It took years for a family of prominent American Shiite scholars to build a specialized seminary that would train Americans and Europeans to lead mosques in the West.
DETROIT — It took years for a family of prominent American Shiite scholars to build a specialized seminary that would train Americans and Europeans to lead mosques in the West.
The founders chose a location in their native Iraq, in the holy Shiite city of Karbala, where the students would have access to many of the best teachers.
Private guards were lined up, a custom curriculum developed and housing secured for the first class of 25 students. The scholars, members of the al-Qazwini family, who trace their roots to the Prophet Muhammad, felt they were finally taking concrete steps toward easing the desperate shortage of Western-born imams.
But violence once again erupted in Iraq, and the al-Qazwinis had to put their dream on hold, dropping their plan to open their school this year.
"It was extremely disappointing. I was waiting so long for this program to start and unfortunately I had to call it off personally," said Imam Hossein al-Qazwini, a Karbala scholar who is the program's founder and director. "Being American citizens or European citizens, maybe someone will take them as ransom. Coming from the U.S., from Europe, maybe people will think they have money."
As Muslims try to establish communities in the West, they have been struggling with how they can educate Western-born imams to fill a leadership vacuum in local mosques.
There are no full-fledged Muslim seminaries in the U.S. for Shiites or Sunnis.
Hartford Seminary in Connecticut offers a graduate program for Muslim chaplains who work in the U.S. military and elsewhere. The Zaytuna Institute in Berkeley, Calif., led by Sheik Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir, two respected U.S.-born Muslim scholars, are planning to open an Islamic college next fall, the first in the U.S. They hope it will grow to include a seminary.
At their Imam al-Sadiq Seminary, the al-Qazwinis hope to teach both the Islamic sciences and the cultural traditions of the West.
"The goal is to train religious leaders who can serve their home countries so that, eventually, fewer mosques in the West will have to import imams from overseas," said Imam Hossein al-Qazwini.
The family is well-positioned to take on such an ambitious project.
Their father, Ayatollah Mortadha al-Qazwini, is among the foremost Shiite Islamic scholars in Iraq. Four of his six sons have led American Islamic institutions. Moustafa al-Qazwini is imam of the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County, Calif. Hassan al-Qazwini is the imam of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, one of America's largest mosques.
Hossein al-Qazwini said it was easier for them to start a school in Karbala than in the U.S. because the costs were significantly lower overseas. With instructors drawn from the larger Shiite seminary and Karbala University, the al-Qazwini's could build a much stronger faculty.
"Karbala is known to have a prestigious seminary. It's like Yale or Stanford when it comes to Islamic seminaries. If we were to have it in Dearborn, for example, you don't have the specialized scholars," Hossein al-Qazwini said.
The idea of sending Westerners to study in Iraq is not so far-fetched for Muslims.
Traveling for study has always been part of Islamic learning. Scholars in Karbala and Qom, Iran, attract Shiite students from around the globe. For Sunnis, who comprise the majority of Muslims, students from around the world flock to the prominent Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
But although Western students at foreign seminaries are encouraged to dive deep into the local culture, sometimes becoming so enmeshed in their new society that they assume an attitude about Islam that often does not translate well at home.
Chris Lovelace, 26, an African-American imam at the Muslim Center in Detroit, studied in Egypt, and recalled wondering why he was being taught Islamic teaching on using moon-sighting to decide when a holiday began — a skill not critical for an American imam.
"You're telling me my first lesson is the correct way to spot the moon? Get real," Lovelace said. "I've got issues, man. Teach me how to overcome those."
Imam Ali Abdulmateen, 33, an African-American cleric from Detroit's Muslim Center who studied in Syria, said that while the education he received was excellent, foreign students chafed under poor living conditions and overbearing minders.
"A lot of the people from the U.S. and Britain leave and say, 'I'm going somewhere where they treat me like a human being,'" Abdulmateen said.
The al-Qazwinis hoped to avoid that problem by developing a study plan expressly for Westerners.
The program will be a crash course in Islam — lasting only two years, compared to the usual intense Shiite course of study that can take up to a decade.
The goal is to create "propagators," members of local Islamic communities who will be educated enough to serve as imams but who also may work full-time in other fields in addition to offering religious guidance in the evenings or on weekends.
The curriculum at al-Sadiq will give students a broad understanding of traditional Islamic jurisprudence and philosophy but will also offer guidance on practical themes like family counseling, connecting with young Muslims and public speaking, said Hassan al-Qazwini.
Students will study intensive Arabic and will also be taught comparative religion and comparative schools of Islamic legal thought — coursework that is not offered at traditional seminaries.
"If they are going to preach a religion, they need to know what is in other religions. We want them to feel sure, rest assured, that Islam is the best religion," said Hossein al-Qazwini, who graduated from the University of California-Berkeley in 2004 with a bachelor's degree in comparative religion. "How would they come to that conclusion? By studying other religions."
Several dozen applications had been submitted before the inaugural session was canceled. If the violence in Iraq abates, the al-Qazwinis plan to open the seminary in the fall of 2010.
For now, though, that's an 'if' that looms larger than the dream.