U.S. Muslim clerics target next generation


Every seat in the auditorium at the University of Houston was taken, and the crowd was standing in the back and spilling out into the lobby, straining to hear.

The two men onstage began to speak to the crowd in Arabic, with such flawless accents and rarefied Quranic grammar that some audience members gasped when they heard the Arabic equivalent of the king's English coming from two Americans.

Sheik Hamza Yusuf, in a groomed goatee and sports jacket, looked more like a hip college professor than a Muslim sheik. Imam Zaid Shakir, in a long brown tunic, looked like he would fit in just fine on the streets of Damascus.

Both men are converts to Islam who spent years in the Middle East and North Africa being mentored by formidable Muslim scholars.

They have since become leading intellectual lights for a new generation of American Muslims looking for homegrown leaders who can help them learn how to live their faith without succumbing to American materialism or Islamic extremism.

"This is the wealthiest Muslim community on Earth," Shakir told the crowd, quickly adding, "the wealth here has been earned" - unlike, he said, in the oil-rich Middle East.

As the audience laughed at Shakir's flattery, he chided them for buying Lexuses - with heated leather seats they would never need in Houston - and Jaguars, and made them laugh again by pronouncing it "Jaguoooaah," like a stuffy Anglophile.

Then he issued a challenge: "Where are the Muslim Doctors Without Borders? Spend six months here, six months in the Congo. Form it!"

Most American mosques import their clerics from overseas - some who preach extremism, some who cannot speak English, and most who cannot begin to speak to young American Muslims growing up on hip-hop and chat rooms.

Yusuf, 48, and Shakir, 50, are using their power to create the first Islamic seminary in the United States, where they hope to train a new generation of imams and scholars who can reconcile Islam and American culture.

The seminary is still in its fledgling stages, but Yusuf and Shakir have gained a large following by being equally at home in Islamic tradition and modern American culture.

Yusuf dazzles his audiences by weaving into one of his typical half-hour talks quotations from St. Augustine, Gen. George Patton, Erik Erikson, Carl Jung, Solzhenitsyn, W.H. Auden, Robert Bly, Gen. William C. Westmoreland and the Bible.

He hosts a TV reality show that is popular in the Middle East, in which he takes a vanload of Arabs on a road trip across the United States to visit people who might challenge Arab stereotypes about Americans, like the anti-war protesters demonstrating outside the Republican National Convention.

Shakir, who is African-American, mixes passages from the Quran with a few lines of rap.. Some of his students call him the next Malcolm X - out of his earshot, because he so often preaches the importance of humility.

Both men draw overflow crowds in theaters, mosques and university auditoriums that seat thousands. Their books and CDs are pored over by young Muslims in study groups.

As scholars and proselytizers for the faith, they have a much higher profile than most imams, as Muslim clerics who are usually in charge of mosques are known.

Their message is that both Islam and America have gone seriously astray, and American Muslims have a responsibility to harness their growing numbers and economic power to help set them straight.

They say that Islam must be rescued from extremists who selectively cite Islamic scripture to justify terrorism.

Though Yusuf and Shakir do not denounce particular scholars or schools of thought, their students say the two are challenging the influence of Islam's more reactionary sects, like Wahhabism and Salafism, which has been spread to American mosques and schools by clerics trained in Saudi Arabia.

Where Wahhabism and Salafism are often intolerant of other religions - even of other streams within Islam - Yusuf and Shakir teach that Islam is open to a diversity of interpretations honed by centuries of scholars.

Yusuf told the audience to beware of "fanatics" who pluck Islamic scripture out of context and say, "We're going to tell you what God says on every single issue."

"That's not Islam," Yusuf said. "That's psychopathy."

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