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New imam represents new kind of Islamic leader

New imam represents new kind of Islamic leader

January 15th, 2012 in News

ST. LOUIS (AP) - The first native of the St. Louis area to lead the largest mosque in the region represents the rise of a distinctly American brand of Islam.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ( reported that 27-year-old Asif Umar is the new imam of Daar-ul-Islam mosque, also known as the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis.

Umar was raised in St. Charles and considered becoming a doctor, like his father, before deciding instead to immerse himself in his faith. He's such a rabid sports fan that for the past decade or so he has celebrated the end of Ramadan, Islam's holiest month, by going to a St. Louis Blues game with his friends.

"He's a sports junkie," said Umar's friend Nauman Wadalawala, a third-year law student at St. Louis University. "Whenever we go to a Cards game, he always has to wear his Pujols jersey. It's interesting to see this religious scholar, sitting in good seats, with his beard and Cardinals jersey."

Umar's parents came to the United States from India in the 1970s. He represents a new generation of Muslim-Americans who were born in the United States and who spent their teenage years in the glare of the post-Sept. 11 spotlight.

"We're beginning to have larger numbers of American kids going into Muslim studies and become imams," said Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University.

She noted a new trend in ads recruiting imams - ads that 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 see Umar as a potential ambassador of the faith in the St. Louis region, one who can challenge Islamophobic notions.

"He's the kind of guy we want as the face of American Islam," said Muhammad Dalal, 20, a student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "He was raised here, and he's representative of our Muslim-American experience."

Umar is not what most non-Muslims might expect in an imam.

"Not every imam went to a Catholic school in the suburbs," he said.

Umar, whose father is a pediatrician in St. Peters, attended the Academy of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic elementary school in St. Charles, through eighth grade. But he decided to learn more about his faith. At age 14 he decided to memorize the Quran.

Muslims regard memorizing the Quran as a noble, virtuous endeavor looked upon highly by God. It took Umar 2 1/2 years to do so at the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, Ill.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened during Umar's final year in the program. His school, about an hour northwest of Chicago, was shut down for two weeks due to threats.

After graduation, Umar returned to St. Charles and considered medical school. Instead, he returned to Elgin and enrolled in a five-year course of Islamic studies. He specialized in fiqh, the principles of Islamic jurisprudence derived from the Quran and the sunnah, the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad.

After earning a degree in advanced Islamic studies, or Alim, Umar left for South Africa in 2008 and completed a two-year master's degree in Islamic jurisprudence.

He spent six months in Cairo in 2009 immersing himself in Arabic, then moved to Springfield, Va., to teach Islamic law.

The Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis has a history of hiring imams with a background in jurisprudence. In December, the foundation offered the imam job to Umar.

"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.

Earlier this month, Umar preached his first sermon, or kutbah, as the official imam at Daar-ul-Islam. His message for the day - about the theological righteousness of getting to Friday prayers early - was followed by a lot of backslaps, handshakes and congratulations in the mosque's lobby.

Syed Rahman, decked out in a blue-and-yellow Rams hat, put an arm around Ibrahim Umar's shoulders.

"You're going straight to paradise now," he said.


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch,