Religion & Beliefs

Wanted: Young Hip Imam

There’s a fascinating article in the NY Times today about the need for American Imams who really understand what it’s like to be a Muslim American, and are willing to help with more practical issues, instead of just preaching piety … Read More

By / June 1, 2007
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There’s a fascinating article in the NY Times today about the need for American Imams who really understand what it’s like to be a Muslim American, and are willing to help with more practical issues, instead of just preaching piety all day. Here’s a little excerpt:

Prayer leaders, or imams, in the United States have long arrived from overseas, forced to negotiate a foreign culture along with their congregation. Older immigrants usually overlook the fact that it is an uneasy fit, particularly since imported sheiks rarely speak English. They welcome a flavor of home.

But as the first generation of American-born Muslims begins graduating from college in significant numbers, with a swelling tide behind them, some congregations are beginning to seek native imams who can talk about religious and social issues that seem relevant to young people, like dating and drugs. On an even more practical level, they want an imam who can advise them on day-to-day American matters like how to set up a 401(k) plan to funnel the charitable donations known as zakat, which Islam mandates.

“The problem is that you have a young generation whose own experience has nothing to do with where its parents came from,” said Hatem Bazian, a lecturer in the Near Eastern studies department at the University of California, Berkeley, who surveys Muslim communities.

But the underlying quandary is that American imams are hard to find, though there are a few nascent training programs. These days, many of the men leading prayers across the United States on any given Friday are volunteers, doctors or engineers who know a bit more about the Koran than everyone else. Scholars point out that one of the great strengths of Islam, particularly the Sunni version, is that there is no official hierarchy.

But this situation is fueling a debate about just how thoroughly an imam has to be schooled in Islamic jurisprudence and other religious matters before running a mosque.

In Sunni Islam, at least, Imams don’t need to be certified or anything. The Imam is often just the most knowledgeable guy around (knowledgeable in terms of Sharia law), and though some of them are guys with credentials, not all of them are. The concept is similar to that of the Jewish mara d’atra, or halachic authority, which can be somebody who got smicha, but can also just be someone who’s spent a lot of time with his or her gemara, and is trusted by the community. I’m pleased to say that I think contemporary Judaism is doing way better than Islam in terms of keeping clergy relevant and up to date. Most Orthodox synagogues these days are more than happy to offer workshops and programming on everything from how parents should deal with MySpace and Facebook, to suggestions for families dealing with disabilities, to help with addictions. But I’m way ready for the day when Islam is competing with Judaism for who can be the most relevant. We need as much contemporary cultural grace as we can get our hands on, and it certainly seems like it’ll be a good thing for Islam, too. Here’s my idea: All members of clergy in America need to be issued a copy of The Pop Culture Encyclopedia and Everything Bad Is Good for You. Then they need to spend a month in a middle school before they can write another sermon. Who’s with me?