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8116Converts/Reverts: Reverend drawn to Muslim faith

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  • Zafar Khan
    Jun 22, 2007
      Reverend drawn to Muslim faith
      Jun 17, 4:08 PM EDT
      By JANET I. TU
      The Seattle Times

      http://www.columbian.com/news/state/APStories/AP06172007news154865.cfm

      SEATTLE (AP) -- Shortly after noon on Fridays, the
      Rev. Ann Holmes Redding ties on a black headscarf,
      preparing to pray with her Muslim group on First Hill.

      On Sunday mornings, Redding puts on the white collar
      of an Episcopal priest.

      She does both, she says, because she's Christian and
      Muslim.

      Redding, who until recently was director of faith
      formation at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, has been
      a priest for more than 20 years. Now she's ready to
      tell people that, for the last 15 months, she's also
      been a Muslim - drawn to the faith after an
      introduction to Islamic prayers left her profoundly
      moved.

      Her announcement has provoked surprise and
      bewilderment in many, raising an obvious question: How
      can someone be both a Christian and a Muslim?

      But it has drawn other reactions too. Friends
      generally say they support her, while religious
      scholars are mixed: Some say that, depending on how
      one interprets the tenets of the two faiths, it is,
      indeed, possible to be both. Others consider the two
      faiths mutually exclusive.

      "There are tenets of the faiths that are very, very
      different," said Kurt Fredrickson, director of the
      doctor of ministry program at Fuller Theological
      Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "The most basic would be:
      What do you do with Jesus?"

      Christianity has historically regarded Jesus as the
      son of God and God incarnate, both fully human and
      fully divine. Muslims, though they regard Jesus as a
      great prophet, do not see him as divine and do not
      consider him the son of God.

      "I don't think it's possible" to be both, Fredrickson
      said, just like "you can't be a Republican and a
      Democrat."

      Redding, who will begin teaching the New Testament as
      a visiting assistant professor at Seattle University
      this fall, has a different analogy: "I am both Muslim
      and Christian, just like I'm both an American of
      African descent and a woman. I'm 100 percent both."

      Redding doesn't feel she has to resolve all the
      contradictions. People within one religion can't even
      agree on all the details, she said. "So why would I
      spend time to try to reconcile all of Christian belief
      with all of Islam?

      "At the most basic level, I understand the two
      religions to be compatible. That's all I need."

      She says she felt an inexplicable call to become
      Muslim, and to surrender to God - the meaning of the
      word "Islam."

      "It wasn't about intellect," she said. "All I know is
      the calling of my heart to Islam was very much
      something about my identity and who I am supposed to
      be.

      "I could not not be a Muslim."

      Redding's situation is highly unusual. Officials at
      the national Episcopal Church headquarters said they
      are not aware of any other instance in which a priest
      has also been a believer in another faith. They said
      it's up to the local bishop to decide whether such a
      priest could continue in that role.

      Redding's bishop, the Rt. Rev. Vincent Warner, says he
      accepts Redding as an Episcopal priest and a Muslim,
      and that he finds the interfaith possibilities
      exciting. Her announcement, first made through a story
      in her diocese's newspaper, hasn't caused much
      controversy yet, he said.

      Some local Muslim leaders are perplexed.

      Being both Muslim and Christian - "I don't know how
      that works," said Hisham Farajallah, president of the
      Islamic Center of Washington.

      But Redding has been embraced by leaders at the
      Al-Islam Center of Seattle, the Muslim group she prays
      with.

      "Islam doesn't say if you're a Christian, you're not a
      Muslim," said programming director Ayesha Anderson.
      "Islam doesn't lay it out like that."

      Redding believes telling her story can help ease
      religious tensions, and she hopes it can be a step
      toward her dream of creating an institute to study
      Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

      "I think this thing that's happened to me can be a
      sign of hope," she said.

      Redding is 55 and single, with deep brown eyes,
      dreadlocks and a voice that becomes easily impassioned
      when talking about faith. She's also a classically
      trained singer, and has sung at jazz nights at St.
      Mark's.

