Descendant of Muhammad finds renewed faith – Niraj Warikoo/Detroit Free Press
DETROIT — It was close to midnight inside a community center in Dearborn as the religious leader spoke to a crowd of hundreds, many sitting on the floor because of the overflow crowd.
“We have to speak for Islam,” Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini implored the Muslim audience at the Bint Jbeil Cultural Center. “Because if you don’t speak for your religion … ISIS will speak for your religion,” he said, using another name for the Islamic State. “The extremists will speak for your religion.”
Al-Qazwini’s speech during a Ramadan lecture this summer in Dearborn showed that he still has a large following despite being pushed out of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, a prominent mosque that he led for 17 years. In an interview with the Free Press, Al-Qazwini, 51, talked about his plans to open a mosque called the Islamic Institute of America and an accompanying group, Muslim Youth Connection. He has met with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to talk about his new center and was with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other Muslim leaders at the State Department’s annual Eid dinner.
After a tumultuous year that saw one of North America’s most prominent Shia mosques split into two camps, Al-Qazwini is forging ahead, not only with plans for a new mosque, but with possible future projects that include a satellite TV station, Islamic college, health care clinic and Islamic nursing home.
“Our new mosque will not be just a traditional mosque where people go and pray,” Al-Qazwini said in his Canton home. “Rather, I hope it is going to be a community center where we can focus on more than one aspect. … My main priority now is the youth … I would like to see that the youth are empowered and assuming a leadership role in the Muslim community. Traditionally, in most mosques in Dearborn, there is no youth presence.”
While the Islamic Center’s membership was primarily Lebanese Shia, the new center is “not going to be ethnically based, nor sectarian based,” Al-Qazwini added. “It’s going to be appealing to all Muslims, Sunni and Shia … and all Muslims as far as their ethnicities and races.”
“If we, the moderate Muslims, do not reach out to our youth, we are going to run one of the two risks,” Al-Qazwini said. “Either those youth will be… assimilated in the big society where they will not be able to identify with Islam anymore. … The other risk that we may run into if we do not reach out to our youth is the radicalization. More and more Muslim youth are joining ISIS.”
Last month, Al-Qazwini led about 150 Muslims ages 16-30 on a retreat at Camp Taha in Columbiaville, where they discussed Islamic issues while enjoying the outdoors. And he has been outspoken in recent weeks in defending the right of Muslims to build a mosque in Sterling Heights. He’s continuing to connect with audiences, as seen in his well-attended lectures since his ouster from the center in May.
During the Ramadan talk in July at the center, the packed crowd listened with rapt attention, with some sitting on blankets on the floor, prepared to stay up all night.
Outside, the walls of the Lebanese-American center had been spray-painted sometime over the past 24 hours with anti-Iraqi graffiti aimed at denigrating Qazwini, who is of Iraqi descent: “The Iraqi Center of Baghdad,” read one insult. It was a symbol of the lingering tensions that remain over his forced departure from the Islamic Center.
But despite the vandalism, Al-Qazwini garnered a massive show of support that day as he talked about the importance of educating the public about Islam. That night happened to be what is called in Islam the Night of Power, when one’s prayers and good deeds are believed to be worth more than those done in 83 years.
Jabbing his finger in the air to stress his points, Al-Qazwini cited a survey in which “62% of Americans … have a negative view of our religion.”
“They think that Muslims are either terrorists or they support terrorists,” he said. “Who’s going to change that perception? You. Us. … Allah will not change any people’s conditions unless they change their own conditions. We cannot sit aside and blame the Jews, continue to blame the Zionists for our pain.”
A few minutes later, he started a bidding process to help raise money for the new mosque. It’s common during the Night of Power for congregations to raise money.
“I need 10 hands, 10 people, brothers and sisters, who would donate $10,000,” he said.
In 15 minutes, Al-Qazwini raised $129,000 for the mosque.
Divisions over money
Sitting off Ford Road, the 65,000 square-feet Islamic Center, with a golden-hued dome framed by two minarets 10 stories high, serves up to 10,000 people in metro Detroit. It’s perhaps the most well known of metro Detroit’s roughly 35 mosques, a center for Shia Islam known around the world.
It was a perfect fit for Al-Qazwini when he arrived in 1997. A native of Iraq, Al-Qazwini is a descendant of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, coming from a long line of Shia clerics. His late grandfather was abducted by forces with Saddam Hussein’s government, never to be heard from again.
Al-Qazwini built up a huge following; his charisma and English-speaking skills won over American youths and also non-Muslims. He met and spoke with Pope Benedict XVI, U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and Barack Obama when he was running for president in 2008.
But in recent years, there were tensions with some board members, much of it over finances that spilled over into some anti-Iraqi sentiment, Al-Qazwini said. A majority of the congregation and all of its board members are of Lebanese descent. Ned Fawaz, 78, an influential board member of the mosque and the head of an energy company, wanted Al-Qazwini out and tried to convince board members to dump him.
