Like any good Muslim, Ali Karjoo-Ravary went to mosque on Friday seeking spiritual inspiration. What the 19-year-old Iranian-American found, however, was something completely different.
At the head of a mosque in upstate New York, a foreign imam was leading the Friday service. Sitting on the floor with the other congregants, Mr. Karjoo-Ravary strained to understand the religious leader's thick accent. Even as he made out the imam's words, the message made little sense. "The entire sermon was about 'Don't let a girl pat your back. It can lead to things,' " Karjoo-Ravary recounts.
The imam's disconnect with American culture shocked Karjoo-Ravary. Trying to gauge the reaction of other young congregants, he spotted a cluster of teenagers and 20-somethings toward the back of the mosque. They were hunched over and appeared to be earnestly listening to the imam's every word. But looking closer, he realized their attentive postures were meant to conceal cellphones. The entire group had tuned out the sermon and was texting busily.
For many American-born Muslims, experiences like Karjoo-Ravary's are not uncommon. Over the past 40 years, hundreds of thousands of Muslims from around the world have emigrated to the United States, bringing their own cultural interpretations of Islam and electing imams who support their views. This practice worked well until recently, when large numbers of these immigrants' Westernized children reached adulthood, creating a disconnect between faith and culture. Foreign imams are at the center of this fast-growing divide between immigrant Muslims and their American-born children.
When Muslim immigrants flooded into the US from the Middle East and South Asia in the 1960s and '70s, their "first priority was to preserve their cultural integrity," says Johari Abdul-Malik, an American-born imam in Sterling, Va., and president of the Muslim Society of Washington, Inc. "The need for an imam from their background is … to preserve the cultural authenticity of that community."
Immigrant imams have served this purpose well, but the children of this immigrant wave – now adults – identify more with US culture than the one found in their parents' homeland. As a result, they find themselves increasingly at odds with foreign imams, who lead 85 percent of non-African-American mosques in the US, estimates the Islamic Society of North America. A mosque's imam is selected by its congregants, who often want someone fluent in Arabic, which is the language of the Koran.
Regional strains of Islam clash in US
Given the important role an imam plays in a Muslim community, having one who understands the Islamic faith and American culture equally well is vital, say many American Muslims. Most communities rely on imams to give religious guidance, lead prayers, deliver sermons, and serve as a community representative. (Islam has no central authority, such as the papacy, to issue official decisions. It falls upon local imams to help the community deal with the various challenges it faces.)
Some American-born Muslims now question whether an immigrant imam can adequately fill this role. "There is a strong feeling that not just the immigrant imams, but also the first generation often can't relate very well to the society around them," says Umar Abd-Allah, chairman of Nawawi, a Chicago-based group that aims to provide relevant Islamic teachings for American Muslims. "There's just a very different worldview."
Though much attention is given to sectarian differences within Islam – such as Shiites versus Sunnis – equally sizable gaps can exist between regional variants. Every culture that adopted Islam infused its local traditions into the religion – from the food eaten at religious holidays to the social boundaries between men and women. Provided these indigenous customs don't clash with the theological core of Islam, this is perfectly permissible, says Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who leads the Al-Farah Mosque in New York City.
In the US, however, the regional varieties are coming closer together, which can create friction.
"The immigrant generation is still living psychologically in their homeland," says Imam Abdul Rauf. "The second generation is the one that begins to assert itself as belonging to the new society."
Though Abdul Rauf moved to America at age 17, he spent his childhood in Egypt, Malaysia, and England. The experience, he says, taught him the difference between "what is religious and what is cultural."
"In our communities, the challenge is people who just won't let go of ideas that they think define Islam when in fact it just defines the culture in which they were born," says Asra Nomani, a second generation Muslim-American in Morgantown, W. Va., and author of "Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam."
Foreign imams may isolate mosques
And it's not just second-generation Muslims who have problems with ultratraditional imams. As immigrant communities blend, an Indonesian imam, for example, can easily alienate Pakistani and American Muslims alike.
"When [immigrant imams] are helping you and answering your questions, they're giving it from the perspective of wherever they're from without taking into consideration where they are, what's the context, what's the country like, what's the culture of the country," says Gulrukh Rahman, a Pakistani Muslim in New York City who has lived in the US for 12 years. "A lot of that is pushing young people away from the mosque."
Those who embrace foreign imams are often urged to withdraw from American culture, says Ms. Rahman. She worries that these communities will become completely shut off and needlessly reclusive.
Boston-area Muslim Nakia Jackson experienced firsthand the result of one such closed community in a Philadelphia mosque. Congregants denied her entry when she couldn't recite select portions of the Koran from memory, which is not a requirement to pray in a mosque. When she reported the incident to the mosque's imam, he was indifferent, she says.
This self-imposed isolation may result from negative perceptions of American culture. Imam Omar Abu Namous, a Palestinian who presides over the Islamic Cultural Center Mosque, one of the largest mosques in Manhattan, says American culture is haraam, the Arabic word for sinful. "From the religious perspective, whether it is Christian, or Jewish, or Islamic, this culture is an outlaw," he says.
He points to his granddaughter who, he says, stopped attending college classes because her professors talked only about sex. Now she is completing her degree online to avoid such professors.
Imam Abu Namous, who has lived in the US since 1979, encourages congregants to have formal, businesslike relations with secular Americans but to socialize predominately with like-minded Muslims until America returns to its true Christian roots, creating a moral society more agreeable to Muslim values.
Though immigrant imams dominate the Muslim-American landscape today, they may become a thing of the past, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The events forced Islam into the public discourse, and Muslims began to reconsider their leaders. "We needed imams not to talk to us, but imams to talk to the rest of the society," explains Imam Abdul-Malik. "People are saying, 'We need an imam who has the Islamic credentials, and his English is not optional; it's required.' "
Many mosques are now looking to more open-minded, albeit immigrant imams fluent in Arabic, such as Egyptian Imam Basyouny Nehela, who leads the Islamic Society of Boston Mosque in Cambridge, Mass. He says he became an imam with the hope of serving as a Muslim ambassador who could explain Islam to non-Muslims.
As an imam, his bona fides are hard to match. Imam Nehela studied at Al-Azhar University in Cairo (the Islamic equivalent of Harvard), speaks flawless Arabic, can deliver a sermon in English, and, after 10 years in the US, can easily connect with anyone in his congregation, young or old, immigrant or American-born.
"We have to integrate," says Nehela. "I teach my brothers and my sisters here that you have to build a strong relationship with your neighbors. Get to know them and help them."
While the likes of Nehela may lead American Muslims through this transitional time, many hope to see the rise of American-born imams. "It's absolutely essential that we have imams who are from this country and that understand this country," says Mr. Abd-Allah of Nawawi.
Efforts to develop US-born imams
Creating indigenous imams, however, will take time. For starters, while immigrant imams may struggle to learn English, American imams would need a firm command of Arabic, something many US-born Muslims lack.
"If you're an American Muslim and your Arabic is not the best, I don't know if you're going to be able to lead the mosque because any authentic text is in Arabic," says Fatina Abdrabboh, a Muslim graduate student at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Hoping to create a solution to such issues, a handful of institutions such as the Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, Calif., are offering Islamic education and training to Muslims in the US, potentially laying the foundation for a new generation of imams who understand both Islam and American culture.
Until then, Imam Dawoud Kringle, an American in New York City, says he and his friends like to quote a verse from the Koran that says "Allah made the earth spacious," meaning if you don't like an imam or a particular mosque, there's always somewhere else to pray.