Diaries of an Imam: Lost in Translation

Shaykh Abdullah Hasan blogs at Maqasid Press.

There are approximately 2,000 Mosques in the United Kingdom.  The overwhelming majority of mosques in UK have Imams who do not speak fluent English. Perhaps less than 10% of the Imams within the UK mosques were born and brought up in Britain. Therefore, in the vast majority of mosques in the UK, we have Imams who are not able to (as some have forwarded) meet the various needs of the groups of people within their communities, especially the younger generation of Muslims. The young generation of Muslims may speak and understand Urdu, Bengali, Somali etc, but they speak and think in the English language.

Although, the call from certain Muslim leaders in Britain is to ‘ban’ foreign Imams, it has come under resistance, I personally concur with it to a certain degree.  The youth in particular have been neglected by our mosques for far too long. Many do not even approach the mosques because they feel they cannot speak to the Imam. Even when some do conjure up the courage to approach the Imam and inform them about the problems they may be facing in their education establishments, family & social groups, drugs, girls, sex, political issues and radicalization, the Imam, in most cases, do not and are not able to provide appropriate answers and responses to their dilemmas. Who can blame the Imams; they were born and brought up in a completely different environment and culture. No matter how much one tries he will not be able to relate to their aspirations, fears, anxieties and concerns.

Changing Trend

There are however an increasing number of young British born Imams who have studied in Islamic seminaries here in the UK and abroad and later pursue other secular studies to enhance their capacity to benefit their local communities and the wider community. The community needs to evaluate and think how they can be incorporated in the mosque’s establishments.


I am not suggesting that we ban all non-English speaking Imams. The mosque can employ someone who is competent in English language. I am aware of the fact that many mosques here in Britain do not have the sufficient resources to employ more than one Imam. This is another problem, which I will not delve into much at the moment. However, those mosques that are not able to employ young English-speaking Imams need to encourage the existing Imams to learn English language and acquire the knowledge of the society they live in. How can a person be in a position of leadership and live in a country for more than 20 years, and not be able to speak the language, this is beyond me! This shows the lack of vision some of these people have for the future generation of Muslims in this country and generally the West.

Imams for All

What is more worrying is that many people import their village and cultural polemics which has nothing to do with Islam or British Muslims. Much of the discourse amongst some circles is alien to British societies and Muslims who were born and educated here, especially the youth. This works as a tool of division more than anything else.

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As an example, I have personally witnessed and have been informed by some people, that there is a touch of racism amongst some Imams (I pray this is not widespread). Most of the Imams in Britain are either from Bangladesh, Pakistan or India. Whether we like it or not, there are some anxieties between the older generation from the past and history between these countries. As people ‘celebrate’ 40 years of independence and remember the bloody and unislamic tragedy that took place between two Muslim nations, there are people complaining in London that the ‘Pakistani’ Imam looks down upon our Bangladeshi community, or this ‘Bangladeshi’ Imam looks down upon our Pakistani community.

Imams are supposed to be individuals whom the entire community follows, not just one section of the community. It is worrying that this is still a problem in the UK and in the 21st century. I do not think this is much of a problem among the younger generation. Yes, they do have other issues and concerns to tackle. I am not denying there will not be problems among the younger generation, there will be, but I am confident that they will be very easily resolved. One of the problems with some of the elder generation is that some of their cultural and unislamic attitudes are ingrained in their psyche; it will require a radical reform of change in their mind-set and norm values to change them. We ask God, Almighty, to join their hearts.

Witnesses unto Mankind

Another very important point is about relations with the wider community. The Qurʾān commands Imams to speak in the ‘language of the nation’, to invite and interact with the people in the country they work and live. Without knowing English language, understanding the society, its history and culture, a person is blind himself. How will he then be in a position to guide others?

I would not be too worried if some of the Imams (who may not have adequate level of skill in English language, etc.) carried out their duties appropriately. Unfortunately, some people have an incomplete understanding of what the role of an Imam should be. They believe that all that is required from an Imam’s position is to lead the daily congregational prayers, lead the Friday congregational prayer and deliver a sermon from reading an outdated book of sermons, issue some ta’weez (talisman) and teach the children Qurʾān, most of whom hate coming to the classes. You do not need to study for six to eight years in an Islamic institute or a seminary to carry out those tasks. Any non-specialist could be trained to do that! The community lacks basic knowledge of Islam and the Imams must try to facilitate the learning for them. I am aware that many times it is not the fault of the Imams; they are restricted by the mosque committees and cultural baggage. But that is another topic for discussion.

