Assistant Imam Mohammad Shamsi Ali lives in Queens.
Many pictures of Ali with city officials sit on his kitchen bar.
The Islamic Cultural Center is the first mosque to be built in New York City.
The dome of the Islamic Cultural Center is a perfect hemisphere, an unconventional architectural trait for a mosque.

An Imam on a Mission

Inside the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, on East 96 Street and Third Avenue, a small group of women and men are praying. As the prayer ends, Assistant Imam Mohammad Shamsi Ali, a thin short man with a well-trimmed moustache, grabs the microphone. He announces the visit of a guest speaker: Aminah Assilmi, 65, of the International Union of Muslim Women in the United States.

A former Southern Baptist turned Muslim, Sister Aminah, as he calls her, is here to discuss the role of women in Islam.

"Do you want to sit here with us?" he asks as she enters the room. "Or do you want to address exclusively the sisters?"

Breaking the mosque's conventions of separating the genders, she settles between women's and men's section. Ali pulls open the translucent black curtains that separate the two praying areas, and encourages the men and women to come closer.

An hour into the discussion, a man comes in and distracts the assistant imam. Ali points at the exit, visibly annoyed, and the man leaves. As Ali would later explain, the man objected to his decision of letting a woman lecture men.

"I told him that the way he interrupted us was more un-Islamic than the issue he raised," he says before leaving the mosque in a hurry. He's expected in Brooklyn to give a speech on the virtue of interfaith dialogue.

Ali, 41, was appointed assistant imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, ICC, in November 2001, shortly after 9/11. He believes his wide range of activities with non-Muslims got him the job. His liberal interpretation of Islam certainly helped as well.

“He’s a very moderate, modest person,” says Ziyad Monayair, director of the ICC.

An influential leader

Growing up in a remote region of Indonesia, Ali received a scholarship to study in Islamabad, Pakistan. He landed there in 1988, in the midst of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union slowly withdrawing from neighboring Afghanistan. "In this climate, we viewed the West and the religious groups coming from the West as the opponent," Ali remembers, sitting in the living room of his house in Queens, New York.

Upon completing his degree in comparative studies of religion, Ali left Pakistan for Saudi Arabia, where he taught Arabic to non-native speakers, and lectured foreign diplomats on Islam and hadj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are expected to make. That's how in 1996, he met the ambassador of Indonesia to the United Nations, and came to work for him in the U.S.


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