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).