He’s not an imam, lol he’s a postal worker: Locating the imam in the USA

Nancy Khalil, Yale University

This introduction is part of POMEPS Studies 32, The Politics of Islam in Europe and North America. Download the full PDF here.

Where does Islamic authority come from? Is it from the law, and the texts from which it is derived, as Hallaq argues (2009)? Or from the scholars, or ‘ulmaa, who are institutionally and governmentally authorized and interpret the texts, as Malika Zeghal’s work depicts (2007), or the mediums they use to disseminate it, as Charles Hirschkind teaches (2006)? Does authority come from those who implement the law, like judges’ interpretive methods in times of legal doubt, as depicted in the work of Intisar Rabb (2015)? Is it from the state and its role in supporting and establishing religion, as Johnathan Laurence’s work in Europe suggests (2012)? Does Islamic authority emerge from knowledge, as Patrick Gaffney’s work with Egyptian preachers argues (1994)? Or is Islamic authority derived from the faith’s adherents and the multiple ways in which they authorize it, interpret it, and practice it, as supported by the work of many anthropologists including Gilsenan (1982), Geertz (1968), and Mahmood (2005)?

If there is one attribute one can extract from the various theories on authority present in social theory, it is that authority is not static. The larger project this essay draws from is not a search for Islamic authority, but instead for understanding how that authority emerges informed by local cultural, legal, historical, and bureaucratic norms. Effectively, it is better titled Muslim authority, not Islamic.  The idea of a Muslim authority contends with dominant theories in the anthropology of Islam. It seeks to re-center the role of the anthropologist from invoking texts without engaging them, giving the text more life than is bestowed to those uttering its words. It does not deny the idea of an “Islamic authority,” but seeks to contextualize it through the lens and experiences of those who call on it, without making “Islam’s” authoritative role hegemonic.

This short paper aims to depict a portion of the larger project’s argument, which is that through the identification and professionalization of the imam, religious authority for Muslims in the US emerges as much from Muslim recognition as it does from religious cultural norms in the US, and from the regulatory frameworks that inform the directions religion takes in this time of rapid institutionalization.

The Imam and the Priest

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election in November, Amazon began airing a unique advertisement. The ad was widely viewed as a political message, despite the company’s insistence that they had no such intent, stating that work began on it months before the election. It featured a priest and an imam, or so the media identified them. Sitting down at tea, the two faith leaders wince from knee pain when rising to stand, independently proceed to their Amazon Prime app to purchase their tea-drinking friend a knee brace and deliver each other identical gifts. After embracing, the imam and the priest are shown in their houses of worship painlessly prostrating and kneeling, respectively. According to advertising professors at Boston University, this is the first time an imam has been featured in a major network broadcast ad, although other faith leaders have been portrayed (Weise 2017).

The ad inspired discussion on its relationship with reality. On a Whatsapp group of Muslim leaders from around the US working in a variety of non-profit, media, academic, and public service industries, including several chaplains and imams, one person shares the ad and another chimes in that his family member knows the imam.  “He’s not an imam lol,” he messaged. “He’s a postal worker.”  An approximately 38-minute video online with almost one million views, posted by Al-Jazeera English, features the imam and the priest answering viewers’ questions (“Live With: A Priest and an Imam from Amazon’s Viral Ad” 2016).  They assure the audience multiple times that they are now good friends despite only having met on the set. They argue that the reason Amazon cast them was because their personal connection appeared genuine on film, and that the authenticity was a reflection of interfaith work that was already a regular part of their lives—a contrast to the forced-looking rapport among actors vying for their roles. The imam identifies himself in the video as the principal of an Islamic school, but never seeks to shed the title imam either. So, what is he? Is he a postal worker? Is he a principal, or is he an imam?

The actor’s appearance in the ad reflects general public expectations for how such a religious authority looks and dresses. The imam, a man of South Asian descent, appears to be middle-aged, in the 50- to 70-year age group, with a thick, long beard and olive-colored skin. He smiles warmly throughout the ad. He is dressed in a long beige thawb, a floor-length dress robe commonly worn in much of the Arab world. On his head rests a topi or kufi, best translated as skull cap. To those familiar with Muslim clerical attire, the garment provides clues to his professional identity. The long thawb, while common attire in many parts of the Arab world, is less so in South Asia. On the subcontinent, the more common traditional attire among men is a shalwar kameez, a knee or shin-length dress shirt and matching pants combination. The thawb is worn commonly there only among religious leaders such as mawlanas (honorific title with an etymology rooted in stewardship), muftis (jurists), ‘ulamaa (scholars), or qadis (judges).

