Finding Room, but No Place to Worship

September 16, 2007


Source: The New York Times

FOR now, the Upper Westchester Muslim Society worships in a spare room in a bleak industrial building here that houses a lumberyard and a pottery studio, and lies across the street from a Shop-Rite.

Strolling toward the building on a recent Friday afternoon, the ambience was anything but spiritual. But once inside, all that changes as 100 men, women and children murmur prayers and kneel toward Mecca, sometimes bowing their heads to touch the ground. Humdrum as it appears, the room is their mosque. The shoeless men are dressed on this day in knit shirts and slacks. The women wear headscarves, with some in the head-to-toe niqab, which, except for eye-slits, veils their face.

The 35-family society has no imam, so the sermon is delivered by Dr. Saleem Mir, a nephrologist for Phelps Memorial Hospital Center in Sleepy Hollow. If, in this post-9/11 world, someone expected a summons to jihad or a condemnation of Western civilization, Dr. Mir would disappoint. He preaches something closer to the opposite — an appeal for letting the wisdom of the secular and scientific worlds enrich Islam.

“Why is it, we are so content now that we are saying ‘Islam is enough — we don’t have to borrow, we don’t have to learn from other cultures?’ ” Dr. Mir asked. That outlook, he said, explains why the Muslim world is “far behind in the fields of science and technology” and why, should that viewpoint triumph, “Islam will become decadent.”

It is hard to believe that this congregation, made up mostly of professionals or business people working for Westchester institutions like IBM or Phelps hospital, are having trouble finding a suburban home for prayer. Like other county residents, these families migrated to Westchester years ago for elbowroom and good schools, but have sometimes found their relationship with the suburbs uneasy.

The tension is played out in their two-year effort to build a roomier, more elegant mosque 15 minutes north in the town of New Castle in a neighborhood between Ossining and Chappaqua.