Imams Online had the privilege to sit down and talk to one of the leading Islamic leaders in the world, Shaykh Omar Suleiman from Yaqeen Institute. We asked him what he thought the role of the Imam is and how imams can best engage with the youth of today.
Question: In your eyes, what should be the role of the imam in the west?
Shaykh Omar Suleiman The word Imam means so many things now, its not longer the person who just leads the prayer, I personally served as an imam of a Masjid from 2005-2011, I would say the expectations of an imam has changed dramatically over the past decade. The Imam used to be expected the give Khutbah’s in English, lead the five daily prayers and many times be the maintenance man of the Masjid! even though it wasn’t in my job description it was expected that the Imam is a Councillor and so many things.. its like a one size fits all you know, put him in the Masjid and he has to do everything.
Now, the bar has been raised, imams need to touch on the relevant issues of the day, Khutbahs need to talk about topics relevant to the youth, political issues, community issues and more. I can remember in the past, there were things that were taboo in the Khutbah, now it has become unrestricted where we need to address these issues head on. We’ve seen with radicalization, one reason it’s on the rise is because Imams have failed in many cases to channel the frustrations of young people in legitimate avenues of voicing that frustration. We cant ignore the issues of the day, pretending their not out there, imams have to be the face of the community, they have to be able to engage of every member; young, old, practicing and non practicing.. they have to be able to engage with every member of the community.
Question: Could you give Imams some advice on the best way to engage the youth? How important is the use of social media in engaging and speaking to the youth in the 21st century?
Shaykh Omar Suleiman: Our religion has a great tradition of taking things that are traditionally used for bad and turning them into avenues of good. I remember the 1990’s with America online, yahoo chat, SubhanAllah a different time, but it’s only 20 years ago! I remember sitting in a Fiqh council meeting with scholars from around the world and the issue of Facebook came up and most of the scholars thought it was a dating website. The whole concept of social media was foreign, I was actually very late onto social media, i was very reluctant. My reluctance was with wasting time and also the saying of Hazarat Umar (ar) “whoever speaks too much makes too many mistakes”. Sometimes things comes up and you just send a status there filled with emotion, everything is recorded now so you have to be very careful.
It is, however, very necessary when young people go online they are not going to be following nonsense but positive pages such a Hadith of the day and Quran weekly, Alhumdulilah we’ve come a long way. Social media has its pitfalls, everything good has its bad side, but instead of ditching the platform we should renew our intentions collectively and use the platform for good and now you are seeing lots of Islamic content on all social platforms.
*This interview was conducted at the ISNA convention in 2015.