It is unclear whether Amazon ad directors were attuned to such clothing nuances, or whether the man cast elected to don the thawb to depict a religious vocation. Either way, there are implications to the portrayal. It is evident from the topi, age, beard, and attire that, at least for the commercial’s purpose, he is being fashioned, or is fashioning himself, as an imam, and that there is some common imagined figure of an imam to fashion him into. Depicting him alongside a priest also puts him in a category of professional peers as an analogue for his own occupation, regardless of how strong of an analogue it is or the implications of appropriating such a professional parallel on authority and leadership within Muslim traditions and Islamic development. Meaning, are an imam and a priest necessarily professional peers?  Or, does American society need them to be so we reform them to meet what is comprehensible?   Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the priest would also work as a postal worker; a principal, perhaps. Which raises the question, can an imam also be a principal? Can he also be a principal and a postal worker? Who decides, and why do we care so much about what an imam can do or who can hold that title? And, what are the Muslim repercussions of the title of the imam becoming synonymous with that of minister, priest, or rabbi?

To those familiar with Muslim leaders, it would not be surprising to learn that the imam does work in fact as a postal worker, securing benefits and a stable salary from that position.  In addition, he may also be serving as a principal of an Islamic weekend school.  He may still also be a man versed in the reading and recitation of the Qur’an, and a regular leader for the five ritual prayers in his local mosque, as well as an occasional speaker at the pulpit. If the mosque does not have a hired imam, that title is often granted to men[1] with ability to perform some of the imam’s duties. This ad, produced by one of the largest global corporations today, and aired to broad audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, depicts the imam, his presumed image, and his assumed professional peers.  The ad is one of many mechanisms contributing to the professionalization of the imam by offering an implicit fashioning of his image, his professional peers, and his ritual.

The individual cast in the role also helps us see that the term imam is under no one’s authority or control. Unlike the priest, who, even if working as a principal, would be ordained by his church and assigned by that church to any related work, the imam lacks such a process or central institution to legitimize his authority. He can also be a postal worker, and in fact, may need to be in order to secure healthcare and retirement benefits, which, until quite recently, were almost impossible to find while working at a mosque [Bagby 2012].

Professional dissonance among imams

Imams employed or volunteering in mosques across the US expressed a mix of emotions. Many love their jobs, while others are unable to fulfill the expectations of their congregation, or ones they place on themselves. A congregation has many needs, and when one person either perceives that it is their duty alone to fulfill them, or has those expectations placed on them, it can lead to consistent cognitive dissonance.  Geoff Harkness and Peggy Levitt call this response “professional dissonance” and argue that it can frequently arise in transnational occupations, as those who work in them negotiate their imagined roles from “back home” with the expectations of their new locale (forthcoming). The idea of professional dissonance becomes even more pronounced in the case of imams in America, where the profession is not regulated or clearly defined.  Many come from societies where the title of imam refers to men in sovereign leadership, or founding jurists of major theological schools of thought, or, more simply, the individual leading a congregational ritual prayer at any given prayer time.  Borrowing duties from foreign homelands, along with Christian-centric religious leadership norms in the US, the imam in America is forming into a vocation, one that is emerging from a hybrid of these forces.

More recently, that hybrid also encounters state bureaucracies, as Muslims seek to institutionalize and produce imams locally. Finally, this dissonance can occur as imams get caught up in everyday pastoral needs of their congregations. These commitments can make them unable to invest time in the spiritual development portion of their work, one that rests on their own spiritual experiences first and foremost.  These pastoral needs emerge from a local understanding and expectation of the role of religious leadership within their congregation and society at large, both socially and legally. Clergy operate under a set of norms particular to them and their duties, including both privileges and responsibilities.  In order for those to be applied, one needs to be recognized as “clergy.”  The end result for the imam in the US is a term that is technically a multiple indicator, referring either to individuals employed by mosques serving as the central religious leader, or an individual leading any congregational prayer, or as an honorific title used to address an individual identified as someone with some level of knowledge and/or influence emerging as one that refers to the spiritual leader of a mosque.

