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Faith in him

He has no mosque, but Imam Talal Eid has a mission and devoted followers

Imam Talal Eid has a flock but no mosque, and he insists he likes it that way.

"No, I'm happy. Because no more argue, with anyone," said Eid, referring to clashes with the board of the Islamic Center of New England that closed out an otherwise successful 23-year tenure serving mosques in Quincy and Sharon. "I deal with professional people and those who need my help. I don't bother anyone. I do my activities, and this year you're going to see more activities."

Nearly 20 months since delivering his last khutba , or sermon, at the Quincy mosque, the Lebanese-born spiritual leader has reinvented himself as an imam "at-large." From his home in Quincy, Eid runs a one-stop shop of Islamic services that he calls the Islamic Institute of Boston. He performs marriages, officiates funerals, blesses newborns, and counsels quarreling couples and troubled teenagers. Last February, Brandeis hired him as the university's first Muslim chaplain, a role he performs twice per week on top of his twice-weekly duties at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he has been the Muslim chaplain for eight years. He has twice been invited to Ramadan dinners with President Bush at the White House and has been sent overseas by the State Department as the face of Muslim Americans.

"We are really afraid he may leave the community because he has no base," said Khalid Butt of Lynnfield, a former Islamic Center board member. "But I think he recognizes there are enough people who recognize his standards, that he can serve the community even without a mosque. You don't have to have a mosque."

Eid's situation is rare. When he does need a mosque, a loyal core of congregants pitches in to get him one. So when Eid Al-Adha, one of two major Muslim holidays, arrived in the final weekend of December, area businesses such as the East Gas and Convenience Store and Haymarket International Food , along with several "anonymous community members , " donated money to rent a hall at the Tara Sheraton in Braintree. Eid performed two services, drawing at least 300 people between them.

In a way, it was a triumphant day for Eid and a far cry from the humiliation of July 1, 2005, when an Islamic Center board member blocked him from leading Friday prayers at the mosque in Quincy. Six months earlier he had resigned as the Islamic Center's religious director to protest a redistribution of responsibilities between him and another imam, Hafiz Masood.

The board, which some say wished Eid had spent more time at the mosque and less in the field, accepted his resignation. Eid, however, then tried to rescind his resignation. The board refused to reinstate him. Several board members, reached by phone and e-mail, declined to comment. Some referred questions to board member Mohuddin Khan, who also declined to comment and referred questions to Nabeel Khudairi, president of the Islamic Council of New England, an umbrella group that oversees 20-plus mosques.

Khudairi said the conflict amounted to a turf battle. "I suspect the imam was trying to extend his reach across an area that was larger than he could possibly manage successfully," said Khudairi, a frequent volunteer at the Sharon mosque who grew up in the Quincy mosque and at whose 1997 wedding Eid officiated. "When he tried to spread his reach beyond Quincy into Sharon, it seemed like there were concerns with managing both. Consequently, the board tried to delineate his responsibilities more toward Quincy, and Imam Masood's duties more toward Sharon, and avoid a conflict."

Eid said he does not miss the mosque. But he fought to keep his position and sued the board, claiming it did not have the authority to accept his resignation and arguing that the mosque 's membership should decide his fate. His lawsuit was dismissed in Norfolk Superior Court.

After returning from a long stay visiting family in Lebanon, Eid started offering his services again; his prayers celebrating the end of Ramadan at the Four Points Sheraton in Norwood drew a few hundred worshipers.

Eid's backers say he has built such a loyal following because of his commitment to the community as well as his moderate message. They say he was especially good at helping young Muslims appreciate their Islamic identities.

"He was the first imam that really caught my attention and got me thinking about what's really the meaning behind the religion," said Jawad Ahsad, 27, who lives in Cincinnati but was visiting his parents for the Eid Al-Adha holiday and went to the services at the Braintree Sheraton. "He would use plain language. He wasn't preaching. He wasn't telling you you should do this or this or this."

When Jamina Hasan's mother was recovering from a stroke, Eid answered her call to recite the Koran at her mother's bedside. "You could call him night or day," Hasan said, adding she'd heard other stories about Eid rushing off at a moment's notice to comfort a family in need. "You have a marriage, you have a birth, you have a death, you have a sickness, whatever it is, you call imam."

Making a difference
There are two kinds of imams, Eid believes: those who stay in the mosque and study dogma, and those who go out into the community to serve it. And although he no longer has a mosque, Eid said he still has the original appointment from the Muslim World League, a theological and cultural entity in Saudi Arabia that certifies imams, that sent him to Boston in 1982.

Outside of not having his own mosque, Eid said his work today is largely what it was before.

"I'm doing the same work, and never stopped. I continue serving the community. People call me," he said. "I never was an imam for this area or that area. Even when I was in Quincy and Sharon, my work never was limited to the members of Quincy and Sharon -- I was serving the community at large, and I'm still doing it. I don't see any difference."

One change, however, is Eid's new role at Brandeis, where he said there are more than 100 Muslim students. When he began, his first jummah, as the Friday congregational prayers are called, drew only eight people. Now most weeks Eid gets more than 30 people.

"I'm not interested in having a place for 1,000 people, and make the khutba and then go home. I want to make a difference. And I found the best place to make a difference is at Brandeis, with those Muslim students," Eid said. "They need to be attached to their religion. They need to be attached to a person."

For the first time in her life, Nazish Riaz, a first-year student from Pakistan in Brandeis's International MBA program, is being confronted with comments -- from fellow students and in the media -- that claim verses in the Koran order Muslims to kill others. Riaz was disconcerted at her inability to counter the criticisms.

"I was really, really very upset about this issue. Like how can my religion say, 'Go and kill others.' So many people around me were saying that this is what Islam says." Riaz recalled . She went to Eid, who explained to her that the verses being cited were not commands but references to battles and historical events.

"He talks to us like a friend, a father, a guide. And whenever we have any questions, any problems, we just go to him," said Riaz, 24. "He's always very helpful."

In addition to trips to the White House, Eid's reputation has the State Department sending him, along with three other Muslim American leaders, to Berlin, Copenhagen , and The Hague in July to meet with European Muslim leaders there as part of the "Citizens Dialogue" program.

"You need to help Muslims abroad understand that Muslims, despite the difficulties , are having somewhat of a better life than any Muslim minority in the world," Eid said. "You find Muslims in the FBI, in the Army, police, as firefighters. Muslims are everywhere here."

Eid also believes Muslim Americans need to show more appreciation for America and more inclination to reach out to non-Muslim neighbors. "Muslims need to work hard to improve their image, and to also prove their loyalty," Eid said.

As for loyalty to Eid, his congregants still have it. "There're people here in the community who have known imam forever and feel like they want to support imam," said Hasan. "They want him as a part of their life , as a part of their community."

There might even be a mosque involved.

There are no lingering hard feelings between the board and Eid, said Khudairi. "We're hoping that if there's a demand for it, another Islamic center could be opened where he can have his own congregation. Because I'm sure he misses that."