Life as an Imām in the United Kingdom
Growing up in south London, becoming a member of a gang was something many youngsters had fallen prey to, and I myself could easily have fallen victim to this lifestyle. However what I could never have envisaged was that later on in life, I would help mediate between two notorious rival gangs, let alone become an Imām.
After returning from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1996 where I conducted my studies, I found a job in an Islamic bookshop in south London. In November 1998 I was offered a position as an Imām at Lewisham Islamic Centre, which was then known as Lewisham and Kent Islamic Centre.
At that time, the position involved leading the five daily prayers, delivering the Friday Sermon, teaching in the Islamic Centre’s school or Madrasah, delivering lectures and occasionally conducting the solemnisation of marriages.
In January 2001, the Centre had moved to its new location on Lewisham High Street. The Centre had not even officially opened yet and non-Muslims were walking in and out, eager to know more about Islām. A total of ten people converted to Islām even before the Centre had officially opened. I have found that there has always been an interest in Islām from the British public who are very open minded. Prior to 9/11, this interest was often centred around the belief and practices of Muslims whereas post 9/11, interest has often been initiated through more controversial, political and sensitive issues. Moving to the new location posed a great opportunity to build a community and the change in landscape around the area has certainly borne testimony to this, for example, the Centre itself used to be a night club; the prayer hall being a dance floor; the location of the Mihrāb (a niche in the wall that indicates the direction of prayer) being the bar area and the adjacent building (now also part of the Centre) being a betting shop. There are also now a number of Muslim-owned businesses around the Centre. This has all been made possible by the grace of Allāh jalla wa’alā.
With the new Centre now fully in operation, I began to realise the important role and significant impact that an Islamic Centre and an Imām can have on a community.
It is commonly understood that an Imām’s role is consigned to leading the prayers. Although this is an aspect of the role, it is much more than that and it is a role which I would consider as being vital for the success or failure of a community. If the Imām has no vision for his congregation, then there will be a lack of direction for the community. A vision I repeatedly offer my congregation is that of establishing a community like the community of Messenger of Allāh (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam). Indeed it is often forgotten by many that the Messenger of Allāh (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) was himself an Imām.
I have been asked to write about my experiences as an Imām and the following are examples of some of the duties and responsibilities I have come to find in the role:
1. Dawah (calling to Islām) Work
The greatest challenge with Dawah was dealing with the large influx of non-Muslims coming to the Centre wanting to know more about Islām. Many a time, this would result in a non-Muslim embracing Islām. It would not be an exaggeration to say that every week between five to ten individuals would accept Islām. Since the opening of the Centre at its new location, thousands of people have accepted Islām and praise be to Allāh, in February of this year, although there are only 28 days in that month, we had 30 shahādahs (declarations of faith). It has reached a stage that every Afro-Caribbean non-Muslim that I would encounter in the streets of Lewisham had either been to the Mosque, had known someone who was a Muslim or had become a Muslim himself. I find myself giving salams (greetings) to almost all whom I encountered on the streets of Lewisham. It should be noted that over the last couple of years, we have seen a rapid increase in the number of white, English people accepting Islām—in fact, the last individual I introduced to the community at the time of writing this article was a young white brother.
Whenever we have a new revert, I always pair him/her up with an established member of the community who is responsible for assisting them in making their transition to their new way of life, in the same way the Messenger of Allāh (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) paired a Muhājir (a companion who migrated from Makkah) with a resident companion from the Ansār (those that were native to Madīnah) when the first ever community of Muslims on the face of this earth was established in Madīnah.
2. Social Work
Without wanting it or seeing it coming, I had become responsible for a great deal of social work within the community. This involved dealing with issues pertaining to matrimonial, bereavement and general counselling; gang mediation; solving drug and alcohol problems; business related disputes; financial disputes and the list goes on and on. What was amazing in the aspect of social work was that we were also helping non-Muslims with their disputes. The Centre, by the permission of Allāh and His will was able to bring about reconciliation between two major non-Muslim rival gangs in the London Borough of Lewisham.
