January 06, 2008

Imams are not the problem

Away on holidays last week, I never got around to reading the comments around my "To my neighbour" piece when it was featured on altmuslim. Upon finally reading them, I found much of the same sort of rhetoric that I am tired of reading, that "radical imams" here in the West are somehow condoning or even encouraging much of the extremism taking place. Regarding the Aqsa Parvez murder, one reader mentioned that "it happened because the culture, absolutely preached from the mosque [...] and exhorted on Canadian Islamic websites" forced her father to kill her out of shame and a twisted sense of honour.

I often hear about these phantom "Canadian Islamic websites", but no one ever actually tells us what they are. Certainly, I have read some rather extreme comments by Muslims on blogs and forums, but I have never read anything that comes even close to condoning this sort of behaviour on any legitimate Muslim Canadian website.

And the imams of our mosques certainly are not encouraging this. I have not prayed in every mosque, but I have been in a fairly unique position over the last few years to experience Friday prayers in many different mosques in many cities throughout North America. The Friday prayer is usually a fairly good vantage point by which to get a feel for a Muslim community, and I've never heard anything of the sort from any imam, anywhere.

If it were only non-Muslims railing against these "radical imams", I could forgive them; they're not the ones meeting these people every day and learning from them. But too often, I read Muslims writing about these imaginary imams, never citing any specific examples, but ranting about how they are perverting the religion for their own benefit. I've heard this even from some of my friends, who themselves could not offer any specific examples, falling instead into vague generalizations before conceding the point.

One reader of my article cited an article about an Iranian cleric who allegedly said that "unveiled women should die".
A top Muslim cleric in Iran, Hojatolislam Gholam Reza Hassani said on Wednesday that women in the country who do not wear the hijab should be killed.

“Women who do not respect the hijab and their husbands deserve to die,” said Hassani, who leads Friday prayers in the city of Urumieh, in Iranian Azerbaijan.

Aside from the fact that the article is uncited and a Google search about this supposed "top Muslim cleric" shows that his only other noteworthy statements involved a campaign to "arrest short-legged dogs", the crux of the matter is that this person does not speak for us or Canadian imams, nor does he have any influence upon matters in this country. If I were to cite some random Romanian priest making some ridiculous claim, would this have any influence on the Christians in Canada? No, and neither would an imam in Iran influence the overwhelming majority of Muslims here.

The complaints against our imams can be that they are sometimes boring; perhaps some of them are not with the times, or lack the knowledge of contemporary culture to resonate with the people. But to condone and encourage the sort of aggression that took the life of a sixteen year-old Muslimah? You would have to search very hard to find an imam who will justify that. If one is found, I am certain that those who follow him would be quick to condemn the statement, and remove him from his post if necessary.

The same people who criticize the imams also speak of the "madrassas" as sinister Islamic seminaries where children are brainwashed with political propaganda and dreams of martyrdom. Again, these allegations are always vague, with no specific examples. Madrassa is not a scary word, it simply means "place of learning". And if you were visiting one for the first time, I'm sure you'd be very much underwhelmed - most are run by kindly uncles teaching the Arabic alphabet (often, quite poorly) in their basement or on the mosque floor.

I am not denying that there may be Muslims out there who hold extremist views. I don't believe they are nearly as much of a threat as the media make them out to be, but there are certainly some Muslims with beliefs that contradict classical teachings, who have a more militant understanding of the religion's history. However, these people are mostly the ones who have pushed aside the scholars and imams, who have failed to heed their advice. They are the ones who went off on their own, ignoring what the imams are teaching, while getting their knowledge instead from shady websites and shadier personalities. It is often through the connection with imams and community leaders that many youth today have protected themselves from extremist thinking, by aligning themselves with classical scholarship rather than letting their own overzealous enthusiasm dictate their beliefs.

Sit with them. Learn from them. Hear them directly, rather than let others tell you what they say and think. Islamic scholarship is a vast discipline with awe-inspiring science and people behind it. Muslims believe that the legacy of the Prophets is knowledge, and that Islamic scholars are the inheritors; we have such people in our midst, a treasure which should not be taken lightly. We as Muslims should show how much we appreciate that, lest it be taken away from us. And I invite any non-Muslims to visit our scholars as well, and hear from them directly; most would be happy to meet you.

