Sunday, November 09, 1997
NADIA BARNES RECITED the shahada, or central principle of Islam.
“La ilaha illa Allah, sa Muhammadun rasulu Allah,” Barnes said after Imam Muhammed Salem Agwa: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is the messenger of Allah.”
The 23-year-old fashion designer and finance student descended from the balcony, where women pray apart from men, into the main hall of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York for a ceremony as old as time itself.
Under the copper dome of the nation’s most resplendent mosque, a gilded crescent pointing to Mecca as she was encircled by a dozen men, Barnes pledged belief in eternal life and hellfire, that “Jesus is a prophet, not a god,” that Muhammed is the “last prophet” of Allah and that Islam is the one true religion. Also, she vowed to give alms to the poor, pray five times a day and one day go to Mecca.
With that, Agwa welcomed her into the umma, or community.
“Good,” Agwa said. “Now you have faith; now you are a Muslim.”
Barnes is part of the dramatic rise for the religion of Islam in New York and in the nation.
Fueling the growth is immigration from predominantly Islamic nations, a high birthrate in Muslim families, and conversion to the religion by African-Americans and women, such as Barnes, who marry Muslims.
Immigration from countries with large Muslim populations, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, has been rising.
And, more recently, Muslims have come here from Indonesia, Africa, and, with the breakdown of the former Soviet Union, new nations like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Many of the newcomers are highly skilled workers doctors, engineers, pharmacists who have been able to come because of less restrictive immigration laws.
The impact of Islam on New Yorkers’ lives is hard to miss, from the mundane changes, like alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules, to the most heartfelt.
The star and crescent moon now are displayed alongside Christmas trees and Chanukah and Kwanzaa candles during the winter holiday season.
Eid Al-Fitr, a feast that follows the Ramadan month of daylight fasting, was added to the 29 holy days of various religions for the estimated 100,000 Muslim students in city schools.
Mosques and traditional Muslim modest clothing now are commonplace in many city neighborhoods.
As Nadia Barnescompleted forms in a basement office of the nation’s most resplendent mosque at 96th St. and Third Ave., she spoke about the spiritualism of Islam and the calm and peace it has brought to her.
“I just felt the most strength of my life, that I was doing the right thing, that I was meant to do this,” she said.
Not only was Barnes converting to Islam, she was bringing a stray back to the flock: her husband, Muhammed Gundel, 33, a Pakistani immigrant who said he allowed his faith to lapse about 21/2 years ago.
As their ranks have grown, Muslims have done like other religions and established parochial schools for religious and cultural education.
At the Al-Iman School at the Imam Al Khoei Islamic Center in Jamaica, Queens, Masooma Hussain, 13, and her 11-year-old sister Fatima typify the emerging generation of Muslims.
Now of Elmont, L.I., they came to New York from Pakistan with their parents seven years ago.
The girls, wearing scarves to cover their hair, were outspoken about their place here, belying the stereotype of Muslim women as docile, compliant and oppressed.
Fatima, who wants to be a doctor, said she feels at home in New York.
“It’s not like I’m from another planet,” she said.
Marc Ferris, who teaches in the general studies program at New York University and has written about the city’s Muslim communities, said mosques bring a welcome brand of tolerance.
“In New York City, we’ve got the most international and cosmopolitan Muslim community in the world,” Ferris said. “Africans, Guyanese, Asians, Americans.”
And Muslims from countries that are mortal enemies somehow find a way to worship together in the same mosque when them come to New York, he said.
“At an Albanian mosque in Brooklyn, Turks and Albanians, who are historic enemies, pray side by side. The same with Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. They seem to be more united here in religion because they are minorities. A lot of the Old World stuff gets buried,” Ferris said.
A source of anguish to them is when Islam is equated to terrorism. They complain that the phrase “Islamic terrorist” unfairly taints their religion for nationalistic acts by groups and individuals who happen to be Muslims.
Numan Okuyan, 42, owner of Metropolitan Graphic Art, a gallery on 82d St., notes that no one referred to Timothy McVeigh as a Christian terrorist when he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma.
And, like many Muslims interviewed by the Daily News especially non-Arabs Okuyan, who was born in Turkey to Uzbek parents, blames the media for defining his faith by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Okuyan pointed out that his mosque has worshipers from all over the world; others note that Arabs make up just 20% of the faithful.
Dr. Abdul Rehman, who immigrated here in 1968 from Pakistan, recalled some of the early struggles finding a place to worship or the proper food to eat. Today, he is chairman of the board of trustees for the Al-Noor Mosque in Staten Island, which was started by Pakistani immigrants like him but now has a largely African-American congregation.
By far the largest number of Muslims in the United States are African-American converts.
The Chicago-based Nation of Islam opened a temple in Harlem in 1946 and saw membership soar when Malcolm X arrived eight years later as the imam. But its emphasis on black empowerment and exclusion of whites has been controversial.
M.T. Mehdi, secretary-general of the National Council on Islamic Affairs, said members of the Nation of Islam are not genuine Muslims because they are in a political movement, not a religious movement.
Traditional Islam is a color-blind religion, and the Nation of Islam is reacting to white racism in this country, Mehdi said. Of special concern to Muslims, he said, is the baggage Louis Farrakhan brings in his history of statements that have been deemed anti-Semitic.
But Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan reacted angrily to that characterization of his movement.
“I’m a Muslim,” Farrakhan insisted. “Don’t try to make me a politician. When we say that the Nation of Islam will be more political, it is out of our spiritual underpinning, our faith in Allah that we challenge the forces of evil in this society.”
GRAPHIC: MARK BONIFACIO JON NASO DAILY NEWS JON NASO DAILY NEWS MARK BONIFACIO BENEATH DOME of Manhattan’s Islamic Cultural Center, worshipers, including Nadia Branes and her husband, Muhammad Gundel, pray and study (photos opposite and top). Dr. Abdul Rehman and daughter Naheed (above) worship at Al-Noor Mosque in Staten Island, where he serves as chairman of the board of trustees.