Learning Tools: Essays

A Muslim Cleric on the American Frontier by Imam Sayed Hassan Al Qazwini

None of us can imagine in advance where the road may take us on life's journey. My personal story starts with my heritage, as it is reflected in the four parts of my name: Imam Hassan Sayed Al-Qazwini. Imam, is an Arabic term meaning 'leader.' In my case, I am the religious leader of one of the oldest Muslim mosques in North America.

The second part of my name, Sayed, is an honorary title given to those whose lineage can be traced back to Muhammad, Islam's prophet, whom we also call the messenger of God. Today, hundreds of thousands of Muslims around the world have family lines that reach back to Muhammad, peace be upon him. Not all are religious scholars. A sayed may be of any gender, color, or culture in the world.

Hassan, the third part of my name, is the name of the Prophet Muhammad's eldest grandson, one of Islam's most highly respected figures. He also bears the honorary title, "Youth of Paradise."

My last name, Qazwini, is actually the Arabic name for a city called Caspian in Persian, after the sea that it is near. Three hundred years ago, my grand ancestor, Abdul Karim, moved to "Qazwin" from the province of Hijaz in western Arabia, fleeing religious persecution. Being a descendent of the prophet Muhammad, he was received in Qazwin with great respect. There he met his wife, and they had two sons. He died shortly thereafter. The people of Qazwin loved him greatly, mourned his loss, and built a shrine in his honor. Much later, his two sons moved to the city of Karbala, in Iraq. They were religious scholars, and Karbala is one of Iraq's greatest centers of learning and knowledge. There the name Qazwini took root, denoting a person who has emigrated from Qazwin. In this way, as a result of migration, my family name was born.

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I was born in Karbala in October, 1964. Today as then, millions of people visit the city every year to pay their respects to Muhammad's family, peace and blessings upon them, for members of his immediate family and innumerable descendants are buried here. Because these religious visitors come from all over the world, I learned early in childhood to appreciate the diversity of humanity. As it says in the Holy Qur'an, God created us as different nations and tribes, in order that we might come to know each other.

Karbala is a cornerstone of Islamic history, and particularly for the world's Shia Muslims, because the Prophet Muhammad's beloved grandson, Hussein, was martyred there. For Shiites, his death stands as a testimony to the greatness of the Prophet's family and to the endurance and supreme sacrifice that saved Islam from tyranny and oppression in the difficult years that followed Muhammad's death (peace be upon him.).

Imam Hussein's martyrdom is commemorated annually with a ten-day mourning period. The shrine where his body lies buried is also a mosque with a towering, gold-capped minaret. The mosque stands directly across from the house where I spent my first seven years. This physical nearness to Imam Hussein is also echoed in my heritage, for the Qazwini family traces its lineage to Muhammad through Imam Hussein's offspring. In other words, the Prophet and his progeny are part of my everyday psyche, my heart and my identity. Today, the Qazwinis stand thirty-seven generations removed from Imam Hussein and thirty-nine generations removed from Muhammad.

I was raised in a family of prominent religious scholars, some of them very well known in the Muslim world. A number of forbearers, including my father and several uncles, achieved high scholarly status and literary excellence in such fields as philosophy, jurisprudence, and the interpretation of the Qur'an. They devoted their lives to the art and gift of understanding this sacred book. Many of them possessed the learning and intellectual capacity to extrapolate verdicts from its text, helping to keep it a book for all people and all time. My mother's family trace their heritage to the Nassrallahs, originally of Karbala, who likewise in turn trace their lineage to the line of Imam Hussein. Primarily merchants, as was Muhammad in his early years, they remain within his noble ancestry.

In the Middle East, it is not uncommon for people to use the flat rooftops of their houses as verandahs for evening enjoyment, I remember sleeping on the verandah of my parents' home during Karbala's hot summer nights. Before dawn, I would awaken to the sound of the call to prayer across the street. The memory of the tall, gold-capped minaret and the red flag atop it, representing the heroic sacrifices of Imam Hussein, are locked together vividly in my mind. For me, this past still echoes in the present.

Our last year in Karbala is the time there I remember best. I was seven years old and it was the fasting-month of Ramadan. I clearly recall my family awakening to the rhythms of the traditional drummer moving down the street, rousing the people to eat before the fast started. Then, an hour prior to the early morning-prayer, the city would resound with a beautiful supplication invoking God's blessings for the month of Ramadan. In this and many other ways, my upbringing was truly the grooming of an imam. Raised as a child in a holy city steeped in faith, praying five times a day in a family of Islamic scholars, attending a Muslim school my own father founded- as surely as fish learn to swim in water, my childhood prepared me to be an imam.

