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Young Imams present American Islam

Saturday January 21, 2012 09:06:27 PM, IINA

Washington DC: A new generation of young American Muslims are taking the job of imams, representing what is seen by many as an American brand of Islam to challenge misconceptions about the faith.

“We’re beginning to have larger numbers of American kids going into Muslim studies and become imams,” Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University, told the USA Today.

Recently, 27-year-old Asif Umar was named the new imam of Daar-ul-Islam mosque in St. Louis area.

“Now if you look at ads for imams, they ask for candidates who know English, can relate to interfaith groups and communicate with a younger generation,” Haddad said.

“They don’t want to lose the younger generation.”

Growing up in the US, Umar, born to Indian immigrants, was different from old imams in St. Louis area.

Devoted to the city’s sports teams, the young Muslim used to mark the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan with a St. Louis Blues hockey game.

He studied at the Catholic Academy of the Sacred Hearts to the eighth grade.

As Umar says, “Not every imam went to a Catholic school in the suburbs.”

As his friends headed off to high schools, Umar decided to learn more about his faith.

Growing up in a home where religion was an important factor, Zohra Umar, Asif’s mother, was surprised about her youngest child’s dream, at age 14, to memorize the entire Qur’an.

The move showed that immigrant parents of American-born Muslims, who once insisted that their children become doctors and engineers, have begun relaxing those expectations for a new crop of young Muslim-American scholars.

“We were happy about his decision,” his mother said.

“We didn’t think he would be missing out on anything.”

For US Muslims, imams like Umar were potential ambassadors of Islam, who can present the faith’s true image to the Americans.

“He [imam Umar] is the kind of guy we want as the face of American Islam,” Muhammad Dalal, 20, a student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said after Umar led his first Friday prayers as imam.

“He was raised here, and he’s representative of our Muslim-American experience.”

Memorizing the holy Qur’an at the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, Ill., Umar became a hafiz (recite). He also studied typical secular courses in math, science and literature.

After graduation, Umar changed his course from following his father’s footsteps to medical school to join a five-year course in Islamic studies where he specialized in fiqh, the principles of Islamic jurisprudence.

Later in 2008, Umar left for South Africa to pursue a two-year master’s degree in Islamic jurisprudence and earned the title “mufti.”

He also spent six months in Cairo in 2009 to study Arabic afterwards he moved to Springfield, Va., to teach Islamic law at a school similar to the one he graduated from in Illinois.

“We wanted someone who grew up in the community but also someone who had been overseas and was qualified, and he had it all,” said Syed Rahman, a member of the Daar-ul-Islam mosque’s board at the time, and an Umar family friend.

“We went after him hard.”

Khalid Shariff, 70, a retired member of the mosque, said Umar’s age was also important.

“He was educated here, and he knows the culture,” Shariff said.

“For the young people, he will know the problems they go through.”

Being familiar with specific problems that faced Muslims in post 9/11 America, Umar’s friend Nauman Wadalawala says he was the right choice for this position.

“When it comes to talking to younger kids, and what they’re facing in school, he can speak to them from personal experience,” Wadalawala said.




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