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The Rise of the American ‘Rockstar’ Imams

September 12, 2011 3:30 pm

By: Nadia S. Mohammad

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

Comments

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18 Comments

  • Huffadh, not hafizes.  Try not to combine an English suffix with an Arabic word.  Other than that, great article.

    • Thank you for your comment. You’re right. I Anglicized the plural of hafiz because I thought it would be easier for an English speaking audience to understand. 

  • Salaam, very good article, and it’s a topic that can be explored from so many aspects. One very real danger is how/when ppl become so attached to the personality, the charisma, the voice, the face… that they almost completely miss the real point of being there–to learn, take the goodness and Truth that they have to offer. And the numbers of attendees dwindle when that person can’t make it to the event, or conference, or what have you. People lose their niyyah of seeking Allah & His message, and instead are seeking creation. When a person is sincere, as one Muslim poetess said, “they become transparent, and you don’t see them, you only see the goodness that they’re bringing. So you don’t care about the glass cup, you just want the water inside!” May Allah make us sincere and truthful in our seeking of Him.

    • WS. Ameen. I think the key is balance. It’s human nature to seek out people in our lives who we can look up to, sometimes even emulate. We do it from the time we’re children, starting with our parents. So again, it’s about balance, learning to emulate the good we see in others, but not completely losing ourselves or the purpose of our actions. 

  • Excellent article… When I was younger, I pushed back at my parents and Islam because I felt that the issue was with the message. I have since changed my standpoint because I realized that Islam, as adapted by the 3rd world, while completely appropriate for them, was not addressing the complexities of western society.

  • ASA:
    I must admit, when Hasan first sent this article to me I thought, “man another article slammin the muslims”, lol. But it turned out to be very well written. I would like to add Imam zaid Shakir to that list, if I may.

    One of our beloved immigrant brothers said to me, “Haqq, Imam zaid is like a rock star among my people, but black americans seem to be sleep on him, why is that”? And after attending the RIS conference in 2009 in Long Beach, I saw what he meant.

    I have since aligned myself and my efforts with him (and others) because of their scholarship and WORKS! The new breed of Imams are both knowledgable and THEY PUT IN THE WORK! These aren’t your fathers’ scholars. These cats are starting Islamic Colleges, Muslim Run Clinics, Food Programs, Legal Aid services and the like. They are not hidden away in the masajids stroking their beards while waiting to answer complicated questions.

    May Allah ta ala smile down on you, your families and all who take benefit from this article.

    Thanx Hasan
    Hajihaqq
    Oakland, CA

  • love all of you!

  • This article has no understanding of fiqh or shariah. To say that shuyukh from back home do not know what Islam in America entails is tantamount to saying that Islam is not a universal religion. Interestingly, the “rockstar” imams (even quoting the word, associating our ulama and a’immah with such filth leaves a bad taste in my mouth) that the author quotes went overseas to get their education, rendering her article null and void. The greatest of today’s ulama, and the greatest throughout history, were not those who lived in non-Muslim lands, but those who surrounded themselves with the scholarship of the Muslims. Its like saying that a scholar of Spanish who lives in Spain does not understand his subject as well as the Spanish scholar who lives in a place where no one speaks Spanish. The scholars who live amongst Muslims will certainly understand Islam better, as well as its maqasid and ahkam.

    • This article has nothing to do with fiqh or shariah, nor is this a site that engages in such discussions – not due to lack of understanding, but because we focus on arts and culture amongst Muslims. Nowhere in this article does anyone discuss changing Islam or that there are religious beliefs known as American Islam and foreign Islams. No one is claiming that there is a cultural superiority either, so it really doesn’t matter where any of these Imams were educated (not all were foreign educated, by the way). However, there are clear differences in cultural attitudes and the issues that arise for Imams to address vary greatly (not just between countries, but even between local communities). So the role of the Imam differs based on the needs of the community and it has been a great challenge for communities, particularly in the US, to determine those needs and how to address them. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter how much Islamic knowledge one has if he/she is not able to communicate it effectively to others. Generally, those who understand the culture are much more effective in teaching others, which is why some Imams, like those mentioned here, are highly revered. Perhaps you should reread this article for what it actually is, not what you expect it should be.

