The new imam, or spiritual leader, of the Masjid Saad in West Toledo comes to town at a time when the local Muslim community is in turmoil: Just last month, a locally based Islamic charity was shut down by the federal government over allegations that it supported Hamas terrorists in the Middle East, and 48 hours later three local Muslim men were arrested on charges of plotting "holy war" against U.S. forces in Iraq.
Many Toledo-area Muslims say they are upset and frightened by the February events, fearing government oppression and backlashes from people who blindly link all Muslims with the handful of extremists.
Imam Aly Lela, hired earlier this month to lead the 700-member mosque on Secor Road, said the problems in Toledo are essentially the same for all American Muslims.
"The challenge exists everywhere in the United States for the Muslim community," Imam Aly said. "The Muslim community in general is suffering from defamation and being the target of extra [government] investigations. And statistics show that the misunderstanding and prejudice has increased."
Although Toledo-based KindHearts charity was "blocked" by the Treasury Department and the three Muslim men were accused of plotting terrorist attacks, those are exceptions to the general peace and understanding Toledo Muslims enjoy, Imam Aly said.
"The Muslims have been established in this area for almost 100 years and have a very wonderful relationship with the community," he said.
Tall and thin, wearing wire rim glasses and a dark green suit beneath a white cleric's robe and cap, Imam Aly told worshippers in an introductory sermon, and later in an interview with The Blade, that he has set five primary goals as Masjid Saad's imam: to create a spiritual awakening; to offer balanced Islamic knowledge; to get the youth involved; to maintain unity among the diverse Muslim community, and to provide outreach and activities to the general community.
To foster a spiritual awakening, Imam Aly said he wants to stress the importance of the five daily prayers, recitation of the Qur'an, and other Islamic practices that lead to "purification of the soul."
In terms of providing balanced Islamic knowlege, he said that Islamic extremists "have had a louder voice for decades" and that there are "plenty of misperceptions within Islam that need to be addressed" according to the teachings of the Qur'an, other authentic texts, and Islamic scholars.
"People are thirsty for knowledge. They are willing to learn, willing to participate," Imam Aly said.
He said Muslims must understand how Islamic scholars reach their conclusions. They should not just look at the results of a cleric's decision, but seek to comprehend the thought processes behind the rulings.
"I'm looking forward to this, to building an Islamic knowledge base so that people will understand," Imam Aly said.
Working with youths, he said, "is the best investment we have." He plans to offer more summer camps, workshops, picnics, and other programs specifically aimed at teens and young adults.
"They have energy and time, especially in the summer," he said. "We need to provide an environment for them in which they can obtain proper Islamic knowledge."
The diversity of Islamic cultures is evident in the branches within Islam, such as the Sunnis and Shiites, and the more than 20 nations represented by U.S. immigrants among the local Muslim community.
"I understand that there is a variety of schools of Islamic thought, and I am willing to accommodate all of them and listen to every one," Imam Aly said. "And also, when it comes to minor differences, we might have problems between Islamic families or individuals. We need to establish that we stand together as one community."
Imam Aly said he wants the Masjid Saad to have "an open-door policy." He wants to improve communications between the Islamic population and the rest of Toledo and let the general public know, for example, that he and other Muslims strongly condemn terrorism.
"We need to open our doors more and to have activities and establish good relationships with everyone," he said.
Imam Aly was hired after an extensive, yearlong nationwide search by a five-person committee. The mosque had been without an imam for more than two years.
Heading Masjid Saad's search committee was Hasan HassabElnaby, a University of Toledo professor. He said there is "definitely a shortage" of Muslim clerics in the United States and that the panel, which was independent from the masjid's board of directors, drew up a set of criteria in selecting an imam.
"No. 1, we wanted an imam who is well-educated in Islamic subjects," he said. "No. 2, he must have good communication skills and an ability to deliver a speech in English. Also, his ability to work with youth was very important to us."
Another key consideration was the imam's understanding of American culture, Mr. HassabElnaby said, because most imams are educated overseas.
The panel interviewed four other candidates before settling on Imam Lela, he said.
Imam Aly will live in Dearborn while he continues his graduate studies at Wayne State, and plans to move to Toledo this summer. He will commute to Toledo and work at Masjid Saad on Fridays and Saturdays.
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