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Volume 39, Number 3May/June 1988

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Dar al - Islam

The Code and the Calling

Written and photographed by William Tracy

The cream-colored mosque and school nestle in a semicircle of arid hills on a juniper-studded plateau. Beyond is a vista of snowcapped mountains. Boys and girls begin their school day with a recitation of the most beautiful 99 names of God - "The Merciful, The Compassionate, The Omniscient, The Beneficent..." - and craftsmen shaping adobe walls and barrel vaults pause in their labor to pray together beneath a completed dome. It might be a scene in the highlands of Morocco, Syria, Yemen or Afghanistan. In fact, this is Dar al-Islam, a growing community of American Muslims in Abiquiu, New Mexico - in the heart of the American West.

Dar al-Islam, the Abode of the Faithful, was incorporated as a nonprofit religious and educational foundation in 1980, on the first day of the year 1400 of the Muslim hijri calendar. It is the first Islamic village in the United States. Planned as the eventual home of 150 families, it is home already to more than 30. The adult American-born among them have come to Islam from sister monotheistic traditions, Christian and Jewish, or in some cases from agnosticism, after years of searching for something they felt they had been missing. For them the Muslim faith resolved unanswered questions; they may have first encountered or embraced it in places as diverse as England, Morocco, Egypt or Saudi Arabia. The community has also welcomed a number of non-American Muslims from Canada, Ireland, Holland and Belgium, from Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

Abdullah Nuridin Durkee is director of the foundation and one of its three cofounders. Born a Roman Catholic in upstate New York, Durkee embraced Islam in 1971 while in Jerusalem writing a book on monotheism. Later he and his wife Nura journeyed to Makkah in Saudi Arabia to study Arabic and Islamic law at Umm al-Qura University. In a chance encounter in the Sacred Mosque one night in 1978, Durkee met a Saudi businessman and pipe manufacturer named Sahl Kabbani who knew and admired the United States and Americans from the years after World War II, when he had earned his engineering degree at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. During the two men's serendipitous meeting near the Ka'ba, the idea of Dar al-Islam was born.

The idea was to establish a community in the United States whose members could live a fully Islamic way of life. Dar al-Islam would be a place where American Muslims could engage in life's daily transactions according to their beliefs: the deen, or code of Islam. And in manifesting their faith, they would bear witness of Islam to others: the da'wa, or calling.

Islam defines not only the individual's relationship with God, but all aspects of individual and community life. Thus, when he talks about Dar al-Islam, Durkee likes to use the metaphor of a table supported by four legs. In Islam, worship and education represent but one of the legs of the table. A second, no less important, is the creation of housing, neighborhoods and communities. In American cities, where they are a small minority, Muslims find themselves isolated from one another, their spiritual lives often reduced to attending a weekly religious service. Until now, the response to that isolation has been construction of additional places of worship, establishing mosques in cities and university towns throughout the country. Durkee believes, however, that while such centers do also serve educational and social functions, they inevitably focus on the more limited goal of helping American Muslims maintain their religious identity. The concept of deen includes the daily relationships and interactions among Muslims, a closeness to one's family and caring for neighbors.

The third leg of the table, important to any endeavor in the real world, is business: Spiritual life does not function in a vacuum, and Islamic business practices and principles (See Aramco World, May-June 1987) are an important part of daily interactions among Muslims.

The fourth leg is nourishment. Aside from the universal need to eat, food in an Islamic religious community also involves certain dietary practices that are sometimes difficult to follow in North America, especially in terms of the selection and preparation of meat.

As four legs support the table, Durkee concludes, an Islamic code of life requires a broad base. Therefore a meaningful American project had to reach beyond the provision of a place to pray or a cultural center. It had to deal with all of life's transactions, the real-life problems Muslim families face in all four areas: worship and schooling, community, business and agriculture.

