Our Imam Problem


By Muneeb Nasir

The Canadian Muslim community continues to agonize over their religious leaders.

In a recent study done by Karim H. Karim for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, he found that Muslims in Canada and other Western countries “seek religious leadership that can guide them as they navigate spiritual and worldly matters in a knowledgeable and insightful manner. They expect their imam to have not only an intellectually sophisticated understanding of Islamic sources but also a keen appreciation of the Western contexts in which they are living.”

 Very recently, the congregation of the main mosque in Ottawa, the Ottawa Muslim Association, has been caught up in a debate around such issues as a result of the choice of a new Imam.

 The Imam, who was brought in from Al Azhar University in Egypt, is being criticized by segments of the community for his communication skills, his lack of experience and familiarity with Canadian social conditions.

The debate has become very public with the articles being written in the local press and even eliciting an editorial in the Ottawa Citizen.

The Ottawa Citizen editorial identifies the crux of the community’s wrangling as due to the lack of religious leaders in Muslim institutions who possess both Islamic knowledge and knowledge of the Canadian context.

“While the discussion is ongoing, it has already accomplished some larger good in revealing the absence of western-trained imams. There is, it seems, too few imams who can bridge the gap between scholarly Islam and western society, at least to the satisfaction of ordinary Muslims living in countries like Canada. Non-Muslims, too, ought to be concerned about the inability of Islamic leaders to connect with — or understand — westerners.”

The expectations being placed on Imams are tremendous and put an unreasonable burden on them as they were not trained to handle a complex society and a diverse community.

Karim Karim’s study found that ‘the expectations that adherents have of their leaders have been transformed by not only the circumstances produced by modernity and migration, but also educational and technological advances and globalization.’

Some of the study’s participants even went as far as criticizing their ‘imams’ lack of intellectual capacity to engage with contemporary issues’ and many were ‘frustrated at the lack of “an intellectual Islam” and the overbearing presence of an uninformed emotionalism spouted from the mimbar (pulpit).‘

These complaints have led to proposals and initiatives for training ‘home grown’ Imams, through colleges and universities, or by establishing Muslim seminaries.

While this type of education and training within Canada is needed, I would propose that, given the urgency of the needs and the complexity of life today, a system of religious leadership be developed for including a wider diversity of people to meet the needs of the mosque, whether in delivering the Friday sermons or in providing religious council to members of the community.

A mosque’s religious leadership should be widened to include ‘lay’ Imams (khateebs) who would complement the traditionally trained Imams in delivering sermons, thereby addressing the current weakness of Imams of being able to bridge the gap between Islamic knowledge and Canadian society.

These volunteer khateebs would be professionals and community activists who should have some fundamental knowledge of the religion.

They would possess some of the ‘arts of the Imam’ such as leading prayers and fulfilling the religious requirements of the sermon, but would also have an understanding of the universal objectives of Islam and its moral principles and ethical values.

These khateebs would be expected to have an appreciation of the Canadian context, be intellectually and culturally competent, practically engaged, and skilled in preparing and delivering sermons on contemporary issues and provide moral and ethical perspectives in fluent and topical English.

To a very limited extent, this arrangement exists in some Centres (by default) where there is a system of rotating khateebs, a number of whom possess the abilities and skills outlined above and which they have acquired through their professions and public service activism.

These steps are not meant to undermine the Imam’s knowledge of textual sources or his role in providing guidance with regards to the immutable aspects of Islam (such as the pillars of faith and acts of worship), but to recognize the needs of the community in a world of growing complexity and to include expertise in social and contemporary issues to meet them.

In order to improve the quality of sermons in a mosque, the input of women and men who are experts in their professions should also be sought in elaborating the topics and even in assisting the Imams and khateebs in researching an issue.

In addition, the expertise within a mosque needs to be tapped into and put to use in providing religious guidance to members.

Imams are used to a ‘fatwa driven’ approach in addressing all issues in a community.

Some participants in Karim Karim’s study were disturbed by this approach where ‘simple, even simplistic, answers are presented to resolve complex questions. Issues are often boiled down to the permitted (halal) and the prohibited (haram) in a binary fashion.’

Many of the issues being presented to Imams require the input and expertise of professionals in other fields, such as social workers, therapists, lawyers, educators etc.

These proposals would require some boldness on the part of the mosque leadership and membership as it requires a cooperative approach to the religious guidance and stewardship of a congregation.

However, failure to act decisively on the Imam issue is leading to the further erosion of the authority of religious leaders and the relevance of Islamic knowledge to deal with contemporary issues that Muslims are facing.

Karim, Karim H. 2009. “Changing Perceptions of Islamic Authority among Muslims in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.” IRPP Choices 15 (2).

The Ottawa Citizen. April 30, 2009. Editorial: “In search of an imam.” Retrieved May 12, 2009.

I would like to express my gratitude to the Muslim Presence Reading Circle for their input and assistance in elaborating the ideas in this article.