At 27, New Imam Represents a Homegrown American Islam
He also represents the ascendance of a distinctly American brand of Islam, a new generation of Muslim Americans who were born in the United States and who spent their teenage years in the often uncomfortable glare of the post-9/11 spotlight.
Immigrant parents of American-born Muslims who once insisted that their children become doctors and engineers have begun relaxing those expectations for a new crop of young Muslim-American scholars who feel drawn to be faith leaders, said Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University.
“We’re beginning to have larger numbers of American kids going into Muslim studies and become imams,” Haddad said. She noted a new trend in ads recruiting imams, which once asked for overseas experience in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia or India.
“Now if you look at ads for imams, they ask for candidates who know English, can relate to interfaith groups and communicate with a younger generation,” Haddad said. “They don’t want to lose the younger generation.”
Muslims both young and old hope Umar can be that kind of leader.
They see him as a potential ambassador of the faith who can challenge Islamophobia and instead present Islam as simply another faith on the American landscape.
And at a time when TLC’s reality series “All-American Muslim” has been attacked as terrorist propaganda, younger Muslims hope Umar and new leaders like him can change attitudes.
“He’s the kind of guy we want as the face of American Islam,” Muhammad Dalal, 20, a student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said after Umar led his first Friday prayers as imam. “He was raised here, and he’s representative of our Muslim-American experience.”
Umar may be utterly familiar to other young American Muslims, but he’s not what most non-Muslims might expect in an imam. As Umar says, “Not every imam went to a Catholic school in the suburbs.”
Umar attended the Academy of the Sacred Heart through eighth grade. But as his friends headed off to high school, Umar decided to learn more about his faith. Religion was an important factor in the Umar home, said Zohra Umar, Asif’s mother, who grew up in Mumbai, India.
Neither she, nor her husband, Ibrahim, a pediatrician, were surprised about their youngest child’s dream, at age 14, to memorize the entire Quran. “We were happy about his decision,” his mother said. “We didn’t think he would be missing out on anything.”
But Umar’s friends were taken aback. How could their friend, the funny kid who loved hockey and Nintendo, want to move to a boarding school near Chicago to study religion?
“We were all slightly surprised because I don’t recall him talking about taking that kind of route,” said Khalid Alam, a childhood friend. “We were surprised, but we were all impressed by him—that he’d choose the more righteous path.”
Those who memorize the Quran—a task Muslims regard as a noble, virtuous endeavor looked upon highly by God—receive the title “hafiz.” It took Umar 2 1/2 years at the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, Ill., to become a hafiz while also enrolled in typical secular courses in math, science and literature.
Terrorists attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York during Umar’s final year in the program. The school, an hour northwest of Chicago, was shut for two weeks after threats against its facilities and 60 students. Umar was 17.
After graduating, Umar thought about following his father’s footsteps to medical school. But he had become entranced by the study of his faith, and with his parents’ support, returned to Elgin, enrolling in a five-year course of intensive study in Islamic studies.
Umar decided to specialize in fiqh, the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. Knowing Islamic law—the rituals and social contracts that make up the daily life of an observant Muslim—is especially useful in a job where regular people come to an imam for answers to everyday problems.
In 2008, Umar left for South Africa to pursue a two-year master’s degree in Islamic jurisprudence and earned the title “mufti.”
After a six-month stop in Cairo in 2009 to immerse himself in Arabic, Umar moved to Springfield, Va., to teach Islamic law at a school similar to the one he graduated from in Illinois. That’s when the job opened up in St. Louis.
“We wanted someone who grew up in the community but also someone who had been overseas and was qualified, and he had it all,” said Syed Rahman, a member of the mosque’s board at the time, and an Umar family friend. “We went after him hard.”
Khalid Shariff, 70, a retired member of the mosque, said Umar’s age was also important. “He was educated here, and he knows the culture,” Shariff said. “For the young people, he will know the problems they go through.”
Umar’s friend, Nauman Wadalawala, said those problems could very well be specific to dealing with being Muslim in a post-9/11 America.
“When it comes to talking to younger kids, and what they’re facing in school, he can speak to them from personal experience,” Wadalawala said.
(Tim Townsend writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis.)