Imam Vehbi Ismail
Born in Shkoder, Albania on November 25, 1919 to Haji Ismail Alkovaj, the Grand Mufti of the Muslim faith in Albania, Imam Ismail started his studies in theology at The Islamic Seminary in Albania’s capital, Tirana. In 1937, Imam Ismail left his native Albania to study Islam at the world famous Al-Azhar University in Alexandria, Egypt, founded in 989AD. Imam Ismail received the highest honors achievable at Al-Azhar. It was at Al-Azhar that he started his prolific writing about Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and interpreting the meaning of the Quran as well as the translating of hundreds of books from Albanian, Turkish, Persian and French to Arabic.
In 1945, Imam Ismail was advised by his father not to return to Albania, as the Communists had taken control of all mosques and abolished religion of any kind throughout the country. The new Communist regime of Albania seized all holdings of religious groups, including the holdings of the Grand Mufti and his family. Imam Ismail’s family then spent the last years of their lives in concentration camps, never to see Imam Ismail again.
During his stay in Egypt, Imam Ismail established himself as an expert on the Quran and Islam. He became a close personal friend of then King Farouk of Egypt. Farouk and Imam Ismail spent many religious holidays together discussing the meaning of the Quran and the future of Egypt.
In 1949, Imam Ismail was summoned to the United States by the Albanian Muslims who had fled Europe. He became the head of the Albanian Muslims in North America, a position he held for over fifty years. During this time, Imam Ismail used his relationships with governing officials in the Middle East and the Balkans to guide the United States in aiding those fighting for the elimination of Communism in the region. He became close friends former Governor G, Mennen Williams and other government officials who wanted to understand the workings of countries in turmoil in the Middle East.
In 1957, Imam Ismail was asked to leave Detroit to become one of the religious leaders of the Islamic Center of Washington, DC. He graciously declined the offer, and instead stood by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower as he gave his speech at the opening ceremonies.
In 1962, Imam Ismail published “Muhammad, The Last Prophet”. The book, initially published in English, was translated into eight other languages. It is still used in high schools around the world as required reading for students studying the Middle East and Islam. By this time, Imam Ismail had become internationally known as one of the most prolific writers on Islam and the Quran of the 20th century, publishing more that 35 books which were translating into over 25 different languages. At his death, he had another book in progress, which was to be published in early 2009.
In 1999, Imam Ismail was called on again to help with the conflicts in Kosovo, through his long time friend, Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova. When Rugova visited the United States, the two met for many hours on the need for democracy in the region. Imam Ismail was honored for these efforts and his other work towards peace, towards establishing the Albanian Muslim communities throughout North America and on being one of America’s longest serving clerics by way of a proclamation given in his honor during an open session of the United States Senate in Washington, DC on November 16, 1999.
Imam Ismail’s biggest joy in the later years of his life was the time he spent with his grandsons Jonathan, Scott and Alex. While hospitalized under critical condition in 1994, when doctors recommended hospice to his family, he flatly told the doctors that is was not his time to die, as he had to live to see the high school graduation of his first grandson, Jonathan. Against the advice of his doctors, in 80 plus degree weather, he got his wish when he saw his grandson, Jonathan, being given his high school graduation diploma from Grosse Pointe North High School by his father, Ahmed, in June 2007.
On May 15, 2008, after a two week hospitalization, doctors advised the Ismail family that no more could medically be done for Imam Ismail. Hospice representatives visited with him and his family on the evening prior to his transport home. When asked services he wanted from hospice, he was very quick to answer the question. First, he said that he had to be helped in learning to use his walker so that he could walk from the house to a car in the driveway. Second, he said, the hospice workers had to help him gain enough strength so that he would be able to sit during the car ride to the homes and hospitals of his fellow Muslims to offer them comfort, praying with them in their times of need.
Imam Ismail came home the next day and cried tears of joy when he found himself surrounded with the gift his son Ahmed and his grandson Alex had told him would be a surprise, the relocation of a portion of his religious library from the mosque to the living room of his Harper Woods home. He died a few hours later, in his favorite chair, reading the Quran.
Imam Ismail’s death was broadcast on European television, and overseas called flooded into the Ismail home. For religious reasons, the funeral services could not be delayed for many overseas visitors to attend. The funeral services were performed at AH Peters Funeral Home in Grosse Pointe Woods, MI by Wisconsin Imam Ilaz Fetai in Albanian and South African Imam Ackmat Salie in English in addition to twelve other Islamic clerics from around the world after over 1,500 mourners from the United States and Europe paid their respects.
Imam Ismail is survived by his wife of 58 years, Betty, daughter Fatima, sons Ahmed (Mary Ann) of Grosse Pointe Woods, MI, and Ali (Judy) of Ft. Lauderdale and three grandsons, Jonathan, Scott and Alex.