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American Born Imams

Searching for Spiritual Leadership

Contributors: Mike Ghouse, Linda “iLham” Barto,

Initiated by : Mr. Shamim Siddiqi

Mr. Shamim Siddiqi, initiated five questions after reading the piece in New York Times, which also appeared in International Herald Tribute, the links are listed below.

The questions were critical and the responses will be carried out at and selected excerpts will be added on to the responses below. To become a member, please send an email to :

What opinion our Muslim scholars have about this growing need of Muslims in America?

Should it be side-tracked, ignored or attended seriously?

Can Islam be interpreted in terms of American social and cultural needs?

How they will interpret the story narrated by the story below?

Should this trend be left to the vagaries of Indigenous Imams or an enlightened response must come from Muslim Scholars?

1. What opinion our Muslim scholars have about this growing need of Muslims in America?

Mike :: Most of the 'immigrant' imams cannot relate with the youth born and raised in America, Canada or any other place. They come from different cultures, we can relate with them if we are also immigrants. Recently In a wedding ceremony, one of the Imams was saying to the bride that she has to obey her husband...and... which is fine, but the way he said, sounded like a slave trade and one way transaction. My niece and her friends were horrified with some of that dialogue. There was a Muslim boy who wanted to marry a Christian girl, the Imam gave him very little room; convert her or forget it, the kids went out and got married instead. There is a thing called no compulsion in the matters of faith, and as Muslims, we really need to understand that in its entirety. Some of the Imams lose respect from the youth, their reading of Islam is one thing and the essence of Islam is other. We need to develop homegrown Imams, to reflect our modified culture. Each member of the family drives a car, where as most people outside the US don't, men and women wear different clothing in public and work environs, and we are eating modified food as well. We need to discern our culture from our faith.

Linda “iLham” Barto: “I agree that American imams need to have an awareness of and appreciation for the American way of life as far as its good qualities go, but we must always remember that of foremost importance is that imams have an awareness of and appreciation for the Straight Way of life. Knowing a language and being able to write and speak sensibly in that language, understanding and accommodating cultural traditions without voicing critical negativity, and ministering and witnessing to the diversity of people without harsh value judgments are all factors of being on the Straight Way. Stubbornness and hardheadedness are not, and some imams are just too arrogant to try to be more effective as imams in America.”

2. Should it be side-tracked, ignored or attended seriously?

Mike :: It has to be attended seriously, before our culture and our religion is made fun of by the peers of our kids. We have to speak up. We need Imams who are trained to respect other people, and not the Imams who have never sat with people from other faiths or cultures. The word Aalim should be re-evaluated and not accorded to every one. An Aalim should have the Ilm of the Aalam, and not just his pond. A true Aalim should be able to explain a child or a youth about science, world, other cultures and faiths... and not become a parrot who responds with an yes or no, and keep the community drowned in Halal or Haraam discussions. Respect is earned through Ilm, the knowledge one continues to acquire and develop. A child should be allowed and encouraged to ask any question, we have to have strong faith in our own religion and talk with confidence and not shy away from questions. We have to invite all questions and address them all in the schooling environment.

Linda “iLham” Barto: “Patience, understanding, and accommodation cannot be neglected. Muslims can never help heal the world when we cannot even heal ourselves from the problems of Islam’s dark ages. Many Muslims live in denial of these dark ages and place the blame on outside influences. Talking is a first step, but we can evaluate till doomsday and never get anywhere until we are all committed to proper change.”

3. Can Islam be interpreted in terms of American social and cultural needs?

Mike :: American social and cultural needs are born out of interactions with people and not pulled out of thin air. Gradually most of those cultural wants and needs will become part of us. We and our kids cannot live a secluded life, raising our own veggies and cattle and living on a ranch. We have to live among others and we have to make that a beautiful experience for us, and those around us, as the Prophet (pbuh) did. Please remember, when people converted to Islam during Prophets time, they were not asked to change their names, their clothing's or their life style. The change was only in how they believed in the creator, and accepted responsibility for their actions and creating a just society. They were asked to give up Alcohol as it affects one's behavior and give up eating pork for their own health. No compulsion was followed in Islam on the premise that one cannot be compelled to believe against his or her will. Islam is about freedom and free will for the general good of mankind, and we find much of the American culture immersed in the very same values; freedom and justice.

Linda “iLham” Barto: “As I have often pointed out, we need small, community mosques. I call them mosquettes –satellite centers sponsored and supported by large mosques until the mosquettes can become independent. A mosquette would reflect the culture, traditions, and lifestyles (within reason) of the given community. Whether a person is a city slicker or a redneck, he or she should feel comfortable visiting his or her neighborhood mosquette.