Professionalization has historically been tied to regulation.  Absent direct government control (which is precluded by our first amendment principles), locating a regulatory gatekeeper in the US, as has been done in other countries, is perceived as a solution to existing problems. However, our politics here preclude the emergence of typical regulatory patterns. The ideological diversity of the Muslim community, the various sites of immigrants’ places of origin, and the various visions for religious presence in the US have made even fledgling attempts to establish recognized sites of Muslim authority unsuccessful. This is now slowly changing. A recognized authority may emerge in the future, and in so doing, will alter the roles of Muslim religious leaders. I argue that such a regulatory site to emerge successfully will require institutionalization that routinizes the historic authority of Muslim charismatic figures, but also makes more explicit other competing occupations to the imam, such as that of the mufti (jurist) and the ‘alim (scholar). In this sense, the profession of the imam will not, and cannot, regulate its own boundaries, but rather those boundaries will sharpen in form as emerging Islamic seminaries offer space that anchors conflicting occupations. I use the term “conflicting” here hesitantly because it is not the occupations that are in conflict but their boundaries.  An individual can be trained as a scholar and have produced a substantial peer-recognized body of scholarship and yet elect to be employed as an imam.  Such a case indicates that there is no conflict between occupations; however, conflicts emerge in the ways one can move between them, or gain access to them at all.

At this moment in the US, there are no recognized gatekeepers or authoritizing mechanisms for any of these occupations. The process of granting authority to imams and other leaders is thus done on a comparatively ad hoc and individualized basis. Some strongly condone this decentralized structure, pointing to it as one that fosters true freedom of religion.   Others remain wary that lack of any regulation creates excessive space for community vulnerability and lack of an ability to unify congregations.  More recently, Islamic seminaries have been emerging relatively rapidly across the country, with a strong push for pursuing accreditation.  The process of institutionalizing Islamic seminaries on par with broader US higher education standards, however, shifts the authorizing mechanisms from relying on an (often singular) charismatic scholar who legitimizes an institution to ones that are built on an administrative structure that includes a range of leaders and scholars, and a life and identity for the institution beyond a single individual.

As they institutionalize, Islamic seminaries, bound by state governed degree-granting requirements, can and will offer requirement boundaries and expectations for their scholars, educators, theologians and jurists. Defining these occupations through institutions offers professional paths for those aspiring to such careers, allowing individuals interested in scholarship to distinguish their work and pursuits from the increasingly pastoral expectations of mosque boards hiring imams. This results in the potential professionalization of the imam surfacing not through structure introduced by organized imams, but through the relegation of certain skills and expertise to the domain of the Islamic seminaries.  As this category of local ‘alims and muftis becomes well defined, and the routinized institutions accepted as legitimate by Muslims through the broader US higher education authorizing mechanisms, mosques may further come to trust their provision of training, credentialing, and authorizing individuals deemed qualified to lead congregations.

The emerging change highlights the difference between top-down and bottom-up authoritization. Top-down decision-making originates within regulatory frameworks, and, as seen when governments like those in many Muslim-majority and some European nations have explicit roles in managing religion, is dictative, not authoritative.  Bottom-up authorization begins with charisma, and that is precisely where the Muslim community began. However, this charisma is not uniform, nor unchallenged. In order for the charismatic figure to emerge, stigmatized identities—as many imams contend with—become a necessary contrast. Furthermore, owing to the loud politicization of Islam, this process is not happening internally to the community, but in conversation with, and exposure to, a broader public with a vested interest in its outcome.

There are many stakeholders who have an interest in the American imam. First and foremost, the primary stakeholders are Muslims around the country seeking spiritual guidance and religious leadership. Second are the various non-Muslim faith groups interested to know their neighbors and develop meaningful relationships with diverse groups within their broader community.  Third are various state apparatuses, including federal and local law enforcement, elected politicians, and public servants who are interested broadly in community leaders, their organizing capacity and their activities as they intersect with other municipal events and life. Government interest can sometimes be cause for concern, reinforcing stigmatized associations with security concerns, including the deputization of imams to seek out potential perceived threats. The imams themselves need not be forgotten, along with other Muslims who work in nearby fields, such as chaplains, scholars, mediators, and counselors, each of whose occupation is impacted by their local imam and his vocation. Thus the question of who determines who is an imam, who decides how one can get there, has meaning for all of these stakeholders and their various intents and interests in locating a US source of Muslim authority.


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[1] A female can be an imam, and there are women who hold that role in some all-women mosques.  In its most classic understanding and ubiquitous use, ‘imam’ is the individual who leads the prayer, not a particular job, role, or title.  Accepting that, any time a women leads others in prayer, she is, in that function, the imam.