In 1971 my family was forced to leave Iraq. This was a bittersweet time in my life. We did not move because we wanted to; our safety was at stake. The ruling Al-Baath party under Saddam Hussein came to power at this time, and a crackdown began on religious and scholarly centers and on their leaders. The mosques and universities were the nation's centers of intellectual learning, and in order to control the people, the party believed it must control these centers. They imprisoned intellectuals and scholars, killing or torturing thousands of people and leaders. My father was a scholar and spoke out against this oppressive regime. Late one chilly night in February, 1971, he received a telephone call from the governor of Karabala. He hung up the phone and then had a private conversation with my mother. The next morning, a taxi arrived before the crack of dawn. Our parents informed us that we were going to Kuwait for a week, and then we would return to Karbala. One week has become 32 years. No one from our family has returned. We left behind our belongings, clothes, furniture and all. Many years later, I learned the purpose of the governor's call to my father. It was to warn him of an assassination plot against him.

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In 1977, a prominent Muslim scholar came to Kuwait to deliver a lecture. His lecture was on Islam in America. I was thirteen at the time; I attended the sermon. The scholar said that Islam in America was in the crawling stage of development, like an infant. He meant that while the rest of the world already knew about Islam, and its great contributions over the centuries to science, medicine and mathematics, Americans did not. The scholar spoke with admiration of a man in America named Imam Mohammed Jawad Chirri, calling him Islam's first pioneer in North America, because he had founded what remains today one of the oldest Islamic Centers in North America.

Later that day the scholar came to visit my father. He was a personal friend of the family and was very endearing with the children. He gave me the gift of a book by Imam Chirri, called the Brother of the Prophet, a title the Prophet originally bestowed upon his cousin and son- in- law, Ali. I opened the book and read the biography of Imam Chirri with great enthusiasm. I was truly intrigued by his American experience, and although I would not grasp the fact for years, destiny was already calling me. Who could imagine that as a boy in Karbala I was being introduced to a man, through a book, whose post I myself would fill many years later?

By 1980, the ruling party of Iraq and Saddam Hussein had penetrated Kuwait and were beginning to gain power. We left that year and headed to Iran. Once again, my father escaped persecution and assassination. I was sixteen years old at the time, old enough to understand the politics of governments, oppressive regimes, and the value of human rights and democracy. By now I also knew that I wanted to become an Imam.

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Our arrival in Iran was bitter. Many members of my extended family had been tortured and killed by Saddam. By now, we had lost fourteen family members to his tyranny, all of them men. We met their wives and children in Iran, where they now lived in exile, never knowing the whereabouts of their husbands, sons, and brothers. My father did his best to care for these widowed and orphaned relatives. His own father was among the missing. Even now, we know nothing of what happened to him, how he died, or even if he died. According to Amnesty International, he remains the oldest living prisoner in the world, having endured imprisonment and torture for at least 21 years. He and countless others endured the unspeakable, simply for speaking out against the oppressive government of their homeland.

Not long after our arrival, war broke out between Iraq and Iran. Daily images of young people going to their graves overwhelmed us. These tragic events reminded me of the days of Prophet Muhammad, and the struggle of his family, peace be upon them, for the struggles of warfare claimed innocent lives in those days too. (Later, in America, the Prophet's biography would help me to understand and appreciate the values espoused in the U.S. Constitution- freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom of religion, and especially due process.) Much of what my family endured in Iraq, and all that the Prophet's family endured, has shaped my passion for involvement in a government of the people and by the people. It has also helped to shape the Islamic creed that guides my life. Islam calls for tolerance, diversity, interfaith dialogue, democracy, dignity and human rights for all people. In Iraq, it was constantly distressing to internalize a faith and its principles yet live in a country whose government denied the essence of a faith they claim to preach and live by.

Iran was also a sweet time in my life, which helped to bring balance to the bitter reality of war and oppression. The ancient city of Qum, home to one of the largest Islamic seminaries in the region, was a place of active learning and study. I decided to enroll in the seminary at age sixteen and devote my life to becoming an imam. My father had impressed me with the way he raised his voice against oppression and defended Islam, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. Qum lies approximately 150 kilometers south of the Iranian capital, Tehran. It is a city much like Karbala, rich in tradition and a great center of learning and knowledge. I recall years of self-discipline there, immersed in a world of non-stop academia. Thousands attended the seminary, and no one paid tuition; in fact, students were paid a small stipend to attend. My father had enough obligations, taking care of our extended family, and I wanted to be more self-sufficient and self-reliant. I lived in a dormitory and tried hard to be financially independent, which required a very frugal lifestyle. My greatest difficulty was enduring the fierce Qum winters, with their subzero temperatures and scarce fuel due to the war.

