American Imam

Marc Manley, Self-Portrait

Marc Manley is an American writer and educator, currently serving as the Muslim Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Islam at times can seem, to the outside observer, to be a peculiar religion in that there is no formally established hierarchy or pecking order. There is no priesthood, no monasticism (though there are traditions of asceticism). A Muslim’s “confession” of sin is directed solely to God without an intermediary, so to speak, as is the role of the priest in Catholic traditions. In this context, what is the role of an imam? How does it differ from other religious traditions? And how is it seen specifically in the American Muslim context? That is, what is it that an imam does? What are his duties and are they restricted to the mosque? Can the imam play a social role, from personal counseling to advocating for social consciousness and justice? To begin, let us take a short view at its lexical meaning as well as how the word is mentioned in the Qur’an as well as in the Prophetic Statements, hadith.

To begin, Ibn Mundhir, one of the great scholars of language, provides for us some lexical gleans into the meaning of imam. An imam is one who stands in front of others leading prayer and other religious functions and serves as an example. The imamate is Sunnah, or the Prophetic Way. Ibn Mundhir also alludes to the social aspect of the imamate:

The imam is the string which stretches out in aid to the broader construct.

The role of the imam in the American context may differ from its role in so-called historically Muslim countries. For one, Muslims living in America (despite Islamophobic claims to the contrary) are a very small minority. And due to this minority status, the role and more importantly, qualifications to be imam, will and should be tailored to fit this reality. To be frank, the role of imam in America should be predominantly occupied by indigenous American Muslims. This may seem to go against the egalitarian spirit of Islam though I believe it is in keeping with that very same spirit. If one visits Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or any other “Muslim” country for example, one will not find large numbers of foreign-born imams leading congregations or communities. I say this not due to some inflated sense of nationalism but rather I consider it to be inappropriate for a leader to be disconnected from the reality of the rank and file. God says in the Qur’an,

And We have not sent any messenger except in the tongue of his people so that he may make the message clear for them.[Qur’an: 14: 4]

There is a real disconnect going on within the American Muslim community in this regard. Far too many imams who hail from overseas are unable to communicate in English, the new lingua franca of Muslims in America (and increasingly on a global scale). And while Arabic will always retain a primacy as a canonical and religious language, it is still incumbent upon any American imam to successfully communicate with his flock.

Beyond the language barrier there is also a cultural barrier where the intricacies and stakes of the American imamate are more complex and higher. If we take Ibn Mundhir’s definition above– the string which binds the ummah or community together— and put this definition to the test, we will see an even greater need for indigenous imams.

To carry out one’s role as an imam or Muslim leader in the American Muslim community without regard and indeed deference to local custom is, to paraphrase al-Tusuli (a noted Muslim jurist), a dereliction of duty. The role of imam is both shepherd and facilitator. In the latter role, the imam must strive to make life as easy as allowable for Muslims by distinguishing between what Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah calls “subservient imitation” (tashabbuh) and casual resemblance to one’s cultural surroundings (mushabahah). I mention this because increasingly it has become trendy for some imams to produce or follow rulings that are based solely on textual considerations (such considerations themelves are often based on little more than the fact that they are manufactured overseas, in a more “authentic” environment), considerations that deem resemblance to non-Muslims in any manner, and reprehensible imitation (tashabbuh).

One such example was the prohibition on the followers of the Friday Prayer (Jumu’ah) who pray outside of the prayer room or prayer hall (musallah) due to cramped conditions. Under this understanding, such practitioners’ prayers were considered null and void by the imam. This understanding is based on a minority ruling from Saudi Arabia in which a noted jurist made such a claim. Imams who hold to this position seem to have not fully considered the circumstances of Muslims here in America: Muslims, living as a minority, have to make great strides to simply fulfill this basic tenet of the religion (it is obligatory on adult males to attend Friday Prayers). What benefit is obtained by denying the validity of the prayers of Muslims who are forced to pray outside of the prayer hall due to constraints beyond their own control? Such rulings demonstrate a lack of vision in upholding one of the basic principles of Islamic Law: maximize benefits and reduce detriments.

