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Tending to Muslim Hearts

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  • World View
    Nothing brings one Brooklyn imam more joy than guiding Muslim singles to marriage, his way of fashioning a future for his faith. An Imam in America: Tending
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 12, 2006
      Nothing brings one Brooklyn imam more joy than guiding Muslim singles
      to marriage, his way of fashioning a future for his faith.

      An Imam in America: Tending to Muslim Hearts and Islam's Future
      March 7, 2006

      The young Egyptian professional could pass for any New York bachelor.

      Dressed in a crisp polo shirt and swathed in cologne, he races his
      Nissan Maxima through the rain-slicked streets of Manhattan, late for
      a date with a tall brunette. At red lights, he fusses with his hair.

      What sets the bachelor apart from other young men on the make is the
      chaperon sitting next to him — a tall, bearded man in a white robe and
      stiff embroidered hat.

      "I pray that Allah will bring this couple together," the man, Sheik
      Reda Shata, says, clutching his seat belt and urging the bachelor to
      slow down.

      Christian singles have coffee hour. Young Jews have JDate. But many
      Muslims believe that it is forbidden for an unmarried man and woman to
      meet in private. In predominantly Muslim countries, the job of making
      introductions and even arranging marriages typically falls to a vast
      network of family and friends.

      In Brooklyn, there is Mr. Shata.

      Week after week, Muslims embark on dates with him in tow. Mr. Shata,
      the imam of a Bay Ridge mosque, juggles some 550 "marriage
      candidates," from a gold-toothed electrician to a professor at
      Columbia University. The meetings often unfold on the green velour
      couch of his office, or over a meal at his favorite Yemeni restaurant
      on Atlantic Avenue.

      The bookish Egyptian came to America in 2002 to lead prayers, not to
      dabble in matchmaking. He was far more conversant in Islamic
      jurisprudence than in matters of the heart. But American imams must
      wear many hats, none of which come tailor-made.

      Whether issuing American-inspired fatwas or counseling the homesick,
      fielding questions from the F.B.I. or mediating neighborhood spats,
      Mr. Shata walks an endless labyrinth of problems.

      If anything seems conquerable, it is the solitude of Muslim singles.
      Nothing brings the imam more joy than guiding them to marriage. It is
      his way of fashioning a future for his faith. It is his most heartfelt
      effort — by turns graceful and comedic, vexing and hopeful — to make
      Islam work in America.

      Word of the imam's talents has traveled far, eliciting lonely calls
      from Muslims in Chicago and Los Angeles, or from meddlesome parents in
      Cairo and Damascus.

      From an estimated 250 chaperoned dates, Mr. Shata has produced 10

      "The prophet said whoever brings a man and woman together, it is as if
      he has worshiped for an entire year," said Mr. Shata, 37, speaking
      through an Arabic translator.

      The task is not easy. In a country of plentiful options, Muslim
      immigrants can become picky, even rude, the imam complains.

      During one date, a woman studied the red-circled eyes of a prospective
      husband and asked, "Have you brought me an alcoholic?"

      On another occasion, an Egyptian man stared at the flat chest of a
      pleasant young Moroccan woman and announced, "She looks like a log!"
      the imam recalled.

      "This would never happen in Egypt," said Mr. Shata, turning red at the
      memory. "Never, never. If I knew this boy had no manners I never would
      have let him into my office."

      The Imam's Little Black Book

      The concept of proper courtship in Islam, like much about the faith,
      is open to interpretation.

      Islamic law specifies that a man and woman who are unmarried may not
      be alone in closed quarters. Some Muslims reject any mingling before
      marriage. Others freely date. Many fall somewhere in between, meeting
      in groups, getting engaged and spending time alone before the wedding,
      while their parents look the other way.

      For one Syrian in New York, a date at Starbucks is acceptable if it
      begins and ends on the premises: The public is his chaperon.

      Mr. Shata is a traditionalist. There were few strangers in his rural
      town of birth, Kafr al Battikh, in northeastern Egypt. Men and women
      often agreed to marry the day they met, and a few made the deal sight
      unseen. It was rare to meet anyone from a distant province, let alone
      another country.

      New York is not only the capital of the world, imams often joke, but
      also the crossroads of Islam, a human sampling more diverse than
      anywhere save Mecca during the annual pilgrimage known as the Hajj.
      Beyond the city's five boroughs, Muslim immigrants have formed Islamic
      hubs in California, Illinois, Michigan and Texas.

