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Boston Globe: With a New Imam, a New Outlook

By Omar Sacirbey | Boston Globe
December 3rd, 2011

He grew up as a preacher’s grandson in Oklahoma, attending Church of Christ services twice a week, until the pull of Christianity started to weaken. His teen years were spent spinning hip-hop music as a DJ, but that world came to feel hollow.

Then he found the Koran, and William Suhaib Webb was transfixed.

Now Webb, a year shy of 40, finds himself in Roxbury as the new spiritual leader of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the biggest mosque in New England. He started this week, and yesterday led his first jummah, the weekly congregational prayer Muslims hold on Fridays.

Webb’s unusual path to his new role is at the heart of his plan to make the mosque more inclusive, and reflects a broad desire by Islamic leaders nationally to dispel the perception of a rigid faith presided over by stern imams. That desire is evident, too, in the pop culture references Webb sprinkles into his sermons, from “Monday Night Football’’ to the Twilight vampire romance series.

“He’s ushering in a new era in the Muslim community of young imams who have knowledge of classical Islamic scholarship, but who are born in America and familiar with American life, and who are able to connect with the youth,’’ said Safaa Zarzour, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America.

The mosque had been seeking an imam for three years. Board members were familiar with Webb – and with his life story. That narrative appealed to them.

“There’s a huge dearth of qualified imams in this country,’’ said Nancy Khalil, a board member at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. “We wanted somebody who could relate to a diverse congregation.’’

Webb, who converted to Islam at age 20, said he comes to Boston eager to introduce his big tent philosophy to an ethnically diverse community in a city with a history rich in interfaith work.

But he is also aware that he inherits a mosque with critics who accuse it of radical affiliations.

Webb himself has confronted similar criticisms, with some suggesting he is a dangerous fundamentalist who harbors discriminatory views, while others from inside his faith excoriate him for being too accepting, too liberal.

Too many mosques, Webb said – though not necessarily the one in Roxbury – scare away some Muslims because congregations seem to exclude members of certain ethnicities or are led by imams who prove overly doctrinaire.

“If we’re able to function together to some degree, then we become like a Muslim ‘Cheers,’ ’’said Webb, who is married to a Malaysian-born Muslim and has two children, ages 10 and 8. “If we can acknowledge that we have certain differences, even religiously, then we’ll be able to develop as a community.’’

Webb started questioning his Christian faith as a youngster. Despite achieving popularity as a hip-hop DJ, he felt an emptiness. But hip-hop introduced him to African-American Muslims who stirred his curiosity about Islam. He checked out a copy of the Koran from his local library and studied the faith for three years before converting.

Webb then studied under a Senegalese sheik in Oklahoma and later became imam at a local mosque there.

From 2004 to 2010, he studied at Cairo’s Sharia College of Al-Azhar University, founded in the 10th century and considered a preeminent institution of Islamic learning. He graduated with multiple certificates in Islamic sciences, qualifying him to preach and teach, and says he’s memorized the Koran in Arabic (6,236 verses).

After his time in Cairo, Webb moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where he preached at local mosques and led spiritual retreats. He also established, a “virtual mosque’’ that showcases writings from him and about 20 Muslim scholars, who answer questions about jihad, dating, sex, music, women, and celebrating Western holidays.

The site gets more than 10,000 hits a day, with some of the most commented-on articles including “Save the Sisters,’’ “Wifehood and Motherhood are Not the Only Ways to Paradise,’’ and “Taking Off the Hijab.’’

Indeed, the role of women in Muslim communities, and how men treat women, are issues Webb grapples with frequently. He said he believes women can have active and leading roles in mosques, and said one reason he was attracted to the Roxbury mosque was because it had a woman on the board. Those views, in turn, appealed to the Roxbury mosque.

Many Muslims regard Webb’s training at Al-Azhar University as a stamp of authenticity, but Webb cautions Muslims that Islam imported from traditionally Muslim countries is not superior to the faith as it exists in the United States.

“We represent a different group of brothers and sisters now who are born in America, who went overseas to study for a number of years and realize that everything overseas isn’t necessarily right,’’ said Webb, who can seamlessly switch from English to Arabic. “I don’t have to be an Arab or a Pakistani to authenticate my Islam.’’

In 2010, Webb was part of a delegation of eight North American imams who visited the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps and issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism and terrorism.

“He was clear in his condemnation of anti-Semitism and evidenced considerable knowledge of the subject, and was helpful in clarifying many issues to the others on the trip,’’ Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in New Jersey, said in an e-mail.

Despite his big tent philosophy, interfaith work, and preaching against radicalism, Webb has been assailed by mosque critics as a homophobic fundamentalist.

Charles Jacobs, the president of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a Watertown-based group that has long been critical of the Roxbury mosque, accuses Webb of belonging to the hard-line Salafi sect of Islam and referring to homosexuality as an evil inclination.

“Considering Suhaib Webb’s homophobic and otherwise fundamentalist views, it would be strange to see him embraced by Boston’s progressive community,’’ Jacobs said in a statement.

Webb’s comments, posted on his website, were made in 2007 in response to an e-mailed question from a homosexual who wanted to convert to Islam. Webb acknowledged the comments, and said he regrets referring the questioner to an organization that purports to undo same-sex attraction. Webb said he believes sexual orientation is no reason to discriminate against someone’s right to worship, and that imams should offer guidance and compassion to gay congregants who seek it.

“If someone who’s a homosexual comes to the mosque, wants to pray, wants to worship, be part of the community, I have no issue with that,’’ Webb said. “Ultimately, people who have whatever inclinations in their life, no one has a right to bar them from their experience with God.’’

