Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Revisiting the Friday Sermon


Friday May 21, 2010

VIEW: Revisiting the Friday sermon –Dr Mahjabeen Islam

The best and the brightest with an interest in Islam should be given scholarships in Islamic universities and then incentivised financially to take up spiritual leadership as a profession

It is important to be solution oriented, I know. ‘The power of the Friday sermon’ (Daily Times, May 14, 2010) took the entire article to detail the golden opportunity that is missed by imams the world over to inhibit the start of disenchantment and the development of extremism. Now we can springboard for solutions.

The situation with mosques in Pakistan is very different from that in North America and it is thus important to customise the solution.

In Pakistan, with the exception perhaps of the very large mosques, most are the foci of prayer alone. Many have attached schools or madrassas. The criteria for leading congregational prayer according to a Hadith (narrated by Abu Masud Al-Ansari and reported by Muslim) are first, knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah, and then seniority.

The mosques in Pakistan remain largely unregulated and the majority is manned by imams who are only capable of leading prayers or have memorised the Quran. It is a micro-minority that has true religious training and a good grasp of the Quran, the Sunnah, Hadith, shariah, fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), ethics, philosophy and economic and social issues.

With a congregation that is a captive audience every Friday, it is vital that governmental regulation monitors the content of the Friday sermon as well as what is taught in the madrassas. Specific guidelines must be formatted and implemented. This is a relatively immediate solution.

What will really change the situation will take a decade, maybe a generation. Pakistani society must pull itself up by its bootstraps and change its view of imams. Throwing around slurs such as “fundos” and “jamaati” and channelling bright and wealthy students to become doctors and engineers and the less advantaged toward becoming imams is, needless to say, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The cycle of economic disadvantage being perpetuated also needs to be broken. The best and the brightest with an interest in Islam should be given scholarships in Islamic universities and then incentivised financially to take up spiritual leadership as a profession. When the poorest and the least educated become imams and are given half an hour or more every Friday to spout off at will, without perspectives or controls, extremism can only grow.

In North America the situation has a different yet equally tragic face. Imams are largely imported from the Muslim world and they may be well schooled in religion but they are oblivious to current day socio-politics. A distraught Arab-American woman went with her husband to a North American imam for desperate counselling: “My husband is gay,” she said and her husband did not deny it. “Sister, do not worry. Put on some nice nightclothes and rent a hotel room and everything will be alright,” was the imam’s reply. They divorced soon thereafter. Not that they would not have anyway, but the content and tenor of the imam’s counselling leaves a lot to be desired, you will agree.

Understanding issues that befuddle the youth is again an area that most North American imams are terrible at. There are questions about homosexuality, dating Muslims, drug abuse, incest, domestic violence and sometimes just adjustment and acceptance. Many an imam in the US has only one answer to these questions: “haram!” If they were dealing with the village idiot that might fly but in our complex society it only serves to alienate and depress an already struggling Muslim youth.

Many North American mosques have imams deliver lectures in the language of the majority community of the mosque. Some are advanced enough that headphones with a live translation into English are provided. How attractive is that ambience to American-born youth?

Heavy accents in English and literal translations from their native tongues are terribly inhibiting. A Pakistani youth may understand the Pakistanised English of the imam but his or her full attention cannot be guaranteed in this situation. Already the sermon is out-of-touch; the accent makes it stratospheric.

In North America mosques and Islamic Centres must decide what the role of the imam shall be. Will he only lead the prayers or will he be the spiritual leader of the Centre as well? And it is not just in Toledo Ohio where imams get contentious with the Boards and Councils of Islamic Centres and make ludicrous statements like “it is humanly not possible to lead all five prayers in the mosque”. This is happening all over, and frequently if not always the imam lives either connected to the mosque or a stone’s throw away. And this is not peculiar to one particular nationality — an Arab here and a South Asian in San Jose where my very Americanised uncle opens the mosque for the dawn prayer, gives the azaan and many a time leads the prayer of two to three people, while the imam snores in his home one storey above!

A job description of imams should again be preferably templated in a central authority and then distributed for use across the continent. Imams, like the rest of us, bring a great deal of mental baggage with them from their countries of origin. And a lot of it is related to women. Gender roles, especially as detailed in Islam, should not just be understood, they must be applied to the North American context.

Policy regarding the treatment of women in a mosque is shaped by the imam. If the Salafi brand of Islam is followed, Muslim women are gowned, gloved and shoved into hallways to pray, or cloistered in cluttered rooms with closed circuit television to pray among wailing babies and rambunctious toddlers. All the while the men pray in a hushed environ.

Imams are supposed to be role models for the congregation. A squeaky clean personal life, unsoiled by clandestine marital alliances, violation of employment contracts, working all the hours that they are paid for and not arrogating sinless priesthood upon themselves or ownership of the mosque would be good first steps toward the role-model persona. Their Friday sermons must be read, preapproved by the Boards of the mosques and placed on the mosque website for further education of the congregation.

And the most important change will happen only when American-born youth choose to become imams, educated in institutions here. Muslim parents must facilitate this, rather than pushing their disinterested progeny into the default profession: medicine.

In Pakistan as well as in North America, Muslims must focus on the roles, character, qualifications and politics of the men that have millions captive to their sermon on Fridays the world over. The change though initially slow would eventually be exponential. And you will agree it is about time.

Mahjabeen Islam is a columnist, family physician and addictionist with a practice in Toledo Ohio. She can be reached at mahjabeen.islam@gmail.com