Nura Durkee makes another point. The purpose of the project was not to create an isolated, fully self-sufficient community, a ghetto for a self-conscious minority. While creating space in which Muslim families could practice feen, they should not forget that they lived, after all, within a larger world. Carrying out da'wa was an important concern too. They would make every effort to present an Islamic example in America, to interact with and earn the respect of their fellow Americans. And finally, Dar al-Islam would also serve as a base and a retreat for the broader Islamic community of students and travelers in the United States.

All these factors were considered when Dar al-Islam was conceived. The search for the right location in America was made possible by another serendipitous meeting in Makkah, several months after that of Nuridin Durkee with Sahl Kabbani.

One night in 1979, during the fasting month of Ramadan, Nura Durkee was also praying in the enclosure of the Sacred Mosque and was also recognized as an American Muslim by a stranger who spoke to her. The woman was Princess Muthie bint Khaled, a daughter of Saudi Arabia's then King, the late Khaled ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz. She had heard of the Durkees' idea of creating a Muslim community in America, and she offered her help. They used an initial gift from the princess to begin the search.

The Durkees knew that they would need space: a very large piece of land at a relatively low cost. This ruled out the crowded metropolitan areas of the east and west coasts, which were less than ideal in any case because of their hectic pace and material distractions. The Durkees were familiar with the American Southwest and attracted by its climate and its scenic grandeur, with both open space and openness to diversity. They wanted to be within reach of a city whose economy and resources would be especially useful in the initial stages - but not so close that city sophistication or demands would hinder contemplation and concentration on religious and educational goals.

At Abiquiu, in sparsely populated north-central New Mexico's mile-high Rio Arriba County, the Durkees found what they were searching for: a 3,450-hectare (8,500-acre) ranch composed of rugged, empty back country, a flat-topped mesa and a verdant, flat-bottomed valley bisected by the fast-flowing Chama River. A highway fronts the property and separates it from the village of Abiquiu on the south side of the river, providing the community's connection to the larger world. As the Chama rushes to meet the Rio Grande, its passage through the hills opens a line of sight to the lofty Sangre de Cristo range, whose peaks soar 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) into the desert air.

Along the two rivers there are villages, some Indian, with their nature-centered traditions, some Hispanic and thus mostly Roman Catholic, others Anglo-American, most often Protestant. As much as any place in the United States, northern New Mexico is tri-cultural, and these highlands seem to welcome diversity in the common search for life's meaning. There is a Sikh community in nearby Espanola; Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian-affiliated retreat established on artist Georgia O'Keefe's former property, is just up the road; Abiquiu itself, settled by Spaniards and Hispani-cized Indians in the mid-1700's, is 99 percent Catholic. In this setting, Dar al-Islam, a community of Muslims, would be just another village along the river, able to coexist in the tolerance and mutual respect that are features of both America at its best and of the golden periods of Islam.

The selection of a New Mexican site also closed a circle, in a historical sense. The Spanish who first settled here in 1610 - only Florida and Virginia had European settlers earlier - brought with them the influence of the Arab kingdoms of Andalusia. The last of these, Granada, had succumbed to the reconquista only in 1492, hardly more than a century before. The first Muslim known to have lived in New Mexico was a Moor named Estevan who accompanied Friar Marcos de Niza, the first Spaniard to explore America's Southwest. Many Spanish words still in use in New Mexico, and many local place names, have Arabic roots. The name of the town of Alcalde, about 24 kilometers (15 miles) from Abiquiu, recalls the title of certain Spanish colonial administrators, one derived from the Arabic al qadi, the judge (See Aramco World, November-December 1976). The sophisticated local system of allocating irrigation water from the Chama also has its origins in Muslim Spain and the Arab East. So when Dar al-Islam came to Abiquiu, it did seem to find a welcoming environment.

In Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, Princess Muthie bint Khaled had interested her four sisters in the Dar al-Islam project and they continued to contribute as a family, enough at first to establish the legal foundation, buy the first 450 hectares (1,100 acres) of land, build a mosque, or masjid, and begin the construction of a school, or madrasa. Later the princesses' father made a substantial donation, enough to complete more than half of the school and to purchase the remaining 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of the ranch. With the land came the main ranch house - an adobe hacienda - and a number of workers' houses, barns and corrals.

