U.S.-born imam turns heads, minds, hearts

He didn't choose the name. People started calling him Ammar after he converted to Islam at 18 in a Michigan dorm room. In Arabic, it means "builder."

He grew up a military brat, attending a dozen schools in as many years. He dreamed of becoming a lawyer or architect like one of his heroes, Thomas Jefferson.

But Allah, or God, had different plans: 12 years of study in Saudi Arabia, memorization of thousands of texts and a place at the head of the prayer room.

Ammar Amonette of Aurora is a rarity: a red-haired, blue-eyed, highly educated, American-born imam, or Muslim prayer leader.

In a country scarred by terrorist attacks carried out by Muslim extremists, the 42-year-old is well-positioned as an ambassador to non-Muslims and a leader for a growing melting-pot American Muslim population that includes more and more people like him.

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"What makes Ammar unique is you get to know both sides of the coin very thoroughly," said Mohamed Jodeh of the Colorado Muslim Society, where Amonette is an associate imam. "He is a bridge-builder in this country and our community."

A journey of faith

Amonette's father served two tours in Vietnam with the Army, loved the Beatles and Cat Stevens and explored different religions. His mother was a nurse.

His parents belonged to a church but never believed in Jesus' divinity. As a teen, Amonette quietly explored churches, synagogues and mosques.

He said he was drawn to Islam because it taught the oneness and universality of God, that God was not manifest in particular people or nations. He found a brotherhood of people from different countries.

In college, Amonette was exposed to Islamic fundamentalism, "that all answers are fixed. In this little booklet, here is your salvation."

He said he declined invitations to student groups he deemed political. He did join the majority Sunni movement, which teaches independent reason and rejects the concept of an ideal, divinely led leader.

"The highest calling in Islam is to personally search and explore the answers yourself from the sources," Amonette said. "A scholar is not someone who blindly follows."

Amonette parlayed a chance encounter with a scholar into a scholarship to Umm Al-Qura University in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. He had little choice but to leave the United States. There are no fully accredited graduate schools or seminaries dedicated to Islamic teaching in the country.

Amonette attended three schools over 12 years, culminating in a graduate imam school.

There are no standards for becoming an imam. In smaller mosques, the imam is often an elder, the best Arabic speaker or most expert in the Koran.

Muqtedar Khan, director of international studies at Adrian College in Michigan, said U.S.- born imams with significant theological training are rare. Some try too hard to prove their Muslim credentials, but philosophies vary, Khan said.

"It's difficult to box them," he said.

"You'd be surprised an imam from overseas may be more tolerant of pluralism than some new converts. One thing that marks new converts is intensity. Sometimes they are more Catholic than the pope."

The ideological makeup of U.S. mosque leadership is a matter of sharp disagreement, with some scholars suggesting 80 percent are led by far-right clerics and others disputing that.

Embracing the dialogue

Amonette, who is married with eight children, is conservative in practice. He dresses modestly, prays five times a day and refrains from alcohol and pork.

But he also advocates engagement in the modern world through interfaith dialogue, which staunchly conservative Muslim clerics would shun.

He helped resurrect a dormant dialogue with the Jewish community in which Muslim leaders and rabbis meet over breakfast. He took part in a politics forum Wednesday with a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic, a Buddhist and a Protestant minister.

Given his background, Amonette is in demand as a spokesman for his faith on terrorism.

His answer usually goes something like this:

The Islamic concept of jihad is similar to Christianity's just- war theory, which allows war if conditions are met. In Islam it is allowable to defend yourself against armed aggressors. But Islamic law strictly forbids killing innocent civilians.

"Terrorism is about symbolic targets," he said.

"It's sending a political message. The World Trade Center sounds in Arabic like 'center for globalization.' I think they took it literally, and globalism may be a threat. But in Islamic law, even if you have a good purpose or goal, you have to follow the rules."

"A fresh understanding"

Because of an imam shortage, Amonette leads Friday prayer in Colorado Springs and Boulder. Jagjit Singh, a convert himself and president of the board of directors at the Islamic Center of Boulder, said Amonette brings a different perspective.

"When you get a convert, you get a person who is reaching for the truth, to the fundamentals of the religion, a fresh understanding," Singh said. "You get someone from a certain background or a certain sect, he is going to come with baggage."

On a recent Friday, more than 100 men filled the Boulder center's cramped worship space to absorb Amonette's lesson on fasting, a pillar of Ramadan.

He spoke of how Christians and Jews practice fasting.

He explained that depriving the body of food is about more than cleansing the body of poisons; it's about clarifying the mind for contemplation.

When he finished, it was time to pray. Ammar Amonette, the builder, turned toward Mecca.

"Pray as if it is your final prayer in this world," he said.

The men, standing shoulder to shoulder, bowed their heads to the carpet and prostrated themselves in a show of humility before God, following the lead of the American imam.