Webb accused his critics of belonging to an “Islamophobia industry’’ that seeks to demonize Muslims. His foes, he said, cite his old statements while ignoring more recent remarks.

“In Oklahoma, we say you can never judge a man till you walk in his moccasins. I would encourage them to come and meet me,’’ he said. Webb denied being a Salafi disciple and said he follows the Maliki Islamic school, which is followed mainly in North Africa.

Some of Webb’s biggest critics are hard-liners who accuse him of compromising Islam and misleading followers with his positions on homosexuality, gender mixing, and other issues.

In 2007, Webb left, a conservative online Islamic academy where he taught, and had a public clash with another teacher there, Sheikh Nuh Keller, also an American Muslim convert.

Online comments appended to a Los Angeles Times story about Webb earlier this year revealed the anger percolating toward him in some quarters. “This guy wants to destroy Islam from the inside, and he [wants] to turn mosques like churches where they come to eat food, and listen to music, and mingle with gays, men and women all together,’’ one commenter wrote.

Webb dismisses such criticisms, referring to Islam’s Prophet Mohammed, who didn’t spurn adulterers and drunkards seeking help, offering compassion instead.

“Religion is for people with issues,’’ Webb said. “Creating a comfortable space for people, and letting people know that I’m not here to indict you but invite you – that’s something that me and a few other imams in America believe is crucial to the sustainability as well as the dignity of Islam in America.’’

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  • Peace brother webb, i really admire your ability to reach to everyone, and for certain Allah is putting you in a tense position to do what is right, although rigidity is hated in peer to peer interaction, but it sure is a neccessity when it comes to ones direction towards Allah, you may be soft with the people but firm in your methodology and keeping that ground gaurded with all means permissable, so i ask of you that you do your thing that you do best, but pls, make the truth shine in its best whenever the moment says so.
    All prayers for my guidance and all of the Muslims and especially are leaders and especially Suhaib webb

  • As’Salaamolaikum to all! Congratulations to you Imam Webb; and may this endeavor and new chapter in your life add to further self growth for yourself and for all those that come into contact with the beautiful fold of Islam (whether Muslim, non-Muslim interested in Islam, etc.)

    Keeping a soft and sincere heart, honesty, open eyes, open mind, commitment, resolve and steadfastness…will Insha’Allah help to debunk misinformation; and in turn allow truth to be on the forefront. This life is purposeful and meaningful…and we should all strive towards the path of Allah; most gracious, most merciful, most compassionate and forgiving; which is the path of good in both belief and actions.

  • As Salaamo Aliakom,

    Alhumdulillah we are all excited to see you come to Boston, we have lot of dream inshaAllah you will help us accomplish inshaAllah. Please do you best to make ISBCC more active with drawing me activites and also involve other Masjids like ICNE (especially Quincy) since its very close and one of the oldest Masjid.

  • Congratulations!
    Your website has been an inspiration to me. My daughter sent it to me 2 or 3 years ago when she was in high-school but I never had time to look at it. Since I’ve come back from Hajj last year & given that both my children are now at university & the other one away from home, I read it everyday. It has become part of my ritual during my commute to work. I cannot express the impact your posts have on me.
    It provides me with the boost I need to start my day. I’ve subscribed to your newsletter and look forward to reading it every morning.
    It is amazing that you have achieved in few years what people who are born Muslims don’t achieve in their lifetime. Thank you for changing the lives of so many of us.

    May you find success and may Allah protect you from those who try hinder your work.

  • This account sounds very familiar, and appropriate. Success in a new society requires a certain degree of compliance with the ‘zeitgeist’ of one’s new homeland, while simultaneously providing the traditions of faith, worship, and wisdom that seekers of religion demand. Considering the recent influx of Muslim immigrants to America, as well as Islam’s success in attracting new converts , America may very well be considered a ‘new society’ for Islam (and I am fully aware that Islam has an established history in America). The Muslim community has developed into a very visible component of American life. On the one hand, all Americans live our lives among the presence of Muslim individuals and institutions; on the other, Muslims in America are, or are in the process of becoming, American, and so of necessity must live American lives. Considering Islam’s enhanced visibility in America, it seems to me that a new addition to cultural sharing is being established here in the USA, and I am glad for it – I think all concerned will benefit.

  • Imam Suhaib’s strength is that he does not conform to dogma, instead he researches Islam in a scientific manner- the way God intended it to be studied. I attended his mosque in Oklahoma and now folllow his website. A breath of fresh air. Congrats Boston!

  • May Allah bestow his mercey oh you, brother Suhaib. Since my return from Haj, 10 days ago, I have been wanting so badly to come and attend your halaqa but some how i was unable. Last jumaa I made all efforts and full intention to pray at the roxbury mosque. I was happy and pleased with your simplicity in conveying the khutba message. May Allah give you the needed energy and strength to lead this diverse community. Please remember me in your Duaa

  • Assalamualaikum
    I am a great fan of imam Suhaib and try to catch your lecture on tv alHijrah every morning.
    I agree with your stand on controversial issues though need a lot of soul searching on some of them.
    Keep up the good work. May allah gives all of us and esprcially you strength to face adversaries

  • Dear Imam Suhaib Webb. I believe Allah has given You deep insights into many issues that many of us face and seeks to offer remedies as what Allah would want us to seek. Your courage , steely determination and never Losing Your cool makes Your program on Tv Alhijrah an Event to look foward to. Keep up The good work and may Allah puts You In Janna. Zaitun . 26 September 2012.

  • Assalam-o-Alaikum
    I am a junior and making a documentary on Islam. I would really like to interview you. You have inspired me so much. Please let me know if you come on Friday in the cambridge mosque. Please I really need to interview.

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