When Sheik Ahmed Dewidar, 40, arrived in New York from Egypt in the mid-1990s, he led prayers at a mosque in the basement of a small office building on 44th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues. Packed to the gills, the space could hold 300 people.
Today, Dewidar’s mosque occupies a trim six-story building on 55th Street between Lexington and Third avenues. The Islamic Society of Mid-Manhattan comfortably accommodates 1,000 men and women.
For Dewidar, the fantastic growth of his community – with 36 nationalities, numerous languages and many worship traditions – is a direct result of America’s religious freedom. “I should give credit by the grace of almighty God to the system of this land,” he said.
Attendance has risen steadily in recent years at mosques across the city and the nation. The influx has been fueled partly by growing immigration from Muslim countries and partly by newfound interest in Islam from Muslims already here. But now American mosques are having trouble finding enough imams like Dewidar who are qualified to serve their growing and diversifying congregations.
The imam serves as a religious and social guide to the Muslim community. Traditionally, the term denotes a high level of theological training. In the U.S., though, the term often is used more loosely to recognize religious leadership within a community.
The post-9/11 cultural climate has discouraged some Muslim religious leaders from coming to the U.S., but a survey done in 2000 documented an imam shortage even before the terror attacks. Completed by Ihsan Bagby, associate professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, the study found that only one third of American mosques were led by full-time, paid imams with religious degrees. The remaining imams were either volunteers or elected from the congregation.
Bagby thinks this situation is changing. Spurred by renewed immigration from Muslim countries and growing financial stability of Muslim communities, more mosques are able to afford a full-time imam. Still, Bagby estimates that imams with religious degrees lead prayers at only half – or fewer – of the nearly 200 mosques in the New York area.
According to Zein Rimawi, a lay council member at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, well-publicized misunderstandings of Muslim culture have made imams reluctant to come to the U.S. “because they hear about the hard time people get here.”
Rimawi pointed to incidents such as the removal before Thanksgiving of six imams from a commercial flight in Minneapolis. The imams had prayed at the gate before boarding, and other passengers asked authorities to remove them from the plane, concerned the imams were preparing for a terrorist attack.
He said the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, one of the city’s largest mosques, was fortunate to find a candidate in late October to fill its imam position, which had been for a few months. The new imam, Sheik Ibrahim Al-Turkawi, 48, who is still in a trial period at the mosque, recounted how these stories filter back to the Middle East.
During Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar Islamic calendar, each mosque recites the entire Quran over 30 days. To fulfill this demanding and important task, American mosques traditionally hire imams from abroad. This fall, just before Al-Turkawi departed Egypt for Bay Ridge, several imams traveling to America for Ramadan with valid visas were denied entry at Dulles Airport. Though he found the story disconcerting, through a translator Al-Turkawi said, “I looked at the bigger picture. I know that hundreds of others make it into the U.S.”
For mosques with greater resources, as in Bay Ridge, the spike in religious interest and participation has increased worshippers’ sensitivity to the quality and depth of an imam’s teachings.
Azeem Khan, assistant secretary general of the Islamic Circle of North America, a Muslim community development organization based in Queens, said, “bigger Islamic centers are very picky when looking for an imam, so they won't take just anyone, and they might end up looking for months.”
As in the Middle East, many American imams lead the mosque in five prayers a day and deliver the Friday sermon, or khutbah, and answer religious questions. American imams also have expanded social and educational roles that would normally be filled by other figures in Muslim countries. Imams provide lectures to women’s groups and Quranic lessons to children throughout the week. In America, they also are routinely called upon to play matchmaker and settle personal and business disputes.
The imam also must be able to translate his Quranic understanding from the Middle East to America. “What may apply in Egypt, may not work here, in terms of the problems people face,” said Wael Musfar, president of the Arab Muslim Federation and another member of the lay council at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge.
Sheik Shamsi Ali, an Indonesian who serves as imam in four mosques throughout the city, said imams in New York must know how to negotiate different “cultural interpretations” of Islam. One of the mosques he serves, the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, has a congregation primarily from Bangladesh, where a “fist length” beard is viewed as holy. When Ali arrived at the mosque, he had to convince the patrons that while many Indonesians, like himself, find it impossible to grow a beard, it does not make them any less devout.
According to Zahid Bukhari, president of the American Muslim Studies Program at Georgetown University, this fundamental challenge for American Islam – too few imams qualified to fulfill expanded social roles and to bridge vast ethnic and cultural differences – can be solved by establishing an Islamic school of higher education in America.
“We need to establish an institution to train imams here. It will take some time, but eventually our community needs American-trained and -educated imams,” said Bukhari.
Ali agrees with the need for American-born and -trained imams who will “not feel that there is a clash of Muslim and American values.” He said, “I want future imams in America to be American who have the American mentality and perspective, who know the circumstances we live in here.”