Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini speaks about interfaith work and misconceptions about Islam with the opening of the Islamic Institute of America in Dearborn Heights.
Dearborn Heights — Inside a former church on Ford Road is a room that soon will be filled with high-tech equipment to broadcast the message of Islam to the world.
The room will be stocked with computers, video cameras and other media equipment to produce online sermons, radio programs and a comprehensive website aimed at reaching Muslims here and around the English-speaking Islamic world.
The project is part of the Islamic Institute of America, a new mosque in Dearborn Heights led by Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini — one of Metro Detroit’s most prominent Muslim leaders. Hundreds of people attended the first Friday prayers at the mosque last week.
Al-Qazwini, 52, led the region’s most prominent mosque, the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, until resigning nearly two years ago amid controversy. Now he has ambitious plans for a new community.
Among them: monthly interfaith seminars for non-Muslims, a social work outreach to those suffering from problems such as drug addiction and domestic violence, a youth speakers bureau to fulfill growing community requests, a Middle Eastern gift shop and numerous educational programs for youth as well as an arcade in the basement for kids.
Also envisioned by Al-Qazwini is the nation’s first seminary to train Shia imams — so American-born Muslims don’t have to leave the U.S. and spend years in the Middle East, like Al-Qazwini did and where his two sons are studying to be Islamic spiritual leaders.
Most important is Al-Qazwini’s new mantra: “Islam for All.” It’s a message he intends to spread especially to non-Muslims who may be familiar with the religion only through news coverage of Islamic extremist groups and federal policies such as the Trump administration’s travel ban.
“We as Muslims owe it to the American people to tell them what Islam is,” Al-Qazwini said. “Islam is not a cult. It is a religion followed by over 1.6 billion people around the world. ... Yet many Americans don’t know basically anything about Islam. Many Americans have not met a Muslim in their life.
“There are so many misconceptions about Islam. We are bombarded in the media outlets; we are shown images of violence and graphic images of terrorists beheading people and unfortunately that is being done in the name of Islam.
“So it is right to educate, to dispel the misconceptions, fight the propaganda and to tell people you have to discern between Islam as a peaceful religion and fringe groups that are trying to hijack the religion for their political gain.”
The Islamic Institute of America joins 70 other mosques serving an estimated 300,000 Muslims in southeast Michigan, said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Michigan. It comes as Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, with 3.3 million followers in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center.
Al-Qazwini, a native of Iraq, came to southeast Michigan in 1997 to be the spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of America, then a still-fledgling mosque on Joy Road in Detroit.
Some consider him to be one of the most important teachers of Islam in the region.
“He’s is a father of this community,” said Tanya Faraj, a Dearborn Heights resident who lives a few blocks away from the new mosque. “We grew up under him.”
Under Al-Qazwini’s leadership, the Islamic Center of America grew into Metro Detroit’s largest Islamic community and moved into a new facility on Ford Road in 2005. But in June 2015, the imam resigned.
Al-Qazwini declined to discuss his departure, saying he wants to move forward.
Some say he left because of a clash of ideas with board members. Others say his departure was over anonymous letters that accused him of mishandling money and using donations for an orphanage and a soon-to-open hospital, both run by his father, in Iraq.
A few others suggest he left because the center’s board was mostly older men who spoke primarily Arabic and Al-Qazwini wanted his work to reflect the broader Islamic community, including women, youth and English speakers.
“There are so many different sides to the story — ask 10 different people, you will get different stories,” said Kassem Allie, executive administrator of the Islamic Center of America. “Anything they do that is constructive and brings some education and some resources for the congregations, we support. We are behind them and wish them well.”
Imam Ibrahim Yassine, one of the new spiritual leaders at the Islamic Center of America, agrees.
“He’s an imam and Islamic scholar,” Yassine said. “It’s his duty to guide people, to advise people, to teach people how to be good Muslims. That is his duty regardless of what happened at the Islamic Center. Right now, the community is a big community, and it needs more work and more guidance.”
Al-Qazwini attributed his outreach work to his father, Ayatollah Sayid Mortadha Al-Qazwini, whom he described as a social religious reformer who built an orphanage for 6,000 children in Iraq in 2007, and is poised to open the hospital in the holy city of Karbala, Iraq, next month.
“Religion should not be translated into simple rituals,” Al-Qazwini said. “Rather, it is an all-encompassing tool that can be a powerful dynamic to change people’s life for the better.”
Al-Qazwini said he fled Iraq in 1971 with his parents and eight siblings when he was 7 because his father was a vocal critic of Saddam Hussein, then Iraq’s ruler. He lived in Kuwait until 1980, then studied in Iran to become an imam from 1980-92. Afterward, he moved to Los Angeles to work with his father at a mosque before moving to Metro Detroit.
He has been married for 33 years and is the father of six children ranging in age from 10 to 32.
After Al-Qazwini left the Islamic Center of America in 2015, he took many followers to worship at a mosque where he had started his work, on Joy Road in Detroit.
After months of searching for a new facility, Al-Qazwini finally found a building less than four miles away from the Dearborn mosque where he once served.
Hundreds of people came to the new mosque last week for Friday prayers in the building’s gymnasium. They walked through the halls, hugging each other and greeting one another in Arabic: “Peace be with you.”
Among the crowd was Salam Anani, a Dearborn Heights resident.
“I am so happy and excited,” Anani said. “This is going to be a new home for us. Finally, we can come to a place we can call home.”
“What really matters is where you can function freely and you can work your conscience without forces pushing right and left … a truly nice place is not a place that looks beautiful, but one that truly gives you the opportunity to fly and to flourish and to do the program you really aspire to,” Al-Qazwini said. “And I have found that here.”