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Muslims in Lodi take sides over imam

Muhammed Adil Khan generated excitement and controversy in Muslim circles when he joined the troubled Lodi Muslim Mosque in 2001.

The soft-spoken Pakistani immigrant promised to build a progressive Islamic school open to everyone, girls as well as boys, non-Muslims as well as Muslims.

He holds a doctorate in Islamic studies - a rare distinction among California imams, who often have little formal religious training.

He has led prayers and given speeches to Muslims worldwide. His father is a well-known Muslim thinker and writer who founded Jamia Farooqia, a large Islamic school, or madrassah, in Karachi where Adil Khan taught.

Now, Adil Khan, 47, has helped put Lodi, a San Joaquin County city of 62,000, on the international map - not for his modern ideas or distinguished background, but because he apparently is the target of a federal terrorism investigation.

Earlier this month Adil Khan and his protégé from Pakistan, Shabbir Ahmed - who also served as imam of the Lodi mosque - were jailed without bond on allegations of U.S. immigration violations, along with Adil Khan's 19-year-old son, Mohammad Hassan Adil.

At Ahmed's immigration hearing Friday, the government began laying out its case against the two imams, trying to link them to anti-American activities.

Paul Nishiie, a prosecutor for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that in a recent FBI interview, Shabbir Ahmed admitted giving five speeches in Islamabad shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, "encouraging people to go to Afghanistan to defend Osama, to defend the Taliban and to kill Americans."

Ahmed denied the charges, saying, "I simply said to try to pressure the Americans to stop bombing" Afghanistan.

Ahmed, 39, moved to Lodi in January 2002, weeks after giving the speeches. He testified Friday that his attitudes about America changed when he saw the "respect for human life" here.

Ahmed was a student of Adil Khan's at the Jamia Farooqia school before becoming a teacher himself. He acknowledged during testimony that the school sent guerrillas to Afghanistan to wage jihad (a divinely inspired defense against enemies of Islam) against the Soviets, who occupied the country until 1989 after their 1979 invasion.

But Ahmed denied Adil Khan is still a leader of HUJI, or Movement of Islamic Holy War, which the U.S. government describes as an extremist group founded in Afghanistan in 1980 to wage jihad against the Soviets. "He (Adil Khan) was undersecretary (of HUJI) at the time Russia left Afghanistan and then he left (HUJI)," Ahmed said.

The imams' arrests have torn the scabs off an ugly internecine power struggle in Lodi's Pakistani Muslim community that has erupted in shoving and spitting matches and spawned rumors of links to terrorist organizations.

The president of the Lodi mosque, Muhammed Shoaib, said he informed federal authorities that Adil Khan's visa had expired, and that he was falsely representing himself as the mosque's imam -a charge Adil Khan's attorney denies.

What's really happening in Lodi is a matter of fierce debate. Is the city home to an al-Qaida sleeper cell, or the scene of a federal fishing expedition based on circumstantial evidence?

Interviews with Adil Khan's supporters and detractors have produced sharply conflicting portraits.

Some see him as a peacemaker who has helped California Muslims find common ground with Jews and Christians; others describe a clever politician who has exploited his friendships with people of other faiths to enhance his status.

Supporters laud a visionary trying to use his international connections to build an Islamic center in Lodi that would serve as a model for the Muslim world; detractors speak of an interloper who could stock the center with scholars from his father's school in Karachi - scholars with purported ties to anti-American training camps.

The Muslim community, which has gone through at least four imams in the last five years, has split over class differences, geography, and - some say - ideology, including whether prayer services should be open to women and non-Muslims. Currently, only men can pray at the mosque because, Shoaib said, it's too small to have a separate section for women.

Adil Khan comes from Karachi, a metropolis of 12 million in southern Pakistan. He was awarded his doctorate in Islamic studies from Sindh University in Pakistan. His wife, who lives in Lodi, has a master's degree.

Shoaib, like most of Lodi's Pakistani immigrants, comes from a village in Attock, a poor rural district in Pakistan's northwestern frontier.

"They (Adil Khan's supporters) think we are jungle people who do not know anything," Shoaib said.

Attorney Saad Ahmed, who represents Shabbir Ahmed (no relation), as well as Adil Khan and his son, said his clients have not violated U.S. immigration laws, have never been involved in terrorist activities and have never supported a terrorist organization.

But the FBI has been looking for a connection between Adil Khan, Shabbir Ahmed and two other Lodi men accused of terrorist activities: ice cream seller Umer Hayat, 47, and his son Hamid, 22.

Federal authorities have indicted the Hayats, who are U.S. citizens, on charges of lying about Hamid Hayat's attendance at an al-Qaida training camp in Pakistan. The Hayats have denied the charges.

The FBI, after questioning Umer Hayat, persuaded him to wear a body wire and sent him to question Shabbir Ahmed and Adil Khan about anti-American activities in the early morning hours of June 4. Later that day, the two imams were picked up on the alleged immigration violations.

