(4 Nov 2019) Just beyond the large prayer room in a suburban Detroit mosque, the students gather in a classroom to learn about Islamic law. The teacher is an imam, or Muslim leader, who spent a decade studying at a seminary in the holy city of Qom (KOHM’), Iran.
Imam Mohammad Qazwini’s (kahz-WEE’-neez) deep understanding of the material is a draw for the men and women, but just as prized is his ability to interpret the intricacies in everyday English.
The Quran, Islam’s holy book, is written in classical Arabic, but that’s a barrier for many students who seek the knowledge but lack the language proficiency.
“All classes are taught in English,” said Qazwini, who runs the Al-Hujjah (all-HOO’-zheh) Islamic Seminary at the Islamic Institute of America in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. “I don’t have a single class that is instructed in Arabic. I did get a lot of requests to start an Arabic class. I told them, ‘Look, there are tens of Arabic seminaries. I don’t need to fill that role. My priority is English.'”
Al-Hujjah, started by Qazwini and his father, Islamic Institute leader Imam Hassan Qazwini, is the newest of several seminaries focused on the Shiite branch of Islam in the United States and Canada working to address a shortage of leaders.
An increasing number of U.S. Muslims want guidance from religious instructors who they can understand language-wise and culturally.
“Instead of sponsoring imams from the Middle East and waiting for them five, 10 years to learn English, why not have that institution here,” Hassan Qazwini said.
The father and son started the seminary in fall 2017 with about 35 registered students. Now it has nearly 400, with some attending in-person, others watching live and still more watching recorded videos online. In addition to the Qazwinis, there are four other instructors. The seminary has students in 25 countries, but the emphasis is on North America.
“It’s just beautiful, because they speak the language. Of course it’s much better when they speak fluent English,” said Amal Faraj (ah-MAHL’ fah-RAHZH’), a seminary student from Dearborn.
Faraj, as well as classmate Alia Bazzi (AH-lee-eh BAZ’-ee), who also lives in Dearborn, are among those who attend classes at Al-Hujjah not to become imams, but do so for enrichment or to become public speakers.
“I want to know that I’m doing what I can to enhance myself and my knowledge,” said Bazzi, a graphic designer. “And then second of all, if I am in public, I know how to speak confidently and knowledgeably about my faith. It’s really important.”
About an hour’s drive south, in Toledo, Ohio, the Ahlul Bayt (ah-lool-BAIT’) Center mosque has been running for about four years without a full-time imam. Mohammad Qazwini and other clerics make the drive for services and special events.
Dr. Ali Nawras (A’-lee NOH’-rehs), a board member of the Ahlul Bayt Center, says the arrangement works for day-to-day needs because of its proximity to the Detroit area, a longtime hub for Islam in America. But the center seeks a permanent imam to meet its broader, long-term objectives: Having a strong understanding of challenges within the community, particularly among youth, and forging stronger bonds between the Muslim and non-Muslim populations.
“We are looking for someone either born in United States or has been living in United States for a while, so they get the culture, they know how people think,” Nawras said.
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