Muhammad Shamsi Ali
Muhammad Shamsi Ali*
By Eirini Vourloumis
“I discovered a sense of peace through reading and reciting the Koran, this is when I decided to commit my life to sharing my knowledge of Islam with others,” Ali said.
In the village of Kajang in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, Utteng Ali was notorious for being the leader of a boy’s gang that caused havoc in the community. At the age of eight, he orchestrated fights against boys from other villages.
Unable to control his son’s recklessness, Ali Kadue, a landowner who made a modest living for his seven-member family sent Ali to Makassar, the capital of Sulawesi to attend the Islamic boarding school, Darul Arqam.
This boy grew up to become Imam Muhammad Shamsi Ali, a key religious leader in New York City’s 800,000-strong Muslim community.
“In the beginning the school felt like a jail to me,” said Shamsi Ali, referring to his early days in the Islamic boarding school.
Ali pacified his rebellious spirit through intensive Islamic study. Inclined towards recitation due to his strong singing voice, Ali began to practice reading daily prayers as an Imam at local mosques in Makassar.
After completing his high school degree Ali left Indonesia for Islamabad, Pakistan where he completed an undergraduate and master’s degree in Islamic studies at the International Islamic University. He also served as Imam at King Faisel Mosque, the largest in the country. In 1994 he was appointed to teach at the Islamic Foundation in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Towards the end of 1996 Ali was invited by Nugroho Wisnumurti, the Indonesian Ambassador to the United Nations, to work with the Permanent Mission of Indonesia to the United Nations and serve as an Imam to the Indonesian Community Mosque in Long Island City, Queens.
In New York, Indonesian Muslims form the smallest Muslim group with approximately 2,000 members. The mosque was opened in 1996 to accommodate the city’s growing Indonesian Muslim population. Through funding from the Indonesian Mission to the UN, Bank of Indonesia and the Indonesian consulate of New York the community purchased a chemical warehouse for $350,000 on the 31st Street and 48th Avenue in Astoria, Queens. Now a two-story cream-colored building with a large green minaret, the building serves as a community center for Indonesians. Activities include a Saturday school for children aged five to 16, weekly gatherings, Ramadan activities and monthly congregations for all members of the community.
“I came to New York to represent an Indonesian Muslim community that was growing,” Ali said.
Ninety percent of Indonesians are Muslim, making Indonesia the nation with the largest percentage of Muslims in the world. Politically Islam in Indonesia is integrally part of a rich multi-cultural mix. The very symbol of Indonesia, the golden Garuda eagle reflects this. The national motto is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, unity in diversity. The founding principles of Indonesia, the Pancasila include the belief in God, just and civilized humanity, the unity of Indonesia, guided democracy and social justice for the Indonesian people. But beyond the first principal (the belief in God) religious tolerance is seen as the cornerstone of relations between different faiths. Moderation is therefore built into the country’s constitutional framework.
Ali’s ideologies are founded on this moderate structure and his work is dedicated to implementing this in American Muslim society. A short and lean man, Ali’s dark brown skin, round face and almond shaped eyes have contributed to his success as an imam in America.
“I am Indonesian, I do not fit the stereotype as a Muslim here in America, where most people think that all Muslims are Arabs or Pakistani,” he said. “This has helped me cross all cultural boundaries in this country. Also due to my ability to speak Arabic, Urdu and English it was easy for me to interact with all the communities.”
In 1999 Ali became chairman of the Muslim Day Parade. The parade is held every September on Madison Avenue in New York City, and celebrates the cultural diverse of the Islamic communities of New York. Through this position Ali was able to begin to work closely with leaders of the Arabic, African American and Pakistani communities. Developing ties with these leaders gave Ali the opportunity to create an influential voice for himself and the Indonesian community.
On September 23rd, 2001, Ali was one of the three Imams who recited a prayer at the memorial service for the September 11th victims at Yankee stadium in the Bronx. This public exposure cemented Ali’s role as an Islamic leader.
“September 11th, contributed a lot to my popularity among Muslims and non-Muslims alike,” Ali said.
Muslims communities were under severe scrutiny at this time and due to Ali’s moderate outlook and growing power he was appointed deputy imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, the largest mosque in New York, and was made the Director of the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, the largest in the area, which serves primarily the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities.
“There are big opportunities for him here,” said Omar Abu Namus, Sheikh of the Islamic Center. “ He is always willing to help others.”
In 2001, Ali began teaching a class at the Islamic Center for non-Muslims. In his lectures he discusses the basic principles of Islam and encourages an open dialogue between non- Muslims and Muslims.
“I create a neutral space where people can interact with each other and further their knowledge,” Ali said. I believe that educating people about Islam is the only way forward.”
Since 9/11 the number of people converting in the Islamic Center has increased from an average of 60 to 100 each year. Sheikh Namus believes that Ali’s classes have encouraged people to convert because of his intensive knowledge and his moderate outlook.
“He is effective, because the way he explains things is neutral. He is very, very moderate. Some say too much so.”
Ali admits that members of the Islamic communities have criticized him for his moderate views.
“I face many challenges, but all those for me are a part of things that motivate me to do more. There is a notion that Islamic leadership in the city should be in the hands of either Arab or Pakistani, or African American. For me this is not the basis of a leader, but knowledge, integrity, acceptance and ability.”
During prayer at the Indonesian Community mosque women and men are separated by a sliding door. Ali opposes this and allows the doors to be opened. Resident imam, Lahmudin Youdi believes in a more regimented ideology and disapproves of Ali’s actions.
