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Imam Abdullah Hakim Quick was identified by the Islamic State as an enemy because he preaches against violence and extremism.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Imam Abdullah Hakim Quick was at a banquet, surrounded by mayors, police chiefs and dignitaries, celebrating 26 years of the Canadian Council of Imams when he learned Islamic State was calling for his murder.

It had been a day of positivity, a celebration that bridged the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims in a world dominated by hostility toward Islam. Then a council member came to deliver the news that Mr. Quick was one of two Canadian imams identified by Islamic State (IS or ISIS) in the April issue of the militant group's magazine, Dabiq. The religious leaders were described as "valid … obligatory targets," considered enemies by the terrorist organization because they preach against violence and extremism.

"It's almost like the devil; pure evil screaming at you to stop this," Mr. Quick recalls of his near visceral reaction.

So why him? A North American who has had no direct confrontation with IS, Mr. Quick believes the threat has less to do with his world view (he has publicly denounced extremists, along with other members of the council) and more to do with his loyal following.

"They could have named other people in the council, but I have the international presence," Mr. Quick says. "I have the biggest international presence of any imam probably in the whole country. You hit me, you're hitting all of the people connected to me."

Mr. Quick isn't just any imam. The 66-year-old is followed on social media by thousands of young Muslims. He has close to 2,300 Twitter followers, more than 800,000 likes on Facebook, 12,000 fans on Instagram. He received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his contribution to Canada.

He is adored by his followers for his positive teachings about Islam.

But Mr. Quick has also earned a dedicated following of critics, who argue that along with his messages of peace, the imam spreads homophobic and anti-Semitic beliefs. There have been regular calls to cancel his speeches at public institutions.

None of this has stopped Mr. Quick, whose life has largely been defined by duality: Christian and Muslim, rich and poor, respected and ridiculed. He has always straddled two worlds.

Born a Christian, he converted to Islam as a young man. He calls himself a North American in the original sense, with roots in the United States, the Caribbean and among First Nations. His grandmother on his father's side was Mohawk.

He was born in Cambridge, Mass., and raised in 1960s Boston. He still has the accent; dropping his R's is one of the few signs of where he started.

Mr. Quick grew up in an inner-city housing project surrounded by privileged Ivy League students. His mother was religious, and his father – an ex-military man – was skeptical. They went regularly to the Episcopalian church and Mr. Quick prayed to God every night.

When he was 11, Mr. Quick was singled out academically and started taking advanced studies in school, with access to tutors from MIT and Harvard. He became an honour-roll student and star athlete. It was his first glimpse at another kind of life, one he hadn't seen before as a racialized youth, one where he was valued for his intelligence and told he had potential.

It was the 1960s, a time when it was cool to be dissatisfied with the way things were in the United States. People were questioning everything from war to government institutions to religion. It wasn't unusual to experiment with different lifestyles, and Mr. Quick became increasingly skeptical of the church. He was already a vegetarian who became exposed to experimental culture while studying at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

He eventually got the feeling it was time to leave it all behind.

At 22, Mr. Quick immigrated to Canada and began counselling youth in Toronto at a place near Vaughan Road and St. Clair called the Coffee Shop. He soon got married and started a large family of nine children, who are now adults.

He was on a search, looking for a different way of life. He had already begun to question religion by the time he met the owners of a spice store in Toronto's Davenport and Dupont area. They were Muslims from Pakistan, and upon realizing that he was curious about their religion, they offered to take him to an Islamic centre in the city.

As he became more immersed in readings, Mr. Quick decided that Islam held the answers to a way of life he had been searching for. It gave him a framework on how to connect spirituality to his daily life in a way he felt that Christianity could not.

That's when he made the decision to become a Muslim, a decision his family wholeheartedly supported.

Today, Mr. Quick has become something of a celebrity in the Western Islamic world. He holds a PhD in West African history from the University of Toronto, has held positions at several universities and lectured to thousands about his two passions: history and Islam.

