Wanted: Credentialed Islamic scholar, teacher, and worship leader, able to recite the Koran from memory. Must appeal to youth, unify a diverse international community, befriend clergy of other faiths. Patient, accessible, dynamic, humble; fluent in Arabic and English, also American pop culture and public relations.
Finding the right person to lead New England’s largest mosque will not be easy. No one is as keenly aware of this as leaders of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, who moved their search for a new imam into high gear last month after the mosque’s first-ever cleric, William Suhaib Webb, accepted a new job.
“We’re expecting a superman,” 14-year-old Hamza Mahmood said with a rueful smile after a recent community forum about the search.
The cultural center joins a growing number of US mosques scrambling to find religiously qualified, culturally conversant leaders at a time when such leadership is vital, said Jocelyne Cesari, who directs the Islam in the West program at Harvard University.
The need for strong American Muslim institutions — and capable religious leaders at their helm — seems particularly urgent at a time when the headlines are filled with news of beheadings by the Islamic State, an increasingly bloody Arab-Israeli conflict, and the still-fresh memory of the Boston Marathon bombings, whose lone living alleged perpetrator is about to stand trial.
Boston’s most high-profile imam will have to speak to these issues internally and externally, while educating a new generation of American Muslims and helping to oversee a complex and increasingly crucial institution.
Many mosques in America are dominated by one or two ethnicities, but the Roxbury cultural center draws Muslims from an estimated 64 ethnic groups, speaking dozens of languages. There are also descendants of African-American Muslim movements, as well as converts from various racial and ethnic backgrounds.
It is diverse in other ways, too. Scientists and struggling refugees, grandparents and teenagers, new converts and lifelong adherents pray shoulder-to-shoulder, holding an array of political and social beliefs.
The mosque has grown markedly in the last three years, adding programs for teenagers, converts, and classes on the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of Islam.
Webb and his congregation built stronger ties with interfaith leaders — improving, in particular, their relationship with the Jewish community following years of tensions surrounding the mosque’s early leadership.
And the mosque has immersed itself in civic issues, participating in a statewide campaign to expand gun control and bringing lawyers and activists to the mosque to speak. A health team offers free screenings and referrals, as well as connections to Muslim mental health counselors.
“We are set on a course . . . to be welcoming, to be diverse, to be open, to reach out to our neighbors, to reach out to the interfaith community, to make a positive difference for Muslims in America,” said Hossam AlJabri, a board member of the mosque. “That is exactly the vision Imam Suhaib promoted, and that’s exactly the position we’re sticking to moving forward.”
Many imams in the United States are natives of Muslim countries who trained overseas, said Cesari. Though knowledgeable, they sometimes lack the language skills and cultural fluency to connect with the next generation of American Muslims, build relationships with interfaith leaders, and challenge misconceptions about Islam in American society.
The mosque leaders in Boston are “people who are well-educated, who are professional, who want to educate their children about Islam and also project to the outside a certain vision of an educated, enlightened form of Islam,” she said. “They will not compromise.”
Webb, a convert to Islam, is a celebrity in Muslim circles, known for his charismatic sermons and writings on bridging traditional Islam and contemporary American culture. After serving the Roxbury mosque for three years, he is leaving to become resident scholar at MakeSpace, a young Muslim organization in Northern Virginia. He and leaders of MakeSpace, which aims to reconnect young professional Muslims with their faith, said they started talking about a match a year or so ago.
“I was invigorated with the idea of my generation and the younger generation starting a congregation,” he said.
Mosque leaders insist they have no hard feelings about Webb’s departure, and understand his reasoning. Still, some of those involved with the mosque — including some converts — are distraught.
“I don’t think anybody can replace him,” said Mirtangelis Pena, a convert who studies at Bunker Hill Community College.
In the last several years, said Nancy Khalil, a doctoral student in social anthropology at Harvard and a member of the imam search committee, the mosque was little more than a seed.
Now, she said, “It’s a sapling . . . and it’s starting to blossom.”
But tending its growth will be a challenge for the next imam.
The next imam “has to be somebody who will make everybody feel welcome, period,” said Dunia Kassay, a student at Northeastern University who has worked as an intern at the mosque.
The fledgling institution, with a staff of 11 and an annual budget of about $1.2 million, remains constrained financially. Monthly donors have more than doubled, from 150 to 370, in the last two years, but the mosque has less than six weeks’ reserves in the bank, and it has yet to raise money to put the finishing touches on its building.
“A lot of Muslim institutions are very nascent, still growing,” said Yusufi Vali, the center’s executive director. “In my eyes, we are still so far behind synagogues and churches, but so far ahead of most Muslim institutions.”
A small contingent of anti-Muslim activists in the Boston area has repeatedly claimed that the Roxbury mosque is fostering extremism. Those assertions have gained little traction but have proved draining for mosque leaders.
At the same time, mosque leaders realize that they have to protect vulnerable young people from extremist propaganda online and elsewhere. Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, who visited 100 American mosques over a year for his book “Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam,” noted that many young Muslim Americans find themselves “suspended between two cultures, neither of old culture, nor fully of new culture.”
The fact that 100 young Americans have gone overseas to fight with the group that calls itself Islamic State shows the need for Muslim leaders who can reach these young people, he said.
“We have to ask ourselves, where are the imams, where are the political and social leaders of the Muslim community who could not prevent this from happening?” he said, advocating for US-based imam training.
Safwan Eid, a University of Massachusetts Boston student and the mosque’s former youth director, whose father is a longtime imam and chaplain in Boston, said the antidotes are authentic teaching and strong, but human, teachers.
He added: “If you have the foundations of knowledge and character from a scholar like my father or Imam Suhaib, you won’t stray into radicalism and extremism, because you know those things are inherently un-Islamic.”
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.