May 16, 2008 / 10:24 AM / in 10 years

New York imam forges close ties with city's Jews

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York’s largest mosque, the Islamic Cultural Center (ICC) on East 96th Street in Manhattan, is getting applause from an unexpected quarter -- the city’s influential Jewish community.

Rabbis who’ve spoken there call it an open and welcoming community. The Jewish Theological Seminary and the ICC are planning a joint soup kitchen for the homeless. The mosque is organizing an inter-religious studies program for teenagers.

Much of the credit for the upbeat mood goes to Mohammad Shamsi Ali, the ICC’s Indonesian-born imam who arrived here only 12 years ago and has been rated by New York magazine as the city’s most influential Islamic leader.

“Westerners often wonder what they’re preaching in the mosques, and Jews particularly worry about that,” said Rabbi Burton Visotzky, who spoke at the ICC in April along with Ali.

“What I heard Shamsi Ali preach was as fine a sermon on brotherhood as has ever been preached,” said Visotzky, professor of midrash (scriptural interpretation) and inter-faith studies across town at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, who spoke at the ICC last year and invited Ali to speak to his New York Synagogue in midtown last month, said: “It was impressive when he spoke to the congregation about Israel’s territorial integrity and how suicide bombings are a perversion of the Koran and Islam.”

One community publication, The Jewish Week, portrayed Ali as a “charismatic and compassionate leader” who can “mesmerise listeners with sermons in fluent, lightly accented English.”


The soft-spoken imam, 41, attributes his inter-faith success to New York’s ethnic and religious diversity and to the freedom Muslims enjoy in the United States despite what he calls “some interruptions due to security” after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

“One of the blessings of living in New York is that we can do this very easily,” he told Reuters at the mosque, which was financed by Kuwait and other Muslim countries and opened in 1991. “Here in America, we feel easy practicing our religion.”

Cooperation begins at the mosque itself, where Sunnis and Shias pray side by side in a congregation of Muslims from about 70 different countries, including U.S. black Muslims.

Ali was born in Makasar on Sulawesi island in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. After attending a madrassa there, he studied at the International Islamic University in the Pakistani capital Islamabad and then taught in Saudi Arabia.

Arriving in New York in 1996 to head an Indonesian mosque in Queens, he soon began giving lectures on Islam for the New York Police Department. This contact led the NYPD to ask him to say the Muslim prayer at an inter-faith memorial service in Yankee Stadium two weeks after the September 11 attacks.

Ali has also been active in larger inter-faith initiatives such as the National Dialogue of Muslims and Catholics and Imams and Rabbis conferences in the United States and abroad.

Because of the Middle East conflict, being Indonesian rather than Arab may also help in relations with Jews, Ali admits.

But he says it’s more important that he separates politics from religion. He supports the idea of a Palestinian state, but adds: “It is unacceptable for me to say that Israel does not exist. How can we say there must only be one country?”


This is a clear change from the ICC’s previous imam, Omar Abu Namous, a Palestinian who upset Jews on his first visit to speak at Schneier’s New York Synagogue in 2006.

“It was a dialogue and everything was going along just fine until we got to the Middle East conflict,” Schneier recalled. “He proposed a one-state solution and it wasn’t exactly a Jewish state solution either. All hell broke loose.”

Namous has since retired. Ali is officially the ICC’s deputy imam. The mosque’s board of trustees -- which includes several United Nations ambassadors of Muslim countries -- will meet in September to decide if he should get the top post.

That vote will be “a test of the viability of Shamsi Ali’s moderate line with the Muslim community,” the Jewish Week wrote.

Open criticism has come from a handful of radicals called the Islamic Thinkers Society, which has attacked him as an “FBI mouthpiece” and a “moderate Uncle Sam Muslim.” Ali dismisses them as isolated, “ignorant and in need of an education.”

Schneier read Ali’s openness to working with Jews as a sign of a wider trend in Islam, citing a recent initiative of Muslim scholars for talks with Jews and comments by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah promoting Muslim-Jewish-Christian dialogue.

“Shamsi Ali is not only the head of America’s most prominent mosque,” he said. “The funding for that mosque comes from the Saudis and Kuwaitis... He very much reflects a new tenor in Islam. It’s not a major tremor but there are shifts taking place towards inter-religious dialogue.”


Progress in dialogue is not limited to New York. Visotzky noted the Islamic Society of North America invited Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the country’s largest Jewish denomination, to address its convention in Chicago last September.

Last month, Schneier brought together six imams -- including Ali -- and six rabbis from across the country to film a television commercial in which the imams denounce anti-Semitism and the rabbis speak out against Islamophobia.

Soon afterwards, some of the Muslims expressed reservations about meeting Pope Benedict during his U.S. visit. Benedict angered Muslims around the world in 2006 with a lecture that implied Islam was a violent and irrational religion.

“I find it ironic that here in America, you have Islamic leaders who are more comfortable doing a project with rabbis than meeting the head of the Roman Catholic Church,” Schneier said. “You don’t find that anywhere else in the world.”

(Reporting by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Eddie Evans)

For more on religion, see the Reuters religion blog FaithWorld at

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