The divisions at the 53-year-old mosque were not unlike the challenges faced by other religious congregations over the decades, such as Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues, as they grew in America. Islamic spiritual leaders in the U.S. have to deal with infighting on boards, ethnic clashes and disagreements over finances.
Some of the dispute at the Islamic Center touched upon complex issues of Islamic tithing that are often intensely debated among Muslims. Observant Shia Muslims follow a system called khoms, in which 20% of surplus income is given to help poor people. According to Shia clerics, about half of that 20% is given to a charitable project, such as an orphanage, and the other half is given to poor descendants of Islam’s prophet.
Part of the disagreement centered on where that money should go.
Al-Qazwini’s critics accused him of diverting donations to the mosque to Iraq to support a charity and hospital led by Al-Qazwini’s father, Ayatollah Sayed Mortada Al-Qazwini, through a charity in California, the Development and Relief Foundation.
But Al-Qazwini and his supporters say he was open about where the money went, which was legitimate aid to help people in need, a requirement of the tithing.
“I do not regret any decision I have made while at the Islamic Center,” Al-Qazwini said about money given to the Development and Relief Foundation and the Iraqi centers. “Some of the charity money I was entrusted by community members, who wanted me to do so by forwarding them to the orphans to Iraq. …I believe that’s a noble cause.”
“The orphanage that we are running in Iraq, it’s not a family business … it is dedicated to helping orphans and the needy.”
Fawaz, of Lebanese descent, said that the money should have gone to pay off the debt of the Islamic Center, which is about $2 million, and for community projects in metro Detroit.
The donations “should not be going outside the community,” Fawaz said. “We have in the United States poor people, we have people in need, people who need scholarships, we have people who don’t have heat and electricity. According to Islam, you can’t take that money and send it outside the community if they are in need … it’s illegal in the eyes of the shari’a,” or Islamic law.
But Al-Qazwini said that during his time at the Islamic Center that he raised $5 million for the center.
“I did what I did for God, to please God, and the community,” he said. “When I raised money for the Islamic Center, I wasn’t doing it to please the board members. Rather I did it out of my own heart. I raised this money to help an Islamic institution.”
Supporters of Al-Qazwini say that his critics didn’t mind when mosque donations were directed towards charities in Lebanon, only when they went to Iraq. They point to the anti-Iraqi graffiti at the Bint Jbeil Cultural Center as an example of the hatred that some in the Lebanese-American community exhibited towards them.
Fawaz said he and the Islamic Center of America condemned the graffiti attack and that the center is open to all.
“We still have Iraqis, they come in,” Fawaz said. “The Islamic Center is open for everybody. … We have people from Yemen, from Sudan, people from everywhere.”
After Al-Qazwini was placed on a 60-day leave in January, the two sides tried to reconcile, but ultimately couldn’t come to an agreement. The Islamic Center wanted Al-Qazwini to sign a contract specifying how long he would be the imam, reduce his authority and add at least two more imams to the center.
Al-Qazwini refused what he felt were restrictive terms for someone who had served for so long. He left in late May.
Now, the Islamic Center is hiring three to five imams and has a new board chair. It is also hoping to expand the center with an auditorium, grow the adjacent Islamic school and establish an Islamic funeral service, said Fawaz.
Al-Qazwini’s supporters say attendance has plummeted at the Islamic Center, which Fawaz said is not true. He said attendance at the annual fund-raiser doubled.
For now, Al-Qazwini lectures on most Fridays at the previous building of the Islamic Center of America, in Detroit, now called Az-Zahara Center.
“Honestly, I wish the Islamic Center all the best,” Al-Qazwini said. “Whatever happened personally on my end, I consider that’s part of the past. And I’m moving forward.”
Supporters leave center
When Sarah Alsaden, 24, of Dearborn heard that Al-Qazwini was forced out of the Islamic Center, “it was very upsetting,” she said. “It felt like a betrayal.”
Like many others, she left the Islamic Center after Al-Qazwini did.
“I would probably follow the Sayed wherever he ends up going,” she said, using the honorific title given to male descendants of Islam’s prophet. “He knows how to respect us and speak the truth. He’s a voice of reason, a voice of moderate Islam.”
Al-Qazwini negotiates the line between American culture and faith, saying in a recent lecture that Muslims “should not be ashamed of seeking treatment” for depression from medical professionals: “Having depression doesn’t mean you have weak faith in Allah at all. … It’s just a chemical imbalance that needs treatment.”
At the same time, he warns against over-assimilation. Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, he told the Free Press: “For the first time, we heard some bizarre voices in the Muslim community supporting that recognition. …It’s a very alarming thing.”
On a Tuesday during Ramadan, Al-Qazwini was invited to a Lebanese-American home in Northville where guests gathered to pray behind him and break fast after sunset.
Over plates of fruit and Lebanese pastries, Alsaden’s father, Mohamed Alsaden, explained Al-Qazwini’s appeal.
“Without the Sayed, our kids would be have been lost,” he said. “Dearborn without Sayed Hassan Al-Qazwini, we don’t want to live in it. He dedicated his life for the sake of Islam.”