After Homework, Duty as an Imam
Sunday, October 1, 2006
The boy, round-faced and thin, stood in front of the hundred or so men, his arms crossed, his eyes closed. When he knelt, they knelt. When he stood, they stood. When he stumbled for a word, squinting to access the search engine of his mind, they waited.
In a few hours, 13-year-old Aman Chhipa would be back at home sitting in front of his computer playing a video game, pretending he was a knight slaying giant spiders with a gem-laden sword. But at that moment, and for an hour each night this month, he is a boy leading a room full of men.
Aman and another teenager, Uzair Jawed, 16, were thrust into the revered role of imam, or prayer leader, at the Islamic Community Center of Northern Virginia, mostly out of desperation. A cleric from South Africa was supposed to lead the center's nightly prayer for Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims, as he had done for the past three years. But after Ismail Mullah arrived at Dulles International Airport on Sept. 22, he was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials and sent back to South Africa.
The center, in Woodbridge, had prepared for months for Mullah's arrival and had paid thousands of dollars for his airfare. Without him, its leaders had less than a day to find a hafiz -- someone who had memorized the more than 6,200 Arabic verses of the Koran and could recite them without looking at the text.
They searched among the adults. No one. They called other mosques. No one.
They then turned to the two boys, the only ones among them who had mastered the text enough to guide the congregation through the 30 sections in 30 days. The Koran is divided into 114 chapters containing more than 6,200 verses comprising about 80,000 words. It is like learning part of the Bible in Latin when you don't speak Latin.
"I thought, how am I going to do this?" Aman said. "I was nervous. It's a huge responsibility."
Aman is an eighth-grader at Fred M. Lynn Middle School in Woodbridge whose family is from India. He memorized the Koran by age 10. Uzair, 16, is a ninth-grader at Woodbridge Senior High School whose family is from Pakistan. He memorized it by the time he was 13.
Together, they lead the nightly prayer, correcting each other when needed, as is custom. Days that were once spent perched in front of a PlayStation 2 for hours, they said, are now heavy with studying that starts about 5 a.m. and stretches to about 11:30 p.m., with school and life in between.
"Before we were hafiz, we were just kids," Uzair said.
He and Aman might be the nation's youngest imams, said Nihad Awad, the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Islamic civil liberties group in the United States. The two are also a testament to the post-9/11 need for U.S. Muslims to groom their own leaders and stop depending on those from other countries, he said.
"Imams who come from overseas, sometimes they bring a different mentality. They come from Muslim-majority places. They have different cultures, norms and traditions," Awad said. "I think it's important that we develop our own."