The new imam of the largest mosque in New England is a young cleric from New Jersey who dabbled in the corporate world before throwing himself into a life of religious study and leadership.
In Shaykh Yasir F. Fahmy, who was born and raised in Clifton, N.J., leaders of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center said they found someone who would help Muslims in the city balance religious commitment and American cultural belonging.
“He has the ability and potential to really articulate the vision of Islam in America in a way that authentically engages the tradition, yet at the same time meaningfully engages the cultural realities of life in Boston and America,” said Yusufi Vali, the executive director of the mosque, which is in Roxbury.
Leaders expressed hope that Fahmy will prove an effective representative of the faith to the broader community at a time when Muslims are trying to build relationships and dissociate themselves from the terrorist acts of isolated extremists and fringe groups.
Fahmy, 32, succeeds Imam William Suhaib Webb, a renowned Islamic scholar who left in December for a job in Northern Virginia.
“He is an excellent choice and they are extremely lucky to have him,” Webb said in an e-mail.
Like Webb, Fahmy studied at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world’s premier institution of Sunni Islamic learning, and over seven years earned a degree in Islamic studies and a variety of religious certifications there. In 2013, Fahmy became the first American to teach at the Al-Azhar mosque, according to a biography provided by the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.
But his path to Al-Azhar was not a straight one.
Fahmy studied Arabic and Islamic sciences in high school. At 17, he spent a year at the Islamic University in Amman, Jordan, and then returned to the United States to pursue his undergraduate degree at Rutgers University.
But after three years working in corporate finance, Fahmy changed course.
“He probably felt a spiritual gap and realized, ‘My place is not here but really serving the community in a different capacity,’ ” said Salim Patel, a longtime friend. “He did something very brave . . . which is basically give up a career and say, ‘I’m going to pursue religious studies.’ ”
Fahmy returned from Cairo to the mosque of his childhood, the Islamic Center of Passaic County, about two years ago to serve as a scholar-in-residence. He taught classes and preached the Friday midday sermon in English.
Omar Awad, the center’s president and chief executive officer, said that the Passaic mosque is one of the largest in New Jersey, and that the Muslim community in the area is the second-largest in the nation outside of Detroit.
Fahmy forged a strong connection with young professionals of the generation between the one that immigrated in the 1970s and the American-born millennials, Awad said, leading to an exponential increase in attendance on Fridays.
“That middle generation,” Awad said. “He was very, very successful in attracting them and really talking to them in the language they understand and the culture they belonged to.”
Replacing him, Awad said, “will be very hard.”
Those who attended a community forum at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center last month to weigh the merits of the four finalists to be imam praised Fahmy for his knowledge and his charisma.
The community wanted someone who was “accessible, knowledgeable, well-educated, somebody they could really look up to — and he seemed to fit that bill really well,” said Stephanie Marzouk, who chaired the search committee. “Also, he was born and raised in the US — that was important to us, that he was really tuned into American culture.”
His experience as a congregational leader was brief, she said, but it seemed solid.
“He’s a very warm and engaging personality,” she said. “We felt like he had enough experience to jump right in.”
In Boston, Fahmy will confront the challenge of being a prominent Muslim religious leader at a time when the word Muslim is constantly linked in the news with terrorism.
The Boston Marathon bombing case is on appeal, and this summer Boston law enforcement officers have made arrests in two plots by alleged Islamic State supporters.
Imam Mohammad Qatanani, Fahmy’s senior at the Islamic Center of Passaic County, said Fahmy understands the challenges of the role and the importance of relationships outside the mosque.
“I challenge every imam with one thing — that he has to build bridges with the interfaith community, with law enforcement, with the leaders of other communities,” said Qatanani, who has for years fought a deportation case based on allegations that he hid alleged ties to Hamas — charges he denies. “I want the imam to be not only imam for Muslims, but I want him also to be the imam for non-Muslims as well — to reach to others to work together as leaders for America.”
When Fahmy came to preach a sermon in Boston in May, the Rev. Burns Stanfield, president of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, happened to be visiting the mosque as well.
Stanfield said Fahmy spoke, among other things, about the importance of working with the interfaith community.
“The ISBCC is an important place nationally,” he said. “That community understands their role and the leadership they can demonstrate.”
Fahmy will join the community with his wife and young son Sept. 1, the cultural center said.