Along with Sahl Kabbani and Nuridin Durkee, Dr. Abdullah Naseef, then rector of King Abdul Aziz University in Jiddah, now Secretary General of the Riyadh-based World Muslim League, joined in cofounding Dar al-Islam. Other members of the foundation's board were chosen from among Muslim educators and patrons in the United States, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and Morocco. The foundation, as a nonprofit organization, supervises three areas: the mosque and school, lands and housing, and an Institute of Traditional Islamic Studies.

To design the masjid and madrasa, Dar al-Islam chose Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, a man venerated worldwide for his life-long commitment to vernacular architecture and his mastery of traditional adobe construction. Though then already in his 80's, Fathy came to Abiquiu himself to oversee construction, and brought with him two Nubian craftsmen to instruct local workers in adobe techniques. The mosque was built first, except for the still unfunded minaret. The largest part of the connecting school building was also completed; construction continues on a kitchen and cafeteria, arts and crafts rooms, and a language laboratory.

Studies indicate that as many as 80 percent of the children of Muslim families that immigrate into the American melting pot eventually leave Islam. An important goal of Dar al-Islam's school, therefore, is not only to teach the community's children but also to train teachers and develop an Islamic curriculum. Eventually the foundation hopes to have a boarding school - the last major building designed by Fathy - to serve the children of Muslim families whose professional lives keep them elsewhere in the country.

Egyptian-born Ahmed El-Helou, the school's director, came to Dar al-Islam with years of experience teaching Muslim children in Holland. In 1986-1987he oversaw a staff of six qualified full-time teachers and an enrollmenUof 44 children. Except for matters fixed by state law - such as the number of school days per year - El-Helou and his staff are free to tailor the school to the community's needs. Thus, boys and girls study together through the early elementary years and are separated after the age of 10. In some subjects, the school has chosen the same texts used in New Mexico's public schools, but El-Helou and his curriculum coordinator, Dr. Ali Malik, also make sure to give the children a solid grounding in Islamic values, as well as classes in Arabic and the Qur'an.

"Most young people grow up to believe they must compromise between their idealism and the reality of the world," El-Helou says. "But as the Prophet showed us, it's possible to live the ideal, by following God's word. Dar al-Islam provides a place to learn this while isolated from outside pressures. The pressures of one's own ego cannot be escaped, but we can prepare ourselves to deal with them."

As to the community's land and housing - the foundation's second area of concern - the first task was to renovate the existing houses, set beneath towering cottonwoods, facing south across pasture-land. Four new houses for settlers were also built along the northern bank of the Chama, each with a solar-heated glass porch and its own vegetable garden. In anticipation of a gradually increasing population, the foundation has prepared a master plan for the plateau area surrounding the mosque and school. Already three houses with walled courtyards have been built there; each represents space for another family in the community and additional students to sustain and support the school. For now, too, some settlers rent houses in the village of Abiquiu.

The wild back country and the irrigated land along the river is leased to neighboring ranchers for the present, but the foundation's long-range plans call for developing a nursery for native trees and shrubs, a herb farm, a fish hatchery, feed-lots for cattle and perhaps an Arabian-horse ranch.

The Institute of Traditional Islamic Studies was conceived as an advanced educational institute where graduate students could learn about Islam from Muslims in an Islamic context. The ranch's old adobe hacienda is the venue for a variety of programs and seminars. In the summer of 1986 it hosted a training workshop for teachers in Muslim schools, cosponsored by the World Muslim League in Riyadh. The next year, the University of Florida cosponsored a seminar on Islamic communities for architects interested in traditional architecture. Another seminar in 1987 was devoted to the development of an integrated curriculum, from language to science, in an Islamic perspective.

"Secular studies teach us the facts of known phenomena," one Muslim mother and teacher said, "but they fail to emphasize responsibility. Muslims are enjoined to be caretakers of the world, to work with it, not to destroy it. We are only visitors here. It's not unlike the Christian idea of stewardship. We want to teach our children this view - especially on this land: ecology, planting, increasing fertility."

