Towards Thinking of the New Imam

IMAM noun, often capitalized \i-ˈmäm, ē-ˈ, -ˈmam\ 1: the prayer leader of a mosque 2: a Muslim leader of the line of Ali held by Shiites to be the divinely appointed, sinless, infallible successors of Muhammad : any of various rulers that claim descent from Muhammad and exercise spiritual and temporal leadership over a Muslim region

This definition provides us with the meaning of imam within three contexts. Within the sunni tradition, imam  means a political successor to Muhammad, a synonym to Caliph. But most of us American Muslims use imam to refer to the Muslim who leads congregational prayers. Any man can lead prayer, but it is often preferred that the person who can recite the Quran correctly. Women can lead other women in prayer, so in this sense any woman can become an imam.   It is also the honorific title we give to someone who leads a community and this is the meaning of imam that I am talking about. I’m primarily concerned with the current state and future of American Muslim leadership. While there may be a rare woman led community, most are run by a Muslim man who has either been hired by a masjid board or self-appointed in a break away community. An imam functions much in the same way as a rabbi or a parish priest, however there are no qualifications set for the training of imams. There are many knowledgeable and skilled imams;there are some who have limited or training. Some communities have imported imams from overseas who may have memorized the Quran and studied Islamic sciences but have very little knowledge of American society. And within the Black American community, a number of imams are charismatic leaders who are able to gather a large following and are effective mobilizers. While each has their merits, both models still fail at serving the needs of the Muslim community. And both tend to alienate large sections of their congregations, particularly women.

Several Muslim thinkers have argued that an imam needs to understand the social context of America. They have argued that some formal school in fields such as sociology would help.  I want to move beyond the intellectual understanding to what’s going on and look at the training that would go not into intellectualizing the American Muslim community, but serving the American Muslim community. So as I think about the future of our community leadership, in an ongoing conversation, I wanted to point out some skills or training that would improve our masjid leadership. The following list are skill sets that an American imam should have:

1. Enough religious training to teach the congregation and  maintain authority as an imam.

An imam does not have to be a member of the ulema, but he should have enough skills to be effective. This means that the imam should be able to properly recite Quran and have a firm foundation in devotional education  to teach his congregation and maintain his authority. This means that he should have spent considerable time dedicated to formal and informal religious study. And this does not entail spending years abroad kicking rocks, but rather some time  gaining ijazat (permissions to teach from qualified scholars) or shahadah (certificates testifying to competency). Or some other religious authorities can ascertain the imam’s mastery of certain subjects such as Usul al-Fiqh (roots of Islamic jurisprudence), Tajweed (Quranic phonetics), etc. Perhaps in the future, we can have an imam certification process and basic tests to ascertain whether an imam can functionally lead others. But, as I said, the imam doesn’t have to be a major scholar. He can defer the most challenging questions to specialists. The imam should also be able to quickly find resources or resourceful people who he can turn to whenever he doesn’t know something.

2. Spiritual Guidance and Counseling/ Marriage Counseling training

A good imam should not only understand religious and spiritual issues, but he should be well equipped to deal with people coming to them to help them solve their personal problems.  But many imams do not understand the emotional or psychological states that affect the religious life of many of their congregants. An imam should be concerned with developing the moral and ethical conduct of his congregation and not just lecturing people or making them feel bad. Muslims need action programs, improvement programs, and if the community is unable to provide it the imam should be able to refer an individual to the proper resources to get the help that he/she needs. Also, imams are often bombarded with marriage and family problems, as marriage is one of our biggest challenges. There are some imams who are excellent at dealing with marriage crises, but most communities fail at addressing marital disputes. In many ways, there needs to be ongoing training in couples counseling to help develop communication skills and increase intimacy and happiness in marital life.

3. Critical Thinking skills

Basically, the imam should have enough formal education so that he not only  reads and writes well, but thinks well too.  He should be able to interpret Islamic texts and practices in ways that are meaningful for the congregation. We suffer from imams who are reactionary or do not have the requisite skills to address the needs of the community. The imam should be able to develop positions based on authoritative texts and clear logic, rather than on emotions or the daleel of shame (i.e. “AstaghfurAllah”).  The imam should also be able to take in various positions and understand the nuance of broader issues that face the community. An  imam should be able to deal with contemporary issues and communicate with the broader population in a way that would be effective.

4. Leadership training

There is more to leadership than being able to captivate an audience. Instead, leadership is a complex set of skills, including but not limited to the list below:

  • Language and ability to inspire
  • Teamwork building
  • Goal Setting and Project management
  • Communication skills (not just speaking but listening)
  • Problem solving and decision making skills
  • Conflict Resolution and Conflict Management
  • Task Delegation
  • Ethics
  • Financial planning
  • Organizational development
  • Group psychology/dynamics
  • Self discipline and awareness of leadership principles

With these four points, we can find possible areas to develop an effective Muslim American leadership. When I was in New Haven in January, I spoke with some brothers and sisters who were interested in developing a Muslim seminary. Right now we have a problem with funding, so a brick and mortar operation may be costly. But there are alternative programs that we can consider that may include summer intensive classes and online and distance study. What we need are people who are experts in their field to contribute to a joint project to develop our leadership with the highest of standards. And we need more institutions of learning that will help raise the overall Islamic literacy of Muslims. So, let us be creative and think of moving towards a new model of Muslim leadership. Our focus should not be on  creating a rock star imams or reproducing drones who have memorized traditional texts, but creating leaders who will guide have the skills to deal with the daily problems we face today and lead us into a productive and blessed future.

3 thoughts on “Towards Thinking of the New Imam

  1. There is a system in the UK which Abdul hakim Murad is involved in where people who have gone to study in the muslim world are taken and taught “practical” skills so that they can be useful to their communities. (

    but such a program is very very hard to pull off, since last year here in Australia we had a “community college” which began teaching theology through a secular uni which specializes in theology degrees and most of the students tend to drop any and all critical thinking skills when they begin thinking about Islam. I think in part it is due to the fact that most muslims, while disagreeing with secularism, have been secularized themselves and they seperate “deeny stuff” and “dunya stuff”.


  2. It’s Kez. Didn’t know you had a blog! These four points will definitely lead to creating a Muslim American leadership community. I was just reading an article the other day about creating more homegrown Imam’s which was similar. It talked about some Imam’s going to a christian seminary school to get lessons on public speaking etc. I thought it was a good idea but we should have our own by now.


  3. Pingback: US & Caliphate – Entangled History and Future Prospects | The Social Spectator

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