The Islamic Community Center of Lancaster has grown in recent years. It hosts worship services as well as religious classes for youths. But it does not have an imam.
Imams not only have religious training but also legal and historic training. They speak Arabic, which is essential to recite and understand the Quran, Islam’s holy book.
In years past, imams and scholars came from the Middle East or were educated in schools there. But President Donald Trump’s travel ban targeting majority Muslim countries, which went into effect in January 2017, has made it harder for trained imams to enter the U.S.
Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu, a member of the faculty at George Mason University’s Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, said Muslim communities often have relied on religious clergy visas or immigrant tourist visas to teach in this country.
“Traditionally there were more imams who were coming from overseas to lead these congregations,” he said. “We are seeing these are getting a bit more difficult.”
Tekelioglu has preached and led prayer at the Islamic Community Center of Lancaster. He has a Ph.D. in political science and training in international relations.
Though he has led services, he is not an imam.
“I am one of those people on a volunteer basis who delivers a sermon and leads the community in prayer on certain Fridays,” he said.
Tekelioglu said religious traditions regarding imams vary.
“The institution of an imam in the Sunni tradition can be filled by nearly anyone in the community,” he said. “So you don’t need someone who is educated in a seminary and that is what has traditionally happened with the mosques (in the United States).
“The Shiite tradition is a little bit more hierarchical and there is more emphasis on having gone through a seminary education.”
The Associated Press recently reported that Trump’s ban has spurred the growth of Islamic seminaries in the United States.
Al-Hujjah Seminary, located in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, is the newest of several seminaries focused on the Shiite branch of Islam in the United States and Canada working to address a shortage of leaders.
“In many other states there are mosques with no ... functional imam who can assume the responsibilities of the religious leader or even speak,” Islamic Institute of America leader Imam Hassan Qazwini told The Associated Press. “I thought maybe a long-term solution for facing this shortage is to have our own Shiite Islamic seminary in the U.S., instead of waiting for imams to come.”
Tekelioglu cited the Qazwini family as one example. But he noted that “in the Sunni tradition, too, there have been more seminaries. ... Some are purely religious institutions, some are semiacademic, some are semireligious institutions.”
Training imams in the United States, he said, could offer some advantages. For example, he said imams trained in this country are likely “to make them more responsive to the needs of American Muslims who will be more culturally conversant and will have better ability to interface with some of the jurisprudential questions that emerge specifically with a North American landscape.”
However, he also noted there are some ethnic communities that prefer leaders who are able to speak their language. For example, he said, “The Bangladeshi community will want to have an imam who will speak both English or Bangla; or an Arabic- speaking imam.”
Although many Muslim communities have existed without an imam, he said a full-time imam can help Muslim communities grow to better understand their religion and their obligations and be able to host religious schools.
“Many mosque communities have not realized the importance of having full-time religious people and clergy,” he said.