September 27th, 2010
07:00 AM ET
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.”
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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.