The scathing scholar

Leading Muslim professor Khaleel Mohammed's controversial views have sparked an uproar in the Muslim world - and he's just getting started. Canadian says foreign-born imams are a threat to national security and they can't relate to Canadians.

Chris Cobb, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Foreign-born imams who don't speak English, and who have little understanding of the Canadian way of life, are a threat to Canada, says a leading Muslim scholar.

"They should be familiar with the Canadian outlook and understand the cultural values of Canada," said Khaleel Mohammed, a professor of religion at San Diego State University.

"There is no need to import imams, because they cause a lot of friction. They come from Bangladesh, South Africa, Guyana, Egypt and Syria etc. and they bring their cultural baggage with them."

Mr. Mohammed, a Canadian citizen who was born in Guyana, came to Canada as a teenager in 1974. He studied in Montreal, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Syria and Yemen.

The academic has been inundated with hate mail for previously saying that despite what Muslims are taught, Islam's holy book, the Koran, supports the right of Israel to exist and for Jews to live there.

In a scathing criticism of imams during his interview with the Citizen, Mr. Mohammed said that many wilfully or otherwise misinterpret the Koran and are often not qualified to teach religion.

His criticism comes as representatives of Ottawa's 50,000 Muslims are preparing to choose a new imam following the resignation of their respected spiritual leader, Gamal Solaiman.

"They (Canadian imams) have to speak English," said Mr. Mohammed in an interview ahead of his lecture this evening at Carleton University. "All mosques I've been to -- give or take five per cent -- have been using an overwhelming amount of Arabic that is incomprehensible to the people listening. I can go to a mosque now and I can start reciting the Koran in Arabic. I can quote one verse and tell them it means whatever I want it to mean."

Mr. Mohammed, who was a practising imam in Montreal in the late 1990s and still presides at family affairs such as weddings, said "authorities" in Canada and the United States are resisting taking action because they perceive any interference in mosque affairs as "trampling on minority rights."

"But one has to think in terms of national security," he said. "Do a random survey tomorrow -- choose a church, a synagogue and a mosque. The average church has a priest who speaks English with a Canadian accent and can relate to Canadians because he has grown up in this country and understands the outlook and cultural values. Go to a synagogue and you'll find the same thing. Go to a mosque and it is not the same. And Muslims can't use the argument that they often use that they are new immigrants because it is not necessarily true. Muslims have been here for a long, long time."

For example, Mr. Mohammed said it's impossible for an imam with little knowledge of the Canadian way of life to counsel young people.

"When a teenage Canadian Muslim boy goes to an imam and says 'I like Fatima, we go to school together,' he cannot relate to this youth as a Canadian. He relates to the youth as he would relate to a youth in his own country."

The "single most difficult problem" facing Islam, said Mr, Mohammed, is that Muslims only understand Islam through the imams' interpretations and have not read the Koran themselves.

"As an example," he said, "I am from Guyana where we speak English. The average Muslim in Guyana reads the Arabic script, but they do not know what it means. So he comes to Canada and for the first time, presumably in a mosque, finds an imam of Arab origin. The average imam has not taken a course in Christianity. What he knows, or presumes he knows of Christianity, comes from some medieval Muslim interpreter. So he comes to the mosque and tells Muslim youth this is what the Christians believe and this is what the Jews believe and it's all distorted."

It is a widely held misunderstanding that imams are on the same general level as priests, ministers or rabbis, added Mr. Mohammed.

"Because there is no ordination system," he said, "the imam might not be intelligent, or particularly knowledgeable of the Koran. I can't speak for every mosque, but based on my own observations, I would say it is significant enough to be a great problem in Canadian society at large. It is a problem in Canada that Muslim leaders have not traditionally been chosen for their Islamic knowledge but for their stature in society -- a medical doctor, a computer scientist. So he gets to speak wearing the mantle of a scholar either in the mosque or as the representative of Canadian Muslims. The imam is not the equivalent of a priest, which is something most Canadians forget. A priest is trained. An imam is not necessarily."

Mr. Mohammed says he decided to promote his view of the Koran because "the violence being conducted in the name of Islam bothered me."

Much of the hate being spread by radicals, he added, is because the Hadith, or oral traditions of Islam, have been allowed to supplant the teachings of the Koran.

"Muslims who yearn for peace," he said, "are trying to establish the primacy of the Koran as the source of authority. No one doubts the Koran, but there is a difference of opinion over the Hadith. The Shias have a different body of Hadith than the Sunnis and within the two groups they argue about which is authentic and authoritative.

"So the push of some Muslims now is to negate the Hadith as a source of authority, especially when it has become something that foments violence.

"It's the only way to fight the voice of radicalism," he added.

Mr Mohammed speaks tonight at 7 p.m., at Paterson Hall, Room 303. Seating is limited.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2007

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