Imam Hassan Qazwini bent over newborn Gabriel
Haidar to whisper the infant's first Muslim call to
prayer. Only a few inches separated the imam's lips from
Gabriel's ear, but Qazwini understood that he was
calling to the child across a vast gulf of centuries and
continents, praying that he would grow up to take his
place in the tradition of Islam.
"God is great!" the imam called to him softly in
Great care is required to save each young,
American-born Muslim from the host of other appeals
showering down on them from television, cell phones and
the Internet, Qazwini repeatedly warns his congregation.
This imam, whose time is prized by presidential
candidates, community leaders and his thousands of
followers, faced a half-dozen demands on a busy Friday
at the Islamic Center of America in Detroit. But, when
Gabriel's proud father hurried up to him after his
weekly sermon, the infant instantly became Qazwini's top
Gesturing proudly at the baby, Qazwini turned the
moment into a lesson for the adults surrounding him.
"This is our future," he said.
The story of Qazwini, who is emerging as one of the
nation's top Shi'ite leaders and whose family ties
extend to the heart of Islam in Iraq and Iran, is a
story of the daily friction between two cultures in the
The result of that friction is surprising. The
American stereotype of a foreign-born imam is that of a
stern ambassador of a rigid faith. Instead, Qazwini
represents a dynamic branch of Islam. And he recognizes
that he's caught up in a powerful struggle in which
American culture is reshaping him and his followers as
much as they are able to change life in the United
"In adapting to the realities of this country, he's
connecting with one of the oldest traditions in Islam,
when the faith spread rapidly," said Patrick Allitt,
professor of history at Emory University and an expert
on American religious movements.
"He's wise to understand that religious history in
this country is all about the children. If you can't
persuade kids to pick it up, then you'll die," Allitt
said. "American history is full of hundreds of religious
groups that didn't survive here past the founding
generation or the first immigrant waves."
From shocked to savvy
The influential figure Qazwini represents today, as
his followers near the completion of one of North
America's largest mosques in Dearborn, is all the more
remarkable because of the isolated world from which he
Born in 1964 in Karbala, Iraq, a city considered holy
by Shi'ite Muslims, Qazwini grew up in Iraq and Iran in
a clan of top scholars steeped in centuries of
tradition. The title "Sayyid" (sah-eed) often is
attached to his name to indicate that his family
descends directly from the Prophet Muhammad, the
7th-Century founder of Islam.
As a child, there was no question that Qazwini would
follow a long line of imams, so he studied in the
world's leading Shi'ite seminary in Qom, Iran. His life
was tightly controlled, including an arranged marriage
to his wife, Rezvan, a descendant of another line of
esteemed Shi'ite scholars.
"When we moved to the United States in 1992, I could
not even speak English," Qazwini explained earlier this
month at their modest Dearborn home, where CNN newscasts
now play like a constant soundtrack to his daily life
and stacks of U.S. newspapers attest to his voracious
Because of separation of the sexes in Iraq and Iran,
he lived his first 28 years without ever speaking to a
woman who wasn't a relative. So life in California was a
shock, when he and his wife initially settled there with
Qazwini's father and brothers, who had immigrated
earlier to organize Muslim centers along the West Coast.
When the newcomers enrolled in English classes, Qazwini
found that simply sitting next to female students was a
"There was so much I did not know," he said. "Now, I
work so hard for interfaith cooperation, but then I had
never even set foot in a church or a synagogue."
By 1997, when he was hired by the Islamic Center of
America, considered the historic pillar of metro
Detroit's Shi'ite community, he was speaking fluent
English. He also was developing a savvy critique of
The political pressures he faced were tougher to
master and, in that realm, a few mistakes were made, he
Political passions and pitfalls
Qazwini charts his political connections in
scrapbooks of letters from U.S. presidents (Bill Clinton
and George W. Bush), plus members of Congress,
ambassadors and local community leaders.
Sandwiched between an invitation from the Bushes and
a friendly note from Gov. Jennifer Granholm is an
outraged 1998 letter from Jewish community leaders,
objecting to an appearance at his mosque that year by
Louis Farrakhan, who has been accused of anti-Semitism.
It's Qazwini's style, close associates say, not to
publicly apologize for this appearance, but to save the
critical letter as a reminder. The signal to watch,
associates say, is that Farrakhan has not been invited
Sharona Shapiro, Michigan director of the American
Jewish Committee, wrote about Qazwini this week:
"Although miles apart in Middle East politics, mutual
interest in learning more about Judaism and Islam have
helped solidify the burgeoning relationships among
members of his mosque and the Jewish community."
It's a sign of how delicately community leaders
handle these issues that Shapiro, who has worked closely
with Qazwini on interfaith coalitions, would comment on
him only in a written statement.
The Rev. John West, the interfaith representative of
Detroit Catholic Cardinal Adam Maida, said, "This is
very difficult work. And Imam Qazwini speaks
passionately, so he can ruffle feathers. But especially
after 9/11, he wore himself out being available anywhere
people invited him to talk about Islam.
