Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Imam Bashing

An interesting article caught my eye today, covered by the Daily Mail and The Times (behind a paywall) regarding comments made by Ahtsham Ali, an advisor to the Prison Service.

The article contend that Imams, poorly trained, out of touch and incompetent are causing young Muslim men to turn to crime.

I have great respect of Ahtsham Ali, both in his role as advisor to the Prison Service and his work with the Islamic Society of Britain. I do however consider his comments ill-judged.

To be an Imam in Britain today is perhaps one of the most challenging careers an individual can embark upon.

Consider first that the role of the Imam has changed dramatically in recent years. In countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Imam's duties are to lead the prayers, deliver the sermon, teach basic Arabic and perform a small number of rituals.

In Britain, for a few reasons, the Imam's responsibilities are larger and greater than ever before. From the religious perspective, they are expected to fulfill roles usually occupied by professionals in other spheres. Thus the Imam must now be aalim (scholar), mufti (judge) and da'ee (preacher) all at once. They must provide pastoral support to their congregation, not only perform marriage and divorce cermonies but offer counselling and therapy. If only it ended there - as the Imam must also be a youth worker. Engaging with the young, able to understand and provide guidance on the issues they face.

And if this wasn't enough, increasingly the Imam must now also be the external representative of the Muslim community. They must meet with other religious leaders (both Muslim and from other traditions), attend public meetings and local council consultations.

And if this didn't seem daunting enough, there is the burden of admin work. Ensuring the day to day running of the mosque continues. Opening and closing the mosque, enusring parking doesn't get out of control, managing accounts and expenditure.

When interviewing an Imam for one of my Masters degree assignments, the Imam shared how he often found jobs for unemployed members of his congregation and helped them apply for it. A second Imam told me how he would walk the streets near his mosque on bonfire night to ensure none of the local Muslim children set off any fireworks.

Challenging job by any standards. Add to this the fact that most Imams get paid less than the cashiers at Tesco, and yes, you have a serious challenge on your hands.

This is why I am never happy to see what can only be described as 'Imam bashing'. Sometimes it is a careless comment in a conversation, other times, such as now, it is on a national newspaper.

Imams and the institutions that educate them are responding to the new challenges of religious leadership in Britain.

British Dar al-Ulooms (Houses of Learning) are establishing relationships with higher education bodies to ensure a holistic and accredited educational experience, turning them into fully fledged theological colleges.

Initatives such as the Cambridge Muslim College, brainchild of Timothy Winters (aka Abdul Hakim Murad) offers Imams a Masters degree in what can be described as Islamic contextual theology.

The Dars i Nizaami (perhaps one of the most widely-used syllabi for Imams) is being updated with modules on counselling, youth work and pastoral care.

Also, projects run by the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Council of Wales deliver leadership, management and organisational skills to Imams to assist them in their duties.

I do not ignore the fact there are Imams out their unfit for their positions, sometimes with absolutely zero Islamic education. Yet are these prevalent enough to qualify blanket statements on our Imams?

I am humbled by the tireless efforts of many Imams in Britain who dedicate themselves to a career which is challenging, poorly paid and often attracts scorn and criticism. We are blessed that they commit themselves to their duty not for public gratitude but for the pleasure of God.

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