Corrections or additions?
This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the September 19,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Meet the Muslims
Diversity is one of Princeton’s strengths. In offices, classrooms, and
shopping centers filled with people from different faiths and nations,
Muslims meld into our American mix. Some wear traditional garb —
turbans for men, scarves and long skirts for women — some do not.
The number of Muslims working in Princeton has grown exponentially
over the past 10 years. Yet except for the occasional lecture series
on world religions, or news coverage about the Feast of Ramadan, those
outside that faith community hear very little about Islam. Devout
Muslims pray, attend services at the mosque on Route 1 in South
observe fasts, and make pilgrimages to Mecca without much notice.
That all changed on Tuesday, September 11. An infamous Muslim, Osama
Bin Laden, became a prime suspect in the attacks on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon that left nearly 5,000 dead or missing.
the faith of Islam has come under the spotlight, and if ignorance
about the religion didn’t really matter before — now it matters.
Though things have been quiet in Princeton, 300 incidents — ugly
anti-Islamic sentiments, acts of vandalism, and brutal assaults —
have been reported by the Council on American Islamic Relations in
Who are the Muslims and what do they stand for? Leaders of the mosque
on Route 1 South, the Islamic Society of Central Jersey, called a
press conference Friday, September 14. Guests are welcome at any time,
but this prayer service, held on the National Day of Prayer for
was a special opportunity to meet Muslims in the community. They were
anxious to dispel stereotypes about their faith and voice their hopes
for the future.
"There is absolutely no religion in this world that supports such
cruel acts of inhumanity, and Islam is no different," says Parvaiz
Malik, a plastic surgeon with offices at Princeton Professional Park
who chairs the board at ISCJ. "Islam, a religion of tolerance,
holds the human soul in high esteem and considers attack against
human beings a grave sin."
"We come from one father, and one God," says the mosque’s
religious director, Imam Hamad Ahmad Chebli. "What will hurt one
person will hurt the rest of the family. If any one of us has a doubt
that the color of the blood in the United States is different from
the color of blood in any part of the world, this country is not
"I am here in America because I didn’t like what was happening
in the Middle East," says Ahmed Azmy, a founding architect at
HABCM who has the distinction of having "planned" Mecca, the
Muslims’ holy city inn Saudi Arabia. "I would like to see peace
in the whole world. People need to know we are with them. We pray
for them. We hope to get to the root of the problem."
Like many other families here, Azmy had some bad moments on September
11. His daughter, his son-in-law, and his son were in lower Manhattan
during the terrorist attacks. "It was a really horrible day for
us, to pass the hours and the minutes, but I thank God they are
he says. He came to the mosque to give an interview before the 1 p.m.
Friday prayer service.
Azmy has contributed impressively to the Princeton business and
community. The son of an Egyptian architect, he did his undergraduate
work at the University of Cairo, earned his graduate degree at
under Jean Labatut, and stayed in Princeton.
He helped found two architectural practices, CUH2A in 1974, which
has 288 people working on Roszel Road, and HACBM, now a 30-person
firm on College Road, in 1989. His current projects include
for nine buildings at Rutgers and a master plan for the enlargement
of the Central Jersey mosque. HACBM’s projects include an addition
to IKEA on Route 1, a city hall for Metuchen , and the Hopewell
Yet developing the 1987 master plan for the sacred shrine of Kaaba
in Mecca was certainly Azmy’s most prestigious work. Worshipers during
the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage, must arrange themselves in concentric
circles so that all can face Mecca. Two million people converging
on Mecca presents a safety problem. The master plan is designed to
accommodate more pilgrims and make the route safer.
"As an architect I learned how to analyze any problem I am facing
to see what the worst case is. When you see it from there, that makes
you feel better. Then you work on that situation until you can be
satisfied with what you are doing. The nature of architecture is that
you are never satisfied until you solve the problem. And there are
so many ways to solve it," says Azmy. "You work until you
Family influence is so important, says Azmy. The oldest of six (the
first five were boys), he followed in his father’s footsteps to be
an architect. "We were taught to love, to treat people fairly.
I pray, I fast, I have been on the Hajj. Moderation I say, and Islam
says, is what’s right."
"These radical people. I think if you look into it, they got
says Azmy. "Something happened in their lives. This is hatred,
this is not Islam."
The problem will be solved not by monitoring airports but by peace
in the Middle East and social justice, says Azmy. "Conflict has
been going on for 50 years, it is happening every day." Those
who live in the Middle East are subject to intense propaganda.
you are here you have a better vision of what is happening. If there
were a peace treaty, they would have no reason to think America is
responsible for what is happening. The hate diminished when we had
the peace treaty."
He quotes the Qur’an (Koran) which says "You have no right to
kill anybody." Adds Azmy: "As churches and places of worship
we should put our hands together. We should take care of the people
in the world, have more treatment for social justice and human values.
We have to get through to the fanatics somehow."
As Azmy completes the interview, prayer has begun and worshippers
are filtering into the mosque. Including the CJIS’ 950 individual
and family members, about 2,000 people will come to the mosque this
year, but more than 6,000 Muslims will gather for major festival days
in December and February, when family gatherings swell the number
of observant Muslims in New Jersey, and the prayers must be moved
to an area hotel.
