Saturday, May 07, 2005


the following article was written in the australian context of imams who are generally imported from overseas, speak little english and have little understanding of local conditions. many of these imams are poorly paid and are expected to perform merely traditional roles. they are often at the mercy of a mosque management committee, many of whom show little respect to the knowledge the imam carries.

perhaps the comments made here equally apply to imams serving other western muslim communities.


Some years back, I assisted an Australian Imam in his quest to retain his employment with a Sydney Islamic society. The Imam had held his post for around 10 years, and a new executive committee decided they no longer needed his services. After months of intrigue, mudslinging and distribution of dirt-sheets about “Maulana Sahib”, the Imam finally gave up. I doubt he has ever looked back.

One issue central to the dispute was the Imam’s qualifications. Questions were raised about whether he had the requisite “sanad”, who gave him the “ijaza” and whether his qualifications merely went as far as a masters degree at an Islamic or other university.

Following the recent Friday prayer service led by Amina Wudud, accomplished author and Professor of Islamic Studies at a mainstream university in the United States, all sorts of people have rushed to judge her as being unqualified and unable to speak on matters of sharia.

Recent forum discussions on the islamicsydney.com website have sparked the debate, with one prominent Sydney personality being challenged to produce his qualifications in sharia. The debate arose after he made the ambit claim that anyone stating Professor Wudud’s position had possible support within the sharia were deviants and possessors of a “flirting mind”.

Should Imams be asked to prove their scholarly credentials? Should we have a central system of accrediting Imams? Or should we maintain our ‘deregulated’ system that allows anyone with a few ‘ijazas’ or a masters degree in Islamic Studies to claim the mantle of Islamic scholarship?

And why do some claimants to scholarship become defensive (and in the case of the Sydney personality referred to above, downright offensive) and cagey when asked about their qualifications?

In our worldly affairs, we always are careful when obtaining independent professional advice. You don’t get help from a psychiatrist for a gynaecological issue (unless it is post-natal depression). You don’t approach a chartered accountant to commence court proceedings for workers compensation.

All professionals are accredited. They must pass certain exams, complete university degrees, attend continuing professional educational courses and maintain a license or practising certificate with numerous conditions including a nebulous one that they be a “fit a proper person”.

But who is fit and proper to teach and advise on the universe of Islamic sciences? We throw our legal, our financial and our health affairs to accredited professionals and experts. Are not our souls also deserving of expert care?

And just as anyone has the right to ask me about my right to practise law or my experience in particular areas of law before engaging my services, why shouldn’t I have the right to ask an Imam’s expertise before engaging his (one day we will get to the stage when we can say “her”) services?

Perhaps we should start thinking about an accreditation system for Imams. Perhaps a requirement that they speak, read and write English. That they attending courses on counselling. But given the reluctance of Islamic societies to pay their Imams proper wages and provide effective support services … well, that is the subject of the next column!

5 comment(s):

  • A very interesting piece. We have similar issues here in the UK. Despite the fact we have several Universities and accredited islamic colleges providing some sort of trainging there is still the tendency for Mosques to import an Imam. Many of these people have no English have no understanding of British culture or of many of the issues facing the younger generations of Muslims here in the UK.

    As one Imam has told me, Imams coming to the UK may not be aware even of laws in the UK about issues such as domestic violence, child abuse or age of consent - this also may be the case for people entering the UK generally, so cultural practices that are illegal in the UK are perpetuated through the local Mosque.

    In other European countries, I think Holland, potential Imams have to attend a government run course that introduces them to Dutch culture. There has been talk of introducing one for the UK.

    People should be prepared to put their credentials up for scrutiny. However having some sort of pan Islamic scheme for vailidating Imams would be along way off, so in the mean time wouldn't it be a good idea for Mosques to employ locally trained people rather than importing them all the time?

    By Blogger ummiskander, at 5/07/2005 02:52:00 PM  

  • The issue is not as much about scholars getting offensive about being asked about their qualifications, but how and where it is being asked. Many scholars prefer to speak little of their qualifications, out of humility. Secular "experts" do not know what humility is. And lastly, the system of scholarship in Islam must be understood first before using ignorance to go around questioning others.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/08/2005 08:09:00 AM  

  • Salaams

    Adding to the UK analysis above, the irony is that we have some excellent colleges in the UK - Bury, The London Islamic College run by Zaki Badawi, etc, but I gather Imams trained in these colleges often have a hard time getting jobs.

    We had a British trained Imam 'temping' at our Masjid - he spoke impeccable Arabic, using modern teaching methods with the kids, etc - and he was so humble, it was easy to miss the fact he WAS the Imam.

    One side issue - this is (as far as I am aware) a major problem for Sunnis, but much less for Shi'a - if I have read my Momen correctly. So the answer to this problem may already be there in the fifth law school.



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 5/08/2005 10:02:00 AM  

  • Deregulated is the way to go. Any other system is too susceptible to politics and corruption. As for the Scholar in question, you have a right to ask, he has a right to answer or not answer, but that's about as far as it goes. I agree with myst_ique in that the manner in which it is asked is important. If it is asked in public space, such as a bulletin board or forum, it puts the person in a very precarious situation - answer, and then risk coming across as boasting; don't answer, and then those of us who like to harbor suspicion and malice will then see it as an opportunity to question the Scholar's integrity, especially if one starts to then accuse him of lies. Lack of a response in public doesn't give anyone the right to start spreading suspicion and doubt of his qualifications, unless you can prove it. Asking him in private is the way to go, in my opinion. If you get your answer and it's satisfactory to you, then fine, if not, then choose not to learn from him. Either way, speak good, or remain silent.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/08/2005 01:35:00 PM  

  • My Mosque in the UK is looking for a junior Imam/community worker/admin person. My Imam rings me infustration regarding all the work/people/committies etc he is expected to sit on/see/do, currently, on his own - the last two assistants having gone abroad. I say to him, why not formalise the post; draw up a job desciption; advertise formaly in appropriate places in the UK; interview the apllicants in a formal manner and assess their suitability for the post. My suggestion has so far being met with a blank. 'Well', I say;'at least if you go though a formal process it gives everybody a chance to see what their getting before you meet each other.' But to no avail. So far an assistant Imam has failed to materialise. I have expressed my concerns about importing one and the Imam agrees with me. he wont contemplate employing me as I am a (wait for it - no, you know already) female!! But he has said it would be great if i was bloke - as far as the mosque went anyway although he does aknowledge that the mosque needs a female employee. Still no Imam and I remain unrelentingly female. Prehaps if Mosques professionalised their recruitment procedures then some of the issues that have been bought up would resolve themselves. How can you be a suitable applicant for our Mosque if no one in the UK knows you are needed? Or knows what is required plitically or otherwise? Word of mouth and traditional methods obviously not working.Any applicants please contact me!

    By Blogger ummiskander, at 5/13/2005 01:43:00 PM  

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