If we have learned anything at all from the recent uproar over the film made about Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) it is that Muslims are somehow failing to get the message across to the West about what they feel to be the real Islam.
That a group of fanatics with a cheap camcorder can manage to create such commotion throughout the world and leave Muslims once more having to defend their beliefs and their Prophet (pbuh) in the face of international chaos is a sad reflection on just how much Muslim religious leaders are failing to win the media war.
We have noted before that one of the problems is that for many years Al-Azhar itself lost credibility in the eyes of many Egyptians and Muslims by being perceived as allied to the regime of the now jailed former president. Whether this is the case or not, Muslims stopped listening to what Al-Azhar had to say, leaving a vacuum of leadership in the Muslim world.
For one thousand years, Al-Azhar has been the authentic authoritative voice of Sunni Islam. When Al-Azhar spoke, Muslims sat up and listened. Unfortunately, in recent decades its voice has not been listened to.
Instead, in recent years and after 9/11 in particular we have had the voices of mountain caves and desert camps crying out and claiming to speak in the name of Muslims, deceiving |Muslims and people in the West about the real message of Islam.
Inshallah, one of the fruits of Egypt’s revolution is that Al-Azhar will rise once more, freed of the restraints it has been under for years, to its traditional role of leader.
In getting across the true message of Islam, though, there is another consideration, and it is one requiring urgent attention. The imams being sent to the West to lead Muslim communities there now have a pivotal role. Their job is not only to lead their communities of faith and provide them with every facility that Muslims need, but they also act as frontline ambassadors of Islam. In sending imams to the West, Muslim leaders here and in other countries must ensure that these imams are adequately trained and gully equipped to tackle the job they have been given.
In the past, it may have been sufficient to send a very pious man, with little knowledge of English, to be an imam in London. Catering for a small, Arab speaking community, his task seemed clear. Times have changed, though, and much more is now required.
For example, one of the greatest challenges (and opportunities) which imams face in the West is how best to support and encourage the Muslim communities they work with, helping them to be better Muslims and a real faith community, in a society which is not always supportive of Islam or of faith. In fact, at the present time in some countries, the media is often quite openly hostile to Islam, because of the foolish remarks of leaders who should know better.
In this atmosphere, then, imams have to face a number of problems. For example, limited access in all parts of the country to Halal food and restrictions on the way Muslims are allowed to dress do not make it easy to live as Muslims. Finding the right schools for one’s children to be brought up in a way that is not contrary to the ways Muslims want to be brought up is not always easy. Finding places to pray at work is not always without problems. The atmosphere in workplaces is not always supportive of prayer and faith. In all of this, Imams must try to lead their communities on a straight path.
So that is just one type of challenge. Another, perhaps greater challenge is that imams are not always adequately prepared for working in a society they do not come from, helping their communities to preserve their Islamic identity, whilst playing a full part in the society itself.
For example, they may be excellently trained in the Qur’an, but their English might not be as excellent. Their knowledge of Muslim manners might be second to none, but their understanding of British or American customs or the French way of life less so.
Imams should be chosen, of course, for the excellence of their behaviour and knowledge. There are other skills, though, which can help.
As well as being a counselor, prayer-leader, community leader, teacher, organiser, public relations spokesman and all round good example, the kind of training they need might include simple things like: public speaking skills, communication skills, language training and basic knowledge about their new country.
Those who hate Islam in the West are a minority. The majority of ordinary people in Britain or Germany or Italy do not hate Islam or Muslims. The problem is, though, that they know nothing about Islam or Muslims and gain their limited knowledge from what they see on the television or read in the newspapers. The ones with the primary responsibility, then, of speaking in the name of Islam in many Western countries are the ones we send to serve as imams there.
It is surely time to tackle this issue once and for all. There is no shortage of money in the Muslim world (although the money is often squandered on trifles, rather than being used to serve humanity better). If the Muslim world aspires to tell the West about Islam, as it claims to do, then all available resources should be put at the service of training imams to do their job properly. The imams we send to the West should be the best trained of men in the entire world. Al-Azhar, as the authoritative voice of Islam, should lead the way in showing how imams can be prepared to excel in their work.
An imam is not superman! He is, after all, a man. But there are ways and techniques of training people which can help imams to do their jobs better.
Speaking English well, for example, is not an added extra. It is essential to the job of someone who would talk about Islam in an English speaking country, yet we are still sending men to the West whose knowledge of English is less than it should be.
The motive of foreign governments in offering help in the training of imams might be the prevention of terrorism in their respective country. After all, they have no other motive to promote Islam. But being aware of these motives, we can still make use of expertise when it is available, thanking them when their job is done.
At the end of the day, though, there is plenty of expertise across the Muslim world. The task of making the real voice of Islam heard is a challenge and an opportunity for all Muslims. Unless this issue is resolved, though, East and West will continue to be suspicious of one another and we will continue with this clash of the uncivilised, shouting at one another with empty heads and failing to understand that all people share so much in common.
Islam is not a threat to the West. Indeed, if properly lived, Islam is a blessing to any country. Islam is beautiful, gentle and sweet. Its true message would make grown men weep at its beauty. What a shame that we haven’t managed after all these years to get the real message of Islam across. As Al-Azhar, the Resplendent, returns once more to its true role of leader, let us hope we will see re-doubled efforts in the way imams are trained.
Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) chose very carefully the men he would send as envoys to foreign countries, for he knew that in each case they were representing Islam itself. Inshallah, in the coming months and years we will see a similar care taken in the way we choose to send young men abroad to tell the world about Islam.
In a world torn apart by religious strife, there is no time to waste.
The writer is a British columnist at The Egyptian Gazette, where this article was published on Oct. 20, 2012