4 Different Imam Hats


These are 4 different hats that a masjid imam often has to wear:

  1. Prayer Leaders/Khatībs
  2. Educators/Professors
  3. Activists
  4. Counselors

Note that each of these require completely different skill sets – and therefore should ideally be serviced by different individuals. Let’s go through the qualifications for each.

Prayer Leader – On a day to day basis, this person truly only needs about a half juz memorized, and needs to have fluent reading and an intermediate level of tajweed. In Ramadan, this person needs to be a ḥafiẓ, but special arrangements can usually be made for that.

Khatīb – Needs to have an above-average understanding of the religion. This person also needs to be charismatic, a good public speaker, able to relate to diverse crowds, motivational, inspirational, and also a good prayer leader.

Educators/Professors – These are the research buffs. They can plow through books for hours on end. Personality and charisma is not required. Their time is spent with advanced and intricate issues. They are well versed in the minutiae of Islamic jurisprudence while understanding its application to their local time and place. They are the ones that the community can go to for rulings and direction on things such as moon-sighting, zakat calculation, inheritance, learning Arabic, learning Qur’an, learning hadith, and so on.

Activists – This person can go out, roll up their sleeves, and get behind a cause. This might include interfaith activities, volunteering at humanitarian/social events, organizing programs and inviting guest speakers [and therefore be well-connected]. An activist also needs a good working knowledge of basic management principles and work well with different teams of people. This is who the community goes to in order to figure out how to increase attendance, and come up with creative activities. This imam may also be the one that can spearhead a construction project or a school.

Counselors – This person needs to be extremely kind and patient. They must be well versed in Islamic law, but also understand the basics of communication and psychology, have a sympathetic heart, and open ears. They need to have a naturally loving personality.  This is the person the community comes to for personal counsel, marital issues, addictions, and a host of other issues.

How do we ensure that our imams are being trained for this? Shaykh Nomaan Baig shares this:

Number 1: That training environment needs to be created which is currently non-existant. Number 2: Experienced Shuyukh need to share their experiences and what they lack to ensure the new graduates don’t have those shortcomings as far as education and training goes. It’s just like parents and their children: Parents of every generation want to ensure that their children are better prepared than they were.

It’s understandable that not every community can hire four different individuals. That time will come soon, and some communities are getting there. What is important for communities to understand is that if they expect their imam to fulfill all of these roles, it will inevitably fail. While there are certainly individuals who can perform all 4 functions well, there are not enough of them to go around for each and every community. Time to assess the skill set realistically and set expectations accordingly. Know who you are getting, why you are getting them, and work with it.

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Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters, Qalam Institute, Muslim Strategic Initiative, and Debt Free Muslims. He is a regular khateeb and has served in different administrative capacities in various national and local Islamic organizations. He works full time in the corporate field, is a PMP, and certified Leadership Trainer through the John Maxwell Team. You can follow him on on Twitter @ibnabeeomar, and check out his latest project - The Fiqh of Social Media.

Omar Usman4 Different Imam Hats

8 Comments on “4 Different Imam Hats”

  1. Muhammad Aarij Anwer

    Prayer leader (on a daily basis) only really needs about half a juz? Wow. Talk about setting low standards for the greatest act of worship in Islam. *shudders at the thought of praying in such a jama’ah*

    “The most learned of you in Qur’an should be Imam of a nation (يؤم القوم أقرؤهم لكتاب الله). If they are equal in the Qur’an, then the most knowledgeable in the sunnah. If they are equal in the sunnah, then the earlier to do hijrah. If they are equal in that, then the eldest”. -hadith of the Prophet that gives us a protocol on Imam qualifications.

    Yes the Imam is expected to be activist/counselor/etc. etc. and many of the Imams are, but his PRIMARY role of the Imam, as highlighted in the afore-mentioned hadith, is to establish salah, give khutbahs, give fatwa and educate the people.

    If a community needs access to counselors, then they should hire professionals to do that. That is not the job of the Imam, its just that he’s expected to do so. His job is to establish salah, give khutbahs, fatwa and educate.

    1. ibn abee omar

      agree with you – in theory. 
      most communities have needs for all of the above but don’t yet have the resources for all of them – especially when starting out. 

      again, i agree in spirit with everything you said, but for the sake of discussion we have to look at the *bare minimum* case. 

      as an example, a community whose biggest activity is juma, then a person who fits the khatib mold is more important than that khatib necessarily being a hafiz. 

      your last paragraph fits with what i’m getting at though – communities right now unfairly expect imams to fulfill all the functions and this is why most communities either a) cant find anyone, or b) have a revolving door imam position. 

    2. ahmed

      Actually that’s not so strange.  Several small masajid that i know have no full time position, so the most learned of them in Quran leads the salah, and the brother may only know a juz or so.

      They outsource pretty much everything onto volunteers from other more established communities, so it’s always some external individual doing Jumuah khutbah, seminars, weekend school, etc., along with someone coming in from out of state for tarawih.

      And this process continues for years, which leads me to wonder what exactly the leadership of that small masjid had planned, or if they even had any plan, aside from the constant grandiose building expansion projects.

  2. Imran Qureshi

    My humble opinion …

    Assigning these hats to an imam is like overwhelming him to do everything. These shouldn’t be the role of the imam – to actually counsel or teach or be an activist.  Imam should have only one hat – and that is the hat of a leader.

    I don’t mean by that being a director or manager of the mosque; thats not even leading. And not the kind that is fighting bureaucracy all the time; those are misplaced efforts. What I mean is that the imam needs to legitimately lead the community. 

    As a leader Imam should be an influencer of goals. He should be able to seek out opportunities, clarify problems, build morale, launch coalitions, and inspire a vision of greatness – and that is spiritually and socially.

  3. Pingback: Muslim Strategic Initiative | The Replacement Imam

  4. Hassen

    Nice article, masha’Allah. Not sure how necessary the activist role is for the Imam. He could probably guide activists with his knowledge…

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