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Muslim prayer leaders in U.S. at a crossroads

Role of imams is changing to meet community needs

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A Lebanese man living in Syria, Muhammad Musri chafed under that nation's restrictive laws. Then he heard a Voice of America broadcast about the shortage of imams, or Muslim prayer leaders, in the United States.

"I was listening to it thinking, 'What am I doing here?' " he said, and soon afterward he left the country, hoping to lead a mosque in America.

Years later, Musri is an imam in Orlando, Fla., but the job is not exactly the one he anticipated when he emigrated from the Mideast. 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.

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."

U.S. imams started gaining importance in the 1960s, when the federal government relaxed immigration laws, drawing Muslims to the United States in large numbers for the first time. Few scholars were among the newcomers, creating a leadership vacuum that imams often filled.

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, scholars 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.

Local imams have often played that role. Musri and Ghannouchi are among those trying to create a national organization of Muslim prayer leaders to handle those high-level interfaith talks, while also setting national certification standards for imams and creating a job placement network for them across the country.

"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. You can't bring an imam from a small mosque to deal with the head of all the bishops of the United States, he 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.

As a nation, "our knowledge of Islam is around zero-plus," Al-Hanooti said. "Our imams are in need of a lot of learning."

Musri tries to overcome this problem by training imams himself at the Islamic Society of Central Florida, where he oversees seven mosques serving 30,000 people.

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."