006: A Major New Voice is Arising in Islam

This is a First.
That’s a remarkable statement to make in the overflowing realm of religious publishing. But I’ve been watching nearly all of the new books on Islam flow out of American publishing houses for years and “American Crescent” does, indeed, seem to be a First.

Exactly what is this milestone?
Well, we’re finally seeing a major U.S. publishing house, Random House, releasing the inspirational memoir of an American imam, Hassan Qazwini, who writes not only to explain his faith to non-Muslims in an uplifting way, but also to critique American culture. And, in the end, he points out eloquently why he has such boundless optimism about Americans’ spiritual potential.

He’s not talking about converting Americans.  He’s talking about his pride and optimism as an American himself about our respect for cultural diversity and our desire to make faith an essential part our daily lives.
In other words, this is a Muslim Brian McLaren emerging in the American heartland. Or, given the size and youthful demographics of Imam Hassan Qazwini’s congregation in Dearborn, Michigan, this is more like a Muslim Rob Bell emerging to carve out a whole new direction for Islam in America.
This is an impressive milestone because major publishers tend to place their spiritual bets on the U.S.’s largest religious groups: Protestants in particular and often Catholics.
Those of us with long enough memories in this field will recall the 1988 publication of Archbishop Iakovos’ “Faith for a Lifetime” by Doubleday. Like Qazwini, this primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America represented a minority religious community. But Iakovos’ dramatic life, which included his personal involvement in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, and his pastoral style of writing made him a spiritual celebrity for a while.

The closest we’ve seen to “American Crescent” in the flood of books about Islam are books like “The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity,” by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, although Nasr is an educator rather than a pastoral figure and his book isn’t really a memoir. (Click on the title or the image of the cover to read a short review of that book and buy it, if you wish.)
And, there are similarities to Qazwini’s approach to explaining the faith in Reza Aslan’s highly readable “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam,” but Aslan is mainly a journalist and his book isn’t intended either as pastoral or inspirational. (Again, click on the title or the cover to read a review – and you can buy the book as well.)

Qazwini and his memoir with its big-name publishing house behind it are something new in American publishing. But, please, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here.
Qazwini isn’t a reformer or a critic of the faith, although he takes a stance that many American observers of Islam would describe perhaps as “moderate” or even “progressive.”

To truly understand Qazwini, you need to read his entire story.  Quickly, in the opening section of the memoir, readers realize that he is a living pillar of Muslim tradition. He carries the title “Sayed” (pronounced sah-eeed and spelled various ways in English, including Seyyed), which means that he is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. He comes to Muslim leadership from generations of top Islamic scholars and leaders who lived, until the bloody reign of Saddam Hussein, in Iraq and Iran. He’s as steeped in Muslim theology and history as any scholar in the U.S.
In fact, his father, Ayatollah Mortadha Qazwini has returned to Iraq and now ranks among the handful of top Shi’a Muslim scholars in that war-torn country, risking his life daily to promote peace and the construction of hospitals and orphanages. Just last year, Qazwini’s father suffered a near-fatal attack in the streets near his home, surviving bullets in one of his arms and one of his legs.
In the decades before the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Qazwini family lost many relatives to Saddam’s savage secret police. His father moved to the U.S. for a number of years, and brought his sons to this country, in a desperate attempt to preserve their branch of the clan from Saddam’s henchmen.
So, there is a suspenseful edge to this story as Qazwini and his family flee the bloody purges in Iraq.
But even the quieter passages are fascinating. Qazwini describes the rigors of Muslim seminary life in Iran and then the initial difficulties of adjusting to American culture.
His heart and soul clearly is directed toward young Muslims in particular and his passion is for carving out an authentically American life for his community. In some passages of his book, he’s downright patriotic in his love for his adopted homeland.

I know Qazwini personally and have visited his mosque many times.
In 2004, for example, I spent several days with him, first visiting him in his modest Dearborn home and then following him through his hectic daily life in the busy halls of the Islamic Center of America, where he is the spiritual leader. The vast center with its gold-topped minarets (shown at right) now ranks as North America’s largest Muslim center.
I was so impressed with his pastoral attention to Muslim teens and twentysomethings that, after spending time with the imam, I called Patrick Allitt, professor of history at Emory University and a leading expert on American religious movements.
Allitt wasn’t familiar with Qazwini, but as I described his pastoral focus on youth and on adaptation to American life, Allitt said that the imam is wisely stressing two of Islam’s traditional gifts: its ability at least in earlier centuries to adapt to other world cultures and its popularity with the young.

“In adapting to the realities of this country, he’s connecting with one of the oldest traditions in Islam, when the faith spread rapidly,” Allitt said.
What’s more, Allitt said, “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. American history is full of hundreds of religious groups that didn’t survive here past the founding generation or the first immigrant waves.”

In addition to those interviews that led to an extensive profile of Qazwini on the front page of the Detroit Free Press in 2004, our new ReadTheSpirit project now includes collaborative publishing projects with a broad array of writers, scholars and artists.
One of Qazwini’s closest supporters and a co-founder of the enormous youth group that meets at his mosque is Najah Bazzy. In her professional life, Bazzy is a nationally known expert in adapting health care procedures for patients from diverse cultural backgrounds. If you’ve watched documentaries on Islam on PBS, then you’ve probably seen her at some point speaking on behalf of her faith. She’s also emerging as a social activist on behalf of the poor, especially poor women.
Now, Bazzy also is a colleague in our ReadTheSpirit project and is working on a book that we hope to publish in 2008. We also hope to share some of her material with our online audience next year. Her project is called, “Letters from Islam,” and will focus on collecting voices and everyday stories from American Muslim women.
When that project is completed, we will be proud to have shared in yet another religious publishing “First.”

So, that’s our involvement with Qazwini and other leaders at his Muslim center.
Our eye always is on curiously and respectfully bringing to a broader audience the important stories of Americans’ search for spiritual answers. This is truly a fascinating community, emerging finally in the U.S. media with grassroots American Muslim leaders speaking for themselves.
Today, we salute Qazwini on the publication of his memoir.

Please, post your comments about this piece or email us with any questions or private comments.

And, Come Back Next Week for:
MONDAY: 007 The Gospel According to Hollywood
TUESDAY: 008 25 Images Through a Glass Darkly
WEDNESDAY: 009 A Conversation With Frederick Buechner
THURSDAY: 010 The Gifts of Aging
FRIDAY: 011 Teach Us To Pray

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