WSW: How Do You Become an Imam?

Aug 15, 2017

From left to right, Arthur Riley, Hafiz Akbar and Akbar's father at the Kalamazoo Islamic Center in July.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

Earlier this year we asked you what you wanted to know about Islam. That’s led to a story about the theology of Islam and another about what it means for food to be halal. Now, we answer a question from Arthur Riley of Kalamazoo.

“I hear a lot about imams on the radio and throughout the world,” Riley says.

“Some of them seem to be in political situations and take political positions and I wondered what criteria establish one to be an imam and what sort of training one goes through to become an imam.”

To find out, Arthur and I went to the Kalamazoo Islamic Center on Michigan Avenue in Kalamazoo, to speak with Hafiz Akbar. Not only is he an imam and the leader of this congregation, he also teaches in Western Michigan University’s comparative religions department.

Akbar, who grew up in Pakistan, had memorized the Quran before he turned nine years old. Technically he was qualified to lead prayers. “Of course I was so young, no one would let me,” he says, laughing.

He continued his religious training, then came to Kalamazoo in 2001 to study electrical engineering at Western.

“They were not expecting me to be an imam. When someone heard me chanting Quran by myself they sort of like eavesdropped on me” out of surprise, he says.

Eventually he began to lead prayers at the mosque. Since 2006 he’s worked full-time as an imam, leading worship services, presiding at weddings and funerals, advising and counseling congregants and promoting understanding of Islam.

Books at the Kalamazoo Islamic Center
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

Akbar talked with West Southwest about the role of an imam, how a person qualifies as one, who gets to appoint a congregation’s leader, what he says to congregants who want his help picking a major, and even why it is that small children, as well as they might know the Quran, usually have to wait until they are older to lead prayers.

On how one qualifies to serve as an imam

“The very basic qualification is to be well-versed in the Quran,” he says. “The more well-versed you are, the more qualified you become. That is the basic first academic slash theological qualification which you have to have.”

“Now let’s say someone knows the entire Quran verbatim, he gets to be the imam. That was a qualification of criterion established by the most scholar of the Quran, which we believe to be Prophet Mohammed.

“He is the first imam of Muslims,” Akbar adds. “To us Abraham is also an imam because imam means literally a guide, a spiritual model.”

If two candidates know the Quran equally well, he says, it becomes a question of know knows more of the Prophet’s teachings. If they are equal on that basis too, then the one who is more senior in age prevails. Character is also taken into consideration.

On who gets to make the appointment

In the US the congregation tends to choose the imam, Akbar says.

“In America mostly imams are much more independent then overseas,” he says. “The situation in the Middle East is quite sad and politically motivated and controlled, a lot of times – like especially where we have monarchies, imams get even sermons, directions, written sermons so their freedom of speech is compromised in many cases.”

“Monarchs know that originally in Islam the political leader was so much qualified that he could lead prayers as well and he could give sermons. So what happens when political leadership became so unethical and so low-standard unfortunately in their morality and ethics that they had to separate those departments,” he adds.

“But then [political leaders] realized that well, imam talks to people, imam has somewhat authority, it’s a religious authority. So how to control the podium? But in America luckily if there is a control sort of on the freedom of speech of the imam it is usually through executive directors or community leaders but it’s not so terrible.”

On the significance of the name “Hafiz”

“Hafiz is also a title of someone who knows the entire Quran verbatim. And it serves as my first name as well. It was given to me after my Quran graduation when I was, I would say a little less than nine years old.

“In our last presidential administration, one of the advisers to our president, Barack Obama, on Islamic affairs was a hafiz of the Quran.”