The role also entails keeping Muslims united and brotherly. This involves organising social events, trips, sporting events and other recreational activities that are aimed at keeping the Muslim community determined and close together. In fact, the one common feature which many people appreciate when visiting the Centre is the brotherhood. This is achieved through various means. For example, we take the youth on a day trip every year in the summer, the purpose of which is to build relationships between individuals. This involves a day of activities such as playing basketball, football and visiting a beach (after peak hours of course). For some, they are not used to travelling and therefore, they learn about concepts such as the traveller’s prayer when we do our Salāh (daily prayers). There is often an initiation for the new members (often volunteers) to the trip who are thrown into the sea and the day ends with a meal where we would all discuss the day, what they learned and the benefits of remaining united (I hope future volunteers for this trip are not reading this)! It is through unity that the community will be better able to face the many challenges that confront it such as Islamophobia, which I deal with below.
3. Community Cohesion
Again without wanting it, or seeing it coming, the Imām had become responsible for dealing with external bodies ranging from local state schools, colleges and universities, to hospitals, the police force, councils and local community groups. Much of this work involved educating people about Islām and allaying misconceptions about the faith through using lectures, assemblies and carrying out discussions. This role also involved pastoral care and chaplaincy work particularly at universities and hospitals, such as Goldsmiths and Lewisham Hospital. A very extensive part of this task was to deal with the various faith communities in the borough, in particular the Christian and Jewish communities. One of the misconceptions, for example, we have been able to clear up through engaging in this work is of a nurse who thought that Muslim male patients refused to shake her hand because her hands were dirty.
Alḥamdulillāh, the Centre was able to establish a strong relationship with local churches and two local synagogues that eventually resulted in the ‘Three Faith Forum’ being set up by the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities. We only realised the level of support the Centre had gathered from the Local Community recently when the BNP announced that they will be coming to Lewisham Islamic Centre after the Woolwich attack and murder earlier this year. Local community and faith groups as well as neighbours were all willing to support and defend the Centre against the expected attack of a BNP march by arranging with the Centre a programme to hold a counter rally and making representations on the Centre’s behalf to elected representatives and community groups that an attack on the Centre was to be considered as an attack on them all. This averted the march of BNP, who were prevented from coming to the Borough. It is common knowledge now that the Centre is an established institution within the Borough.
When dealing with people as an Imām, it is important to realise that you are not only an Imām to the elderly but also to the young; not only to the men, but also to women; not only to the rich and privileged, but also to the poor and less privileged. This therefore requires the ability to relate to people of differing interests and needs. My interaction to all is to always be friendly and light hearted; indeed we know that the Messenger of Allāh (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) would sit among the Sahābah (companions) to the extent that a person entering their gathering would be unable to distinguish him from them. This is very important because an Imām should not see himself cut off from the congregation or seek to create any barriers. For example, I make it a habit of approaching any new face I see at the Centre and if it turns out that they are new to the community then I make sure that I introduce and welcome that individual to all the congregation, after the Ishā’ salāh (the late evening prayer) for example, as that usually attracts the most attendees.
The role of the Imām also involves educating the community through lectures, classes and through giving general advice. This is being done regularly and covers various topics including Arabic and Qur’ān. Lessons include children, brothers and sisters. This role also involves organising special courses and conferences with various guest speakers. I was filled with joy with the cultivation of the young ones in our community recently when a non-Muslim guest visited the Centre and asked our very young members whether they knew who Jesus (‘alayhis salām) was and if they were taught about Christianity to which one of these young children replied in a very polite manner saying: “Yes Sir, we know all about Prophet Jesus (‘alayhi salām), but can you tell us if all schools teach children about Islām and Prophet Muhammad (Sallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam)?” This served as an indicator that the community was moving forward and that we were, by the grace of Allāh, starting to produce Muslims even from a very young age with the ability to positively engage in the various discourses which they will be confronted with in the future.
I have learned that the best way to get people involved in the community is to treat everyone as an individual and to utilise their specific skills and expertise in the service of the community. This was the case with the Messenger of Allāh (Sallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) in his dealing with the Sahābah. For example, Khālid Ibn al-Walīd (RadiAllāhu ‘anhu) was an expert in warfare and as such was utilised as a military leader, whereas Mu’ādh Ibn Jabal (RadiAllāhu ‘anhu) was tasked with being sent to Yemen to teach people about Islām because of his knowledge and scholarship—the point being, everyone has a role to play.