In the life of a young seminarian, there is no time for fun, except spiritual fun. I woke before dawn for early morning prayers, then walked quite a distance to the public baths, where one could shower in the bitter cold. Classes began at six a.m. and ran until noon. After tending to lunch and our afternoon prayer obligations, we returned to class until seven p.m. From seven until two or three in the morning students prepared for the next day's lessons. The school had an open selection system, so one could choose his class, his time, and his instructor. Class-size ranged from two people in a private lesson to nine hundred or a thousand auditors. All classes were held in the mosques, where we sat on the carpets taking our lessons- there were no chalkboard or chairs. We learned from the best of the best. My enjoyment came when we left the seminary and walked to a mosque called Jamkaran every Wednesday night. My friends and I would complete the day's prayers there, then enjoy the rest of the evening indulging in extracurricular spiritual discussions.

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In 1983, at the age of eighteen, I married. A traditional Muslim marriage is very different from the usual marriage in the West. There is no premarital contact and no dating. I married a devout Muslim whose lineage like mine traces to the Prophet Muhammed. Our families were close friends. My father-in-law was a prominent scholar. In his long, productive life he wrote over twelve hundred books, pamphlets, and articles. His greatest achievement was an encyclopedia in 150 volumes. In addition to writing, he was one of the great teachers at my seminary. His brilliant mind and perfect manners touched me deeply. When I became an imam, it was he who placed a black turban upon my head in the graduation ceremony, symbolizing the lineage to the Prophet Muhammed. When he died in December 2001, the people of Qum honored him with a funeral procession attended by hundreds of thousands. People from around the world attended his services.

Our marriage was a humble wedding with two hundred guests followed by two dinners. In Qum, it is the tradition to have segregated celebrations; my wife hosted her dinner reception with her women friends, while I held a dinner with my male guests. Following the two receptions, my father took me to my bride's home, where I greeted her and her family. After the wedding we moved to a small, rented apartment costing less than thirty dollars a month. I remember being proud to own a small television, considered a luxury item in those days. Despite the conflicts of war, I felt fulfilled. I was independent, studying to be an Imam, and married.

Life grew even better in 1985 when our first child was born. I was only twenty years old. Our son Mohammed was delivered by a midwife in the first home we were able to purchase together. This was an amazing experience, but it was difficult to bear the agony of watching my wife suffer through labor. Our second son arrived a year and a half later; his name is Ahmed. By the time we could purchase our third home, we had gas and heat, which made the winter months more comfortable.

In 1986, I wrote my first book. I was 22 years old at the time and still in seminary. This first published book was a critique of two well-known works called the Hadith of Sahih Al-Bukhari and Sahih Al-Muslim. These two large collections contain the most reliable records and sayings of the Prophet throughout his life. I wrote a second book about a year later, in 1987. It focused on the ethical prospects and moral values of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, according to his biography. By 1988, I was an advanced student in Islamic studies. This entitled me to teach lower level classes. I also published a journal called Al-Nabbras, the Eternal Light. Its 250 pages were much discussed at the seminary, and many prominent scholars contributed essays and articles. We published three issues, then had to stop for lack of money. People liked these works, and their positive responses both encouraged and motivated me.

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In 1985, my father visited Texas to address a conference there. It was his first time in America. A group of people he met from California invited him to come to their community to see if he would consider establishing roots there. They were badly in need of an imam. After returning to Iran and consulting my mother, the decision was made. In 1986, he settled in Southern California and the majority of my family moved along with him. For them, it was a move to a land of unparalleled freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom from the oppression they had so long endured. Of course, my father was constantly encouraging me to come to the United States. It was his dream to have his sons work alongside him. I had arrived at a turning point in my life, and decisions had to be made.

In 1992, I became a full-fledged imam. Graduation lay just around the corner. After twelve years of intense study equivalent to a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies, I found myself at a crossroads. America beckoned, but it is not easy to leave a country, a language, a lifestyle, and start over again. Three factors greatly influenced my decision: first, the speaker and family friend who had introduced me to Imam Chirri's book; second, my desire to be near my family; and third, another scholar from San Francisco who visited us while we were in Kuwait. This man asked to speak directly to my father's children, even though at the time it was an unusual request, for he was a distinguished imam, and children were to be seen but not heard when our parents received important guests. This renowned scholar urged my brothers and me to become imams. He said the ground in America was fertile for imams. He explained that, as an imam in America, he could travel from country to country and see the world with no fear of oppression. He explained how beautiful California was.

