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Youngest Imams Fill a Void in Ramadan


Two teenagers who used to spend their time playing computer games after school are suddenly finding themselves as spiritual leaders. Their role relieves a U.S. Muslim community's burden during Ramadan and gives hope to the community as well.

Aman Chhipa is 13 years old, an eighth grader at a Washington-area middle school. He is taking on an unusual responsibility for a teenage boy -- leading a special prayer called Taraweeh during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

"I felt nervous. I was scared,” he says. “I am, 'like how am I going to do this?' It is such a huge responsibility. Well, later on, like a few days later, I built confidence. I said, 'O.K. I can do this.' "

Aman and another teenager, 16-year-old Uzair Jawed, are being entrusted with the revered role of imam at the Islamic Community Center of Northern Virginia in the Washington D.C suburbs.

"It's nervous because they expect you not making any mistakes so you have a lot of responsibility to know it [Koran] good and you have to recite it like perfect to them," says Uzair.

A cleric from South Africa, who had led the center's prayers during Ramadan in past years, was deported this year, right after he had arrived at the airport. It was the day before Ramadan started.

Suddenly, leaders at the Islamic center found themselves desperate to find a "hafiz," a person who has memorized the more than 6,200 Arabic verses of the Koran and can recite them without looking at the text. They searched among the adults, in their community and elsewhere in the U.S. and found no one.

That's when they turned to Aman and Uzair.

Mohmedsharif Munshi is the president of the Islamic center. "We tried the first day. Everybody was uneasy, then he [Aman] turned out really excellent. And another boy, 16-year-old also [excellent]. So they are taking turns. We are really enjoying their recitals. So thanks God, everything worked out good."

Aman's parents are from India. Determined to make him a hafiz, they sent him to a school for higher Islamic studies in Pennsylvania at age seven. Aman memorized the Koran by the time he was 10. Uzair's family is from Pakistan. He memorized the Koran by age 13.

Aman's father, Nasir Chhipa, is a director at the Islamic center. He says some mosques in the U.S. have hafizes in their area, but 70 to 80 percent rely on scholars from overseas. He says there is a growing need for U.S. Muslims to stop depending on those from other countries since the U.S government has applied stricter entry regulations since the 9/11 attacks.

"What I believe is we have to make our own scholars because we cannot depend on the world, says Chhipa. “We will have to produce our own scholars from America."

Munshi, the center's president, agrees. "That is very much essential. I think local talents who are born here have more power of convincing and better representing and everything. We should create local talents no matter how much time it takes and how much effort and everything it takes."

Islamic communities say Aman and Uzair may be the youngest imams in the U.S.

"I feel special because I think Allah has been giving me a talent so I shouldn't waste it. I should use it. I didn't know that this opportunity would come so fast," Aman said.

But with the opportunity comes responsibility. Gone are the days that Aman could spend hours sitting in front of his computer playing games -- at least for a month. Once he comes home after school, his life as a Muslim leader starts. In between his religious duties, he constantly practices the Koran alone or with Uzair, who has become his best friend.

"The main thing is that memorizing is the easy part,” Aman tells us. “That is the first step. Now the second step is to remember because the prophet, peace be upon him, said that the Koran is nobody's friend. If you forget it, it will forget you."

Aman's long day starts before five o'clock in the morning with prayers at home. Then there's school -- followed by more prayers. After he leads the final nightly prayer at the mosque, his homework usually keeps him up until about 11:30. But it's all part of a day's work. "I feel a bit tired and I feel happy that another day is completed. I feel like I accomplished something."

Despite the long hours, Aman says, he looks forward to each day, and he is thankful to Allah for giving him the gift.

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