If a person comes improperly dressed or ignorant of Islamic tradition, he or she should be accommodated rather than shunned. Visitors unacquainted with Islamic traditions should be provided a printed program that explains the service. The program should be in English with transliterated Arabic so that the visitor can follow along. Each mosquette should have annual open-house days with specially designed programs that enlighten visitors about Muslims and our religious heritage, beliefs, and traditions. Gradually, with social interaction and grace, the mosquettes would become as familiar as the churches. As long as the mosques and Islamic centers seem foreign to the average American however, the Islamic movement will travel at a slow speed and attract only the few who, like me, were a little weird to begin with.”

4. How they will interpret the following story narrated by American Muslim News Bulletin as appended below?

Mike: Let me quote back some of those eloquent sentences "My main objective is to make Islam relevant", "The problem is that you have a young generation whose own experience has nothing to do with where its parents came from", "on any given Friday are volunteers, doctors or engineers who know a bit more about the Koran than everyone else". Indeed, any one can lead the Salat/ Namaz, the sermons ought to address the community and its needs, and generally they do, many Imams do deliver the sermons that people can relate with, however there are story tellers also, whom our kids cannot relate with.

It is time for the Management of the Masajids to develop an agenda for the whole calendar year and develop a theme - for the year. What should each one of the 52 Sermons achieve? The average Muslim should walk out of the Masjid with a practical but small to do list to work the plan.

It is our country and our nation and we have to do everything in our ability to contribute to make America (or your nation ) a successful nation measured in terms of peace, sense of security, liberty and justice for all. It will happen with our volunteerism and what we would do to make other people's lives (without discrimination -us or them) better. When we serve God’s creation without bias, Insha Allah, we would have earned his mercy and grace as Qur’aan puts it in 49:13 "......The noblest of you, in sight of Allah, is the best in conduct.” Allah Knows and is Aware."

Linda “iLham” Barto: “I appreciated the article ‘A Growing Demand for the Rare American Imam’ (which is retained at the end of these discussions). When I, in an article, wrote about Islamic virtues that can be found in Valentine’s Day (as in the article below), I was verbally beheaded, but things do change in Allah’s good time. We have an excellent example of an American imam in Warith Deen Muhammed except that he, either intentionally or inadvertently, is too linked to Black Nationalism. Perhaps we need a white Warith Deen Muhammed or a Muslim Billy Graham. Race shouldn’t matter, but the sad fact is that it does. I suggest that a group of white and purple imams study under W. D. Muhammed and get his success story so they can apply factors of it in trying to achieve their own successes, which in turn would become the success of us all.”

5. Should this trend be left to the vagaries of Indigenous Imams or an enlightened response must come from Muslim Scholars?

Mike: We are a diverse community, and no single source of knowledge will completely satisfy us, we have to develop this democratically, equal voice for every one whether a scholar or not. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has conveyed this idea through Salat (Ritual prayers), no matter who you are, you stand shoulder to shoulder with other humans on an equal footing. The problem comes when some one shuts others down, we have to fiercely guard this value. Shutting others comes from insecurities and inabilities to address the issues squarely.

We have several great speakers on different subjects, let's harness their knowledge to impart to our community. Let the Masjids deliver knowledge that is beneficial to living in harmony with life and matter that surrounds us.

Linda “iLham” Barto: “Listen to the people –the hillbillies and the nerds, the debutants and the teenie-boppers, the farmers and the city slickers. With information and research material at the fingertips of anyone who has access to the electronic age, people are able to be more informed, enlightened, and stimulated than ever before. We don’t have to have doctors’ degrees to have something valuable to say. Was Abraham a scholar? Did Jesus ever get a research grant? Did Muhammed ever write a thesis? (Peace and blessings upon them!) Glory to Allah, even a hillbilly like me can say something intelligent once in a while.”



Neil MacFarquhar, New York Times, 6/1/07

Sheik Yassir Fazaga regularly uses a standard American calendar to provide inspiration for his weekly Friday sermon.

Around Valentine’s Day this year, he talked about how the Koran endorses romantic love within certain ethical parameters. (As opposed to say, clerics in Saudi Arabia, who denounce the banned saint’s day as a Satanic ritual.)

On World AIDS Day, he criticized Muslims for making moral judgments about the disease rather than helping the afflicted, and on International Women’s Day he focused on domestic abuse.

“My main objective is to make Islam relevant,” said Sheik Fazaga, 34, who went to high school in Orange County, which includes Mission Viejo, and brings a certain American flair to his role as imam in the mosque here.

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




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