The vision this man painted motivated me, but there were other, practical considerations. By the time I ended my studied in 1992, there were over 35,000 students in the seminary. The Middle East had an overabundance of imams, while in America there were too few. I also reflected upon the oppression I had face while growing up and felt a strong need to secure my children's future as well as possible. I considered the more dignified life America might offer them. I thought of the pioneering spirit that thrives in America, and saw that I, too, might be a part of the Islamic frontier in this country. I wanted to bring Islam to new people and new people to Islam.

Since I could not return to my own country, Iraq, I decided to make America my new country and the country of my children. But there were obstacles as well. In addition to learning a new language and adjusting to a new lifestyle, the greatest obstacle for my wife was leaving her family. I promised her that each year I would send her back to Iran, so long as I was financially able.

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We arrived in the United States on December 6, 1992. We were happy, nervous, and emotional all at the same time. By then, my wife was pregnant with our first daughter, Mariam. She and our fourth child Ali are indigenous Arab American Muslims. For me, the adjustment was less disturbing in the beginning, since I found my parents, brothers and sisters awaiting me. For my wife, the initial separation from her parents and family was far more difficult. Fortunately, in our cultural tradition, in-laws and parents are synonymous and soon she found the loving comfort of my family to embrace her.

I have five brothers and three sisters. All of my siblings are graduates of universities and well educated. Three of my brothers are Imams teaching and leading mosques in California. One of my sisters is still in Kuwait and another is in Canada. My other two brothers administrate the many organizations my father founded, including Al-Zahra Islamic Center, the City of Knowledge Academy (k - 12), and Al-Saddiq Foundation in Southern California, and the Imam Ali Mosque in San Diego.

Since a lack of English would be my greatest barrier to working in this new society, I immediately decided to enroll in classes to learn the language. I attended Mt. San Antonio College for English classes. I can't describe just how nervous I was. For example, in Iraq, Iran and Kuwait, there is no such mingling and intermixing of genders as we have here. It was, therefore, a wrenching social adjustment simply to sit together in class with women who were uncovered and not wearing Hijab. Though it may be hard for a person born in America to imagine, the truth is that except my wife, sisters, aunts and cousins, I had never spoken to women in my life. Now, in the natural interchanges of a language class, I was forced to speak to them. In those first few weeks of my studies, I experienced true culture shock.

The majority of the class was made up of Mexicans. Early on, the teacher separated them because whenever they sat near one another they would start speaking Spanish. I still recall how awkward it was trying to communicate, one speaking Arabic and the other Spanish. We managed with gestures. In addition to people, I was forced to readjust to new physical surroundings, especially to the very different classroom style of chairs and chalkboards, which I had not experienced since high school. I worked hard and adjusted quickly and soon began attending California Polytechnic University - Pomona where I later majored in Sociology. Almost before I knew it, I was settling in, learning the language and helping my father administrate his organizations, while serving my vocation and teaching Islam.

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A few months after my arrival, my father was invited to a mosque in Detroit to serve as guest lecturer for the month of Ramadan. My father could not accept due to his obligations in California, but he encouraged me to take the offer. Detroit is home to the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States. As fate would have it, the invitation came from the Islamic Center of America, the very mosque founded by Imam Chirri, whose story had so inspired me when I was thirteen years old. By now, Imam Chirri was elderly and weak. His community's warm welcome encouraged me to continue my visits, and I took over his duties each Ramadan each from 1993 to 1997. During this period, I would spend the fasting month in Detroit, as well as another ten days each year, helping the Shia community commemorate Imam Hussein's martyrdom, a period called Ashura.

While in the Dearborn-Detroit area, I became intensely aware of the eagerness and energy among the younger generation there. They were thirsty for knowledge and seemed to take some comfort in my style and approach. Nightly, I would visit their homes and lecture, or hold question-and-answer sessions for the English-speaking congregation. I quickly saw that many of these young Muslims did not have a thorough knowledge of Islam, yet they were eager to learn. So, together we grew. Through our many meetings, I was able to expand my English while they found a means to strengthen their grasp and practice as Muslims.