      At the center of these hubs stands a familiar sight in a foreign land,
      the mosque. What was a place of worship in Pakistan or Algeria
      becomes, in Houston or Detroit, a social haven. But inside, the sexes
      remain largely apart.

      A growing number of Muslim Web sites advertise marriage candidates,
      and housewives often double as matchmakers. One mosque in Princeton,
      N.J., plays host to a closely supervised version of speed dating. And
      so many singles worship at the Islamic Society of Boston that a
      committee was formed to match them up.

      Fearing a potential surplus of single Muslim women, one Brooklyn imam
      reportedly urged his wealthier male congregants during a Ramadan
      sermon last year to take two wives. When a woman complained about the
      sermon to Mr. Shata, he laughed.

      "You know that preacher who said Hugo Chávez should be shot?" he
      asked. "We have our idiots, too."

      More than a matchmaker, Mr. Shata sees himself as a surrogate elder to
      young Muslims, many of whom live far from their parents. In America,
      only an imam is thought to have the connections, wisdom and respect to
      step into the role.

      Mr. Shata began the service three months after arriving in Brooklyn in
      2002, recruited to lead the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, a mosque on
      Fifth Avenue.

      Dates chaperoned by Mr. Shata — or "meetings between candidates," as
      the imam prefers to call them — often take place in his distinctly
      unromantic office, amid rows of Islamic texts. As a couple get
      acquainted, the imam sits quietly at his desk, writing a sermon or
      surfing the Arabic Web sites of CNN and the BBC.

      If there is an awkward silence, the imam perks up and asks a question
      ("So tell me, Ilham, how many siblings do you have?") and the
      conversation is moving again.

      Candidates are vetted carefully, and those without personal references
      need not apply. But instinct is Mr. Shata's best guide. He refused to
      help a Saudi from California because the man would consider only a
      teenage wife. Others have shown an all-too-keen interest in a green card.

      Those who pass initial inspection are listed in the imam's version of
      a little black book — their names, phone numbers, specifications and
      desires. Some prefer "silky hair," others "a virgin." Nearly all
      candidates, men and women alike, want a mate with devotion to Islam,
      decent looks and legal immigration status.

      Scanning the book, the imam makes his pitch with the precision of a
      car salesman.

      "There is a girl, an American convert, Dominican, looks a little
      Egyptian. Skin-wise, not white, not dark. Wheat-colored. She's 19,
      studies accounting," Mr. Shata told a 24-year-old Palestinian man one

      "This is my only choice?" replied the man, Yamal Othman, who lives in

      Such questions annoy Mr. Shata. An imam, he says, should be trusted to
      select the best candidate. Often, though, his recommendations are met
      with skepticism.

      "It's harder than choosing a diamond," said Mr. Shata.

      Sometimes, on the imam's three-legged dates, no one seems more excited
      than Mr. Shata himself. He makes hurried, hearty introductions and
      then steps back to watch, as if mixing chemicals in a lab experiment.
      Love is rarely ignited, but the imam remains awed by its promise.

      Mr. Shata discovered love 15 years ago, when he walked into the living
      room of the most stately house in Kafr al Battikh.

      The imam was tall, 22, a rising star at the local mosque. For months,
      Omyma Elshabrawy knew only his voice. She would listen to his
      thunderous sermons from the women's section, out of view. Then, one
      evening, he appeared at her home, presented as a prospective groom to
      her father, a distinguished reciter of the Koran.

      The young woman, then 20, walked toward Mr. Shata carrying a tray of

      "She entered my heart," said the imam.

      After serving the drinks, she disappeared. Right then, Mr. Shata asked
      her father for her hand in marriage. The older man paused. His
      daughter was the town beauty, an English student with marriage offers
      from doctors. The imam was penniless.

      But before Mr. Elshabrawy could respond, a sugary voice interrupted.
      "I accept," his daughter said from behind a door.

      "I loved him from the moment I saw him," Ms. Elshabrawy said.

      They now have four children.

      The family posed last year for a Sears-style portrait, taken by a
      woman in Bay Ridge who photographs Muslim families in her basement. A
      blue sky and white picket fence adorn the background. The imam sits at
      center, with the baby, Mohammed, in his lap, his three daughters
      smiling, his wife wrapped in a lime-green hijab.

      Mr. Shata carries the picture in the breast pocket of his robe. It is
      as close as most people get to his family. At the mosque, they are a
      mystery. His wife has been there twice.

