Friday prayers are usually the most attended services at any mosque in the world, to the extent that capacity issues mean many have to arrange multiple sessions. Much like Sundays at church, the Imam delivers a sermon to the congregation, referred to in Arabic as the Khutbah.
They offer an unrivalled opportunity to educate a sizeable audience from the community through the lens of Islam, not only on religious matters, but also relevant social and political issues. For many Muslims in the UK, this is the most significant exposure to formal religious knowledge they have during the week.
So delivering the sermon is a tremendous responsibility. It pains me to say, however, that it is one that is too often squandered by poorly trained and ineffective Imams that are employed by many mosques across the country.
Many rely on overseas applicants to fill such positions. This often leads to Imams with a lack of familiarity with British culture and a lack of fluency in English. Problems arise when regressive cultural practices and beliefs, such as female genital mutilation or killing blasphemers, are then wrongly conflated with religion and propagated from the pulpit, despite having no legitimate basis.
There have been several instances of British mosques giving platforms to incendiary clerics to spew their hatred to impressionable congregants, either out of ignorance of their controversial views, or more worryingly, an inability to recognise that such views should be a cause for concern.
There is also a tendency for such Imams to otherise British culture as an antithesis to the Islamic way of life, even though the majority of the congregants are British and the culture is one they call their own.
In the past few weeks alone, I’ve sat through a sermon against celebrating Christmas, followed by a sermon against celebrating the New Year. The Imam spent a significant amount of time railing against Muslims who have Christmas trees in their homes or are up late at night watching the fireworks.
This irrational fear many Imams have of Muslims integrating too much into Western society is bizarre and unsettling. Looking around the packed prayer room, I wondered how many of the congregants had gone out to buy a Christmas tree? Was it really a major issue afflicting the Muslims of our time?
Too much assimilation has never been a problem. It is ironic because poorly trained Imams that the youth struggle to relate to are a bigger reason driving Muslims away from the mosque.
Out of touch Imams lack credibility, especially with the British youth who feel that they do not possess the necessary knowledge or insight to provide any practical advice or help them navigate through modern life in Britain.
How many mosques can confidently claim they have employed Imams that have the training and the temperament to provide counselling on sensitive issues such as addiction, depression, alienation, unemployment or dealing with Islamophobia in society? How many members of the congregation would feel safe to discuss matters like their struggles with faith or their sexual orientation without any fear of judgement or reprisal? My experiences with Imams and Mosque management committees don’t inspire confidence.
Friday is counted as part of the weekend in many Muslim countries or, at the very least, accommodations are made for prayers. This is not the case in the UK, where most adult Muslims have to take time off work or try and fit it into their lunch break. It obviously doesn’t help when the schedule is not adhered to, which, let’s be realistic, is the norm rather than the exception.
I remember one instance in particular where, instead of taking into account a very reasonable request to be punctual, the Imam admonished members of the congregation for being preoccupied with matters of this world instead of the hereafter. We were told to stop worrying about upsetting our boss at work and instead worry about pleasing our boss in life, God Almighty. I’m still not sure how those of us who work for a living would be able to feasibly put that advice into practise.
It can’t be stressed enough that we cannot paint all mosques or Imams with the same brush. In fact, there are many that recognise the problems and are actively trying to address them. However, it is clear that there is so much more to be done.
There should be a minimum qualification requirement for all Imams and a non-sectarian Islamic syllabus introduced in conjunction with the various Muslim bodies in the UK. There should also be mandatory continuous professional development for all qualified Imams. At the very least, Imams should be fluent in English in order to reach a wider segment of the many ethnic groups that make up the Muslim community. Knowledge and ideology are important, but pointless without the ability to effectively communicate. Mosques and management committees should also be open to women. Misogynistic values and petty sexist attitudes should be in the rear-view mirror.
It is imperative that mosques make an active effort to engage with the younger generation. If young Muslims lose faith in the mosques, they might turn to the internet or non-conventional sources for information. There is always a risk that they will fall victim to extremists who prey on disillusioned youth.
It is up to us within the Muslim community to ensure that mosques transform from simply a place to offer prayers, into a safe haven for those that need it and a means of inspiring productive, well rounded and socially conscious leaders of tomorrow.