      The oldest of three girls, Redding grew up in
      Pennsylvania in a high-achieving, intellectual family.
      Her father was one of the lawyers who argued the
      landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court
      case that desegregated the nation's public schools.
      Her mother was in the first class of Fulbright
      scholars.

      Though her parents weren't particularly religious,
      they had her baptized and sent her to an Episcopal
      Sunday school. She has always sensed that God existed
      and God loved her, even when things got bleak - which
      they did.

      She experienced racism in schools, was sexually abused
      and, by the time she was a young adult, was struggling
      with alcohol addiction; she's been in recovery for 20
      years.

      Despite those difficulties, she graduated from Brown
      University, earned master's degrees from two
      seminaries and received her Ph.D. in New Testament
      from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She
      felt called to the priesthood and was ordained in
      1984.

      As much as she loves her church, she has always
      challenged it. She calls Christianity the "world
      religion of privilege." She has never believed in
      original sin. And for years she struggled with the
      nature of Jesus' divinity.

      She found a good fit at St. Mark's, coming to the
      flagship of the Episcopal Church in Western Washington
      in 2001. She was in charge of programs to form and
      deepen people's faith until March this year when she
      was one of three employees laid off for budget
      reasons. The dean of the cathedral said Redding's
      exploration of Islam had nothing to do with her
      layoff.

      Ironically, it was at St. Mark's that she first became
      drawn to Islam.

      In fall 2005, a local Muslim leader gave a talk at the
      cathedral, then prayed before those attending. Redding
      was moved. As he dropped to his knees and stretched
      forward against the floor, it seemed to her that his
      whole body was involved in surrendering to God.

      Then in the spring, at a St. Mark's interfaith class,
      another Muslim leader taught a chanted prayer and led
      a meditation on opening one's heart. The chanting
      appealed to the singer in Redding; the meditation
      spoke to her heart. She began saying the prayer daily.

      Around that time, her mother died, and then "I was in
      a situation that I could not handle by any other
      means, other than a total surrender to God," she said.

      She still doesn't know why that meant she had to
      become a Muslim. All she knows is "when God gives you
      an invitation, you don't turn it down."

      In March 2006, she said her shahada - the profession
      of faith - testifying that there is only one God and
      that Mohammed is his messenger. She became a Muslim.

      Before she took the shahada, she read a lot about
      Islam. Afterward, she learned from local Muslim
      leaders, including those in Islam's largest
      denomination - Sunni - and those in the Sufi mystical
      tradition of Islam. She began praying with the
      Al-Islam Center, a Sunni group that is predominantly
      African-American.

      There were moments when practicing Islam seemed like
      coming home.

      In Seattle's Episcopal circles, Redding had mixed
      largely with white people. "To walk into Al-Islam and
      be reminded that there are more people of color in the
      world than white people, that in itself is a relief,"
      she said.

      She found the discipline of praying five times a day -
      one of the five pillars of Islam that all Muslims are
      supposed to follow - gave her the deep sense of
      connection with God that she yearned for.

      It came from "knowing at all times I'm in between
      prayers." She likens it to being in love, constantly
      looking forward to having "all these dates with God.
      ... Living a life where you're remembering God
      intentionally, consciously, just changes everything."

      Friends who didn't know she was practicing Islam told
      her she glowed.

      Aside from the established sets of prayers she recites
      in Arabic five times each day, Redding says her
      prayers are neither uniquely Islamic nor Christian.
      They're simply her private talks with God or Allah -
      she uses both names interchangeably. "It's the same
      person, praying to the same God."

      In many ways, she says, "coming to Islam was like
      coming into a family with whom I'd been estranged. We
      have not only the same God, but the same ancestor with
      Abraham."

      Indeed, Islam, Christianity and Judaism trace their
      roots to Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism who is also
      considered the spiritual father of all three faiths.
      They share a common belief in one God, and there are
      certain similar stories in their holy texts.

