Community Dawah (Outreach)

What is an Imam?

Photo: G Cacakian

By Leila Adam

Being left without an imam (religious leader) at your local mosque makes you realise things that never occurred to you before. Exposure to new and different styles of leadership helps you to learn what will be good for your community and what will cause them to suffer. It’s a strange experience if a city has never been without spiritual leadership in living memory.

In that situation, one can really take off long-worn blinkers and realise the possibilities and profound nature of an imam’s position in the community. An imam carries the community on his back. At the very least, he keeps them safe from wolves and packs of marauding dogs – the troublemakers who fill the void when leadership is absent.

Yet his potential is vastly more than this. Like the pastor of a church, the principal of a school or the CEO of a company, he sets the tone for the whole community. He has the ability to sway them, to lift them to great heights of inspiration or send them crashing against one another in deadly waves of animosity. If he is bored, they will be bored; if he is pumped, they will be pumped; if he is elitist, they will be elitist. Whatever is deep inside his nature will manifest in the people. That’s an awesome and frightening responsibility.

When you see a sublime example of a good imam, who stands right there – as opposed to being a distant figure online – and inspires you, opening your heart, it’s exciting. ‘Could this really be possible?’ you ask yourself. ‘Could communities really be so fortunate as to be uplifted and inspired every week at jumu`ah (Friday congregational prayers), and perhaps even more often than that?’ ‘Could a local imam also be a team leader who helps people get up and do great things in their community; feeding the poor, consoling the wretched-hearted and turning neighbours into friends?’ ‘Is it really possible to stop isolated struggles and feel real community togetherness and fellowship, becoming a cog within a beautiful set of machinery that lights up the whole environment?’ What a wondrous possibility.

A fortunate community will have an imam who teaches them to love themselves and others, to the extent that they each go away and begin working in their own realms of light and benefit. A community that loses out on this blessing will keep going through the motions of daily prayers and weekly jumu`ah without ever being properly awakened from their state of slumber. Like every comfortable sleeper, they will not even want to be awakened. A community with very negative leadership will be driven to stir up trouble and throw dogma at one other, until the mosque becomes a place in which everybody watches his or her back for fear of criticism. After a while, they will tire of the effort and stop coming altogether – and so the mosque stands empty.

So when an imam departs, what does the future hold for the community left in flux? A time of change is, at the very least, an opportunity to figure out what is desirable, and then get up in the depths of night and pray for the best result, through Allah’s Grace and Mercy subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He).

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1 Comment

  • I take the opportunity of this great article to give a testimony to my brothers who just have “one man leading” the prayer instead than a imam: Your community is in danger, as well the masjid.

    I had the very sad experience to be (and I am) in this situation , and what happen is simple:
    When an imam does not take his responsibilities (whatever the reasons, mostly due to the umma), and treats his job as a simple procedure: just leading the salah, and make the Friday khutba. The umma will not treat him with respect, as well the prayer in group, the community and the masjid… This is just like a domino game, one fall, the rest follow.

    There will be no activities, no fellowship, sometimes not even the adhan or salat, no unity… etcetera. In fact there will only be fitan after fitan and the umma will just talk about the new painting or the menu of the next iftar.

    But wait there is more: Basically when a mimbar is empty, someone will hijack it. And most of the time it would be the worst man of the umma, the kind of brother who always think that everyone else does not know the deen except him. The kind of man who is a “silence pretentious hater”.

    With the help of the authorities or others external organizations (who clearly want to put their toy in this empty mimbar), this man will take the masjid under his new association/organization, because they will always find something wrong in the registration of the old one, kick out the current iman, making threats to the ones who talk too much and the nightmare just begins. Next step might be the demolition of the masjid to rebuild a new that will never come…

    I will paraphrase the author: If your imam is not the kind who wants to carry the umma on his back and keeps it safe from wolves and dogs, fired him ASAP and find one who wants.

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