Shabir Ally was 14 when an Imam helped him make a life-changing decision.
“I came from a family that didn't put Islam on the top of the ladder,” he explains of his background.
It was an Imam who helped Ally put Islam at the top. He was going around Ally's village of Annendale in Guyana, encouraging Muslims to come to the Masjid. When the Imam got to Ally's house he catered his invitation to his father and older brother.
But Ally says it was he who really picked up the message.
Following that visit, Ally began going to the Masjid regularly to pray, attend classes, and some of the brothers there lent him books to read about Islam.
“The more I read the more I saw the beauty of Islam and I realized [it] requires a life commitment, not a peripheral one,” he tells Sound Vision in an interview. “For the first time I came to realize Islam was more than a traditional practice.”
Today Ally is the president of the Islamic Information and Dawa Centre International in Toronto, Canada, which promotes this message he decided to embrace fully as a teenager.
That's the power of one Imam to bring a Muslim youth closer to Islam.
While the role of parents and the family is unmistakably the first in helping Muslim youth keep their Islam and practice it throughout their lives, Imams and community leaders play a role as well. Their actions and relationship with the youth in their communities can generate love, pride and a commitment to not just know and emotionally attach themselves to Islam, but to really live it.
Imams and Muslim youth-the gap
The gap between the Muslim youth in the West and many Imams is something often complained about by both.
Young Muslims who have grown up here complain Imams follow a dictatorial style of leadership, talking down to them because they are younger, and expecting a “hear and obey” reverence with no respect for them in return. Or they just never acknowledge the special needs of the youth who have grown up here.
Imams on the other hand complain youth in the West are immoral, disrespectful, and do not follow proper Adab [etiquette] in dress and behavior.
The complaints on both sides are often valid. However, as leaders, the Imams seem to forget the very important role they can play in helping Muslim youth in the West maintain their Islamic practice in a context where all religion is virtually shunned, and many Muslims are being swept away by forces of materialism, family breakdown and Christian missionary activity, to name just a few problems.
Farrakhan is bold and straight: Can our Imams be like that?
“Sometimes I look at Louis Farrakhan and how loud he is and the strong positions he takes and I wonder why Muslim leaders don't do that,” says Kamran Memon, referring to the leader of the Nation of Islam, an African-American nationalist and spiritual movement in the United States. “Louis Farrakhan generates a lot of pride among his followers because he is perceived as being strong.”
Memon grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and was involved as a counselor at Muslim Youth of North America (MYNA) conferences in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He is currently an attorney specializing in discrimination cases in Chicago.
“Whenever there's a major issue on the radar screen of public life, young Muslims hear many voices, they hear many people sharing their perspectives on each of these issues.....but one voice that's hardly ever there is the Muslim voice,” he tells Sound Vision.
Muslim leaders' silence in the public arena on issues of local concern such as racism and homelessness, means more than just the misperception that Muslims have no voice on these issues.
It also means many Muslim youth, in particular, end up seeing Islam as irrelevant to the issues of the day and by extension, themselves as Muslims living in the West.
“Because young Muslims have the impression that their religion does not have anything to say about issues like poverty and violence and racism, it's easy for them to put Islam in a box and just put it away, because it's not like they've lost anything by doing that.”
“These young people have to see the value of Islam with their eyes,” Memon notes.
Imported and local Imams
Adding to the problem is what some have described as the incessant “importing of Imams” from abroad, who may have the Islamic knowledge, but little to no experience of the needs and realities of Muslims in the West.
”They're like first generation Imams, what we need is second generation Imams,” says Sheema Khan, a former MYNA Advisor for eastern Canada.
Seeking an Imam familiar with the local culture, Khan says, is something grounded in Islamic teachings.
“When you look at the Quran, and you look at the Prophets, they were already part of the society,” she notes. They were familiar with the culture and customs of the people, and the people were familiar with them.
Khan says the people who are really able to talk to the youth are people like Imam Siraj Wahhaj of Brooklyn, New York, an African-American convert who grew up in the U.S. He is a favorite speaker amongst Muslim youth in North America, and at MYNA and Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conferences, for example.
Khan says it is really the “convert Imams” who have gone back to authentic centers of learning in the Islamic world “who are going to be effective”.
However, she does not blame Imams who have come from abroad to their communities for the fact that most of them cannot solve problems relating to youth who have grown up here. “I think that is unrealistic,” she says.
For Shabir Ally, the action of an Imam led to a turning point in his life as a Muslim youth, and in the long-run as someone devoted to Islam.This was in a non-Muslim country. Perhaps Imams in the West can also help change the life course of so many Muslim youth who are either ignorant, searching or struggling with Islam.