A shortage of imams

Two articles from The Washington Post over the weekend point to a theme I’ve been picking up on in recent weeks. For many mosques in America, especially since 9/11, it is very difficult to find an imam.

An article on Saturday, “Seminarians Face Pulpit Shortage,” which reported on the shrinking number of positions for clergy in America’s churches and synagogues, very briefly noted that mosques in America face exactly the opposite problem. The article quotes Jalal Abu Shaweesh, president of the Islamic Center of Cleveland, which has been looking for an imam for over a year, as saying, “the hardest thing is to find somebody who can speak English well and is comfortable with American culture.”

Once the finding is over, though, the hurdles keep coming, as one mosque in Northern Virginia discovered recently. Two teenage boys are leading the Ramadan prayers at the Islamic Community Center of Northern Virginia because the imam who was supposed to do so detained at Dulles Airport on 9/22 and sent back to South Africa. The imam, Ismail Mullah, had led prayers at ICCNV the last three years.

I find this quote from Nihad Awad, the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, most interesting:

“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.”

It is a very similar sentiment to that voiced by Sheik Hamza Yusuf in this book. Will the next generation of Muslims in America follow American-born imams?

Finally, these two graphs set off alarm bells:

The Council on American-Islamic Relations is writing letters to politicians demanding to know why Mullah and other scholars were turned away at the last minute. Nationwide, at least four other Islamic scholars were denied entry, without explanation, Muslim community leaders said.

They are questioning why the government waited until the men arrived in the country instead of denying their visas early enough for the mosques to find replacements.


Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection would not say why Mullah was turned away but said more than 1,000 people are denied entry every day for a variety of reasons. Kelly Klundt, a spokeswoman, said: “The State Department may issue a visa which allows someone to apply for admission into the U.S. It is not necessarily a guarantee that they will be permitted.”

5 years after 9/11 and our governmental agencies still aren’t on the same page? Why is the State Dept. so liberal in who it lets in? Does Customs/Border get better information than State? Why don’t they both get the same information? That doesn’t inspire confidence.

Update: My own reporting on this issue is now up at citylimits.org.


2 Responses to “A shortage of imams”

  1. Danny Says:

    There was a great series in the NY Times in the last year or so on an imam in Brooklyn. You should check it out, if you haven’t seen it yet.

  2. Matt Sollars Says:

    Yes, the series on Imam Reda from the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge written by Andrea Elliott. It is excellent and should be required for anyone interested in Muslim, Arab or immigrant issues.

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