12:17 pm May. 10, 2011
At 6:30 p.m. on Friday, downtown on Church Street, homebound commuters were streaming by what’s been built of 1 World Trade Center. The sun over the Hudson River beamed off the newly installed glass on the lower section; a building nearly a decade in the making was taking shape.
On May 5, the day before, the whole area had been on lockdown. Osama bin Laden was dead, and President Obama had visited ground zero to lay a wreath for the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Things had returned to normal. At the corner of Fulton Street, a man handed out cards for a nearby strip club. On the next block, another man was distributing leaflets advertising Judgment Day on May 21.
Around the corner, on Park Place, the din of activity faded. The street was nearly empty, other than two policemen leaning against a cruiser parked outside a building with peeling white paint and the faded remains of a sign indicating the former presence of a Burlington Coat Factory. This was the site of as-yet-unbuilt Park51—the “Ground Zero mosque”—where a scheduled event on traditional Islamic medicine was about to begin.
Metal police barriers created a corridor that led to a door. There was no street number outside, and no sign notifying visitors that this was the place which, a year ago, metastasized from the focus of a local zoning decision into a raging national debate.
That particular conversation has all but disappeared from mainstream public discourse. Lately, Park51 has received scant coverage for any reason at all, even during the president’s visit, except for a National Public Radio piece.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the religious leader who so often was at the center of last year’s controversy, and his for-profit “Cordoba Initiative” are out. Park51 applied for non-profit status back in November, NPR reported. According to the project’s owner, real-estate developer Sharif El-Gamal, the plan to build a multi-use Islamic community center—the former budget retailer's building is to be replaced by an architecturally ambitious structure whose exterior design incorporates crescents and crosses and stars of David—is still operative, even if the original, ambitious timeline for it isn’t.
The fact that progress has been slow is evident upon entering the building. The ground floor has been gutted, leaving exposed concrete walls and a dust-covered floor. The old escalator is still there, but unused, leading up to nothing but darkness. A security guard stands near a folding table with photocopied information sheets on the Park51 project.
The only signs of life were to the left of the entryway. Adjacent to—but not, as the Park51 website makes a lot of effort to point out, in—the actual community center is an area called PrayerSpace, where Muslim faithful can attend daily prayers. This is as close to an actual mosque as exists there. A long room with commercial-grade carpet and pillars down the center, it looks like any number of church basements nearby, or anywhere.
But here the gates over the windows were down, a large man standing under them who was obviously there for security, creating an overall sense of being in a bunker.
In the back, a crowd of about 20 people (and one reporter) had gathered for the night’s event, advertised by Park51 as “So Old, It’s New: the Practice of a Sacred Medical Science.” The purpose, according to a flier, was to “discuss Park51’s integrated approach to health and well-being.”
Most of the people who coalesced around a solitary chair at the back of the room occupied by the night’s speaker, Hakim Mirza Ilyas al-Kashani, were Muslims, but the crowd was diverse-looking.
Kashani first asked if there was anyone from the medical community in attendance. A younger white woman said she worked with AIDS patients. A woman in a headscarf worked in pediatrics. An older white woman, her head covered and her exposed toes (all shoes were off, per the custom) painted a bright red, was an acupuncturist. A couple of older Asian women said they were practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine.
Kashani himself is a one-man revivalist movement for what he describes as traditional Islamic healing and medicine. Originally from Iran, the 40-year-old Kashani has been studying numerous holistic therapies since 1990, according to his biography. He wore a black three-piece suit with a burgundy shirt underneath. With his swept-back hair graying at the temples, his languid tone and contemplative bearing, he projected a reserved, shamanistic air.
He began his talk by linking the little-known practice of traditional Islamic medicine to contemporaneous—and better-known—practices like traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine. He is dissatisfied with modern Western medical practices, he says, and illustrates his point with abysmal statistics: the millions of Americans without health insurance, and the fact that in 2000, America was ranked 37 of 191 in a report from the World Health Organization on the health care systems of its member states.
Modern Western medicine practices what he called “sciencism”: treating only what can be seen.
“Modern medicine tends to outer manifestations of things,” Kashani said. “But what we’re really interested in is the cause.” Traditional Islamic medicine, he said, concerns itself with addressing the health of the whole person—mind, body, and soul—as a way of alleviating current problems, and taking steps to keep future ones from developing.
“Islamic medicine is basically the knowledge derived from the Koran and the Haddith—the prophetic tradition—that describes the relationship of God to spirit, and sprit to the soul, and therefore God to the soul,” Kashani said. “Our business, as practitioners of Islamic medicine, is to see how that pans out on the physical plane.”
If you’ve ever had acupuncture, gone to a spa retreat, or relied on herbal medicine to heal what ails you, Kashani’s description of traditional Islamic medicine would sound pretty familiar. Take the word “Islam” out of the mix and the talk could have been taking place at a yoga studio in Park Slope.
Of course, that’s the big, fundamental difference.
“God is the central figure in anything that we can possibly talk about,” Kashani said in an interview after the talk. “What sets us apart [from other Eastern traditional practices] is that we will, of course, be speaking to a massive community of people on the planet that are believers—whether they’re Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.”
It was dark by the time the event was over. Outside, the two cops were standing in the same spot against their car. Asked if they were there every night, one of them said, "Every night and every day. We’re out here 24/7.”