Valley Stream mosque holds blood drive, preps for Hajj

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More than 100 people gathered on Aug. 11 to donate blood at Masjid Hamza in Valley Stream, as members of the community prepared to depart for the annual pilgrimage, or Hajj.

“We didn’t plan the blood drive originally as part of the Hajj,” said community spokesman Nayyer Zubair, who helped coordinate the drive. “But for people who either can’t afford Hajj or can’t take the time, this is a good opportunity to give to the community.” Both the Hajj and charitable giving are among the Five Pillars of Islam.

The mosque serves some 1,400 members from Valley Stream, as well as the surrounding communities of Elmont, Franklin Square, West Hempstead and Queens, Zubair said. It is the largest Islamic community on Nassau County’s South Shore.

Dozens gathered in the mosque’s basement after afternoon prayers, many with cards identifying them as regular blood donors. The drive was coordinated through the New York Blood Center and was to benefit local hospitals, which are critically short of blood. Despite the many restrictions on donors, the mosque exceeded its original target of 40 donors.

Donors must be between the ages of 16 and 65, according to community member Waqas Butt. A number of other restrictions apply as well. For example, donors cannot have traveled in the past year to countries where blood-borne diseases such as malaria are common. And donors cannot have undergone any recent surgery during the same period, he said.

In addition to blood and food drives, as well as visits to shelters and assisted-living facilities, the mosque offers a full range of community activities for all ages, according to Sister Representative Ruhee Kapadia. These include job counseling, SAT and college preparation, and a variety of life skills. “We try to reach out to everyone and to give back to the community,” she said. “Actions speak louder than words.”

The community was founded in the early 1990s and originally occupied two local homes. The current complex fills three full floors of a building on the border of Valley Stream and Elmont, and large celebrations, such as the recent Eid-al-Fitr, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, can attract as many as 10,000.

“People come from all over the area,” Zubair explained. “And some even come from other states to be with their family members.”

More than a dozen of the mosque’s members are undertaking this year’s Hajj, according to Imam Kashis Aziz, one of the community’s clergy, who was himself preparing to depart for Saudi Arabia the following day. The pilgrimage is scheduled to begin on the evening of the eighth day of Dhu al-Hijah, or Aug. 19. The actual start date depends on the weather, since the crescent moon must be visible on the Hajj’s first evening.

Aziz, who received his religious training in Pakistan, has undertaken the pilgrimage “eight or nine times,” he said. The community’s senior cleric, Imam Abaidullah Rani, who studied and taught in Saudi Arabia before coming to Valley Stream more than two decades ago, was already in Mecca preparing for the pilgrimage.

Muslims believe that the origins of the Hajj predate the line of prophets — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses — that Islam shares with Christianity and Judaism. The five-day schedule includes circumambulating the Kaaba, an ancient building in the central courtyard of the Al-Masjid al-Haram mosque in Mecca. The Kaaba is Islam’s holiest site, and the world’s more than one billion Muslims face in its direction for the five daily cycles of prayers.

The pilgrimage commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God’s command. Unlike the Judeo-Christian tradition, which commemorates Abraham’s first wife, Sarah, and their son Isaac, Muslims believe it was his second wife, Hagar, and their son Ishmael, who were the focal points of the sacrifice.

The pilgrimage typically lasts between 15 and 20 days, Aziz said. It is coordinated by a branch of the Saudi government whose only responsibility is the Hajj. Pilgrims from around the world — as many as 3 million — gather in Mecca for the annual event. Hundreds have been trampled in past years as surging crowds struggled to move en masse from the valley of Mina, where pilgrims spend part of the Hajj, to the Jamarat Bridge, where they perform a ritual stoning of Satan.

“Each year, they make it safer,” Zubair said. He has made the journey twice. Recent upgrades have also made the pilgrimage route more handicapped-accessible, according to Aziz.

A number of local travel companies offer package deals, and accommodations are available at any price point. Pilgrims are required to travel in groups — Aziz was traveling with a group of 200.

Besides the five-day Hajj, most pilgrims spend time in Saudi Arabia’s other holy city, Medina, where they can visit Islam’s first mosque and the Prophet Muhammads tomb. They may also visit other historical places, such as the site of the Battle of Badr, a turning point between the forces of the Prophet and the polytheists of Mecca, who opposed the fledgling Muslim community.