The rise of the American ‘rockstar’ imams

R-O-C-K-S-T-A-R, is what I thought when I first saw Sheikh Hamza Yusuf speak at a Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conference in Chicago. I was in awe, not just of his words, but by size of the crowd. This was not your average local halaqah (gathering) – this was a crowd of thousands who had traveled from all over the United States to attend the conference and to see Yusuf.
They were there to catch a glimpse of the face behind the voice from lectures played on car stereos on their way to school or work. They were there because his calm demeanor and smooth rhetoric inspired them to be better Muslims and better Americans. After the lecture they were there to stand in line to ask him to autograph their copy of his book and maybe, if they were lucky to get a photo with him. We were in the presence of an all-American rockstar imam.

The Quest for Spiritual Guidance

In a faith tradition where historically a hierarchical clergy is considered unnecessary for believers to adhere to their faith, the role of imam in Islam has not always been clear. The specific parameters of the role have depended largely on whoever was given the role in the community. In the Muslim world where there seem to be more preachers than there are mosques, imams who dedicate themselves to years of rigorous study can distinguish themselves as influential jurisprudential scholars instead of simple evangelist hafizes (individuals who have memorized the Qur’an). The plethora of preachers, spiritual advisors and legal scholars readily available to provide an opinion in the Muslim world has made the role of the local imam quite simple. In the most basic sense, an imam’s service to the community has been to lead congregational prayers, officiate wedding ceremonies and oversee funeral procedures.

Likewise, the options for young Muslims seeking guidance on daily matters are quite vast with entire systems in place churning out faith-based rhetoric that seekers can choose to accept or reject. So a young man in Egypt unsatisfied with the claims of his local imam can go around the corner to another imam for a second opinion. He can, if necessary, seek legal guidance from the precedence set by sheikh from Al-Azhar or simply find moral assurance in the teachings of popular evangelist, Amr Khaled. Similarly, a young woman in Pakistan who may not even attend her local mosque, may travel regularly to her family’s peir (spiritual guide) for assistance with a family problem or advice on who to marry.

In the United States, though, imams often end up being imported clerics from ‘back home,’ equipped with the basics and ill-prepared to deal with the complexities of a whole new culture. The result has been an Islam that is lost in translation, literally. For the immigrant generation the cultural importation of imams is a welcome reminder of a still familiar homeland. For younger Muslims still forming their identity as second and third generation Americans, however, foreign born clergy come across as backwards and irrelevant – older men with long beards and heavy inaudible accents pushing old school patriarchal values without a true understanding of what it means to be a Muslim in America.

Young Muslim Americans have few options, as a result, for seeking guidance whether what they need is practical advice on dating and prom or going away for college and working in an interest based financial world. So when jummah khutbahs (lectures) claim that all ‘love marriages’ lead to divorce and women who disobey their husbands will go to hell it should be no surprise that many young Muslim Americans find their local imams to be spiritually and socially irrelevant. The result has been a split between those who try to blindly comply for the sake of tradition and those who simply abandon the faith entirely.

Getting It

Enter the newer generation of imams in America. Born and brought up in the States, they get it. They get what it is like to be young. They get what it is like to deal with high school and parents who just do not understand. They get art, sports, hip-hop and pop culture. They are accessible online and approachable in person. And they are getting noticed both by local youth and by international scholars alike.

“I don’t see anyone here waiting to mob me,” says Sheikh Suhaib Webb, when I suggest that his growing youth fanbase has earned him rockstar status in the Muslim American community. His thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers seem to indicate otherwise. Each status he posts earns a few hundred ‘likes’ and comments in minutes. Nevertheless, Webb points out that he considers others such as Hamza Yusuf and Sherman Jackson to have more “iconic” status in the US, while abroad the popularity of the likes of evangelist Amr Khaled and scholar Tariq Ramadan still remain unmatched by any American. He is further skeptical when I tell him more and more young Muslims seem interested in studying the deen (faith). “I think more young Muslims want to be Lebron James and Kim Kardashian than imams,” he jokingly responds.

That may be partly true, as in our material culture fame seems more enticing than spirituality, but Webb is one in a new generation of American imams, evangelists and motivational speakers gaining popularity for their ability to inspire and motivate youth by showing them that Islam can be relevant in their lives. Whether breaking out into a quick rendition of Akon’s Slap That to prove how easily teens memorize song lyrics but not Qur’anic passages or dubbing heaven as the iJannah, Webb’s ability to communicate through humor and socially relevant topics as well as his approachable nature have made him popular with a younger generation who had long given up on their local imams.

