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Islamic Center of Irvine dismisses popular leader with little explanation

Board says only that Sadullah Khan was removed for inappropriate conduct. Before taking the Irvine post, Khan was dismissed by his mosque in Los Angeles.

November 10, 2009|Raja Abdulrahim

Before the sermon Oct. 9 at the Islamic Center of Irvine, a member of the board got up and informed the congregation that the beloved and charismatic religious director, Sadullah Khan, had been dismissed, citing inappropriate conduct.

No further explanation was given.

Many in the congregation were stunned; some demanded more information. One called out, "We deserve to know the reason why," according to Khalid Abdurrahman, a college student who attends Friday prayers at the mosque.

Afterward, congregants swarmed members of the mosque's board in the parking lot, trying to learn more. Some expressed concern that the decision to remove Khan was made hastily.

The board "tried to assuage the crowd . . . by saying, 'We as entrusted members did our due diligence and, based on our investigation, felt this action was needed. And if we gave you the specifics, trust us, you would feel worse than you do now,' " said a longtime mosque member who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Khan could not be reached for comment.

Since the mosque's announcement, more questions have arisen about Khan's abrupt departure. Some congregants are also asking why Khan was hired in 2002 just a few months after he was fired from the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Omar Siddiqui, the Irvine mosque's attorney, confirmed that Khan was dismissed Oct. 4 amid an investigation by his law firm. He would not reveal details, saying only that the investigation was ongoing.

He and the mosque's board also declined to answer questions about why Khan was dismissed.

"They're just trying to deal with it very, very carefully. They just felt that right now it was a little too early to say anything," Siddiqui said. "I think the hurt is still fresh."

The mosque has not had any contact with Khan since his dismissal, Siddiqui said. Some in the community speculated that the popular leader had returned to his native South Africa.

In the May 2006 issue of InFocus News, an Anaheim-based Muslim publication, a profile of Khan began: "Shaikh Sadullah Khan is a treasure that every community across Southern California wants a part of."

"There were a lot of people who loved Sadullah Khan," said Siddiqui.

Khan was born and raised in apartheid South Africa. He was the director at a mosque in Cape Town, South Africa, before he moved to Los Angeles in 1998 to join the Islamic Center of Southern California, where he served as outreach and interfaith liaison. He has also been an unpaid advisor at USC in the Office of Religious Life and an occasional guest lecturer at UCLA.

In both of Khan's dismissals, mosque administrators have taken positions of silence, in part reflecting strict rules within Islam regarding gossip, speaking ill of others and making accusations without proof.

Islamic law "emphasizes that everybody is innocent until proven guilty and no one should spread rumors," said Muzammil Siddiqi, who chairs the Fiqh Council of North America, an Islamic jurisprudence organization.

But Siddiqi said administrators can inform other mosques of employee firings and what allegations were made, as long as they also disclose whether they have proof.

"They should not add anything, they should not hide anything," said Siddiqi, who is also the religious director at the Islamic Society of Orange County.

Since Khan's recent dismissal, more congregants have learned about his earlier firing from the Islamic Center of Southern California.

In February 2001, Khan was arrested on suspicion of sexual battery, a misdemeanor, based on allegations made by a young member of the congregation. But he was never charged, said Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the L.A. city attorney's office.

Mateljan said he could not discuss details of the case but that there were many reasons why his office might choose not to charge a person in such an instance, including lack of evidence or reticence on the part of the victim. People familiar with the matter said the alleged victim's family did not want to proceed with the case.

Months later Khan was fired from the Los Angeles mosque, which cited "irreconcilable differences," said a man who in 2001 was one of the mosque's leaders and who did not want to be identified by name. He called his mosque's action "protective."

He said the allegations were not made public because of a confidentiality agreement and because there was no proof. "We had some doubts," he said. "Nobody believed he could do anything wrong. Even [the purported victim's] family had doubts."

In early 2002, the L.A. mosque's leader was surprised to hear that Khan had been hired in Irvine. He said he had tried to warn a friend who was involved with the Irvine mosque.

"I told him this guy might not be the best choice," he said, adding that he received no call from the Irvine mosque about a background check. "If they called, we would have told them, 'Beware,' " he said.

It wasn't until this year, he says, that he got a call from people at the Irvine mosque who were conducting their own investigation of Khan. He said they asked if he had any information that could aid them in making their decision regarding Khan. He told them he could not disclose details of Khan's dismissal from the Los Angeles mosque. But he said that when he was told that the Irvine mosque leaders had proof of wrongdoing, he urged them to fire Khan.

"We have as leaders a great responsibility toward our youth, especially our female youth," the mosque leader said. "It should be a lesson for Islamic centers across America: Do your vetting."

The Irvine mosque has already put together a list of potential new religious directors. Siddiqui, the mosque's attorney, would not comment on how Khan's dismissal would affect the hiring process.

"The new process of finding a new religious director is to find a good fit," he said.

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raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

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