"Science is not God," Dr. Malik says. "But it does give us a sense of the greatness of God. Everything leads us toward our Creator."

As a religious and educational foundation, Dar al-Islam cannot engage in profit-making activities. And yet, to exist as a community in a remote location it was necessary to encourage small business ventures and create jobs. To help with this dilemma, trustee Sahl Kabbani established the Crescent Leasing and Development Company. Crescent leased a portion of the land fronting on the highway and there built an inn, restaurant, gift shop and automobile body shop and garage.

Another company, Al-Manjara (The Builders), a licensed contractor, leases space from Dar al-Islam and carries out major construction for the foundation and for individuals in the community, as well as projects for clients as far away as Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Woodworker Benyameen van Hattum, born in Holland, has handcrafted doors and other furnishings for the mosque and school, many pieces based on traditional Islamic patterns.

Islamia Incorporated is another private company, established by an Egyptian businessman to develop prototypes for a series of 12 English-language readers for children through the sixth grade. In Islamia's offices, rented from the foundation, Irish-born Muhammed Abdul Bari' McCabe and American editor and graphic designer Abu'l Qasim Spiker are creating books which they hope will be of value to Islamic schools in the West and to families for home use - and which will also serve as tools for teaching English to children in the Muslim East.

The series, "Islamic Perspectives," incorporates such basic values as honesty and respect for parents and elders. One reader is called Helping at the Farm. "Note the use of the word 'helping' as opposed to 'visiting'" Spiker says. "Our purpose is not to shut children into a bubble, but to provide them the values which will enable them to discriminate for themselves what is important."

Dar al-Islam has never accepted financial assistance from a government. All donations have come from individuals, because the foundation is seen as a trust of the world community of Muslims. "Traditionally, the heart of the Islamic world has supported Muslim projects on the far frontiers," Nura Durkee says. "Each Muslim community in America has its own projects and needs, so we are reluctant to turn to them for help. People in Egypt are not generally wealthy, but they value Islam immensely and understand what it is to try to live on little. Once in Cairo, I was handed a stack of crumpled piaster notes, about 13 dollars, by two little old ladies all dressed in black. I was in tears. One knows that such a gift comes with great understanding and a lot of heart."

The foundation continues to receive donations from many individuals in Egypt, in the various Gulf countries, in Saudi Arabia - where members of several Ladies' Benevolent Societies have been particularly active - and from elsewhere in the Middle East. Zaqat, the Muslim concept of organized and obligatory charity, has been a blessing to the foundation.

Yet Dar al-Islam exists also in a peculiarly American tradition. The construction, amid democracy's diversity, of a community designed to suit the principles of a particular group of people is not an uncommon event in American history. In this sense Dar al-Islam follows in the path worn by the 17th-century Quakers and such 18th- and 19th-century American communities a£ the Shakers in New York, the Amanites of Iowa and the Hutterites of South Dakota. Brook Farm in Massachusetts and New Harmony in Indiana were other early communities built on principles, whose members strove to live just and honest lives in the company of like-minded people.

In many other ways, however, Dar al-Islam is quite different from these American predecessors, not least because it does not stand alone: It is part of the vast world community of Islam.

Nonetheless, Dar al-Islam is still a community of American Muslims, connected in its special way to mainstream America. Local people from Abiquiu are hired to work alongside Dar al-Islam's Muslims; Muslims patronize Abiquiu businesses and rent houses in the village. The foundation supports the Abiquiu fire department and contributes to the local Head Start program. Students from surrounding areas and visitors from across the nation drive up the dirt road to admire the adobe mosque on the plateau above the Chama and think about why it is there. Many record their thoughts in the guest book, whose pages are filled with words such as "peaceful," "serene" and "spiritual." "A beautiful house of God," one family from Albuquerque wrote recently, and another visitor added, "God bless you."

Compassion and love are values held in common by Americans of many faiths. In Islam, living in harmony and being good neighbors is part of practicing deen and carrying out da'wa.