      But there are many significant differences, too.

      Muslims regard the Quran as the unadulterated word of
      God, delivered through the angel Gabriel to Mohammed.
      While they believe the Torah and the Gospels include
      revelations from God, they believe those revelations
      have been misinterpreted or mishandled by humans.

      Most significantly, Muslims and Christians disagree
      over the divinity of Jesus.

      Muslims generally believe in Jesus' virgin birth, that
      he was a messenger of God, that he ascended to heaven
      alive and that he will come back at the end of time to
      destroy evil. They do not believe in the Trinity, in
      the divinity of Jesus or in his death and
      resurrection.

      For Christians, belief in Jesus' divinity, and that he
      died on the cross and was resurrected, lie at the
      heart of the faith, as does the belief that there is
      one God who consists of the Father, Son and Holy
      Spirit.

      Redding's views, even before she embraced Islam, were
      more interpretive than literal.

      She believes the Trinity is an idea about God and
      cannot be taken literally.

      She does not believe Jesus and God are the same, but
      rather that God is more than Jesus.

      She believes Jesus is the son of God insofar as all
      humans are the children of God, and that Jesus is
      divine, just as all humans are divine - because God
      dwells in all humans.

      What makes Jesus unique, she believes, is that out of
      all humans, he most embodied being filled with God and
      identifying completely with God's will.

      She does believe that Jesus died on the cross and was
      resurrected, and acknowledges those beliefs conflict
      with the teachings of the Quran. "That's something
      I'll find a challenge the rest of my life," she said.

      She considers Jesus her savior. At times of despair,
      because she knows Jesus suffered and overcame
      suffering, "he has connected me with God," she said.

      That's not to say she couldn't develop as deep a
      relationship with Mohammed. "I'm still getting to know
      him," she said.

      Some religious scholars understand Redding's thinking.

      While the popular Christian view is that Jesus is God
      and that he came to Earth and took on a human body,
      other Christians believe his divinity means that he
      embodied the spirit of God in his life and work, said
      Eugene Webb, professor emeritus of comparative
      religion at the University of Washington.

      Webb says it's possible to be both Muslim and
      Christian: "It's a matter of interpretation. But a lot
      of people on both sides do not believe in
      interpretation. "

      Ihsan Bagby, associate professor of Islamic studies at
      the University of Kentucky, agrees with Webb, and adds
      that Islam tends to be a little more flexible. Muslims
      can have faith in Jesus, he said, as long as they
      believe in Mohammed's message.

      Other scholars are skeptical.

      "The theological beliefs are irreconcilable," said
      Mahmoud Ayoub, professor of Islamic studies and
      comparative religion at Temple University in
      Philadelphia. Islam holds that God is one, unique,
      indivisible. "For Muslims to say Jesus is God would be
      blasphemy."

      Frank Spina, an Episcopal priest and also a professor
      of Old Testament and biblical theology at Seattle
      Pacific University, puts it bluntly.

      "I just do not think this sort of thing works," he
      said. "I think you have to give up what is essential
      to Christianity to make the moves that she has done.

      "The essence of Christianity was not that Jesus was a
      great rabbi or even a great prophet, but that he is
      the very incarnation of the God that created the
      world.... Christianity stands or falls on who Jesus
      is."

      Spina also says that as priests, he and Redding have
      taken vows of commitment to the doctrines of the
      church. "That means none of us get to work out what we
      think all by ourselves."

      Redding knows there are many Christians and Muslims
      who will not accept her as both.

      "I don't care," she says. "They can't take away my
      baptism." And as she understands it, once she's made
      her profession of faith to become a Muslim, no one can
      say she isn't that, either.

      While she doesn't rule out that one day she may choose
      one or the other, it's more likely "that I'm going to
      be 100 percent Christian and 100 percent Muslim when I
      die."

      These days, Redding usually carries a headscarf with
      her wherever she goes so she can pray five times a
      day.