Their countries of origin range from Indonesia (the country with the
largest Muslim population), to the Far East (Pakistan and India are
the next largest), Africa, and the countries or the Middle East. Of
the 2 billion Muslims around the world, 7 million are in the United
States, and 2 to 2-1/2 million of those are African American. (Though
the language of Islam is Arabic, Muslims should not be confused with
Arab Americans. Of the estimated 3 million Arab Americans living in
the United States, some are Muslims, but many are Catholic, Orthodox
Christians, and Jews. Similarly, not all those living in Afghanistan
are Muslims in the Taliban. That country has Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs,
The mosque holds religious schools on Saturday afternoon and Sunday
morning. A health clinic on Saturdays at noon is open to both Muslim
and non-Muslim people for such services as flu shots, and the current
focus of the clinic is blood donation. The society hopes to build
housing for the elderly, a community center, increased parking
an addition to the mosque, and a school for the 200 children in grades
K through 10 who now attend classes in trailers.
On the day of the press conference, September 14, a volunteer member
of the CJIS, Imam Mamdouh Salim is reciting the Qur’an in preparation
for the 1 p.m. prayer. This recitation is not considered music, but
it has strong musical qualities, sonorous vowels, and a somber tone
that befits the mood of the moment.
Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day, once a week, and two
times a year. This year’s festival days are predicted to be Saturday,
December 15 (the end of the Feast of Ramadan), and Friday, February
22 (the Hajj), but they may change depending on sitings of the moon
during those months. The mosque holds prayer at 5:45 a.m., 1 p.m.,
4:30 p.m., 7:10 (or at the sunset hour), and 8:45 p.m. The most
time for prayer is 1 p.m., but sometimes the parking lot is so full
(it has 210 spaces) that worshippers are turned away.
Today the parking lot has guards. When cars pull up to the white
with its graceful gold minaret, strangers are asked to leave
in the car. Tension is high.
Worshippers enter and remove their shoes. Most of the women wear
long sleeves, and long skirts. Some of the men wear crocheted caps
and traditional dress but most are dressed informally, or business
casual. Men enter through the atrium, bordered by white columns and
graceful Persian arches, to find their place in a carpeted room. Bare
of furniture, it has a ceramic-tiled arched niche that is inscribed
in Arabic with brilliant blues. This "mihrab" indicates the
direction of Mecca. Women kneel behind the atrium in a large, carpeted
multipurpose room with a view of the mihrab.
Initially worshippers bring their hands up to their heads in a brief
gesture. "We like to make our mind clear that we are standing
between God’s hands," Imam Chebli later explains. "We like
to take everything that makes us busy in front of us and put it to
our back, so there is nothing in front of us except the face of
Then the worshiper kneels to salaam, touching his forehead to the
floor, then sitting up, then salaaming again, then standing. Their
lips move soundlessly, and when they sit, their hands rest open on
their knees. The peace of the room is broken only by the random,
rhythm of standing, sitting, kneeling, and bowing.
As the recitation finishes, Imam Chebli begins his talk. To illustrate
how the prophets prohibit injuring any living being, he tells a
about a pious woman who mistreated her cat. She prayed, she fasted,
she went to Hajj, but she never fed the cat nor opened the door to
let the cat go outside to hunt its own food. Versus the adultress
who dipped water from a well by holding the shoe in her teeth to give
a thirsty dog a drink. The pious woman will go to hell, the sinner
"Why are we hating each other? Why are we killing each other?
Why are we waging war against each other?" asks the imam.
at the way God created you. Allah is watching you. The Prophet says,
`the Lord is one.’ If you destroy one hair of a human being, according
to the Torah, according to the Bible, according to the Qur’an, you
are destroying the entire life of mankind."
He ends with a plea for donations for the victims of the attack. Women
rush up to welcome the guests. Tasneen Shamin, an ophthalmologist
with a practice in Somerset, wears traditional dress — long skirt,
long sleeves, and head scarf — in red, white, and blue. "We
are in this together," she says, "because we are fighting
evil." She brings up the quintessential argument against ethnic
hatred: the Timothy McVeigh case, a double whammy, because not only
were Muslims mistakenly targeted after the Oklahoma bombing, but also
because "not all Christians are like Timothy McVeigh. Let’s
and find the culprits."
Reporters and visitors from the Princeton Theological Seminary and
area churches crowd into the library for the press conference. Parvaiz
Malik, the plastic surgeon, reads an impassioned statement disavowing
"America’s heart is breaking, but her great spirit never
says Malik. "Let us know each other for what is in our hearts,
not for the colors of our skin, for our faith, or for our
What do Muslims want non Muslims to do? Imam Chebli answers: "When
you have something that is not true, it is your responsibility to
stand up and say, I am witness to the fact that it is not the truth.
One word from the mouth of an individual can do that."
Khalid Iqbal, a spokesperson for the Council on American Islamic
in Washington, D.C., has received reports about a Muslim woman beaten,
stores vandalized, and shootings. But he also says he has heard from
a schoolteacher who wants her eighth graders to be pen pals with
students, a lawyer offering his services, and a Web organization with
5,000 women members offering to wear headscarves in sisterhood with
The parking lot of the mosque is almost empty now, and when a car
pulls up to the curb, the driver enters the mosque undisturbed. He’s
from one of the nearby retirement communities, he says, and he asks
to speak to somebody in charge. "I just want them to know that
I support them," he says.
— Barbara Fox
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