IT WAS ON SEPT. 10, A DAY SHY OF THE fourth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, that Imam Mohamed Magid met terrorism's victims face to face. He was presiding at the funeral on Long Island for the daughter and son-in-law of Bangladeshi Americans from his Sterling, Va., mosque. The children, who were at work in the North Tower, perished in the Sept. 11 attack, but not until this past August had medical examiners identified enough of their charred tissue and bone fragments for the parents to hold a funeral. Staring at the two wooden boxes covered with green embroidered cloth and surrounded by grieving family members, the Muslim cleric was gripped by both sadness and rage. "The terrorists who kill in the name of Islam claim they are the martyrs," Magid told TIME later, the anger still roiling him. "But the victims are the martyrs. The terrorists are the murderers, and God will deal with them on Judgment Day."
From his mosque in Virginia, Magid, like many of the some 600 full-time imams across the country, is fighting his own war against radicals trying to hijack his religion. For Magid that has meant not only condemning terrorism but also working closely with the FBI in battling it. He regularly opens doors for agents trying to cultivate contacts in his Muslim community, and he alerts the bureau when suspicious persons approach his congregation. That puts him in a precarious position: How does he maintain credibility as a spiritual adviser while, in effect, he is informing on fellow Muslims? To understand that balancing act, TIME spent two weeks following Magid as he raced from prayer to prayer, meeting to meeting, in the strange new world of American Muslim ministry.
Breaking with tradition hasn't bothered Magid. Born 40 years ago in the northern Sudanese village of Alrakabih along the Nile River, he studied Islam under African Sunni scholars, who included his father. Magid immigrated to the U.S. in 1987, when his ailing father came seeking medical treatment. Unlike many foreign imams, who find America's open society too jolting and withdraw to their mosques, he reveled in the cultural diversity. "I never had a Jewish friend until I came to the U.S.," says the gregarious imam. "And the questioning of all religions here helped me strengthen my own beliefs."
Magid reached out, taking college courses in psychology and family counseling, teaching classes on the Koran at the Islamic Center and Howard University in Washington. One of his African-American students at Howard--Amaarah Decuir, who had recently converted to Islam from Catholicism and was getting a master's degree in education--eventually became his wife and educated him on women's issues. In 1997, Magid became imam of a mosque just west of Washington called ADAMS, an acronym for All Dulles Area Muslim Society. An imam can be a layman sufficiently versed in the Koran to lead daily prayers, but larger, more established mosques hire professional imams, comparable to Christian ministers or Jewish rabbis, who are trained in Islamic seminaries or mentored by scholars.