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Mosque members sue to oust religious leader

Sunday, May 20, 2007


At a time of debate over how the Islamic religion is practiced, some founding members of a Trenton mosque are asking a judge to oust their leader because they say he is taking the congregation in a fundamentalist direction.

In recent years, Imam Sabur Abdul Hakim has adopted stricter views of Islam and his aides plan to link the mosque with others of a conservative sect in Saudi Arabia, beaming in lectures via satellite links, according to a lawsuit filed in Superior Court in Mercer County.

In the lawsuit, the International Muslim Brotherhood Inc., which owns the mosque, and founding members Rahman Khan, Salim Baig and Mubin Kathrada contend that Hakim began changing religious practices at their mosque, Masjid As-Saffat, on Oxford Street in Trenton, three years ago.

In the suit, the members say Hakim appointed his son-in-law, Shalby Akbar Shalby, as "ameer" last August, without an election by the congregants.

Hakim and his lawyer, Eric Broadway, declined to comment about the lawsuit, which was filed in April.

Since it was founded in 1981 by local adherents and state workers seeking a place to pray, the mosque was open to Muslims of all sects, the suit said.

"It was the policy not to discriminate based on sect and to allow various religious ideas to be heard," the suit said. "In that vein the board of trustees would select a rotating slate of educated individuals to give the weekly Friday Khutbah (sermon)," the suit said.

But in 2004, Hakim decided that he alone would decide who gave the Friday sermon. Generally, that person would be Mohammad Hasan, who follows strict Salafi doctrine, the suit said.

"For the last three years, Hakim and a small group of congregants of the mosque began having more rigid views of Islam," the suit said.

"They decided that they wanted the mosque to follow the Salafi doctrine. Adherents of Salafi Islam believe that there is only one true way of worshipping Islam and are totally intolerant of other moderate sects of Islam," according to the lawsuit.

Peter Golden, a Rutgers University history professor who specializes in Middle East and Islamic history, said the term Salafi means "the ancestor."

Those who practice it want to go back to "what some people imagine is an early and pristine time," he said.

Salafi is the form of Islam associated with the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia, but it has also taken other forms, he said. Practitioners consider themselves reformers but others think of them as reactionary, Golden said.

The same dispute rocking the Trenton mosque is being played out in the larger Islamic world, Golden said, as people try to cope with changes brought on by modernism. Currently, in Turkey, those who favor the secular status quo are being challenged by an Islamist revival, Golden said.

While Salafism has been linked to terrorists and al Qaeda, everyone who practices it is not a terrorist. Golden noted that Islamic fundamentalists are not the only ones linked to terrorism. Other religious fundamentalists, like David Koresh's Branch Davidians, also have been linked to violence, he said.

Meanwhile, the change toward Salafism has driven away many of the more moderate members at Masjid As-Saffat and its religious school closed last year, the suit said.

Shalby, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, sent a letter to congregants in August saying the mosque would be linked to all Salafi mosques, appointing "hard-liner" Hasan as responsible for religious affairs, indicating that lectures would be held at the mosque via telelink from Saudi Arabia and changing the locks, the suit said.

Shalby could not be reached for comment.

Shalby also changed the time of afternoon prayers and tried to change the manner of conducting prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the suit said.

"We have been together for a long time," Khan said, when reached by phone last week. "I hope to reconcile with Hakim. We'll let the judge decide."

Although the mosque is incorporated under the name, International Muslim Brotherhood, it is not related to overseas organizations with the same name, he said.

Khan referred other questions to his lawyer, Marlyn E. Quinn, who did not return calls.

In September, Khan and other board members sent a letter to Hakim signed by more than 90 congregants objecting to the "unilateral actions of Hakim and Shalby," the suit said.

In response, they were removed from their positions in favor of Shalby as vice president and Michael Oliver as treasurer.

In addition to asking the court to remove the imam and ameer, the suit asks for an accounting of how funds have been spent and for an election of a new board of trustees by the congregants.

Imam Hamad Ahmad Chebli, the religious director of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey in South Brunswick, said he was aware of the dissension at the mosque in Trenton and had offered to help the parties with their dispute.

"It's a very bad situation, a very sad situation to hear of a house of worship end up in the court," Chebli said.

"The people have to solve their situation themselves, not through the courts," he said. "The mosques, synagogues, churches, houses of God are supposed to be open to everybody. The leadership should apply the holy book."

In America, mosques are organized as separate congregations and imams are appointed by boards of directors elected by the congregants. There is no central authority, Chebli said.

Before they can be appointed, imams must study and receive a degree from an Islamic university and be well-versed in the Quran. The board also hires other staff such as secretaries and teachers for the religious school, Chebli said.

"Every mosque is run by the members of that congregation," Chebli said.

Seth Lapidow, a lawyer with Saul Ewing firm, which has an office in Plainsboro, said the mosque lawsuit is unlikely to run afoul of the principle of separation of church and state and will be handled by the court as any other employment dispute.

"There are cases where courts are involved regarding clergy," Lapidow said. Lapidow remembered one regarding a New Jersey rabbi who was dismissed. "If (the imam) is appointed by the congregation, the court has the right to decide (the issue)."

At one time, that mosque was very active with people coming from all over the world to speak there, Chebli said. In 2003, members took a stand to protect the area from a city plan for unwanted redevelopment of Oxford Street.

"We will pray for both of them," Chebli added.

Linda Stein can be reached at or (609) 989-6437.





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