As newer imams are more mobile and are attempting to remain actively engaged with the national community, it is becoming more common to see them reach out through social media and to tour college campuses. And for the first time it seems that many young Muslims are looking to imams with newfound admiration and respect. Even finding Islam to be their new cool.

Being popular can have its challenges as well. Imam Khalid Latif, chaplain for New York University and the New York Police Department, and one of the youngest of the rising rockstar imams, admits that while the attention can be flattering, it makes being an imam even more challenging. As he puts it, “If everyone around you keeps telling you you’re great, you may begin to believe it – that can be a test in and of itself. If you don’t watch yourself, your arrogance can cause the community to remain stagnant.”

Despite the hype and concerns of young fans getting carried away in their adoration, it seems most fans genuinely want to feel a spiritual connection to Islam and are looking for role models to guide them. “So-called ‘rockstar’ imams have become such because they reach out to our generation by using social media outlets and by being proficient at marketing themselves,” says Shazeen Harunani, a dental student from Wisconsin, “We buy into it easily because we are so attuned to being in a celebrity-oriented culture that we naturally apply this thinking to our deen as well.”

Harunani, who regularly follows several imams and scholars who she considers more ‘Western’ on Twitter and Facebook mentions that accessibility is also important and that she gravitates towards certain scholars because their work tends to be the easiest to find and access during her daily activities. She attends lectures of her favorite speakers when she can, even traveling out of state to see certain scholars like Tariq Ramadan. “I read this quote recently – Islam is a filter and culture is water,” she says, “The imams I follow share the same water I do and have faced similar challenges as I have so I feel they can provide advice that is salient to what I am going through.”

Even with all these newer faces getting national and international recognition, the role of the imam in local communities has yet to be determined. It is not easy when such parameters have never been set. Webb and Latif both agree that the goal of imams should not be to gain notoriety but to remain in touch with needs of their local congregations. Both feel there is a need to establish more structured parameters to qualify imams as fit pastoral leaders. As Latif explains, “What we have doesn’t always reflect community need. We’re relying on personalities instead of mechanisms. So when a personality leaves that mechanism leaves as well.”

As known personalities both Latif and Webb often find themselves in situations where they need to play personal counselor rather than just spiritual advisor. Webb admits that he finds it difficult at times when others ask him for, what he calls, “Oprah advice,” unsure that he is qualified to provide them with the right advice. He says, “Sometimes people ask me questions and I’m like I don’t know you, I don’t know your life. I don’t want to tell you the wrong thing for you.” He tries to be both imam and Oprah when the need arises but points out that there is a need in the community to have psychologists and social workers that are actually trained to help in certain situations.

Latif, who as a university chaplain is regularly approached with personal questions, agrees with Webb that imams need assistance from mental health specialists at times, but feels there is also a value in imams being available for light counseling. “People could go to the Prophet (PBUH) and talk to him without having to worry about him being judgmental,” he says, “We don’t see that kind of pastoral care often in our community. People come to you sometimes and they don’t need a fatwa or legal ruling, they just need someone to talk to, someone who understands them. We have to be able to empower them and make them feel like they can still be Muslim.”

The Ultimate Rockstar Imam

As the last few decades have demonstrated the role of the imam in the Muslim American community is continually evolving. For each rockstar imam who has gained popularity at ISNA, there are more rising to the occasion on YouTube. Webb worries that some may see this and consider being an imam for the wrong reasons, particularly fame. “There is a danger if there are people who are not qualified but are looking to be like the Muslim Joel Osteen,” he says, “Imam Malik said that everyone should flee from fame. The danger is when people start to want fame and compete for fame. Everyone has that in them a little bit. And everyone has, or should have, someone who can tell them they suck.”

Perhaps if we consider success to be the result of communication skill and service rather than fame, the competition will be a little different. As Latif points out, “The Prophet (PBUH) was one of the best of communicators. He told us that one of the best qualities in his character was his speech. He was able to talk to everybody; it didn’t matter who they were, Muslim or not, Arab nor not. He was able to speak to them in a way that resonated with them.”

He then adds, “The Prophet’s (PBUH) words have lived for generations. His speech at the end of his life was to a crowd of 120,000 at Arafa, which was huge then, but even now, all these years later billions of people still draw from his words. You know, he basically is the ultimate rockstar [imam].”
(Image designed by Ehsaan Mesghali)

Nadia S. Mohammad is an Associate Editor at AltMuslimah. This article was originally published on Elan.

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