In 1997, Imam Chirri died and the opportunity presented itself to me to take his place as resident imam of the Islamic Center of America. This would demand another move, another uprooting and period of re-adjustment for my wife and children, who by now had grown attached to my family in southern California and to the climate and scenery there. I was concerned about leaving my father, although it was he who pushed me hardest to accept a permanent position in Michigan. On the plus side of the ledger, there were many encouraging reasons to come to Detroit. First, and foremost was the opportunity to be an imam of my own congregation. Second, was the opportunity to be part of a school project in the making. I wanted to be as a strong supporter of Islamic education as my father had been. Thirdly, there were many young Muslims in need of guidance and support in Michigan. They strongly supported my appointment, urging me to take the offer in an attempt to recreate for their children the same kind of environment they had enjoyed under the direction of Imam Chirri. They wanted very badly to have an English-speaking imam. Their presence and enthusiasm affected my decision, partly because the Prophet Muhammad had himself worked hard with the younger generation of his day.

The fourth factor that encouraged me to come to Detroit was the opportunity it offered to engage in interfaith dialogue. I had never been in a church or synagogue before I came to America. In Iraq and Iran, I had never had the opportunity to interface with brothers and sisters of other faiths. When the chance came, however, I took to it as a duck takes to water. Islam consistently emphasizes respect for the "people of the book", meaning Jews and Christians. Now I could finally put that dimension of my religion into practice. Even then, I had no idea how significant this on-going dialogue would be. It took the tragic events of September 11, 2001 to establish a mutual agenda addressing common understanding among the Abrahamic faiths.

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In March 1997, my family and I officially left California to make Detroit our new home. My first goal was to establish an Islamic school. In September, 1997 we began with only 24 students; within one year, 220 students had enrolled. My second goal was to establish a youth group and to focus on English speaking Muslims. By now, my English was growing stronger every day. I well remember, on my first trip to Detroit in March of 1993, how embarrassed I'd felt that I could not understand all the young Muslims as I sat at their dinner tables and broke the fast of Ramadan. This feeling of helpless isolation forced me to focus on my language skills. I had an electronic Arabic-English dictionary that would pronounce words, so that I could learn to say them and find their equivalent in either language. For two years, my most frequent request of those around me was "Spell it." I was not ashamed to make mistakes or be corrected. I knew that I had to master the English language, because it would be the key to unlocking my mind, so that others might share the knowledge I had gained in my studies. By 1995, I was fluent enough to begin lecturing in two languages. I began to accept speaking engagements at universities, hospitals, churches, synagogues, and many other places. I have spoken to many thousands of non-Muslims since 1997.

Today, our Dearborn congregation is presently engaged in building the largest mosque in North America. Imam Chirri, who laid roots in this area, believed wholeheartedly in the future of American Islam. Now I understand why he was so passionate about it. Although Islam is a global faith, the American-born Muslim holds special promise, being a potential combination of the best of East and West. Muslims born in America naturally internalize the shared values of their society-peace, democracy, freedom of faith, speech and expression, yet they can moderate and define these values with the Islamic concepts of balance, integrity, and dignity. In this way, the values of each region complement one another beautifully and without compromise.

My role model in my work is of course the Prophet Muhammed and his family. I try my best to resemble him in deeds, character, and as a leader. He surrounded himself with young people during his mission, and I try very hard to give my full attention to the needs of the youth too, without forsaking the other generations. I use the Prophet's life as an example and aspire to his eloquence, calling people to Islam not with the sword, as history has painted Islam, but with the eloquence of speech and the etiquette of his perfect manners. I have learned to endure, struggle, and be patient in times of great duress, to maintain my dignity and not surrender myself to compromise when faced with challenges. It is, second by second, a constant challenge. My goal is to seek the truth and promote justice, as the Prophet Muhammed taught us to do through the revelations of the Holy Qur'an.

The Prophet Muhammed was born in Mecca. I have traveled to Mecca many, many times. I went first, on a visit, as a child of twelve. I made the official Hajj pilgrimage in 1983, when I was eighteen. Since then I have performed the pilgrimage eight times. To see the Kaaba, the ancient shrine that stands at the town's center, to walk in the footsteps of the patriarch Abraham and reenact his trials and tribulations brings a person full circle. Mecca is of such importance to us chiefly because we credit Abraham with building the Kabah, and with establishing the pilgrimage to Mecca, a sacred set of rituals much later reclaimed by Muhammed. In these and many other ways, the history and lessons of Mecca go way, way back. That is why our relation to it remains profound.

