DIK - Deutsche Islam Konferenz - Role of an Imam

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The imam in the Muslim community

His day begins with the first prayers at daybreak. When the last rays of the sun have gone down, he finishes with the last prayers. In winter the working days are shorter, in summer they are longer. This is because the five compulsory daily prayers, one of the five pillars of Islam, go through from dawn, noon, afternoon and evening to dusk. The person responsible for these five communal prayer times is the prayer leader (arab. imam); it is the central task for which he is elected by a congregation. To do this, he must have knowledge of ritual procedures and the Koran in Arabic and "he should, if possible, have a good voice," says Erol Pürlü, imam and spokesman for the Association of Islamic Cultural Centres (VIKZ), because "prayer according to the Koran is recitation, the beauty of the voice, music, sound, atmosphere".

Who can work as an imam?

In theory, in an Islamic congregation "any male Muslim with the necessary qualifications, who in other words has precise knowledge of ritual washing, ritual prayers and the Koran, can be elected as prayer leader," according to Erol Pürlü. "The imam does not necessarily have to fulfil this role as a main profession, he can carry out the work alongside his job as a craftsman or businessman, which is his livelihood."
There are still imams today working in a voluntary capacity in smaller congregations, both in the countries of origin and in Germany. However, the size of the mosques or of some congregations increasingly requires the constant presence of the imam, and so religious foundations in the countries of origin usually pay for their upkeep. Here in Germany the congregations must pay for 'their imam' themselves, unless one of the large Islamic associations provides the money. A special role is played by the imams of the Turkish Islamic Union (DITIB), who are dispatched to Germany as an appointee of the Turkish State and paid by the Turkish Directorate for Religious Affairs (Diyanet). In many ways this 'dispatch' is an exception in the Islamic world because, on the one hand, it restricts the right of the congregation to elect someone and, on the other, it may convey the mistaken impression that there are institutions in Islam able to commission and appoint imams. There is, however, no official appointment of imams in the sense of ecclesiastical ordination or consecration.

The traditional duties of an imam

Apart from the five daily prayer times, the important duties of the imam include the main Friday prayers and, above all, the Friday sermon. In addition, there is religious instruction for children and young people, the teaching of Arabic as the language of the Koran and the tuneful recitation of the latter. The aim of this teaching is not conversational Arabic or the interpretation of the Koran, it is first and foremost to learn the pronunciation and phonetics that are necessary to "make the Koran sound beautiful," opines Erol Pürlü.
Weddings, funerals, visiting the sick and prisoners, and many of the other responsibilities that belong to the working life of a Christian minister do not traditionally fall within the scope of duties of an imam, although the imam is always a welcome guest among members of the congregation at weddings, circumcision ceremonies and meals to break the fast during Ramadan. Marriage itself is a legal act and "in Islamic countries families, not the imam, are traditionally responsible for the ritual washing of the dead, hospital care and spiritual mentoring, for example in prisons," explains the Moroccan imam Abdelmalik Hibaoui, the leader of the "Interkulturelle Öffnung und Qualifizierung islamischer Gemeinden" [Intercultural opening and qualification of Islamic communities" project run by the Department for Integration Policy in Stuttgart.

Changing role in Germany

Who today could look at the "small print" on German food packaging and say what is meant by, for example, "bio" or what a synthetic product is, let alone what 'halal' or 'haram' is? The lack in Germany of an everyday Islamic social setting and the increasing loss of traditional knowledge of basic religious and ritual principles in families present the imam of a congregation in Germany with questions that were never put to him in the countries of origin. How should rules relating to food be observed? What happens if someone dies? How do I bring my children up in the faith? How do you deal with bireligious marriages? "Families ask for advice about conflict in a marriage or problems with young people; the imam is called on to wash the dead, because families are no longer familiar with ritual washing; nowadays he must be able to explain how it is possible to live a religious Islamic life in a predominantly non-Islamic environment; whatever the circumstances, he is a counsellor, a psychologist, a teacher and a pastor," says Abdelmalik Hibaoui. What's more, the imam is also called on for dialogue, since hospitals, emergency doctors, prisons, kindergartens and many other institutions in Germany seek advice as to how they should deal with Muslim citizens.

Pastoral care: a new duty in Islamic communities

Arabic and Turkish have no equivalent, in terms of both language and content, to the concepts of 'pastoral care' and pastoral work, which have historically evolved from Christian tradition. The term 'Dini Rehberlik' (roughly: religious leadership) has been coined for it in Turkish in recent years. Although this is not really an accurate translation, it has been happily used by Muslims in this country to refer to the concept of 'pastoral care'. The high level of need leaves no time for a discussion on terminology. These new demands mean that imams in Germany are faced with a variety of problems. "It sometimes happens that congregations accuse their imam of giving more of his attention to these new responsibilities and problems than to his traditional duties," opines Abdelmalik Hibaoui, "and the result can be that a congregation removes the person concerned from the office of imam." Nor, on the other hand, is the imam trained to deal with these many new areas of responsibility, neither as a psychologist, nor as a family counsellor, teacher or pastor. In future the multitude of responsibilities will not rest on the imam alone, but on a number of suitably qualified women and men, including the imams, who are in the meantime learning how to deal with the demands of pastoral care in cooperation with church organisations.


Marfa Heimbach, 19.10.2009.

Personal details: Marfa Heimbach is an Islam academic and freelance author with Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln, and is appointed by the Federal Centre for Political Education to lead the "Religions in the secular state" dialogue project for ministers and imams.

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