Columbia mosque finds new imam

Friday, February 29, 2008 | 4:24 p.m. CST; updated 1:17 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — After a seven-month search, the Islamic Center of Central Missouri has settled on a new imam: Ronald Smith Jr.

The search for an imam was a community decision. After a phone interview and a visit by Smith to Columbia, a committee of 10 to 12 members of the Islamic Center chose Smith by a majority vote. The committee based its decision on Smith’s formal training and knowledge of the Quran and Hadith, the teachings of the prophet Muhammad.

During the search, the committee said an ideal candidate had to have leadership qualities that would allow him to connect with the community, especially the younger generation. For example, the imam must be able to lead weekly adult and youth sessions as well as community outreach programs, according to the duties provided by the Islamic Center of Central Missouri.

In Islam, the imam is a leader chosen by the congregation and community leaders to lead Salat prayers, which are the five daily prayers. In addition, the imam provides religious, social and welfare counseling. He can also be a pivotal figure in helping find solutions to problems of diversity and language.

“The imam settles the national differences and language barriers,” Smith said.

A New Jersey native, Smith converted to Islam at age 14 as a way to avoid the violence of the African-American community in Atlantic City. He later spent six years in Saudi Arabia, where he studied at the Islamic University of Madinah and became fluent in Arabic.

His fluency in two languages is one of the qualities that makes him the Islamic Center’s top choice for imam.

The role of the imam has shifted recently, said Marcia K. Hermansen, a professor of Islamic and religious studies in the theology department at Loyola University in Chicago. Although imams are not necessary in order to lead religious services, Islamic centers now search for imams who take on more of a pastoral role, so they can help younger generations navigate their religious background through American culture.

Diversity within these Muslim communities, particularly with the influx of immigration in the United States, has created cultural, lingual and generational issues.

In their book “Why Islam is Like Spanish: Cultural Incorporation in Europe and the United States,” authors Aristide R. Zolberg and Long Litt Woon said that immigration and subsequent diverse populations result in language barriers, which are the biggest source of conflict.

Smith said earlier this month that speaking both Arabic and English heightens the ability of the imam to resolve problems and unite members under the proverbial umbrella of religion.

“I don’t see how leaders communicate without being able to speak Arabic and English,” he said. “The imam listens and brings people together.”

However, the issue of unity under a single religion is not without struggles, especially in these diverse Muslim communities of the United States.

As Ahmed Habib, president of the Shura Council, or board of directors for the Islamic Center, said, “Problems in the United States are very unique.”

One of those problems has been finding enough candidates who are qualified to lead the mosque. There are few religious schools dedicated to teaching and training imams in the United States, yet American candidates are preferred over candidates who live overseas. Most imams, having been educated overseas, are more fluent in Arabic than English, even though congregations now primarily speak in English.

Hermansen said that the Muslim community in America is new and still developing, much like the Jewish community in the 1920s. New generations of Muslims are more comfortable with English and cultural issues in America; as a result, Islamic centers are making the effort to train imams in an American institution, like the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary, which is currently the only training center.

The majority of American-born imams are still trained abroad, like Smith was. The training abroad, however, ensures that an imam will have knowledge of both American and Islamic culture, and he will learn to speak English and Arabic, he said. Smith said this is a skill that increases an imam’s ability to interpret Islamic texts and research religious issues.

Smith said he believes Arabic better expresses the teachings of the Quran in ways that English cannot. While he acknowledges that English is more convenient when speaking with those outside of the mosque, Arabic is the main source of communication.

“Arabic is more expressive ... spoken and written Arabic gives you abilities to do things you can’t in English.”

Smith was attracted to the peacefulness Columbia has to offer. “It’s a nice place, safe and quiet,” Smith said. “I like it.”

He and his wife and their five children will be relocating in the coming days.

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