Friday, September 15, 2006

Imam's Conference - Third Time Lucky?

This weekend imams from around Australia will gather for what was supposed to be a national imams’ conference. The meeting has already been adjourned at least twice, and Muslim women’s groups complained about the meeting being limited to male imams. The meeting is now known as the Conference of Australian Muslim Leaders.

Traditionally, imams play a role akin to rabbis. They interpret the sacred law, perform religious services and manage religious affairs of the mosque. Imams are not priests, and Islam knows no priestly hierarchy. The government believes that imams play a powerful role in Muslim communities, hence their regulation is necessary to stop kids from becoming suicide bombers.

Imams have proven to be a source of embarrassment from time to time. Exactly what role they play varies across different ethnic Muslim groups. Home-grown imams are few and far between.

One controversial issue has been standardising imams’ credentials. Some imams don’t hold any qualifications in Islamic law, while others haven’t been forthcoming in disclosing the extent of their qualifications.

Another controversy concerns women’s access to mosques. Many mosques aren’t exactly female friendly, with women being relegated to small areas upstairs or to the rear of the mosque, isolating them from the main service.

UTS law lecturer and author Jameela Hussein will be presenting her research on the attitudes of imams to women. Other women and youth leaders will be addressing their grievances and concerns. No doubt Andrew Robb (who will speak at the conference) will want the imams to address combating extremism.

But with the fasting month of Ramadan hardly a week away, perhaps the issue on the minds of most imams will be how to determine the beginning of Ramadan. The Islamic calendar is lunar, and there is an ongoing dispute between those insisting on sighting the moon with the naked eye and those happy to rely on astronomical calculations.

The result is often that different mosques commence Ramadan on different days. Sometimes Ramadan can commence on 3 different days depending on which imam you follow.

Imams cannot even get their act together and organise to start religious festivals on the same day. And to think some people think these guys have the ability to organise a terrorist attack!

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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