      PS. The word “rockstar” is not a dirty word. It depends on the context you give it in your mind. The word itself basically in colloquial speak has come to mean someone who stands out from the crowd and who is revered for being extraordinary in what he/she does. Which in this case, seemed very fitting. The term can also be used just for certain situations or personal actions. So you can say, “Hey, you were a rock star at the spelling bee last night!” … or “I got rock star parking at the mall.” Silly yes, but hey, that’s American English. 

  • To bigboy: You will of course note that understanding local culture is critical to the nuanced level of detail that scholars and imams must impart to those seeking naseeha. Islam has general guidelines that can – and in some cases, must be – adapted to local culture. So for example. Islam doesn’t forbid women from wearing bright colors – DEPENDING on how it is viewed by local culture. So while in Saudi, wearing bright colors is viewed as almost coquettish, the same is not the case in Kenya or Turkey, where it is common for Muslim women to wear bright prints and colors.

    Thus, it is extremely critical for an imam to understand North American culture – even if he has a great understanding of the core essentials of Islam.

    wasalam alaikum

  • Salam. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf – 3 questions to be answered insha Allah: 1. Did he wear suits with a neck-tie for a while?

    2. Was he engaged as a ‘Consultant’ by Bush?
    3. Has he swerved onto Sufism?

  • Like any “rockstar” there are always a bunch of mindless and brain dead groupies who follow, here is just a sample of one who probably speaks for many who will praise this article:
    ———————————————–
    “Adab, in my current context meant that we were NOT to question or challenge a shaykh openly, for “traditional learning” required that a student abide by the didactic method, and acknowledge the “superior education” of a shaykh. Politely written questions were okay, but we were in no place to be disagreeing with the shayookh. We were NOT allowed to refuse
    what was being fed to us.”

    “The next evening, while we waited for Hamza Yusuf to arrive, I heard a young woman standing behind me tell her friend, “Even if Hamza Yusuf had three wives, I would kill to be his fourth wife!” What followed was the distinct sound of my brain shrinking. ”
    ————————————————-
    Source:  http://fatemathoughts.blogspot.com/2005/01/two-interesting-article-on-shia.html

    It should also follow that most, if not all of the “celebrity sheikhs” cited above also come highly recommended from foreign intelligence services waging war on Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Palestine:

    Blair Govt’s Strategy to ‘Police” Muslims Leaked:
    http://www.wsws.org/articles/2004/jun2004/musl-j03.shtml

    “Your Either with us or Against Us”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeSm9KL9Jyc

    In a time of great political and social upheaval in the Muslim world, some seem to prefer to stay sleeping and unconscious.

    Kw

  • This article was an EXCELLENT analysis. Yet, if I may digress, personally, I feel like this article is a decade too late. 1995-2005 was the height of the “Rockstar Imam” era, whereas, 2005 to 2010 has seen a decline in interest in “Rockstar Imams”. In their hey-day they became almost diva-like and unapproachable by most.I found the prominence of Imam Suhaib Webb in this article antithetical as he’s probably to the “Rockstar Imam” what Kurt Cobain was to “Glam” metal bands like Poison –a death knell to their era. People got sick of the almost snooty intellectualism (and, at times, pseudo-intellectualism ) of many “Rockstar Imams”. When Imam Suhaib Webb, and others like Imam Khalid Latif, came in with very “real” talk, it spoke a language more palatable, and the “Rockstar Imams” started to look like posers. I think we’re entering the era of “Gangsta” and “Grunge” Imams. Of course, this is all based upon my limited perspective. Allah knows best.

    • Haha! I get where you’re coming from, Shibli. I got a little heat (as you can see in responses below) about the use of the term “rockstar” (which I already addressed below, too). And yes, Imam Suhaib and Khalid aren’t so comfortable with being thought of that way, which I think I made pretty clear. But I’d love to run the “gangsta” and “grunge” imams by them. 😛

  • Salaams. Something I’ve been curious about and would love to see explored in its own article: how do the “rockstar” imams deal with the fame? How do they prevent themselves from becoming arrogant, showing off, or worse, having their intentions corrupted? I would imagine it must be a constant battle, especially with the numbers of followers they have.

