Sunday, March 05, 2006

An imam in America

The role of imams in the Islamic communities in Western countries is often brought up in media discussion of the war on terror and general Islamic-nonIslamic interface issues. This is especially so in the UK where much media coverage has centred on "radical mosques". This morning I found an account of how other Western imams practice their ministry.

The New York Times (rego required) has an article on a Brooklyn imam, Sheik Reda Shata, who was brought up in a remote area of Egypt and how he adjusted to life studying in Cairo, then serving as an imam in Germany and now New York. The questions his parishoners pose are often ones he had never anticipated answering before living in the West, such as the morality of oral sex, mortgages, or serving pork or alcohol as an employee, not least because in Middle Eastern society there is no discussion of the imam's decisions but Western Muslims often question his pronouncements.

One comment of his struck me in particular:
"I try to be more of a doctor than a judge," said Mr. Shata. "A judge sentences. A doctor tries to remedy."
Some of the challenges he faces are interesting (and somewhat amusing) in how some Western norms affect Muslim worship:
Mr. Shata was shocked when a tone-deaf man insisted on giving the call to prayer. Such a man would be ridiculed in Egypt, where the callers, or muezzinin, have voices so beautiful they sometimes record top-selling CD's.

But in the land of equal opportunity, a man with a mediocre voice could claim discrimination. Mr. Shata relented. He shudders when the voice periodically sounds.

The imam has also had training in psychology since some of his congregants refused to seek mental help following the events of 9/11, seeing such aid as weakness when such problems were to be faced with prayer and fasting. All in all, I found it a fascinating read.
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