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Young Muslims in US Seek Homegrown Imams

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Vidushi Sinha

The Muslim population in the United States is growing, and so is its need for spiritual guidance. A new generation American Muslims is demanding more from local mosques than they can always provide.

"It's not what you see on television or it's not what people are talking about or a dress code or whatever. It's about being good to your fellow man, about being good to your God. That's all it is. That's what it is," said Adeel Zeb, an aspiring imam and a Muslim chaplain at American University in Washington. He reaches out to young Muslims with what he calls the real message of Islam.

Zeb says there is often a disconnect between young Muslims and the foreign born leaders who head many mosques in the United States.

"When a youth comes and approaches the imam who comes from a different country - first of all there is a language barrier, second of all, there is a cultural barrier, and then there is also an age barrier. Many barriers have to be overcomed," he said.

Sayyid Syeed is a top official with the Islamic Society of North America. He concedes that many imams at American mosques are from overseas, but he says that's beginning to change.

"We had to reject some imams who only knew the Koran, but could not relate themselves to the people. They came with the mentality that did not fit with our constituency where you have men and women actively in the leadership positions of islamic centers and these imams who came from overseas could not reconcile themselves with the fact that women were running the islamic centers," he said.

In many Islamic countries, the imam's   sole job is to lead the prayer. But here in  the United States, they often serve a  broader role.

"It is much more about leading the community than leading just the prayer," said Sheikh Shaker Elsayed, the imam of the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Northern Virginia. "Here you are a judge, you are an arbitrator, you are a mediator, you are a psychologist, you are a psychiatrist at times and you are a friend. You are a brother, you are a leader, a teacher, and all of those combined, and everybody wants to pick from you what they need."

Imam Elsayed came from Egypt three decades ago. "The learning curve of most imams is very steep. It takes an average of five to eight years for an imam to become a true, local, effective imam, especially when you move from your very small environment to a big, large, open environment like the United States," he said.

But young American Muslims often have questions that require more immediate answers. "You need an imam who has an understanding of Muslim life here. I know I grew up around a mosque I went to only twice a year," said Tanim Awwal.

The community at large understands the need for an imam who knows the turmoil a Muslim American goes through while growing up in a non-muslim country.

"You have to reach them at high school level, at the college level when they are exploring. When they are learning, when their mind is still young and receptive," said Adeel Zeb.

Zeb argues that Muslim Americans want a spiritual guide who can help to reconcile 14 centuries of Islamic scholarship with the modern traditions of American life.

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