Islamic teachers in

Saturday, June 28, 2003

From wire and staff reports

While there is no professional imam to lead prayers at the Islamic Center in Cape Girardeau, the Muslim community still finds ways to worship together and study the Quran.

Because the group in Southeast Missouri is very small -- only about 10 people were at the mosque Friday -- prayer leaders take turns. Often the leader on a given Friday is waiting for others to arrive at the mosque. Back home, an imam wouldn't wait for anyone to arrive -- he'd always have people gathered for prayers, said Mohammad Abukhudeir, who was raised in Jerusalem.

But in America things are different. Abukhudeir, who has been living in the United States for 35 years, has seen how the role of Islamic religious leaders is changing.

In the religious melting pot of the United States, the role of Muslim prayer leader has transformed into something that would seem unfamiliar to people in predominantly Muslim countries.

Imams in those nations generally have few other responsibilities than leading prayers on Friday, the Muslim Sabbath.

But in America, they do much more. Like ministers and rabbis, imams manage their houses of worship, teach, provide counseling and perform marriages and other rituals.

According to the rules of Islam, the person who is the most knowledgeable or who has memorized passages of the Quran or who is faithful in attending the mosque steps forward to become an imam.

In Cape Girardeau, where the Muslim community is small, the role often falls to the person who is able to arrive at the mosque first. And the pressures of business and outside commitments also add to the change in prayer leaders. While most of the region's activity halts for a few hours on Sundays when area Protestants gather for worship, Muslims must still run businesses, see patients and travel on Friday.

Learning together

Malik Shafiq led prayers Friday afternoon. He said it wasn't because he is the most knowledgeable, but that everyone is learning together. All the teachings of an imam must be supported by a Hadith, which is a teaching of the religion's founder, or the words of the Quran.

Muslim leaders say the position of imams here has evolved to the point that they are becoming an institutionalized clergy -- a remarkable shift since Islam has no ordained clergy and is led instead by religious scholars, traditionally a group that is distinct from imams.

"You are at a crossroads," Muslim political scientist Muqtedar Khan told U.S. imams, meeting this month in Alexandria, Va. Imams need to decide "whether you're going to end up becoming office managers at the masjid (mosque) or becoming leaders of your community."

Imad Benjelloun, an imam for mosques in the Quad Cities area of Illinois and Iowa, said Muslims often ask him for guidance on issues that counselors and others would provide in his native Morocco.

His advice has been sought on everything from reconciling with an estranged spouse to whether Muslims can work in stores that sell alcohol, which they are forbidden to drink under Islamic dietary laws.

Along with imams' new duties have come new freedoms that have boosted their position in local Islamic communities. In many Muslim nations, a government ministry tells imams what they must say in their speeches at Friday prayers. In the United States, the imams decide the topics themselves, setting priorities for their congregation.

"In predominantly non-Muslim countries, you have to have special skills," Benjelloun said.

Imams also have been shaped by contact with other religions.

Muslims, who have no ultimate religious authority like a pope, have had to find leaders to work with national organizations that represent U.S. Catholics and Protestants, said Souheil Ghannouchi, a former imam and president of the Muslim American Society, in Alexandria, Va.

"The National Council of Churches, the National Council of Bishops -- these people are looking for counterparts in the Muslim community to deal with," Ghannouchi said.

But their education hasn't always kept up with imams' growing responsibilities, raising concerns about how they will influence the American Muslim community.

While there are some training programs for Muslim chaplains in the United States, and even Internet courses, no internationally respected U.S. school has been established to educate them about Islam.

Some have studied at top universities overseas, like Cairo's prestigious Al-Azhar University, while others have received little formal training.

Often, the less educated provide poor guidance on religious matters, based on their own cultural traditions instead of a true understanding of their faith, said Sheik Muhammad Al-Hanooti of the Fiqh Council of North America, a supreme court that interprets Muslim religious law.

But if any Muslim believes that the imam has made a mistake in his teaching of the Quran or Hadith, then he is eligible to stand up to correct him, Abukhudeir said.

"It is the right thing to do," he said.

Muslim split

Well-trained prayer leaders have become so critical to Muslim communities that mosques often compete with each other to hire the top imams, trying to lure them away with more money and better benefits, Musri said.

But without consistent training and national certification standards, Muslim leaders fear these imams, with their expanding authority, will split the American Muslim community into small groups with their own practices, like Christians and their many denominations.

Said Musri: "We don't want the Muslims to end up with 700 determinations of Islam."

Features editor Laura Johnston contributed to this report.

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