Look Mum, it’s Santa Claus!

On a lighter note and to end this week’s segment, allow me to narrate to you what happened during a train journey some time ago. I used to commute to the mosque by the underground train to deliver the Friday sermon in Central London. It was near the time of Christmas and as usual all of London was buzzing with the Christmas fervor. I sat down in the train reading my book; opposite of me was a young, white English girl (around 4 years of age) with her mother. The young girl kept on looking at me and smiling. At first I did not pay much attention, but the girl kept on looking at me. Now I got a bit worried. “Did she think I am one of those ‘Moslem’ extremists the media always talks about?”, I asked myself. I continued to read my book as if nothing had happened. Then, all of a sudden, she pointed at me and said “look mum, it’s Daddy”. I was like ‘OK’. The mother explained to the girl that Daddy does not have a beard. After a few minutes the girl pointed at me and said “look mum, it’s Santa Claus”. I don’t know why she thought that; was it because of my beard? Or was it due to the fact that I was wearing a rust thawb that may have resembled the Santa Claus costume? The mother and I laughed and she explained to her that Santa Claus is much older and bigger.

This was first published on OnIslam.net.

9 / View Comments

9 responses to “Diaries of an Imam: Lost in Translation”

  1. Yasmin says:

    Jazakallah  khair for this very important post!

  2. Shazlin Abdul Rahman says:

    I recently attended a jumaah
    prayer where the imam gave one sermon in English and the other in
    Arabic. I don’t understand Arabic so I spent the latter half of the
    sermon just sitting there twiddling my thumb. I went to the mosque
    because it’s the easiest religious institution I can get to on a daily
    basis but now I’m wondering what the relevance is since I don’t even
    understand what the Imam is trying to teach me.

  3. I recently attended a jumaah
    prayer where the imam gave one sermon in English and the other in
    Arabic. I don’t understand Arabic so I spent the latter half of the
    sermon just sitting there twiddling my thumb. I went to the mosque
    because it’s the easiest religious institution I can get to on a daily
    basis but now I’m wondering what the relevance is since I don’t even
    understand what the Imam is trying to teach me.

    • Muslimah says:

      Assalaamu alaykum.. Actually the fact the imam of the masjid you attend gives the khutbah in English is really good do be thankful for it.. Islamically a certain part of the khutbah needs to be in Arabic for it to be valid from what I understand and Arabic is the language of the qur’an, it is the language Allah chose to communicate in.. Even if we don’t understand it just listening to it is soothing.. When we have more determination we should all definitely try learnin Arabic because most of the beautiful message of the quran is lost in translation..

  4. Oz Sultan says:

    Well you would have actually looked like St. Nicklaus (who wore a rust robe). Also – I recently commented (regarding Imams in the US) that it’s just a matter of time until they die out. It’s incumbent upon masjids to serve their ummahs with Imams who can speak both to the language and hearts of their congregations.

    • BintKhalil says:

       Assalamu alaikum

      This article fails to mention the real issue of which the non-English speaking Imams are merely a symptom. The fact is that there aren’t enough Western Muslims who want to be fulltime students of Islam and devote their lives to their Muslim communities. If there were, they would be the ones being hired and not the ones that are being bashed in this article and many others like these. Although more Western muslims are studying to be Imams than those in their parents’ generation, the numbers are nowhere near enough to meet the needs of the burgeoning communities.

      So, no Oz Sultan, these Imams are not going to be “dying out” anytime soon. Honestly, don’t our Imams deserve respect than that? What is said in the Qur’an is clearly being borne out, communities get the leaders they deserve. Subhanallah :(

  5. Mohammed says:

    this is a problem in America too, but not as much as it it in the UK. In the US, this problem shows up in many of the mosques started up by immigrant Muslims. Being ethnically Bengali myself, I’ve seen it firsthand in Bangladeshi masjids all over NYC. The youth have no interest in what the Imam is saying because they don’t understand what he’s saying. 

  6. Ahsan says:

    Reading these comments reminded me of what Maulana Israr Ahmad once said. He said that there are two types of people .. one who serve Islam and other who want to be served by Islam. And it seems most of the people here form the latter group

    • Ahsan says:

      However I do understand that its important for an Imam to communicate effectively with the audience. And thats something that should be kept in mind while recruiting an Imam. Its not about foreign or local. This is what it makes some comments look ugly here.  Its about whether a person is able to communicate well or not. 

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