The story of how the cosmopolitan Adil Khan came to be associated with the modest Lodi mosque goes back to the 1980s, when he began speaking at mosques across America, raising money for the Jamia Farooqia School in Karachi.

"He used to come each Ramadan to collect money ... for his Farooqia Islamic Center in Pakistan - I used to welcome him," said Yusaf Bhula, who was imam of the Lodi mosque from 1987 until he resigned in 2000.

Adil Khan's father, Salimullah Khan, founded the Farooqia school, which has 4,000 students from around the world.

"People respect him a lot," said Najam Najmi, a Sacramento-area Muslim speaker who has read Salimullah Khan's commentaries in Pakistani magazines.

Najmi described Salimullah Khan as an apolitical "ultra-moderate" who applied the Quran in context, rather than dogmatically.

Attorney Ahmed said there's no indication Salimullah Khan "was an extremist. In fact he knows (Pakistani President Pervez) Musharraf very well. They are friends."

The attorney acknowledged that Osama bin Laden, in a speech in the late 1990s, "basically said that some people from Jamia Farooqia are supporting him. However, there was no such evidence that any such thing was happening."

Ahmed, who said he has seen a videotape of the speech, added, "Osama did not say anything about my clients whatsoever."

Adil Khan served as secretary of his father's school before moving to Lodi in spring 2001. He told people he came to the U.S. to realize his own vision of a progressive center for Muslims and non-Muslims, said Taj Khan, a Muslim leader in Lodi.

In 1998, on one of his frequent trips to California, Adil Khan incorporated the nonprofit Farooqia Islamic Center.

The organization, which so far is little more than an impressive Web site and telephone number in East Palo Alto, listed five officers in 2003.

Trustee Sayed Zahid Hussein said he and at least two others are Fijian-born Muslims. Hussein, now a semi-pro soccer player living in Las Vegas, said he met Adil Khan about six years ago at a mosque in San Mateo. "He led the prayer - he could go to any mosque he wants to because he's a very good speaker."

Adil Khan said he planned to build a school for children and asked Hussein to serve on his board of directors.

In 2001, Adil Khan learned that the leadership of the Lodi Muslim Mosque had purchased seven acres to establish its own school and community center. "He said, 'Why don't we collaborate? You give me this piece of land you bought and I'll do the rest - I'll get the money and the people (the staff and students),' " said Taj Khan.

He said he checked Adil Khan out "with people who knew him back in Pakistan" and decided he was just what Lodi's Muslim community needed to make the school a reality. "He's well-traveled, very dynamic, a go-getter," Taj Khan said.

At a mosque meeting of 300 people, only two objected to the collaboration, he said.

The proposed school won the approval of Muslims throughout the area, including Tahir Hassan, an Islamic scholar from Natomas who called Adil Khan "the most knowledgeable person in Northern California about Islam." Hassan said he hoped the school would provide mosques with a new generation of educated imams who would teach Muslims to love all human beings.

Nasim Khan (no relation to Taj or Adil) was president of the mosque from 1998 to 2001, when Adil Khan came on as imam. He said Adil Khan changed his life.

Nasim Khan still has the letter from a local rabbi's son thanking him and his wife for attending the boy's bar mitzvah. "It's all because of Adil - I would never have thought of attending a bar mitzvah," he said. "This is how he opened our minds and hearts, especially after 9/11."

Adil Khan also got the mosque to start a feed-the-hungry program at the local Salvation Army, Nasim Khan said.

In 2002, Adil Khan recruited Shabbir Ahmed, then an imam in Islamabad, to teach at the mosque.

Little is known of Shabbir Ahmed, except that he is from Kashmir and has a wife and three daughters in Pakistan, Shoaib said. He's considered a more fiery speaker than the calm, collected Adil Khan.

In 2002, Shabbir Ahmed took over as imam so Adil Khan could concentrate on his proposed Islamic center, which would include a worship hall for 400 men and women and a school for 50 kindergarten to fourth-grade students.

Adil Khan sold the seven-acre property given to him by the mosque for $140,000, then bought an 18-acre parcel for $420,000, which he put in the name of his Farooqia Islamic Center. He added four Lodi men to the board, including Nasim Khan and Taj Khan.

But in early 2004, the mosque leadership changed, and Shoaib became president. Shoaib refused to endorse Adil Khan's purchase unless the mosque was listed on the deed and the name of the center was changed to the San Joaquin Islamic Center. Shoaib has filed a lawsuit against Adil Khan in San Joaquin Superior Court.

The schism is so deep, both sides say, that mosque meetings have ended in shoving matches - and in one case, a spitting match.

Last year, Shoaib said, he fired Adil Khan as imam, claiming he rarely performed the duties. Shoaib has refused to renew Shabbir Ahmed's contract unless he agrees to cut all ties to Adil Khan's organization.

"We do not know these people, what faction they belong to or what they teach," he said. "My priority will be to choose the next imam from the local community."

About the writer:

  • The Bee's Stephen Magagnini can be reached at (916) 321-1072 or smagagnini@sacbee.com. Bee staff writer M.S. Enkoji contributed to this report.
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