      On Fridays, she prays with about 20 others at the
      Al-Islam Center. On Sundays, she prays in church,
      usually at St. Clement's of Rome in the Mount Baker
      neighborhood.

      One thing she prays for every day: "I pray not to
      cause scandal or bring shame upon either of my
      traditions."

      Being Muslim has given her insights into Christianity,
      she said. For instance, because Islam regards Jesus as
      human, not divine, it reinforces for her that "we can
      be like Jesus. There are no excuses."

      Doug Thorpe, who served on St. Mark's faith-formation
      committee with Redding, said he's trying to understand
      all the dimensions of her faith choices. But he saw
      how it deepened her spirituality. And it spurred him
      to read the Quran and think more deeply about his own
      faith.

      He believes Redding is being called. She is, "by her
      very presence, a bridge person," Thorpe said. "And we
      desperately need those bridge persons."

      In Redding's car, she has hung up a cross she made of
      clear crystal beads. Next to it, she has dangled a
      heart-shaped leather object etched with the Arabic
      symbol for Allah.

      "For me, that symbolizes who I am," Redding said. "I
      look through Jesus and I see Allah."

      ---
      Information from: The Seattle Times,
      http://www.seattletimes.com
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Christian Composer, Inspired by Allah’s 99 Names
      By MICHAEL WHITE
      Published: June 17, 2007

      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/17/arts/music/17whit.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

      FOR anyone in Britain and for millions of television
      viewers elsewhere, a defining image of the year 1997
      was the aerial view of the coffin of Diana, Princess
      of Wales, inching through the darkness of Westminster
      Abbey. And the defining soundtrack to that image was a
      stark lament sung by the abbey choir that captured the
      moment with heart-stopping potency.

      Overnight the worldwide exposure of “Song for Athene”
      transformed John Tavener from a distinguished
      classical composer into a public figure. New fans
      registered his odd appearance: tall and thin, with
      long hair parted in the middle and the ’60s-pop-star
      look of shirts unbuttoned to the navel. He was
      re-evaluated. He was knighted. And for many he became
      almost a spiritual guide: All his work was steeped in
      Christianity. Or, as he liked to say, “primordial
      tradition.”

      Although English-born and -bred, Mr. Tavener, 63,
      turned in the 1970s to Eastern Orthodoxy, mirroring
      its stark, sluggish severity and tonal structures in
      his music, which, like his conversation, came with
      allusions to St. Dionysus the Areopagite, St. Gregory
      of Nyassa and other blissfully obscure divines. His
      scores bore titles like “Diodia,” “Apocalypse” and
      “Agraphon.” And being slow, spare and repetitive, they
      earned him the affectionate but slightly mocking label
      Holy Minimalist, a term that survivors of his
      three-hour “Resurrection” or seven-hour “Veil of the
      Temple” might challenge.

      Most of his output these days tends toward the huge,
      praising God across long time spans with enormous
      forces in vast spaces: more events than concerts. And
      the event to have its premiere in Westminster
      Cathedral on Tuesday could be considered one more
      example, but it does something likely to unsettle Mr.
      Tavener’s devotees. Instead of Christian words it sets
      a text from the Koran.

      Given the times, this is newsworthy, and variants on
      “Tavener Goes Muslim” headlines have already surfaced
      in the British press, along with items that report his
      loss of faith and disenchantment with the Christian
      church. None of which is true.

      But for Mr. Tavener to have written “The Beautiful
      Names,” a meditation on the 99 names of Allah,
      commissioned by no less than Prince Charles, for
      performance in a Roman Catholic cathedral does raise
      certain issues. For one, the charge of opportunism.
      For another, the risk that Muslims, who don’t exactly
      value music in worship, might not be appreciative.

      “Well, if you look at it like that,” Mr. Tavener
      muttered in his endearingly distracted way recently,
      “I suppose it could be a can of worms I’m opening.
      I’ve no idea what Muslims will make of it. I haven’t
      really asked. But right after the London premiere,
      it’s being done in Istanbul, and no one seems to have
      raised any objection there.

