On teaching Islam in the United States

On teaching Islam in the United States.

Today I received a quick question about training Muslim congregational leaders in the United States. It is a good question for further study, and doubtless will get much attention in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. Could things have turned out differently if Islamic leadership in Cambridge, Mass had been more professional, more moderate? The question of appropriate spiritual guidance for American Muslims is an important one, but it strikes me as improbable and inappropriate to suggest that better American Muslim leadership could be any more effective than, say, Protestant or Evangelical congregations in insuring that no individual raised in that tradition, or whose parents or grandparents came from that tradition, ever perpetrates acts of mass violence.

“Seminaries” is as a good a term as any for places in America where Muslims could be trained to be Imams. Note that Claremont and Hartford Theological Seminaries use the term, and have the faculty and support needed. So they are, in a sense, Multifaith seminaries. As far as I can tell, the term is occasionally used by Muslim institutions, although many prefer terms such as “university” or “college” or other terminology.

There are institutions that claim to give a complete Islamic education on the undergraduate level (al-Zaytuna in San Francisco probably is the most important, but there are places like al-Bayyina and Al-Suffa in Dallas, American Islamic College in Chicago, etc.). Perhaps the most venerable in the US is the IIIT: The International Institute of Islamic Thought, in northern Virginia, spearheaded by Prof. Ismail Raji al-Faruqi of Temple Univ. in the 1970s and 1980s. Looking around at their websites much too briefly, it is usually the institutes founded as Christian Seminaries (like Claremont and Hartford) that talk about preparing candidates to be clerics; the other places talk about giving their students a comprehensive Islamic education.

In practice most Islamic Centers and Mosques are led by persons born overseas who got their training overseas, and there is nothing quite like the idea of ordination or certification. Indeed, Muslims might cite a hadith such as la rahbniya fi al-Islm “there is no monkery in Islam” to argue that the concept of a professional imam is antithetical to Islam. (The original meaning is probably more to oppose celibacy and withdrawing from world as practiced by monks, than to oppose formal training for imams). This may be in large part because of different expectations in this training. Hermeneutics and pastoral care are not part of the traditional training; memorizing Quran and hadith are. Anyone who knows more of the Quran and hadith, and has a great voice for leading prayer, would usually be considered among those most qualified to lead in prayer. The goal of Islamic education is to create educated Muslims, ulama (a learned class) who are specialists in Quran and Hadith, Law, judgment, etc., but not a professional clergy.

There is a lot of concern in the Islamic community that American-born Muslims will not relate well to foreign born Imams, and that the US is not producing enough Muslims qualified to lead Masjids.

In many American Mosques, the leader would be called the “Imam” and the ways that he is retained are as varied (or more varied) than they would be in any other broad religious tradition. Some congregations are formally organized and have an international search; some can be described informally as “private” in that they were set up by, and revolve around, an individual Imam (much as some churches and synagogues do). In Laramie, as far as I can tell, there usually are a few individuals considered to be the most qualified to lead, but they have never had someone trained formally to be an Imam.

African American Islam has a similar set of issues. Congregations that are largely African American are unlikely to bring an Egyptian or Pakistani to lead them! I found a website that states that only 3% of African American Imams have any formal training in Islam (mana-net.org: the site says it was copyright 2008). I do not know if it is accurate or up to date, but suspect it is realistic, and that the situation has not changed all that much.

American Shia communities sometimes are more careful about whether their Imams are qualified, and whether they have received a “license,” so to speak. In part this is because Shia traditionally gives more credence to charismatic leadership, meaning the Imam is a “marja’,” roughly, a “source” for practice, alongside the traditions (hadiths) and Quran.

The Jewish Theological Seminary worked with a group of Muslims to encourage a real American Muslim Seminary (Dr. Burton Visotzky was one of the leaders of this project). I know that the current Chancellor, Arnie Eisen, is more enthusiastic about this than his predecessor but I don’t know whether there has been much movement to actually create it.

Seth Ward

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