July 15, 2004 - Detroit Free Press Newspaper

DEARBORN'S IMAM QAZWINI: A champion for Islam's future

 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 Arabic.

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 priority.

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 United States.

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 States.

"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 emerged.

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 reading.

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 jolt.

"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 American culture.

The political pressures he faced were tougher to master and, in that realm, a few mistakes were made, he admits.

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 back.

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 worship."

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 Road.

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 supporter.

"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 issues, too."

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 way."

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 world.

"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 lectures.

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 studies.

"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 questions!

"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 generation."




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