Many of the imams and scholars have given up a lot for their communities, asking for little in return, and yet we continue to blame them for all that ails us. And though the character assassination efforts will continue on, these individuals ultimately deserve our honour and respect. It's the least we can do.


  1. Imams are not the problems, but they continue to be an easy target by the Western media, because these Imams lack the understanding of the society and culture in their new country.

    That is the case in Denmark. They haunt after and give the microphone to someone who badly can speak the language. In this way, you keep the people unaware of Islam.

  2. Wow I haven't read your blog in ages. This is the kind of topic I've been missing on other blogs.

    Yeah I think it's pretty rare to come across an imam in most masjids that will say retarded things like "women who doen't respect their husbands deserve to die."

    I think the problem is that when non-Muslims attend gatherings that are intended for Muslim audiences, they don't necessarily have the cultural or religious background to properly interpret what is being said. Not to take the onus off of these imams or "sheikhs" who also need to understand their society before speaking.

    To be honest with you, I've heard some pretty strange things coming out of the mouths of the learned. But everyone makes mistakes and errors of judgement. So I don't let it get to me because they know so so much more than I do. One mistake doesn't negate their entire knowledge base.

    In conclusion, I don't know what I'm saying really. Just that we need to a) help our imams work on being culturally sensitive and b) stop being so critical of everything they say and do.

    And in the end, just realize that the media will take anything they can get their hands on and twist it beyond recognition.

  3. Gess: Yeah, to some extent, the media does target those people who would be most prone to saying something accidentally. There are lots of articulate and knowledgeable voices out there that are being deliberately ignored.

    Asmaa: Glad you're back! I missed your comments. I hope all is well, insha-Allah.

    You're right in that often, non-Muslims don't have the necessary background to properly appreciate what is being said. We definitely need to work on making ourselves more accessible and more coherent.

    I like your two points. How do you propose we help our imams become more culturally sensitive?

    Regarding the media - yes, the media will always twist things to suit their view. But we're just as blameworthy when we repeat their rhetoric!

    As an aside, it should be noted also that being an imam doesn't necessarily mean a person grew up and/or studied in the East, or would be unfamiliar with the culture here. There are many outstanding institutions of Islamic learning here in the West now, with scholars trained entirely in North America and Europe. One of the most respected imams I know did all his studies in Canada and the UK, and he is quickly becoming recognized as one of the leading scholars in the country. We need more people like him.

    That being said, I still believe that regardless of where one grew up or studied, the vast majority of Islamic scholars here in Canada are exemplary individuals who would never say the things they're accused of saying. There may have been a couple of silly statements that went public over the course of their lifetime, but not enough to conclude that our imams are encouraging this sort of behaviour.

  4. The best thing about commenting is that I'm doing it at work. Cha ching.

    Anyways, you're right in the sense that there are imams who were raised in the west and who are culturally sensitive. And perhaps as the years go on, their numbers will increase. Which is a good thing I think. But the reality is that we do have a lot of foreign or semi-foreign (kind of raised here, but kind of not) imams here.

    This isn't to say that imams or scholars raised in foreign countries are insensitive. Sometimes they're really the best people in understanding this society!

    So there is no quick-fix for this "problem." But I really do think one of the things that Imams should be encouraged/mandated to do is take university level courses in the field of social work. That's really where they'll come to terms and learn to deal with the problems facing people in this society, and by extension, Muslims as well.

    I'm not saying Imams are oblivious, and I can't make any blanket statements. But seriously, I think once they fully realize the extent of which our community has adopted the ways of the general public, they'll be forced to express themselves differently if they want people to respond positively.

  5. Salaam, Faraz..

    I have been awol from the regular blog reads, and I am glad that I chose to read IO today, alhamdulillah for a brilliant and thought-provoking post :) .. your ramblings are never irrelevant in my opinion, but I shall respect your banner of modesty..

    I agree whole-heartedly in that, the Imams are not to be blamed. Imams in mosques are not some sort of power hungry political extremists. And the mainstream mosque precinct is not the meeting place for cults of the irrational. Clearly, the space for spiritual engagement need be respected in the Western context, and not vilified and presented as the escapist explanation for fostering extremist rhetoric; cowards can only be found in far-removed outposts. Imam's are our ordinary everyday unsung heroes leading us in prayer.