This brings me to my last point: the relationship between imam and the trust that the community puts in him. My role as an imam has come about mainly through that authority being conferred upon me by my community. While I have spent many years studying the texts and sources of the religion, I have not assumed this role by simply appointing myself imam: it is a mutual trust between my community and myself. The choice to appoint me as the Muslim Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania came through a multi-year process by which I demonstrated not only requisite knowledge of Islam, but also my commitment to the Muslim community via relevant services.

The future of Islam in America will depend partly (and an important part nonetheless!) on the quality of leadership that emerges from this community. A quality of leadership that is not solely based on textual understanding, but rather on its ability to put the text into context; leadership that is level headed and tolerant (though this should not be conflated as “liberal”) and above all has a genuine love for both the Muslim community and for the broader American community, as this is the prescribed way that God sets forth in the Qur’an for relationships between those of faith and those not of faith:

And to the people of Midian we sent their brother, Shoaib. He said, ‘O my people!, worship God as there is no other deity besides God. A Clear Sign has come to you from your Lord. Give full measure and full weight, do not diminish people’s goods, and do not cause corruption in the land after it has been put right. That is better for you if you are believers. [Qur’an: 7: 85]

What do you think of Imam Manley’s characterization of an imam’s role in an American Muslim context? Do you agree that it’s very important for imams to have been born in America and understand the American cultural experience? Have you run into challenges with foreign-born imams in the U.S, and if so, what were some of the difficulties you experienced? Please share your thoughts below. 

5 thoughts on “American Imam

  1. Very nice commentary on the role of the Imam.
    We have to train the Imams in the Middle east, that is where Islam was establised.
    The local people (in the middle east)already know what is wrong and right since childhood.

    A good Imam is good when he can speak good english (in USA).
    And should know Islamic traditions and Hadith.

  2. Before, when I saw things like “imam’s should be indigenous Americans, ” I was offended at this concept that somehow American imams were better than those form abroad. However, after having witnessed the struggle of American Muslim communities with imams who are not from this culture, I must now accept this as completely valid. That is not to say that there will never be any foreign imams who will be able to be imams in the US Masjids, they will simply have to have lived in the West long enough to understand the different realities Muslims face. If you look at the US’s familiar Ulema, you will notice that they are either indigenous Americans, or 2nd generation Muslims.

  3. Thank you very much for a thoughtful contribution to what I think is a pressing problem. Muslim Americans growing up and living in the States often feel like Muslim religious scholars/authorities/leaders seldom understand or serve their needs. It is neither positive nor productive to think and behave as if we do not belong to this society. I have been to too many khutbas where the message essentially was “you don’t really belong in this country, you are just here to study and make money for your families, but if you try to integrate or assimilate you will lose your Islam and become corrupted by *them*.” This may have worked for a first generation of Muslim immigrants who felt marginalized and alienated. But it does not work for us – We are American. There are many questions and issues that friends of mine would like to discuss with a qualified religious authority, and generally they do not dare or bother to approach the subject with resident imams, because they feel before even starting that their context will not be understood. These are questions that matter a lot to them as they form their identities – questions about taboo subjects like love, sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. If they are given a message that is so damning and negative, about bida and hellfire every time, they will end in despair and give up completely, thinking they cannot reconcile who they are with their deen. And that is reprehensible. We do not need imams trained in the Middle East. We do not need Arabocentrism, or other people speaking on our behalf. What we need is the right to be able to speak for ourselves, as Muslims. I’m glad you’re the chaplain, not me, because you can treat this subject more gently than I can. ws

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  5. Thank you very much Marc for a very thoughtful and objective view on distinguishing the role of Imam in the US and the necessity for Imams to know about the culture they are living in as a way to guide the people rightly.

    You are a gifted writer who is able to convey a message in a very powerful way to the average person.

    Blessings to you.