      Their years in America have come with great hardship, a subject the
      imam rarely discusses. The trouble is the illness of his 7-year-old
      daughter, Rawda, who is severely epileptic. She has dozens of seizures
      every day and rarely leaves home. No combination of medicine seems to

      "Rawda is the wound in my heart," the imam said.

      Mr. Shata offers long, stubborn theories about the value of marriage,
      but to observe him at home is to understand the commitment he seeks to
      foster in other Muslims.

      The family lives in a spare, dimly lighted apartment two blocks from
      the mosque. Headscarves are piled over Pokémon cards. The gold-painted
      words "Allah is Great" are framed over a threadbare couch. In the next
      room, an "I {sheart} New York" bumper sticker is slapped on the wall.

      Mr. Shata spends long hours away from his family, lecturing at
      mosques, settling disputes, whispering the call to prayer in the ears
      of newborn babies. On his walk home at night, he shops for groceries,
      never forgetting the Honey Nut Cheerios, a favorite American discovery
      of his children.

      When he walks in the door, his face softens. Loud kisses are planted
      on tender cheeks. Mohammed squeals, the girls smile, sweet laughter

      But then there is Rawda.

      "My beautiful girl," the imam says softly one evening, holding his
      limp daughter in his lap after a seizure has passed. He places one
      pill in Rawda's mouth, then another. She looks at him weakly.

      "There we go," he whispers. "Inshallah."

      Her lids close with sleep. He lays her in bed and shuts off the light.

      Hardship, the imam believes — like marriage, like life — is a test
      from God.

      Foreign and Familiar

      It is proof of the imam's uncommon popularity among women that he is
      trusted with roughly 300 female marriage candidates.

      The mosque on Fifth Avenue is a decidedly male place. Men occupy every
      position on the board of directors. They crowd the sidewalk after
      prayer. Only they may enter the mosque's central room of worship. Only
      men, they often point out, are required to attend the Friday prayer.

      One floor below is the cramped room where the women worship. On
      Fridays, they sit pressed together, their headscarves itching with
      heat. They must watch their imam on a closed-circuit television that
      no one seems to have adjusted in years.

      But they listen devotedly. Teenage girls often roll their eyes at
      foreign imams, who seem to them like extraterrestrials. Their
      immigrant mothers often find these clerics too strict, an
      uncomfortable reminder of their conservative homelands.

      Mr. Shata is both foreign and familiar. He presides over a patriarchal
      world, sometimes upholding it, and other times challenging it. In one
      sermon, he said that a man was in charge of his home and had the right
      to "choose his wife's friends."

      Another day, to the consternation of his male congregants, he invited
      a female Arab social worker to lecture on domestic violence. The women
      were allowed to sit next to the men in the main section of the mosque.

      The imam frowns at career women who remain single in their 30's, but
      boasts of their accomplishments to interest marriage candidates. He
      employs his own brand of feminism, vetting marriage contracts closely
      to ensure brides receive a fair dowry and fighting for them when they

      Far more than is customary, he spends hours listening to women: to
      their worries and confessions, their intimate secrets and frank
      questions about everything from menstruation to infidelity. They line
      up outside his office and call his home at all hours, often referring
      to him as "my brother" or "father." He can summon the details of their
      lives with the same encyclopedic discipline he once used to memorize
      the Koran.

      "Are you separated yet?" Mr. Shata asked a woman he encountered at
      Lutheran Medical Center one day last July. She nodded. "May God make
      it easier for you," he said.

      A Chaperoned Date

      By most standards, the Egyptian bachelor was a catch. He had broad
      shoulders and a playful smile. He was witty. He earned a comfortable
      salary as an engineer, and came from what he called "a good family."

      But the imam saw him differently, as a young man in danger of losing
      his faith. The right match might save him.

      The bachelor, who is 33, came to Brooklyn from Alexandria, Egypt, six
      years earlier. He craved a better salary, and freedom from controlling
      parents. He asked that his name not be printed for fear of causing
      embarrassment to his family.

      America was not like Egypt, where his family's connections could
      secure a good job. In Brooklyn, he found work as a busboy. He traded
      the plush comfort of his parents' home for an apartment crowded with
      other Egyptian immigrants. His nights were lonely. Temptation was

      Women covered far less of their bodies. Bare limbs, it seemed, were
      everywhere. In Islam, men are instructed to lower their gaze to avoid
      falling into sin.

      "In the summertime, it's a disaster for us," said the bachelor.
      "Especially a guy like me, who's looking all the time."

      Curiosity lured him into bars, clubs and the occasional one-night stand.