      “All I can say is, it’s a wonderful text — basically a
      list of names, some of majesty, some of mercy — that
      I’ve set as theophanies: as soundings-forth on the
      nature of the divine, with music that reflects their
      meaning. The Beneficent, the Opener, the Subtle. ...”

      And the Dangerous?

      “Yes, that’s one of the names. The Koran can be quite
      fierce at times. Not that I’ve read it all, or in the
      original Arabic. That’s beyond me. But I have a
      brother who’s a Sufi, and he finds God in the Koran in
      ways he can’t in the Bible. A loving God. That’s there
      as well.”

      The matter-of-factness with which Mr. Tavener talks
      about his brother the Sufi is disarming, since the
      Tavener family is in every other respect
      quintessentially English middle-class business stock:
      respectable, patrician, people who drive vintage
      Jaguars and Bentleys. There is one of each parked on
      the grounds of Mr. Tavener’s home, a comfortably
      disordered farmhouse by the parish church in an
      attractive Wiltshire village, with (when I was there)
      what looked like several years’ supply of cat food
      piled up in the hallway. It’s the stuff of Country
      Life magazine. Or Horse and Hound.

      But enter the barn, and you discover that it has been
      turned into the kind of Orthodox chapel you would more
      likely find on a Greek hillside. Enter the stables,
      and you see the huge American Indian powwow drum that
      appears with regularity these days in Mr. Tavener’s
      works. It all contributes to the incongruity of a
      contemporary composer who with some justification
      considers himself “rather radical” for writing music
      that echoes the distant past. A composer who, like
      Bach, devotes his life and work to God but who keeps
      the pop-star look.

      In a sense the unbuttoned shirts pay homage to the
      past. Mr. Tavener first came to attention with a
      noisily iconoclastic entertainment called “The Whale,”
      which was first performed at the debut concert of the
      London Sinfonietta in 1968 and was seized on by the
      Beatles, who had started dabbling in the avant-garde.
      Recorded on their Apple label, it propelled the young
      Mr. Tavener into fashionably swinging circles.

      Then along came Orthodoxy, with a vengeance. Always
      drawn to Christianity, Mr. Tavener spent his youth
      playing the organ in a Presbyterian church and
      programmed spiritual content into early works: even
      “The Whale,” which was built around the biblical story
      of Jonah. But his discovery of the Orthodox faith
      concentrated all that into an artistic identity. And
      with the zeal of a convert he became, as he now says,
      “dramatically” Orthodox.

      His works were not for entertainment; they were
      “icons”: musical correlatives of timeless, emotionally
      impassive Byzantine portraiture, conceived as aids to
      prayer and windows on the world beyond. Mr. Tavener
      dismissed the idea of progress or development as
      meaningless; all art had reached perfection in
      “primordial” times, so everything the modern West had
      produced — even the spiritually motivated West of Bach
      and Bruckner — was in error.

      And he morphed into a cultural ayatollah: popular with
      general audiences who were pleased to find a “serious”
      composer writing music that was easy to absorb, but
      isolated among his professional peers.

      “It bothers me,” he said, “that I don’t really have
      any composer friends. It would be nice if I did.” But
      maybe the time is approaching. As “The Beautiful
      Names” makes clear, Mr. Tavener has changed. He hasn’t
      abandoned Orthodoxy. He remains devotedly Christian.
      But his mind and ears have opened out.

      “I reached a point where everything I wrote was
      terribly austere and hidebound by the tonal system of
      the Orthodox Church,” he said, “and I felt the need,
      in my music at least, to become more universalist: to
      take in other colors, other languages.”

      It was a gradual process in which his devotion to the
      East as the true source of God-centered art began to
      absorb elements of Hinduism, Islam, even Shamanism.
      But it was specifically during composition of “The
      Veil of the Temple” — his 2003 all-night vigil, first
      performed at the Temple Church in London before a
      reduced version at the Lincoln Center Festival — that
      a defining event occurred.