Many Westerners simplify Abraham's history, calling him the father of Judaism, although the Torah itself makes it clear that Judaism was only revealed centuries later. I draw my strength from the lessons of all the prophets, Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus among them, for to be a Muslim is to acknowledge monotheism and the lineage of the great Prophetic tradition. In that sense, every Muslim in essence is also a part of Judaism and Christianity. These concepts create openness around me and within me.

Until people who know nothing about Islam begin to learn more, they often confuse it with a surface layer of images reflected in the media; nor are people who work in the media immune to these superficial distortions. Yet for one who views it objectively, Islam can become a beacon. For a Muslim, it is an unfailing source of strength and help. In my own case, to take just one example, Islam's acceptance of Christians and Jews, and Muhammad's commandment to respect the two divine faiths that preceded it, makes my job as a religious leader much easier. I don't have to pretend to have tolerance for others. Tolerance is embedded in my religion.

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Today, Islam faces new challenges, and so do I. The aftermath of September 11 has redefined the mission of Islam, not only in America but also around the world.

Islam itself was hijacked on September 11, 2001. Having lived though acts of terrorism and having endured the loss of relatives to nonsensical ideologies has made me more determined to speak out in the continued aftermath of this tragic event. I and my congregation in Detroit have continued to mourn and honor the dedicated fire fighters and countless others who lost their lives, as well as those who lost part of their trust in humanity as they sifted through the rubble and carnage. These are life-altering events. They stir a deep sense of emotion and have left everyone, of every religion and of none, wondering "Why" and "Who", and what end such insanity could possibly serve.

This is a painful time for most Muslims. They mourn the loss of humanity, the loss of sanity, the loss of faith. Equally painful is the challenge Islam faces in the Western media, as it increasingly defines Muslims in stereotypical fashion, confusing millions of honest, hard working people with a few corrupt rulers and regimes. Again, my strength and resolve to work through this grief comes from my inspiration, the Prophet himself and his Holy Family. Just as Muhammad stood firm to save his faith from those who wished to destroy it, so I have gathered myself together in the last year and gone to the podium again and again to defend civil liberties, to defend Islam, and to assert its gentle, human truths against the fanatics who have tried to pervert this sweet religion in another failed attempt to achieve their own, small ends.

In all tragedy, there must be some ray of sunlight, otherwise the human spirit would long ago have perished without hope. That hope comes from faith, and faith comes from God. While I openly condemn the perpetrators of fanatical acts mistakenly committed in God's name, I also continue to caution our government to honor the rights and sanctity of others and not to ruin innocent lives in a witch-hunt of guilt by association.

Like many other Muslim religious leaders in the months immediately following September 11, I spoke with the media, TV and radio, nationally and internationally. I visited two and sometimes three places of worship a day, giving lectures on Islam. Churches, and temples, universities and other groups were crying out for understanding, and I was determined to exhaust myself meeting their needs. I literally spoke to thousands upon thousands of people in those long months, asking probing questions, trying to understand the motives, the rage, and the complexity of how we got to where we are today amidst all of this confusion. This thirst for sound information encouraged me a lot. People wanted to learn more and they wanted the truth, the facts. As a result, in the weeks after September 11, the Holy Quran became a best seller on the New York Times book list. On December 24, 2001, Newsweek reported that before September 11, 49% of Americans had a positive perception of Islam, while afterward 69% had a positive perception of Islam. Who would have imagined that out of such adversity might come an appreciation for diversity? Not I.

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Looking back over my years in America is humbling for me. Nearly 10 years ago, in January, 1993, a month after I arrived to the United States, I watched President Clinton deliver his televised inaugural speech, and could not understand a word he said. Only a few years later, I was shaking his hand and visiting the White House as his guest. At his request, I delivered a short speech there on the significance of the role of Muslims in the United States. I also urged him to help Muslims become a part of the public and political fabric of this country. To my surprise, the President acknowledged that most Americans lack even basic knowledge about Islam- for example that Islam is a great monotheistic religion following Judaism and Christianity. He urged me, and all Muslim leaders, to offer a better understanding of Islam to Americans by taking advantage of the freedom of speech available in this country. More recently, President George W. Bush has encouraged me to do the same. I shake my head with surprise as I read these words. Where else on Earth could such things happen to an immigrant Muslim cleric from Iraq?




Imam Sayed Hassan Al Qazwini, was born in Karbala, Iraq in 1964. From a family of Muslims clerics, he came to United States in 1992. Since 1997, he has served as the resident imam at Dearborn Michigan's Islamic Center of America.