"My point of view lis that they are bringing in a lot of family tradition, unity and respect for human institutions." The speaker is Father Milan Garcia of the St. Thomas Church in Abiquiu. "This is a good thing for northern New Mexico."

William Tracy, a lecturer on Islam and Middle Eastern affairs, is a former assistant editor of Aramco World and remains a frequent contributor.

A Blessed ‘ Id
Written by William Tracy

It is Wednesday, and it is the last day of Ramadan, the month of fasting. Perhaps.

The children at the Dar al-lslam Islamic School are excited because tomorrow may be the 'Id al-Fitr, the holiday of breaking the fast - a special holiday in the Muslim lunar calendar. But no one will know for sure unless the new moon is actually sighted this evening.

If someone does see the moon, there will be no school tomorrow; all the families of Dar al-lslam will gather outside the mosque for communal prayers in the morning. There will be a community picnic in the afternoon, and gifts for all the children.

The older ones have been fasting with their parents and the other groups, from dawn to sunset, for the past 29 days. The younger children have fasted as they could, some for half of the days, others for only three or four. (The obligation to fast during Ramadan is relaxed for travelers, the sick and the young.) To encourage them, their teachers have put a star beside their names for every day they succeeded. Three-year-old Yaseen is very proud: Today he has fasted, he says with a shy grin, from breakfast until he ate a sandwich - at lunch.

Just before sunset several of the men drive from the village of Abiquiu to the big dam and lake a few kilometers upstream, where they can have a clearer view of the horizon. The evening sky is radiant and red, but there are scattered low clouds above the cliffs. No one can spot a faint, thin crescent so soon after sunset.

At Dar al-lslam, someone has received a telephone call from friends in Saudi Arabia. The new moon has been sighted there! In houses along the river and others across the valley in Abiquiu there is discussion about waiting until the moon appears here. Neighbors telephone each other to ask for news. Then one family receives a call from a Muslim friend in Georgia, another from friends in California; then comes a call from Washington state. The word spreads. The new moon has been seen in America too!

Early Thursday morning about 90 people, men, women and children, gather in their holiday best among the juniper trees outside the mosque. The women wear long colorful skirts and cover their heads with scarves; the men wear tunics over trousers, or floor-length robes with caps or turbans. Several visitors, invited by telephone, have driven to Dar al-lslam from Taos or Santa Fe, and a group of families comes from Abiquiu in the big yellow school bus. Everyone is welcomed with the greeting," 'Id mubarak!" - blessed 'id. Two rows of mats and carpets spread across the dusty earth, for the men and boys in front and for the women, girls and small children some distance behind them, all facing toward distant Makkah.

Ahmed El-Helou, the school director, stands before those assembled and reminds them that they are part of the world-wide Islamic community. All over the globe, Muslims have been fasting together as they are now joined together in celebration. They are united, he says: high and low, men and women, all colors and classes. Then he leads them in prayer.

In the afternoon many families drive to a picnic ground in the Carson National Forest. An icy stream rushes beneath pines, spruce and fir beside the meadow. The yellow bus is parked amid cars and pickups. Some men and boys play volleyball; an older boy takes a chilly dip to retrieve a stray ball. One man gathers dandelions for tea, another sits quietly on the grass and reads. Three families have brought lambs to share, and a group of men grill them over a bed of coals. Dark clouds race overhead, drop a few sprinkles and pass.

The picnic is a feast from East and West: There are stuffed grape leaves, couscous, spinach pastries, eggplant, pita bread, dates, rice pudding, baklava and crescent-shaped cookies, as well as potato salad and watermelon.

After the meal there are games of badminton and stickball, and the children show each other their new toys. Nine-year-old Samia is very happy: She was the youngest of all the children to have fasted every single day, and the school director has given each child a quarter for every day he or she was able to fast. Samia has over seven dollars'.

As the sun sets, people again line up along the bank of the mountain stream and pray together beneath the trees.

It has been a blessed and joyous 'id.

This article appeared on pages 20-29 of the May/June 1988 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

See Also: U.S.A.—ISLAM

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1988 images.