night and Friday afternoon.”

Rauf would sometimes invite leaders from other religious traditions into his Tribeca mosque and would open the place up for the city’s interfaith events.

“It was a wonderful place, a small place where the diversity of Islam was on display,” said Rev. Chloe Breyer, an Episcopal priest who is close with Rauf. “But it’s not more than a storefront.”

After the 9/11 attacks, as Rauf became more of a national international spokesman for Islam, his own congregation saw less and less of him. Guest imams would fill in for Rauf. Congregants grew accustomed to seeing him a handful of times each year.

The same is true at Park51, where Rauf and other Muslims began meeting last year.

At a Friday Jum’ah prayer service earlier this month, more than a 150 worshippers trickled in, deposited shoes up front, and found a patch of floor in a chamber with bare white walls and exposed pipes on the ceiling.

A guest imam spoke about the challenges of extending the spirit of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, which ended a week earlier, throughout the year. 

The guest imam also discussed how Muslims ought to deal with threats of force, telling worshippers that they should seek to avoid such threats before taking a series of increasingly aggressive steps to counter the threatening person. These included blocking, harming, maiming and - if all else failed - killing the person.

"I'm not advocating violence," the guest imam said. ""But I'm talking about self-preservation."

The imam did not give his name and a representative of the mosque, Park51 developer Sharif El-Gamal, declined to answer questions from the news media after the service.

Rauf, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen.

“I have not seen him here,” said Ron Paracha, who works five blocks away. “But this is the center of downtown. It’s perfect for everyone.”

Another worshiper said he hadn’t seen much of Rauf at the new space, but that he prefers Park51 to Madjid Al-Farah, where he used to worship on Fridays.

“I had to wait outside there, which is not fun in the wintertime,” said Mohammad Zab, who sells security equipment at a store nearby. “There was no space.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: 'Ground zero mosque' • 9/11 • Houses of worship • Islam • Mosque • Muslim • New York • United States

soundoff (245 Responses)
  1. Professor

    I think majority of Americans are ignorant. Did you forget your own relegion. Jesus prayed to God, today christians pray to Jesus and some use Jesus to pray to God. Muslims pray directly to God. What is the muslim God, there God is the creator of the universe. He is the only one he has no son, no father, no mother, no daughter, no relation with any creature. He is the greatest. What is the Christian God, the Christian God has a partner named Jesus the son of God as mentioned in the Bible, but all of you ignore the old testament. This is why an islamic center should be built at ground zero so people can educate themselves.
    1."I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments."
    Catholic teaching distinguishes between dulia—paying honor, respect and veneration to saints and also indirectly to God through contemplation of objects such as paintings and statues—and latria— adoration directed to God alone. (See Catechism 2084–2141).[45]
    2."You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name."
    This commandment prohibits not just swearing but also the misappropriation of religious language in order to commit a crime, participating in occult practices, and blaspheming against places or people that are holy to God. (See Catechism 2142–2167).[46]

    October 4, 2010 at 3:07 am |
  2. George

    Someone needs to release a bunch of pigs in that building. No Mosque would ever be built there then.

    October 3, 2010 at 10:23 pm |
  3. Muneef

    Wise words been said:

    October 1, 2010 at 10:34 pm |
  4. Habib

    Assalamwalaykum... Allah be praised!

    September 30, 2010 at 4:47 am |
  5. bigotRus

    No doubt you are a proud Muslim and I applaud you for it. Could you please explain the following;

    Why non Muslims living in Islamic countries suffer greatly under the shariah law. They are discriminated and denied their right and dignity under the shariah – the Islamic law as set out in the Koran.

    I will site just a few examples:
    1. There is no church in Saudi Arabia, non Muslims are forbidden to practice their faith even in private.
    2. Non Muslims and Christians in particular are under constant attacks by Muslims such as those living in Islamic part of South Asia and South East Asia.
    3. Churches are attacked and burnt

    There is no tolerance or understanding shown towards these unfortunate non Muslims living in the Islamic states/countries.

    After over 1500 years of history, the Orthodox Church in Turkey will come to an end due to constant government pressure from the Islamic Turkish government. Turkish law makes it impossible to find a replacement for the current Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, the last one in his line after 1500 years...

    Would appreciate your explanation as thoughts on the above. I happy to provide evidence or links to the above, or you can just google.

    September 30, 2010 at 4:30 am |
    • Muneef

      @bigotRus. Sorry having not seen your message before since was on the upper side while was following what comes last.
      Now about non Muslims in Islamic countries.... Well see there are many Islamic countries which I have no much idea about how they are doing and if there is any thing wrong then it must be the Judges since bribes and corruptions would make them change the law in favor of the richest or the strongest. You see Islam is perfect but Muslims are not perfect.

      Many Arab Mediternian Sea countries has Christions and Jew among them and they have their disputes no and then because of few lunatics here and there case disruptions otherwise living as civilians close in life and business but times when politics motivated in the name of religion then thre come disputes but they are merrily like the disputes that happen between political parties or football fans but not hatred.
      About Saudia Arabia it is different than others since it is a Kingdom of a religious land they are too tough or extremely tough in their system of Sharia laws. 'excuse me if don't know much about it' but can ask a Saudi person he might know more but as for my country being a republic and religion separated from state we have laws and have as well Sharia laws but since I am not a man of law or Sharia can not explain but can ask for you and revert.
      The only countries that you might not find nationals that are Christions but are Suadi and Yemen although Jews can be found. In my country most of workers come from Ethiopia and those are Christians and they have a Church of their own to pray in but not sure if it is a flat they call church or church like yours I really don't know. I know I have not been of much help for you but my knowledge is limited to my own country. But as to Islam in Asia it is found if you mean Indonesia or Malaysia they are of mixed cultures of many religions and faiths just like India and have no problem at all. The only places that were tough in the area were Afghanistan and Pakistan do not know more about Bangladish or her surrounding countries such as Nipal. As to Iran although it looks extreme but she has Christians and Jews and God knows what living within them but don't know if they ever had problems... Any way dear it is a tough world we do not know where and when it is going to end...we are seeing times now that there is discrimination between Muslims them selves as Sunni or Shiat and maybe more than it is Islam to any other religion...hope you understood any thing at all