    A beautiful article posing similar questions…and a reply from Sh. Salah al-Budair, one of the imams of the Prophet’s Masjid: http://muslimmatters.org/2010/03/15/shaykhs-need-advice-too-2/

  • W/S,Just a few personal observations while seeking the definition of ‘rock star’ on the internet despite what the author would like to believe. 1. Definition (n.) a popular rock singer or musician; person who lives an exciting lifestyle because s/he is rich and famousRock stars are more or less known for adulterous fornication, being naked, drinking alcohol to the point of being an alcoholic, drugs use that would kill a cow, celebrity fame, more fornication, theft, violence, more drug use, rehab, escaping rehab, suicide, suspected resurrection (see Elvis), etc.
    The Prophet on the other hand was none of those things and of course, was much greater than this pathetic description of ‘rockstar” could ever define.While the author brings up a semi-relevant topic, I would say that it is devoid of true critical analysis and thus, missed a very crucial point: identifying how exactly the youth embrace and implement what these speakers preach about is the key to understanding whether this is an effective way to inspire the youth towards being a “Muslim.” How is the community affected on a practical level, et al?While the author almost nabbed an important part in the piece as Webb mentions Joel Osteen, a popular Christian evangelist and author, they fail to make any legitimate comparison as to why there is danger in that. Mr.Osteen is probably one of the most forward thinking preachers in moving a new phase of Christianity within the mainstream, taking evangelism towards more tolerance and acceptance while inspiring a nation of like-minded people. The effectiveness of his message can be seen as it crosses the racial and social classes, as well, within Christian society. Joel Osteen received heavy criticism from the Christian ‘preacher’ community as being a “feel good we’re all going to Heaven-type” preacher, but if you listen to his sermons, they are actually pretty good from a Christian perspective. And his work within his congregation is surpassing anything I have ever seen done on a mass scale in any community. In fact, after having visited his mega-church, Lakewood, several times, I found out about the weekly individual classes that cater to the following:Youth (divided by age groups), 
    Anger Managment
    the elderly, 
    Single Parents
    Divorced People
    Moms
    Men
    Single people
    Married people
    Internships
    Financial classes, etc. 
    and that’s on top of the regular Bible study classes. Did I mention the Local Missons?

    http://www.lakewood.cc/pages/ministries/events.aspxSo what did I do? I went to one of these classes last year to see exactly how effective and organized they were. Guess what? It beats anything that I have seen in any church, synagogue or masjid, instead rivaling governement services. His work, started by his father, is truly producing something tangible for his community. The delegation, networking of volunteers and professional volunteers is inspiring. I wish Muslims were even 10% as good as he is in contributing to our ummah, respectively. But what he has done, is laid the groundwork, which I find ironic, is closer to what the Prophet and the Shia Imams practiced, and how they were relevant to the people of their time while still dispensing wisdom to the Muslims of today. My point is that this article glides like breath over a hot cup of coffee. That comparison of Osteen would have been a great angle to work form and provide us with something of educational value. Alas, the “rockstar” article is a red herring that this society seems to focus on and passes off as something worth reading or taking into consideration. Fit for a USA Today article or Facebook, but nothing more. Instead, what suffers is addressing the issue and seeing if it lends a tangible contribution, whether negative or positive, to the society around us.Describing the issues of “text and context” would have been a good article to write about, as well. Once again, it is ironic that you would have to look at Shia Imams for the actual inspiration of it, though. Perhaps they were more right than most people give them credit for. Yet what we get from the author is a piece that looks at fame and gets lost in the glare of limelight. It’s a shame, because correlating the subject matter to some type of higher critique would have lent itself to something worthy of discussion on this website. Yet, this isn’t the first time I have seen this type of article and it’s already run its’ course of futility, I suspect. Perhaps if we also understood what journalism is supposed to be, this would also assist us in identifying the core issues to examine. 

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