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Allah in America

Deep in the New Mexico desert lies Dar al Islam, a Muslim oasis of cultural immersion and religious study

By Kathy Pinto
Star-Telegram
October 25, 2003

The mosque at Dar al Islam is open year-round to Muslims and non-Muslims.

ABIQUIU - For centuries the high desert of northern New Mexico has drawn diverse people and cultures -- American Indians, Spanish colonists and Anglo settlers. Today, this never-changing landscape includes Sikhs, Buddhists and Muslims.

On the land around Abiquiu, which inspired the masterpieces of Georgia O'Keeffe, these newest of immigrants have found their piece of heaven -- and constructed what is believed to be the country's only adobe mosque.

Abiquiu is a 250-year-old Spanish-American village located an hour north of Santa Fe. It sits in a varied landscape of red and gold mesas, lunar-white rock canyons and fertile river land. On a plateau overlooking the Chama River Valley, across from Abiquiu, lies Dar al Islam.

Dar al Islam was conceived in 1979 by an American-educated Saudi industrialist and an American-born Muslim at a meeting in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Their dream was to establish a Muslim village that would be a showcase for Islam in America.

Its inhabitants would include not only people from the Middle East and Asia, but also second-generation Muslims and converts. Northern New Mexico was chosen for its natural setting and because of its proximity to traditional cultures, such as Hispanic Catholics and American Indians.

Built in 1981, the community's strikingly beautiful mosque, or masjid, and an attached school, called a madressa, were designed by a renowned Egyptian architect, Hassan Fathi, in traditional North African style.

Under the supervision of Fathi and his team of Egyptian masons, the labor was carried out by builders and craftsmen from the area, including American converts to Islam such as Chris Lutz, a builder and furniture maker from Abiquiu.

As time went by, it became apparent that a Muslim community was not realistic in such a poor, remote area. The original Middle Eastern families who settled Dar al Islam moved on. As the economy shifted, people were forced to go where jobs were -- including the cities of Los Alamos and Santa Fe, which called for long commutes.

"Arabs in the Middle East read about this model Islamic group in the U.S. in an Aramco [oil company] magazine," said Lutz, "but after moving here, they realized they weren't ready to live a rural lifestyle."

Some of the land was sold, and today the complex, which sits on 1,600 acres, is used as an educational facility. In addition to the mosque and school, the complex consists of a lecture hall and several residences, including yurts, dormitories and houses. The surrounding landscape lends itself to light-impact camping.

The distinctive architecture of Dar al Islam blends with the desert air of Abiquiu to inspire a sense of timelessness, creating an atmosphere that is conducive to religious study and contemplation. In Islam, nature and its grand phenomena, such as the sun and moon, seasonal cycles, the mountains and streams, all play a part in spirituality.

"The mosque is open year-round to Muslims and also non-Muslims who want to come and pray or contemplate," said Walter Abdur Ra'uf Declerck, a representative of Dar al Islam. "We [Muslims, Jews and Christians] all worship the same God."

The domed roof of the mosque, often referred to as the "vault of heaven," rises above the juniper-studded landscape. Inside, the cool darkness of the mosque provides refuge from the outside world. During the summer, when there is more activity and an increase in worshippers, the sound of the muezzin's calls to prayer five times a day pierces the desert stillness.

The complex has classrooms and spaces for contemplative silence. Small, high-set windows allow rays of sunlight to fill the prayer rooms.

Declerck says the retreat center's programs hope to impart not only a knowledge of Islam but also what it can offer to restore the values of compassion and justice to the world. Part of Dar al Islam's mission is to deepen the practice of Islam in a country far from Mecca, Islam's spiritual stronghold.

Dar al Islam, a nonprofit organization, conducts summer conferences and retreats, especially for young Muslims to teach them about traditional Islam. Its facilities are available to other organizations and entities, such as schools, whose interests are compatible with its own activities. Many of the participants are teachers and ordained ministers.

"I just can't say enough wonderful things about it," said Joan Brodsky-Shur, a teacher/consultant at the Village Community School in New York City. Brodsky-Shur attended a two-week conference at Dar al Islam in 1998. "When I went, I really knew nothing about Islam. It was a fantastic experience."

Part of the center's appeal is the noted Islamic scholars from U.S. universities, such as Temple and Harvard, and all over the world who come to teach at Dar al Islam. Another factor is that, while they are there, participants live in a community of Muslims. "This adds a dimension to it -- way beyond simply studying something," says Brodsky-Shur. After she attended the conference, Shur's school allowed her to develop a yearlong course on Islam, and she has received travel grants to Turkey and Muslim China.

Another conference participant, David Gutierrez, an Albuquerque high school teacher, says, "I believe that the issues we attribute to religion are tied up in politics. Attending the conference enhanced this."

Gutierrez, who taught at the American School in Kuwait for a year, says Dar al Islam's programs help participants to learn what Islam is and what it isn't.

"I think it is so important for Americans to expose themselves to some of these ideas," he says. "There are now more opportunities for people to educate themselves. The danger in this country is remaining ignorant to what the real issues are."

The Muslim tradition of Ramadan

Beginning Sunday or Monday, Muslims in the Metroplex will take part in Ramadan, one of the most important rituals of their faith.

Ramadan (from the Arabic root word ramida, meaning intense heat and dryness) is the Islamic month during which Muslims (with the exception of children) fast daily from dawn to dusk. According to Islam, Ramadan is the month during which the first verses of the Quran, or Divine Scripture, were revealed by God through the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammed in 610 A.D.

Because Islam follows a lunar calendar, the sighting of the Hilal (the crescent moon) determines the beginning of Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar calendar. The crescent moon is one of the most important symbols in the Muslim tradition.

"Usually, I go to Abiquiu Lake, where there's a beautiful view from the western horizon to watch the moon," said Walter Abdur Ra'uf Declerck of Dar al Islam. "In northern New Mexico, we often have cloud formation at sunset so that if we cannot see anything because of clouds we just wait to hear from someone in California."

During this most sacred of months, fasting helps Muslims to experience the peace that comes from spiritual devotion, self-purification and charity toward the poor.

The Ramadan fast ends with the sighting of the crescent moon again, some 29 or 30 days later. If the sky is overcast on the 30th day, the fast still must come to an end. After special prayers at the mosque or out in the open air, Muslims celebrate with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, literally, "the Festival of Breaking the Fast." Homes are adorned with lights and decorations, treats are given to children, and visits with friends and family mark this time.

Ramadan's fasting and the feasting prepare Muslims for the months ahead.

"Islam is about submission, and in submission one finds the fulfillment of one's deepest desires," said Declerck. "Islam gave me this fulfillment."

Recommended reading

Strangers in This Land: Pluralism and the Response to Diversity in the U.S. by E. Allen Richardson, (Pilgrim, $10.95)

Remembering God by Gai Eaton (Kazi Publications, $19.95)

If you go

For information on Dar al Islam, call (505) 685-4515 or go to www.daralislam.org. The Abiquiu Inn and Restaurant, a 38-room hospitality complex, is owned and operated by Dar al Islam. For information and reservations, call (800)447-5621.

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