If anything seems conquerable, it is the solitude of Muslim singles. Nothing brings the imam more joy than guiding them to marriage.
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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. 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.
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Shata, turning red at the memory. If I knew this boy had no manners I never would have let him into my office. Shata, blessing an Islamic wedding like this one is a joyful occasion. But when it is a less traditional celebration, with women wearing revealing outfits and mingling with men, it can be challenging, too. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Shata began the service three months after arriving in Brooklyn in , recruited to lead the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, a mosque on Fifth Avenue.
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Dates chaperoned by Mr. Candidates are vetted carefully, and those without personal references need not apply. But instinct is Mr. 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.
Skin-wise, not white, not dark. Shata told a year-old Palestinian man one afternoon. Such questions annoy Mr. An imam, he says, should be trusted to select the best candidate. Often, though, his recommendations are met with skepticism. 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. 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. Then, one evening, he appeared at her home, presented as a prospective groom to her father, a distinguished reciter of the Koran. After serving the drinks, she disappeared. 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. Elshabrawy could respond, a sugary voice interrupted.
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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.
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 help. 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. 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 echoes. She looks at him weakly. While drafting a marriage contract, Sheik Reda Shata consults the pocket-size Koran he carries with him at all times. 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 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.
Shata is both foreign and familiar. He presides over a patriarchal world, sometimes upholding it, and other times challenging it. 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. Far more than is customary, he spends hours listening to women: Shata asked a woman he encountered at Lutheran Medical Center one day last July. Shata hugs his daughter Rahma, 6, while his wife, Omyma, carries their baby, Mohammed.
Behind him, his daughter Rawda, 7, rests after one of the many epileptic seizures she has each day. She is homebound, and her illness has brought hardship to the family. By most standards, the Egyptian bachelor was a catch. He had broad shoulders and a playful smile. 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. In Brooklyn, he found work as a busboy.