      Mr. Tavener had, he says, a vision. And in the same
      unremarkable way that he talks about his brother the
      Sufi, he explains that his vision involved a visit
      from an Apache medicine man. “I’d been looking
      everywhere for this big powwow drum, a wonderfully
      primordial sound, to use in ‘The Veil,’ and a friend
      rang me up to say she’d found one and would bring it
      over. When she came, she brought the medicine man too.
      I think he’d been performing healing ceremonies at
      Stonehenge or something like that. And after he’d
      gone, I had a visionary dream, which I’m told is
      common after contact with such people who have a
      purity and intensity that Western man has lost.”

      The dream, Mr. Tavener said, was a visitation, from
      the spirit of the mystical philosopher Frithjof
      Schuon. And what Schuon told Mr. Tavener was, in two
      words, loosen up. Be open, musically at least, to
      other possibilities.

      A simpler, more straightforward reading of what
      happened might just be that here was a composer in his
      60s softening with age. When I suggested this, he
      smiled good-naturedly and said, “It’s possible.”
      During his hard-line years he faced successive crises:
      serious illness, serious drinking, serious demons. Now
      his life is settled, brought to order by a lovingly
      no-nonsense, younger wife, his second, and the arrival
      of a third child. “I’ve become a peaceful family man,”
      he said. “It helps.”

      Whatever the reason, he is no longer “dramatically”
      Orthodox or anti-Western. He listens to Bach with
      pleasure. He plays it on the organ of the church next
      door, which he happily tells you is the instrument on
      which Arthur Sullivan composed “Onward Christian
      Soldiers.” And primordial tradition?

      “Well, it’s important,” Mr. Tavener said, “but you
      have to find a way of honoring it that communicates
      with modern man. It used to be a sort of tyranny for
      me. Now I feel free to wander further, so long as it
      makes metaphysical sense.”

      His wandering into the Koran has taken time. According
      to the score “The Beautiful Names” was written several
      years ago. Has he been sitting on it, hesitating while
      political events unfolded?

      No, he says. It has simply taken that long to fit
      together the large forces the piece requires, which
      include the Westminster Cathedral Choir, the BBC
      Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (strategically placed in
      different parts of the building), the baritone soloist
      John Mark Ainsley and of course the powwow drum, which
      is ceremonially struck every 99 beats: one beat for
      every name.

      Essential now to Mr. Tavener’s sound world, the drum
      will also surface in his next big work: an orchestral
      “Mass of the Immaculate Conception” that has its
      premiere in Zurich in December and travels to St.
      Thomas Church in Manhattan next spring. Congregants
      may be surprised to hear invocations to Hindu
      goddesses inserted into the Latin text. “A bit of a
      stir,” Mr. Tavener predicted.

      So far there are no plans for the drum in what he is
      working on now: a comparatively modest hymn for the
      queen, intended, he says, to address the dearth of
      good new hymns since Ralph Vaughan Williams but also
      signaling his close connection with the royal family.

      That Prince Charles was eager to commission “The
      Beautiful Names” is understandable in someone who has
      spiritual interests at least as exotic (some would say
      eccentric) as Mr. Tavener’s, and the prince has
      floated the idea of changing his monarchic title
      Defender of the Faith to the subtly more inclusive
      Defender of Faith. The two men have much in common:
      not least, a maverick, mockable sincerity that people
      laugh at from a distance but find curiously compelling
      face to face.

      But the prince doesn’t put his money where his heart
      is. When I brazenly asked Mr. Tavener how much he had
      been paid for the commission, the answer was ...
      nothing. “That’s not how it works,” he said. “He gets
      somebody else to write the check. For this it was a
      lady from Japan, but I forget her name.”

      Presumably it is beautiful.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Muslim center in White Plains launches classes for
      converts
      By ERNIE GARCIA
      THE JOURNAL NEWS
      (Original publication: May 29, 2007)

      http://www.thejournalnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070529/NEWS02/705290337/1028/NEWS12

      There are no welcome wagons awaiting converts to Islam
      after they recite the "shahada," a declaration of
      faith made by new Muslims. The White Plains-based
      Muslim Education and Converts Center of America - or
      MECCA - wants to be that greeting committee.

