In Summary
  • A survey of the literature shows the term imam can also be an honorific for eminent scholars of Islam, or leaders of Muslim communities or villages.
  • Depending on the usage of the word and whether or not it is written with a capital “I”, it can have many different meanings and connotations.

This is my belated New Year message: Not everyone dressed in a kanzu and kofia is an imam or sheikh. We can find many applications for this wisdom, not just in the world of Islam.

But the aphorism is not mine. It is from the high priest of media affairs at Nairobi Jamia Mosque.

Abu Ayman Abusufian took umbrage at the following story published by the Daily Nation last year.

A Malindi court sentenced a man to life imprisonment for sexually abusing his nine-year-old stepson. The assailant’s name was not given, but he was said to be a madrasa teacher, an imam, 37 years old.

SCHOLAR

Was the Nation trying to protect the imam by not naming him? That was not Mr Abusufian’s concern.

The Jamia Mosque head of media was concerned that the “imam” may not have been an imam, after all.

One can’t be an imam without a mosque, he says. “An imam is a Muslim scholar attached to a mosque, where he leads the prayers and also has a larger role in providing spiritual advice and leadership to the community.”

I checked everywhere. I found at least the Nation Stylebook agrees with him, defining ‘imam’ as “leader of congregational prayer in a mosque”.

Mr Abusufian’s beef with the Nation is that the story, headlined Imam gets life sentence in child sex assault case, emphasises the fact that the sexual offender is an imam but does not name his mosque.

MEANINGS

In the body of the story, published on November 16, we are told that he is “an imam in Malindi”. But there are many imams and mosques in Malindi.

The sexual offender might very well have been a madrasa teacher, but that didn’t necessarily make him an imam.

Some madrasa teachers, Mr Abusufian said, “only possess a basic understanding of Islam and cannot be referred to as imams or sheikhs”.

However, a survey of the literature shows the term imam can also be an honorific for eminent scholars of Islam, or leaders of Muslim communities or villages.

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