      But with freedom came guilt, he said. After drifting from his faith,
      he visited Mr. Shata's mosque during Ramadan in 2004.

      The imam struck him as oddly disarming. He made jokes, and explained
      Islam in simple, passionate paragraphs. The bachelor soon began
      praying daily, attending weekly lectures and reading the Koran. By
      then, he had his own apartment and a consulting job.

      Now he wanted a Muslim wife.

      If the bachelor had been in Egypt, his parents would offer a stream of
      marriage candidates. The distance had not stopped them entirely. His
      mother sent him a video of his brother's wedding, directing him to
      footage of a female guest. He was unimpressed.

      "I'm a handsome guy," he explained one evening as he sped toward
      Manhattan. It was his second date with Mr. Shata in attendance. "I
      have a standard in beauty."

      From the passenger seat, the imam flipped open the glove compartment
      to find an assortment of pricey colognes. He inspected a bottle of Gio
      and, with a nod from the bachelor, spritzed it over his robe.

      The imam and the bachelor were at odds over the material world, but on
      one thing they agreed: it is a Muslim duty to smell good. The
      religion's founder, the Prophet Muhammad, was said to wear musk.

      The car slowed before a brick high-rise on Second Avenue. Soon the
      pair rode up in the elevator. The bachelor took a breath and rang the
      doorbell. An older woman answered. Behind her stood a slender,
      fetching woman with a shy smile.

      The young woman, Engy Abdelkader, had been presented to the imam by
      another matchmaker. A woman of striking beauty and poise, Ms.
      Abdelkader is less timid than she first seems. She works as an
      immigration and human rights lawyer, and speaks in forceful, eloquent
      bursts. She is proud of her faith, and lectures publicly on Islam and
      civil liberties.

      She was not always so outspoken. The daughter of Egyptian immigrants,
      Ms. Abdelkader, 30, was raised in suburban Howell, N.J., where she
      longed to fit in. Though she grew up praying, in high school she chose
      not to wear a hijab, the head scarf donned by Muslim girls when they
      reach puberty.

      But Sept. 11 awakened her, Ms. Abdelkader said. For her and other
      Muslims, the terrorist attacks prompted a return to the faith, driven
      by what she said was a need to reclaim Islam from terrorists and a
      vilifying media. Headscarves became a statement, equal parts political
      and religious.

      "There's nothing oppressive about it," said Ms. Abdelkader. "As a
      Muslim woman I am asking people to pay attention to the content of my
      character rather than my physical appearance."

      The pair sat on a couch, awkwardly sipping tea. They began by talking,
      in English, about their professions. The bachelor was put off by the
      fact that Ms. Abdelkader had a law degree, yet earned a modest salary.

      "Why go to law school and not make money?" he asked later.

      Ms. Abdelkader's mother and a female friend who lived in the apartment
      sat listening nearby until the imam mercifully distracted them. The
      first hint of trouble came soon after.

      It was his dream, the engineer told Ms. Abdelkader, to buy a
      half-million-dollar house. But he was uncertain that the mortgage he
      would need is lawful in Islam.

      Ms. Abdelkader straightened her back and replied, "I would rather have
      eternal bliss in the hereafter than live in a house or apartment with
      a mortgage."

      An argument ensued. Voices rose. Ms. Abdelkader's mother took her
      daughter's side. The friend wavered. The bachelor held his ground. The
      imam tried to mediate.

      Indeed, he was puzzled. Here was a woman who had grown up amid tended
      lawns and new cars, yet she rejected materialism. And here was a man
      raised by Muslim hands, yet he was rebelliously moderate.

      After the date, the bachelor told the imam, "I want a woman, not a

      Months later, he married another immigrant; she was not especially
      devoted to Islam but she made him laugh, he said. They met through
      friends in New York.

      Ms. Abdelkader remains single. The imam still believes she was the
      perfect match.

      That evening, the imam stood on the sidewalk outside. Rain fell in
      stinging drops.

      "I never wanted to be a sheik," he said. "I used to think that a
      religious person is very extreme and never smiles. And I love to
      smile. I love to laugh. I used to think that religious people were
      isolated and I love to be among people."

      The rain soaked the imam's robe and began to pool in his sandals. A
      moment later, he ducked inside the building.

      "The surprise for me was that the qualities I thought would not make a
      good sheik — simplicity and humor and being close to people — those
      are the most important qualities. People love those who smile and
      laugh. They need someone who lives among them and knows their pain."

      "I know them," said Mr. Shata. "Like a brother."



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