A certain brother in the community has his background in football. He may have thought that his skill was of no benefit. However, I encouraged him to set up a football club representing the Centre and this team recently won the league and cup double with the team being announced at the awards ceremony as “Lewisham Islām”. This resulted in the Centre undoubtedly becoming known within many circles that would otherwise not have known about us.
Of equal importance is the encouragement of the development of skills and confidence building. This in turn ties in with the overall vision mentioned above by developing leaders for the future. I allocate leadership roles to the youth whereby every so often, some would call the Adhān (call to prayer), some would lead the Salāh whilst others would attend and represent the Centre in community engagement work. Responsibility has also been granted to the sisters who were instrumental in enabling the Centre to organise its first “Eid in the Park” event.
5. Matrimonial Service
The Imām has become responsible for finding prospective spouses for members of the community. While it might seem like a very rewardable deed, finding someone his or her potential life-long partner in order to help that individual get closer to Allāh is probably the most challenging task and brings about the most stress. Arranging meetings before the marriage is very tiresome as well as conducting the nikāh (the marriage contract). Then, if any problems occur in the marriage the “Imām is responsible”.
Being an Imām certainly has its humorous occasions, such as a nikāh which I conducted in my office last Ramadān. As it was the last 10 days of Ramadān, we had brothers who were staying at the Centre for I’tikāf (retreat in the Mosque) as was the custom of the Messenger of Allāh (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam). On this occasion, the family decided to record the event and one of the brothers who was sleeping next door was snoring so loudly, that the noise featured very prominently in the video recording (no nasheeds will be required in the editing of the video!).
6. Funeral service
With the increase in new Muslims, an Imām’s role has naturally meant that he will encounter and must know how best to deal with sensitive issues around the funeral arrangements with the family of a Muslim who remain non-Muslim. I would like to share a very moving event which took place earlier this year. A brother who had only recently reverted had passed away (Rahimullāh (may Allāh have mercy on him)). His family were not Muslim and I, along with some others, liaised with the family to ensure that he was to be given a Muslim burial. I attended the funeral with a number of brothers, many of whom had never known the brother and at the end of the ceremony, we collected money from all the Muslims in attendance and one of the brothers then gave the money to the mother of the deceased with a message that if she needed anything then she should not hesitate to let us know. The mother was so overwhelmed from the concern of the Muslims in attendance, many of whom as stated earlier did not even know her son, that she stated that she too would like to accept Islām Alḥamdulillāh.
Unfortunately, we have seen a sharp rise in Islamophobia in recent times and with this, the position of Imāms in the UK has also come under the spotlight, with Muslim leaders being vilified, particularly with the disturbing news of the Government seeking to introduce ASBO-like orders for certain Muslim leaders. Muslim leaders unlike others are unfortunately held responsible in some way simply because ‘a Muslim’ who commits a crime simply happened to live within the same location as his/her institution. Are priests or leaders of other faiths held to account simply because a person who happened to share the same faith as them and lived within the same locality committed a crime? It is therefore important that this situation is not exacerbated by demonising and marginalising innocent British Muslims, Imāms and scholars, whose role is vital in propagating and explaining the true teachings of Islām, in a world where political grievances and unjust policies have caused some Muslims to misinterpret the religion to justify their own political but unIslamic acts to counter the injustices they witness. In a time when some Muslims are misunderstanding and misapplying the religion of Islām, what is needed is a greater emphasis on teaching the true normative Islām, and not a suppression of it by marginalising and vilifying innocent Imāms and Islamic scholars.
In summary, a vital ingredient needed in being a successful Imām is dedication and time. My wife often says to me that she feels that I dedicate so much time to the Centre, that she is the second wife (the Centre being the first)—as humorous as this may sound, it actually highlights the time, sacrifice and commitment needed from an Imām. I would like to encourage youngsters and students of knowledge to aspire to become Imāms or at least gain some years’ experience in this role. I only realised the great extensiveness and importance of my role as an Imām when Shaykh Abdul Qayum (Head Imām at East London Masjid), said to me that he had thought long about the closest profession and work to the work of the Messenger of Allāh (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam). He concluded that he could only think of the role and position of an Imām. May Allāh enable and give all of us who have embarked in this role the Tawfiq (ability) to do it justice and make it a success.