Nancy Khalil is a doctoral candidate at Harvard who has previously served as a Muslim chaplain at Wellesley College. She is currently writing a dissertation entitled: “Without a Profession: The Politics of Being and Becoming an Imam in the United States” which takes a look at the process of training imams. “I’m trying to understand the larger issues, of regulation and authority, of religious freedom, how these impact the community,” says the graduate student.
Ms. Khalil explains that the word “imam” literally translates to “leader.” She notes that while other religious leaders, such as priests or rabbis, follow a defined path from seminary to ordination, the road to becoming an imam is much less clear. “People have a general idea,” says Ms. Khalil. “But there’s no universal set of requirements, and there’s no central authorizing body to establish them.”
The lack of an established educational and credentialing path, says Ms. Khalil, has led to another problem. “If you look at the imam job ads that surface, the duties and responsibilities are endless.” Mosques often expect their imams to be scholars well versed in theology as well as counselors who can guide the community through social issues like marriage, divorce, teen problems, bullying… the lists goes on and on. “I call it the ‘super imam,” comments Ms. Khalil.
In her research, Ms. Khalil has found an “evolving relationship” between Muslim tradition and an American system modeled on the institutions of higher education, with an emphasis on credits and degrees. “I don’t think there will be a unified agreement or blueprint for what an imam should be,” says Ms. Khalil. “The evolution of these seminaries and their recognition by the Muslim community will help make the nuance of the position more familiar.”