"He's a role model in every respect," says Imam Abdul Hai Patel, interfaith director at the Canadian Council of Imams, who has known Mr. Quick since 1972. "His is always a message of tolerance and building the community."

But there is another side to Mr. Quick's social-media presence.

In a video uploaded to YouTube by the organization Islam on Demand called The Crisis of Homosexuality, Mr. Quick denounces homosexuality, arguing that same-sex marriage, alternative sex education in schools and gay pride is having a "severe psychological and sociological effect" on young Muslim people. In another, he advises Muslim youth during a question-and-answer session that homosexuality is a sin, and that although harming homosexuals is wrong, Muslims have a right to express their religious beliefs and should not feel pressure to accept homosexuality.

In 2010 Mr. Quick faced criticism after giving a lecture on purifying an Islamic shrine from the "filth of Christians and Jews."

Mr. Quick attempted to explain his comments, writing in a blog post that he "was asking God to heal the spiritual corruption that afflicts some members of religious groups which in turn leads to injustice against innocent people."

Junaid Jahangir, an assistant professor of economics at MacEwan University in Edmonton, took Mr. Quick to task in a Huffington Post column: "In his defence, [Mr. Quick] writes that he has been 'respectful of the rights' of individuals. Yet, in his video, he clearly states how a 'brother' referred to a barbecue setting with some gay men as a 'filthy disgusting thing' in a 'respectful way.' How does one refer to other community members as 'weird looking' and 'filthy' in a 'respectful way?'"

In 2011, several Jewish organizations, including Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies and Hillel of Greater Toronto, asked the University of Toronto to cancel an 18-week seminar series led by Mr. Quick because of anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks he had made publicly at lectures. The event went ahead as planned.

In Britain, students at King's College London called for an appearance of his to be cancelled in 2010, the same year an organization called Sweden's Young Muslims cancelled Mr. Quick's participation in an annual conference.

Mr. Quick has called the allegations a complete misinterpretation, saying they are not recent comments and that he is being attacked by people who are recycling and manipulating comments he made a long time ago because of a racial vendetta.

Used to being under attack, Mr. Quick has taken the Islamic State threat in stride. (He says he's taken some safety measures, which he declines to disclose.)

"I come from the inner city, so I've lived with danger before in my life," he said. "I'm not going to be intimidated. I'm going to continue to do what I have to do. You ultimately have to trust in God."

When Imam Yusuf Badat, vice-chair of the Canadian Council of Imams, heard about the threat, he assured Mr. Quick, "We are with you." As a younger imam, Mr. Badat says he looks up to Mr. Quick, whom he calls a man of wisdom and knowledge.

"When you have a convert and a scholar who knows the true message of Islam and is speaking out against violence and ISIS and the ideology they are claiming, ISIS might find them threatening," he said.

Mr. Quick's social-media habits also haven't changed in recent weeks. It's a forum he's come to value after an uneasy start, one that felt a bit like "stripping in public." He sees social media as a way to cross barriers of culture, race and even religion – not a way to make money or get publicity, but to try to add value to society.

He took his sermons – dealing with social issues in a positive Islamic framework – and started putting them online. He says he wanted to show something positive about Islamic culture instead of the predominant negativity.

Mr. Quick says that it was the opportunity to experience two worlds – Islam and Christianity, privilege and poverty, Canada and America – that led him to devote his life to spreading positivity through the messages of Islam. The reality of what could have been does not escape him, with many friends from his youth falling into patterns of addiction and jail time.

He tells a story about a friend's travels to the Middle East. He stayed in a Western-style hotel complete with a Bible in the bedside table. However, this one was written in Arabic.

When he opened it up, it began just the same: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But in Arabic, the word Christians use for God is Allah.

"People try to say your God is not our God," Mr. Quick said. "But for the Christian Arabs who want to express Jehovah or the Creator – it's the same word."

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said students at King's College in London England and Sweden's Young Muslims referred to Abdullah Hakim Quick as a hate preacher. This version has been corrected.

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