      The center, launched last year, has as its goal to
      create "rightly guided Muslim citizens," its Web site
      says.

      "What it means to us is people who are moderate in
      their faith and don't take it to extremes, and people
      who feel comfortable as Muslims and Americans and
      don't feel a dichotomy between that hyphenated
      identity," said Scarsdale resident Thomas M. Wilentz,
      MECCA's president.

      One example of the type of Muslim converts the group
      wants to avoid is John Walker Lindh, an American
      Muslim convert serving time in federal prison for
      fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

      "I wouldn't point him out as an example, but that sort
      of thing we're definitely trying to eliminate," said
      Wilentz, a Scarsdale resident who converted to Islam
      from Judaism about 20 years ago.

      MECCA's outreach began last year with Saturday classes
      in a New York City mosque in midtown Manhattan. Its
      New Muslims Program is a three-month course focusing
      on Islamic belief, practice and way of life.

      Mount Kisco resident Saleem Niazi, 25, a medical
      student, teaches the Saturday course at the Islamic
      Society of Mid-Manhattan at 154 E. 55th St. MECCA
      chose the Manhattan location because it is more
      centrally located to Muslims in the tri-state area
      than Westchester County, though the group eventually
      wants to offer classes in Westchester, New Jersey and
      other states.

      Teaching Islam runs in Niazi's family. His mother
      taught weekend religion classes at the Upper
      Westchester Muslim Society in Thornwood.

      MECCA's spring semester attracted a class of six
      women, who sat at tables decorated with little snack
      plates of dried fruit.

      Niazi's May 5 lesson touched on many subjects,
      including modesty, dress and interpreting the Quran.

      He said that only highly trained scholars should
      interpret the Quran for the observant, because some
      verses can be taken out of context. He said that
      nonspecialists have interpreted passages like "slay
      the pagans wherever ye find them" to justify
      terrorism.

      "That whole section of revelation refers to situations
      of war as mandated between two recognized
      authorities," Niazi said.

      He referenced Osama bin Laden, saying, "He's not a
      jurist. So what is the result of that? He justifies
      heinous acts that were never permitted in Islam."

      Niazi also spoke about modesty and the head scarf, a
      divisive topic among Muslims. His wife explained how
      her older sister's decision to wear one initially
      angered her Pakistan-born parents.

      After class, Brooklyn resident Gabrielle Gantz, 27, a
      book publicist, talked about her own inner debate over
      the head scarf. She had been wearing one for a week,
      but she said she didn't feel that she needed it.

      "It is obligatory, but it isn't something you should
      do against your will," said Gantz, who came to the
      classes to learn the basics of Islam.

      Gantz converted to Islam in April, and by May 5 she
      had attended the MECCA classes for three weeks.

      "It's a nice place to meet other converts and Muslims.
      This is one thing you can do to build a community,"
      Gantz said.

      Like many Muslim converts, she needs support because
      of the reaction from family and friends to her
      decision.

      "My mom and sister know and freaked out because all
      they know about Islam is from Fox News," said Gantz.
      She also upset her Jewish father, whom she described
      as "blindly Zionist."

      Jeanett Gibson, 23, a Columbia University student who
      graduated this month, converted to Islam last year.
      Her family was initially angry but now they support
      her, said Gibson, who returned to her native Fremont,
      Calif., this month after leaving school.

      Gibson praised MECCA's New Muslims Program because,
      she said, many books on Islam discuss doctrine rather
      than practical aspects of living as a Muslim.

      "You can only learn it from other Muslims," she said,
      adding that the course allowed her to create special
      bonds. "These girls will always be in my life, I
      hope."

      Reach Ernie Garcia at elgarcia@... or
      914-696-8290.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      http://www.islamawareness.net/Converts/