    The subject of so-called 'honour killings' forms the basis of much of my research, and has been used as the background case study for my book 'Daughters are Diamonds: Honour, Shame & Seclusion' (2007). http://daughtersarediamonds.blogspot.com

    Honour killings can be simply understood as human rights violations. No Imam, Rabbi or Priest; no sane human being would condone murder. The psychology of a people who may carry out, without remorse, acts of stove-burnings, acid-throwings (disfiguration) illustrates a largely dysfunctional social setting. The concept of family honour draws from the social identity and status awarded to families and clans, probably over generations. In order to maintain this often prestigious place in society, a number of expectations and behaviours are taught to individual members, male and female. In many instances, the maintenance of this social status is (perceived as) important in setting structures for future generations. On the other hand, the rigidity implied by such structures can prove to be limiting to the individual. My findings suggests that social behaviour locates itself in the preservation of patriarchal custom and tradition, so deeply embedded in everyday life that its undertaking is almost always mistaken for religious obligation. Cultural belief, traditionalist values and religion are transposed and inform thoughts and actions. People who go against the prescribed behaviours are stigmatized and slandered. Sometimes it amounts to mere suspicions of a woman having transgressed and punishments are meted out, and subsequently condoned by the public (and local police!). Hence, entrenched cultural acts gleam social endorsement from being viewed as a duty or obligation to divine command. I must state at this point that Islam, of course, denounces the exploitation and control (and murder) of people, of men and women.

    I do apologise, as this post seems to have gone off on a tangent. I will end it here.
    Shukran, Wasalaam
    Shafinaaz (Kimya at the blogs)

  6. Asmaa: Interesting idea, social work courses for imams. If it's something all foreign imams should be taking, maybe we don't need to outsource it to the university, and develop it ourselves. We have quite a few brothers and sisters with Social Science backgrounds who might have some good ideas on how to develop such a course.

    Kimya: Wa'alaykum assalam! Good to see readers coming back, and an honour to have a published author visiting. :) The title "Irrelevant Opinions" was just a bit of irony that stuck somehow.

    Clearly, the space for spiritual engagement need be respected in the Western context, and not vilified and presented as the escapist explanation for fostering extremist rhetoric; cowards can only be found in far-removed outposts.
    Very well said; it is indeed an escapist explanation, an easy way out.

    The recent murder case in Canada did indeed get dubbed as an "honour killing" by the press. The fact that some members of the community insisted on the necessity of the hijab while discussing the topic was often misconstrued as them justifying the murder.

    In this case, I don't think the murder had much to do with deeply entrenched cultural practices, but was rather the result of stress and frustration. There are lots of cases of domestic violence here in the West, which often lead to deaths; I don't believe this case was any different, it's just being painted as an "honour killing" because the family was Pakistani.

    That being said, the practice of honour killings indeed is barbaric, and insha-Allah with efforts like yours, people will become more aware of how far it is from Islam, and indeed how far it is from honour.

  7. Shukran for the kind words of welcome.. It has been a while :)

    If we had to remove the jargons of choice and look purely at the violations against individuals within the sacred space of home and family, then honour killings arent all that different from domestic violence. These varied types of violence have in common the need by an often self-acclaimed powerful individual or communal psyche to assert that violent power against a weaker person who is perceived as a threat to that self-acclaimed status. So dysfunction arrives in many hues, unfortunately, and can be identified and labelled in respective context, but mirrored cross-culturally and across the global sphere. In that case, for western punitive systems to look at a foreigners and label their crimes as per cultural context, is like saying, well.. this problem isnt really ours, its their own little domestic problem. Its part of their culture. They kind of wash their hands off the thing in a small manner of speaking and label yet a further (xenophobic) social ill. I remember some time back, an incident in the UK of apparent honour killing, and the investigator in charge was reported to have said that they had received numerous calls from the victim, but could not have known that her fate would have been death as it were. And that honour killings meted out by 'these people' upon their own, was difficult to understand (difficult for a Briton).
    Im rambling, but these are debatable thoughts and concerns..

    Keep well

  8. Update. I have nothing to read at work.

  9. Oops, sorry Asmaa. Will try to write some more next week.