      October 1, 2010 at 11:29 pm |
  6. Reality


    Obviously you suffer from the Three B Syndrome, i.e. Bred, Born and Brainwashed in some religion. In your case, it is Islam. See the above "Five Step Method for Deprogramming 1400 Years of Islamic Myths Using the Five Tenets/Myths That Muslims Are Required to Believe In" for a rapid cure and recovery.

    September 29, 2010 at 12:21 am |
  7. Muneef

    Accept to see this with all love and respect;

    Listen with your Ears,Read with your Eyes,Think with your Mind,Judge with your Heart find Truth for the Love of God. When you make one step towards God ,God makes ten towards you, you walk towards him,he comes running to you and that is Love of God is to connect with God through worship,behavior,prayers,praises,glorifies those clean heart deep from darkness of any satanic obsession,scruple,misgiving.

    They say some day some one will come to take you so very faraway and love will show the way..


    September 28, 2010 at 7:19 pm |
  8. ohyeah

    Guys lets educate about Islamic threat here.


    September 28, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
  9. Educated

    Did any of you lose a loved one on 9/11?
    then I suggest you leave this subject alone before you offend anymore people with your selfish extremism and foolishness. This does not only concern you...
    I am curious to how this controversial issue will end and what will be the final decision / outcome.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:38 pm |
  10. Educated

    did any of you lose a loved one on 9/11?
    then i suggest you leave this subject alone before you offend anymore people with your selfish extremism and foolishness. this does not only concern you...
    i am curious to how this controversial issue will end and what will be the final decision.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
  11. Muneef

    @reality, ohh how much you hate Islam .

    September 28, 2010 at 3:50 am |
  12. Reality


    pagan- some definitions

    1.An adherent of a polytheistic religion in antiquity, especially when viewed in contrast to an adherent of a monotheistic religion.
    a.One who has no religion.
    b.An adherent of a religion other than Judaism, Christianity, or Islam

    The Top 20 Atrocities Committed by Humankind Against Humankind

    Note the death tolls caused by the Asian and other pagan "civilizations".

    Rank Death Toll Cause Centuries

    1 55 million Second World War 20C
    2 40 million Mao Zedong (mostly famine) 20C
    3 40 million Mongol Conquests 13C
    4 36 million An Lushan Revolt 8C
    5 25 million Fall of the Ming Dynasty 17C
    6 20 million Taiping Rebellion 19C
    7 20 million Annihilation of the American Indians 15C-19C
    8 20 million Iosif Stalin 20C
    9 19 million Mideast Slave Trade 7C-19C
    10 18 million Atlantic Slave Trade 15C-19C
    11 17 million Timur Lenk 14C-15C
    12 17 million British India (mostly famine) 19C
    13 15 million First World War 20C
    14 9 million Russian Civil War 20C
    15 8 million Fall of Rome 3C-5C
    16 8 million Congo Free State 19C-20C
    17 7 million Thirty Years War 17C
    18 5 million Russia's Time of Troubles 16C-17C
    19 4 million Napoleonic Wars 19C
    20 3 million Chinese Civil War 20C
    21 3 million French Wars of Religion 16C

    September 28, 2010 at 12:07 am |
  13. Jose

    Some Islamics often boast the questionalbe fact that there are 1.5 billion Muslims. Even if it were true, most of them were converted by Mohammed's sword and not by God's word. Many of those victims of Islam comply with such tiranny in order to survive and not because they really believe in that murderer child molester self-styeld prophet Mohammed. Most of them are "yearning to be free" from the oppresion of Islam. Islam is not a religion but a declaration of war against all those who reject it.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:02 am |
  14. Jose

    When are you clowns going to undesrstand that to protect the USA and our freedoms agaisnt the Islamic totalitarian ideology is not Islamophobia neither Muslimophobia? A phobia is a fear of something for no reason. If that were the case, then it would also be a valid fact to say that Islamics who refuse to save their soul via Jesus Christ suffer from Christianophobia.

    September 27, 2010 at 11:41 pm |
  15. Jose

    When are you clowns are going to undesrstand that to protect the USA and our freedoms agaisnt the Islamic totalitarian ideology is not Islamophobia neither Muslimophobia? A phobia is a fear of something for no reason. If that were the case, then it would also be a valid fact to say that Islamics who refuse to save their soul via Jesus Christ suffer from Christianophobia.

    September 27, 2010 at 11:40 pm |
  16. Janat

    Most of you people defending the mosque don't know much about the religion of Islam. Pick up the Q'uran and read it and see yourself what it's all about.

    September 27, 2010 at 9:05 pm |
  17. Alex Jones

    No one's gonna say it? Okay, then I will. 9/11 was an inside job. Do your research.

    September 27, 2010 at 8:27 pm |
  18. NM

    please check out http://www.islamicsolutions.com/presenting-islam-to-non-muslims-the-role-of-the-masjid/

    September 27, 2010 at 8:19 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.