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WEST VALLEY CITY - Not many medical school graduates with neurology aspirations would put their careers on hold to tend to strangers' spirits rather than their brains.

Imam Farid Farooqi, however, is just that kind of doctor.

Farooqi, 35, arrived in Utah late last month as the newly appointed spiritual leader of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake and the Khadeeja Masjid, or mosque, of West Valley City. Born in Pakistan, the permanent U.S. resident, who's still awaiting citizenship, made the move from Kingman, Ariz., with his wife, three children, and a fourth "on the way," he says with a smile.

He first visited the Beehive State at the end of March as a guest speaker and prayer leader. His intentions were no bigger than a visit, he says. He'd done his medical school studies in the Caribbean's St. Lucia, he says, and his clinical rotations in Kingman. He was planning to apply for residencies later this year, but a short jaunt to Utah changed his course.

"When I saw in this community the desperate need for an imam," he says he decided to "join this community for the sake of God."

There are three mosques in Utah, serving up to 20,000 Muslims, but the one in West Valley City is by far the largest. That religious community was jolted earlier this year when the longtime religious leader, Imam Shuaib-ud Din, was fired amid charges of domestic violence, to which he recently pleaded guilty.

An imam is necessary to lead prayers, oversee life events, spearhead religious education and offer counseling based on Islamic teachings. Farooqi, who served as an imam in Queens, N.Y, from 1997 to 2000, says his role is also to help people - such as new immigrants or the disadvantaged - navigate their way through the system to secure, for example, social welfare and housing.

Growing up in Peshawar, on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, Farooqi says his father stressed the importance of being part of both the religious and modern worlds. So just as he became well-versed in the Quran, Farooqi was steeped in secular academia. He was trained as a veterinarian while in Pakistan.

For the past 10 years, he's professionally gravitated from one world to the other. He went to Phoenix to work in a veterinary emergency clinic. But he soon realized he was more interested in serving people than animals, so he headed off to medical school. Since graduating, and in advance of applying for residencies, he's focused solely on imam duties in Kingman.

Taking chances to do what seems right has been Farooqi's way.

"I have done in my life many times these kinds of steps," he says of the sudden move to Utah.

Farooqi says he's agreed to a one-year term with the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, after which he - and the society - will re-evaluate whether this is a good fit. And though he might have had concerns about Muslim community rifts, fall-out from the previous imam's firing, he says he sees no evidence of this.

"So far, so good," he says, adding that everyone seems "very sincere, very peaceful."