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Columbia Muslims remain without a leader

Living in the U.S., Muslims have a hard time finding adequate imams
Friday, December 7, 2007 | 1:00 p.m. CST; updated 2:58 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Muslims in Columbia have been without an imam since July, but the likelihood of finding a replacement before next spring is slim, said Ahmed Habib, chairman of the Islamic Center of Central Missouri.

In Arabic “imam” means leader. After losing its former imam, Nabeel Mohammed Khan, to a teaching position in Chicago, finding a leader that fits the center’s needs is going to be a challenge, Habib said.

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“There are not enough Muslims being educated for these positions in America,” said Meraj Mohammed. Mohammed is secretary of the Shura, or “board of trustees” in Arabic, which will pick the new imam.

It is hard to come by trained imams because there’s only one imam training center in America, the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Harvard Seminary. Otherwise, a Muslim has to go abroad to be educated, said Louay Safi, executive director of the Islamic Leadership Development Center in Indianapolis. These two factors keep the number of educated imams in America low.

“In the last 20 years, we have built mosques and schools, and I think the next step would be to build seminaries,” Safi said.

Imams in America also face challenges specific to American life and culture.

In the last 20 to 25 years, the first wave of Muslims came to America, Habib said. But over the last 10 to 15 years, he said, a new generation of Muslims has been born in the U.S. Now, two generations who are a part of the same religion come from different cultural backgrounds, creating new challenges for an imam.

Since 1983, the Muslim community in Columbia has grown from 23 families to more than 300, with another 75 families living in nearby areas. The population between the ages of 12 and 20 is maturing now, Habib said, and it is vital that a new imam engage them to keep the community strong.

“It can be hard growing up in America as a Muslim,” Habib said. “It’s important to keep our religion alive. They, the youth, are the flag bearers of the future.”

Hend El-Buri, who was born in Columbia, said her 13-year-old sister would benefit from the presence of an imam. Moreover, an imam would also encourage more Muslims to come to the mosque and get involved, El-Buri said.

An imam who was born or at least cultured in America is important for Naseem Khan, who has been a member of Columbia’s Muslim community for nine years.

“We need an imam who can relate to the community in general and understand the people,” Khan said.

The former imam, Mohammed Khan, had been born in America and accustomed to its culture. According to Habib, he also had a rich knowledge of Islam. The Muslim community in Columbia is educated, Habib said. Many have master’s degrees, and some are studying for their doctorates. It’s also important for an imam in Columbia to be bilingual, said Khan, who, like many center members, doesn’t know Arabic. That makes it difficult to communicate with an imam who only knows Arabic.

“The role of an imam helps the community interact,” Mohammed said. “I come from India. We are influenced by the traditions of where we grew up, but having come here, we adapt to this environment as appropriate.”

When a candidate applies for an imam position, a member from the Shura, usually Habib, conducts a phone interview. He might then be invited to the mosque to meet the community and give the Friday sermon. The Imam Search Committee, representing different age and gender groups within the community, will ultimately recommend a half dozen or so candidates to the Shura. The process is meant to include the entire community, to increase the chances of finding an imam that fits everybody’s needs.

“This isn’t ‘my imam’ or ‘your imam,’” Habib said.


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