American Muslim finds obstacles in quest to become an imam

Adeel Zeb, 27, wants to be among the first generation of American-born imams, but following that career path comes with more challenges than he expected.
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010

If there were a prototype for an American-style imam, Adeel Zeb might be it.

In Koran study groups, the 28-year-old volunteer chaplain at American University weaves in references to U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and comedian Dave Chappelle (both Muslim),, frat life and President Obama.

He preaches tolerance and civic idealism and sports a pinstriped suit, a GQ-ish trimmed beard and an animated delivery he learned from the Baptist college where he minored in communications. He'd like to become part of the first generation of American-born imams, but it's a career path that is proving much more difficult than he expected.

"From what I'm hearing from my elders," Zeb says after months of fruitless job hunting, becoming an imam is "something you do when you can't do something else. It's like the last-choice career track."

Or as his wife, Nohayia Javed-Zeb, a 23-year-old law student, puts it: "Any guy with a Koran and a beard can be an imam."

Although the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the coming of age of a generation of American-born Muslims have triggered a call for spiritual leaders rooted in U.S. culture, most American mosques are led by imams from overseas who aren't fluent in English. They speak Arabic and have memorized the Koran -- the sole requirements of imams in most Muslim-majority countries.

They know how to lead prayers but don't necessarily have the professional credentials or communication skills to become community leaders: to speak to the media about Islam, advocate for Muslim civil liberties, preside at interfaith events and create youth programs, such as Boy Scout troops or speed-dating nights, that many Muslim American parents want for their children.

"I think that finally there is a realization [in the United States] that qualified imams do not just appear; they have to be developed," said Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America.

To Zeb, the need for American-trained spiritual leaders is desperate. He and his wife rattle off a list of issues on which younger Muslim Americans have asked their advice: men who wonder whether they're gay, women debating whether to wear a head covering, others questioning whether it's better to go hungry than eat meat that's not halal (prepared according to Muslim standards).

"I'm not trying to insult them," Zeb says of the imams from other countries, "but they can't speak the language. Kids get turned off from asking questions. They go on the Internet to try and find answers, and that's not appropriate."

"It's paramount -- that's not even a good enough word -- to have indigenous imams here who can understand the plight and problems of Muslim Americans," he said.

But there are no accredited imam-training programs in the United States nor standardized requirements for education, pay or benefits. Most imams don't make much -- $40,000 a year would be a generous salary, a number of Muslim leaders said -- and often don't command the same stature in their communities as Christian and Jewish clergy.

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