“We don’t like it when the doors are closed,” said Mimi Loeis, a board member of the mosque. Imam Shamsi Ali argues that as long as we can concentrate on our prayer than it’s ok. Even in Mecca we don’t use that divider. I does not have any basis in the holy Qur’an or in the practices of the prophet”
Daisy Khan, the executive director of Asma Society of Islamic Culture and the Arts has worked closely with Ali. Khan mentors young Muslim women who face challenges of assimilation and agrees that Ali’s forward thinking is imperative to creating a different impression of how Muslim women are controlled and treated within Islamic culture.
“He respects our opinions, is truly open to listening to our views as Muslim women,” Khan said. He treats us as equals.”
At lectures at schools and mosques Ali encourages young Muslims to be successful and to aim to play important roles in the future of America.
“Some say that I am a materialist and that my teachings have negative effects on young Muslims,” said Ali. “Because I urge the youth to be great, some people think I am promoting consumerism. These people have a radical outlook.”
In September 2006 following the arrests of terrorist in London linked to the attempts to attack the airports, the Daily News wanted to interview Ali on his views on radicalism. He declined but offered to write his own article on the issue. In his article, Root out the Radicals; Ali pinpointed a radical Internet based group called the Islamic Thinkers Society. The Pakistani group, which has not identified themselves, but Ali believes has no more than 20 members, has accused him of being a weak Muslim leader who promotes too much freedom.
“He wants to make the Muslim Community head towards the American Dream, while the true Muslims want Islam,” states the website.
Ali argues that this group does not have the Islamic knowledge to support their arguments and that their cause is fueled by anger.
“They do not come to me to talk because they know they do not have capability to defend their radical views and that they have no ground to stand on. They know I have certain influence on people, and that people listen to me,” he said.
Ali concluded his article by listing ways in which Muslim leaders can prevent radicalism from growing.
“Since many of the most disaffected youth are not related to any mosque or center, parents must talk to their children directly,” Ali wrote in the article. “We must promote our own moderate and balanced youth activities as constructive alternatives.”
Ali’s fight against radicalism has led him to become a clergy liaison for the New York Police Department. Since 9/11, the police have been working closely with Muslim leaders to strengthen ties between the two groups. Ali conducts seminars called sensitivity sessions, which brief police officers on correct conduct when visiting mosques and Muslim homes. Every four months Ali visits police academies to lecture on Islamic customs and basic ideologies.
“Ali is respected in the department for his efforts to link us with the Muslim community and for his hard work to help educate our officers,” said Nasser Almontasser, a Muslim officer.
Working with the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, Ali has started an interfaith program focusing on organizing lectures at religious centers around New York.
“It is nice to see the imam and rabbi shake hands, because we do this to find peace within us,” said Pastor Ebony Kirkland of Church of Living God, in Jamaica, Queens.
“He has taught us that education is the only way forward.” Ali works consistently seven days a week for his cause to build bridges between the Islamic community, police officials, religious leaders and educators in New York City. His ultimate goal is to encourage members of his community to be as equally involved to strengthen a moderate Islamic foundation in America today.
“I never thought that I would be in the States one day playing such an important role for Islam, Ali said. Everything has happened as natural, and I believe God works behind all this.”
• Originally published by Columbia Journalism Depart.
Imam Shamsi Ali’s short bio: Shamsi Ali is a well-known community leader and activist in New York and beyond. He currently leads the Jamaica Muslim Center and is the Chairman of Masjid Al-Hikmah in Astoria, Queens. In 2001, Imam Ali became an Associate Imam at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York till today. Imam Ali also has been the Chairman of the Muslim Day Parade since 1998. He is a founding member and Board member of the Imams Council of New York, an American Muslim Council Board member and an Advisory Board member of the Tanenbaum Center.
Prior to his arrival in New York 1996, he taught in Saudi Arabia at the Islamic Education Foundation. In 1996, he arrived in the United States to begin his professional work with the Permanent Mission of Indonesia to the UN.
After the September 11th tragedy, Shamsi Ali has been in the front line to bridge Muslim communities and American society. He represented his community in the national event, Pray for America, along with other national leaders, including former President and Mrs. Clinton, Governor Pataki, Mayor Giuliani. Shamsi Ali also represented the Muslim community in an interfaith discussion on Religions and Sustainable Development at the White House in 2006.
Imam Ali had an opportunity to meet with variety of leaders, such as Former President G.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Pataki, Michel Bloomberg, as well President Bambang Yudhoyono of RI and former Presidents Prof. B.J Habibie and K.H. Abdurrahman.
He is well known among the interfaith community and has lectured in churches and synagogues, as well as the NYPD, schools and other locations. He has participated in the International Conference of Imams and Rabbis for Peace and recently took part in the Transatlantic Dialogue in Frankfurt, Germany. He has appeared on many national news programs, including CNN, CBS, Fox News, The New York Times and others. He was appointed “Ambassador for Peace” by the International Religious Federation in 2002, and chosen as one of the seven most influential religious leaders in New York City by New York Magazine in 2006.Education: 1. Muhammadiyah Islamic Boarding School (Pesantren): 1986
2. B.A in Tafseer from the International Islamic Univ. Islamabad-Pakistan: 1991
3. MA in Comparative Studies of Religions (International Islamic University) Islamabad-Pakistan: 1994
4. Ph.D in Political Science (Distant Learning) from Southern California Univ.: 2003