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Longtime leader of Tampa Bay area Muslims dies of cancer

Imam Mohammad Sultan Abu Hasaan, leader of the Tampa Bay Islamic Society, was known for building bridges to the non-Muslim community. [Courtesy of Islamic Society of Tampa Bay]
Imam Mohammad Sultan Abu Hasaan, leader of the Tampa Bay Islamic Society, was known for building bridges to the non-Muslim community. [Courtesy of Islamic Society of Tampa Bay]
Published Aug. 11, 2016

TAMPA — A crowd of hundreds converged on the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area mosque on Wednesday to honor a quiet man who preferred to let his actions speak for him.

Imam Mohammad Sultan Abu Hasaan, an Islamic leader in the Tampa Bay region for nearly three decades, was known for building bridges to the non-Muslim community.

Imam Sultan died of cancer Tuesday night. He was 62. He leaves behind a wife, Zainab Sultan, and four children.

"My father spoke very little. He let his actions speak,'' said his oldest son, Hassan Sultan. "He was with the poor, the rich, the white and the black. … He wanted unity and closeness and serving God more than anything else.''

As the spiritual leader of Tampa Bay Muslims, Imam Sultan expanded the mosque of 3,700 families in east Tampa to include a community center that had a free medical clinic for people of all faiths. He helped establish a food pantry, thrift store, day care center and sports programs, said Mahmoud Elkasaby, spokesman for the Islamic Society.

"He was the frontline soldier for serving the community at large," Elkasaby said. "I'm not talking just the Muslim community, I'm talking about the Tampa community."

Imam Sultan was a constant, peaceful, patient presence, said family friend Hassan Shibly, chief executive director for the Council on Islamic Relations, Florida. He always sat in the same seat at the front of the mosque, receiving a long line of admirers and old friends before and after prayers. A prolific reader, the imam wore thick glasses that magnified dark, kind eyes, Shibly said.

"He had the eyes of a man who's experienced the world, who's seen so much," he said. "He wasn't somebody distracted, always looking around. His eyes were always deep in thought and concern for the community around him."

The imam kept candy in his office drawer for children and welcomed newcomers into the faith, community members said.

Born in Jerusalem, Sultan pursued Islamic studies in Syria and Jordan, according to Tampa Bay Times archives. He came to the United States nearly 40 years ago and got a bachelor's degree. In the mid 1980s, he joined the mosque and married.

Imam Sultan saw the mosque's membership swell as the local Muslim population grew. Sometimes, his role meant entering the spotlight to denounce violence when Islamic extremism made headlines. The imam stressed that extremist actions should not put millions of peaceful people on trial for their beliefs.

"God wants us to have faith in him," Imam Sultan said at an interfaith service at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg, remembering 9/11 victims. "He wants us to work together to establish good."

In 2002, Imam Sultan and another Muslim leader were invited to an interfaith dialogue at a St. Petersburg synagogue. They performed their evening prayers facing its holy ark.

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By 2005, about 1,500 families worshiped at the golden-domed mosque on Sligh Avenue. Imam Sultan hosted open houses and traveled to other churches, an ambassador for his faith.

"It's a constant challenge," he said in 2006. "One channel, one radio station, in an hour can destroy what you do for a whole year."

On Wednesday, people packed in for the funeral prayer. Hassan Sultan spoke of his father's desire for unity at a time when a volatile political climate threatens to ostracize Muslims more than ever.

Founding mosque member Ajmal Khan said the imam's message of humility spread far.

"His desire was for us to go out in the community so they could understand us and we could understand them," he said.

Imam Sultan cared so deeply about others that he didn't take care of himself, Elkasaby said. He often worked 14 hours a day, wearing himself down trying to help others.

"He wasn't just loving his job," Elkasaby said. "He was living his job."

He devoted himself in the same way to his faith, said his son, Aziz Sultan.

"He memorized a large portion of the Koran," Aziz said. "But the biggest part about him was he actually lived it.''

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Waveney Ann Moore and Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report.


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