Last fall, controversy poured out of a block less than a mile from Ground Zero. News agencies voraciously covered the tension following the announcement of an Islamic Cultural Center in downtown Manhattan. But the abandoned Burlington Coat Factory whose renovation caused a media outcry had already been home to an overflow of devoted Muslims. Every Friday since 1985, the Masjid Al-Farah houses a Muslim congregation in Tribeca. Sandwiched between two trendy bars on Broadway, the townhouse-turned-devotional center had become so popular that spiritual leader Feisal Abdul al-Rauf raised funds to expand. He began housing services in the abandoned factory blocks away and generated plans for a proposed redesign. The proposal, named Park 51, would serve as a community center for the arts and offer faith services on Thursdays and Fridays.
The stylistic debate of intention, content, and predicted use in Manhattan dominates the narrative. Months after the media explosion, who lies behind the continued effort? And why? The center, staffed by various religious leaders both from Turkey and America, continues to grow in spite of the rhetoric of tension. Blocks from a traditional Mosque, the Masjid al-Farah caters to an esoteric branch of Islamic thought named Sufism.
The Sufis in the Masjid al-Farah gather on Thursdays in a hollowed-out townhouse on West Broadway covered with Persian rugs. The center is uniquely open to the public, allowing not only observers but an embrace of the dilettante interested party. Men and women arrive around eight, then mingle before the ceremonies, sipping tea, until the female Imam begins to gather about thirty mostly twenty-something adults on their knees. She calls out a blonde couple’s names near the back of the center, announcing their newborn’s first visit to the center.
Colloquially known as the “mystical” practice of Islam, Sufism inspires images of whirling dervishes chanting the name of Allah in divine revelations. The beliefs often are conflated with Hinduism, Buddhism, Kabballah, and Christian Gnosticism. In America, literature is its biggest prophet—Rumi is the best-selling poet for the third year in a row; the original Turkish devotee to the spiritual practice joins Ibn Arabi, a poet and philosopher, in rising popularity, especially as Islam continues to be the fastest growing religion in America. There’s little mystery why when one experiences the center’s open warmth.
The Imam, after informally greeting and setting the intention for the ceremony on Thursdays, gathers the mostly-young, mixed-ethnicity congregation to sing passages from the Qur’an and other Sufi poets. The songs are mostly in English, save for the most important first chapters of the Qur’an. An elder of the center for years, a man by the name of Tom from New Jersey, explained the rigid adherence to accessibility and openness, in opposition to centers adhering to formality and the Arabic language. “We focus entirely on complete equality and Sufism’s true essence rather than form.” The holy Imam, throughout the singing ceremonies, alternated names for Allah with Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, and other forms of the divine.
Sufism’s true essence, as named by its poets and philosophers, is a belief in the “oneness of being.” Sufis often claim, resultantly, that not only “all is God,” but, further, “I am God.” This claim has led to nearly constant political persecution since the formalization of the branch of Islam in the eleventh century.
In the era of new age-y tolerance, the center has still met its share of controversy for its “unabashed espousal of love.” The nature of this community’s practices have inspired a strong reaction globally, but what remains least investigated seems to be the truly shocking confirmation of the divine in the perceivable world. Instead of focusing on an afterlife, Sufis confirm mystic, magical experience in everyday life.
The second half of the ceremony on Thursdays morphs from a singing chant into a fully realized Dhikr, where participants and observers link arms and begin to dance to their chants. Forty congregants, intermingled regardless of gender, age ,or status, perform the sacred bodily ritual of chants and communal dances in order to inspire revelation. Often, the chants returned to a repetition of “Hayy,” or “Life”—interpretable as confirming our oneness of life in this moment, or as the life of Allah.
These practices differ from center to center, but generally align themselves with an all-pervasive new understanding of love and selfhood. Sufism, according to Ibn Arabi, attempts to destroy the ego-based conception of the individual self. Through the creative imagination, one reach a new understanding of a more “real” intermediary world of concepts and equanimity. Overall, the universe consist of three worlds: the first apprehended by intellectual perception, the second by the senses, and the third through imagination. The third world is an intermediate world that consists of “idea images.” In the intermediate world, the image and imagination are utilized for spiritual experience. This intermediary space for creativity translates, perhaps, into the continued impetus to create the Park 51 Islamic Cultural Center in Manhattan.
Sufis attempt, through their practices and studies, to discover hidden meaning that can only be accessed through revelation. Revelation of the esoteric meaning of all parts of reality are achieved by Sufis through “Ta’wil.” Ta’wil translates to the understanding of the world through symbols—both by using them and transforming all aspects of reality into symbols. But the symbol can never be fully explained; it must be re-deciphered constantly. In the unveiling of this oneness, non-dualist understanding of the universe, the Sufi congregation in Manhattan attempted, as Tom explained, to “relentlessly unveil love.” The imaginative spirit, so stamped out in the hyper-capitalist downtown, produces this radically different experience and knowledge of a reality. Perhaps instead of asking the architectural form or publicity statements to provoke unity, the ongoing ceremonies of the Islamic Cultural Center could provoke some similar inquiry.
DIA BARGHOUTI B’12 and ALEXANDRA CORRIGAN B’12 must be re-deciphered constantly.