"He consults with Cardinal Maida," West said. "That's
why the cardinal chose his mosque in 2001 for the first
visit by a Detroit cardinal to an Islamic house of
The imam and his board of trustees have learned a
lot. When contributions from mosques to foreign
charities became controversial, the Islamic Center
weathered the storm partly by spending most of its funds
locally, including gifts to a Detroit soup kitchen and a
drive to complete the $12-million mosque rising on Ford
At 76,000-square-feet, the gold-domed mosque will
rank among the largest in North America when it opens
around the end of this year. After a final phase adds
nearly 50,000 square feet in the next few years, it is
likely to become the largest.
Folding up his scrapbooks, Qazwini admits that one
point of lingering confusion concerns his relationship
with Bush. After several highly publicized meetings with
the president, many observers pegged the imam as a Bush
"But people who say that do not understand my role,"
Qazwini said. "My support must always be with my
community, and in 2000, nearly our entire community felt
very close to Bush.
"But now, there is no such consensus. Our No. 1 issue
this year is civil rights, which means eliminating the
Patriot Act. Muslims feel we are the targets of the act.
We are interested in our Middle East policy and other
Qazwini feels so strongly about working within the
American political system that he and his entire family
have become citizens.
"But, right now, it seems that almost no presidential
candidate fits all of our criteria in the Muslim
community," Qazwini said. "Ralph Nader is close, but
Muslims know that he is a loser who can't possibly get
elected. We're not sure what we'll do this year."
Tradition and revolution
Qazwini's adaptations to American life aren't merely
personal preferences. He spends endless hours working on
a Shi'ite method of legal analysis called Ijtihad (ihj-tah-HAD).
It's a scholarly system that uses the Koran, the sayings
of the Prophet Muhammad and the demands of contemporary
life to reinterpret traditions.
American life dictates constant change, he has found,
starting with his role as an imam, which is roughly akin
to a parish priest on call 24 hours a day.
"In the Middle East, imams specialize. Here, I have
to assume so many roles," he said. "I've never seen an
imam in the Middle East who does marriages, handles
divorces, leads prayers, preaches, conducts funerals,
lectures and then represents our people with community
leaders. This is so unusual for an imam. But here, that
is the situation for clergy, so I do it the American
This reinterpreting of tradition also extends to
women's rights, Qazwini teaches.
Najah Bazzy of Canton, a nurse who is nationally
known as a lecturer on Islam and health care, said,
"What he did for women at the Islamic Center is nothing
short of revolutionary. He's the first imam I can recall
who talked to us about the women heroes of Islam."
Chief among these heroes in his sermons is Khadijah,
the successful businesswoman who was the Prophet
Muhammad's first wife.
"He pushed this idea of women taking responsibility
until our mouths dropped open," said Bazzy. "This seemed
new to us from an imam. But, I'll tell you, I've come to
realize that there's no more powerful entity in society
than a Muslim woman who knows how she fits into the
"Before he began pushing this with us, I had done
some lecturing, but I never could have dreamed of all
the places I would be lecturing in the last few years."
Nor would she have dreamed, she said, that she and
the imam and several leading laymen would be the adult
advisers to a program for Muslim youth that sometimes
draws 700 teenagers and young adults to religious
On the Friday evening before Independence Day,
several hundred young people sat attentively through a
nearly hour-long lecture from a visiting Muslim scholar
who stressed the need for Muslims to live cooperatively
with other Americans. "Where else in the world can you
be as free as you are here?" the speaker asked. "But
with your freedom comes great responsibility."
Great country, great challenge
Nothing is closer to the heart of Shi'ite Muslims
than family ties. After all, their movement split from
what is now Sunni Islam in the 7th Century because
Shi'ites felt that the Prophet Muhammad's successors in
Muslim leadership should be drawn from his descendants.
So, the surest sign of Qazwini's own embrace of
American culture is that he broke with his family's
tradition and gave his oldest son, Mohammed, 19,
permission to become a lawyer.
"My father put no pressure on me to go to seminary,"
Mohammed said one recent evening over dinner in a
Dearborn restaurant. "I have been studying sociology at
the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and he said I
should think about just staying here in this country and
becoming a lawyer."
The surest sign of the sincerity of faith in
Qazwini's family is that Mohammed chose seminary,
anyway. A week ago, he left for Qom, Iran, where he will
begin 10 years of study in Muslim theology.
Mohammed ignored all efforts to dissuade him, even
though he knows how tough it is to survive as an imam.
He grew up in the cramped Dearborn household with his
three younger brothers and a sister, supported by a
father whose salary from the mosque is $36,000 a year.
He has seen the balancing act his father maintains in
his jam-packed schedule.
In the months before he left, Mohammed's father began
mentoring him with a crash course in practical pastoral
"He asked me to help him answer his e-mails,"
Mohammed said. "We would sit down at his desk and handle
the hundreds of questions he gets each week.
"How tough this was! One family would ask about a
prayer that was not answered. A man would ask about a
job offer, and can a Muslim take such a job? And then a
dispute in a family. How can it be settled? So many
"And, my father told me, these are not questions.
These are people's needs. And we will sit together and
we will meet those needs, one by one. Sometimes, we
would sit for hours, answering all the questions. He
would dictate to me and I would type the answers."
The imam suspected that his son might think twice,
when confronted with the work, but the result was a
strengthening of Mohammed's resolve.
"What my father has shown me is that America is a
great country. We have so many resources here," Mohammed
said. "That's what he has taught me: This is a great
culture, but, in the middle of it, our people have great
needs. That's what impresses me. That's why I want to
become a part of meeting those needs for the next