U.S. mosques struggle with shortage of imams

SPOKANE, Wash. (RNS) The Spokane Islamic Center wants something mosques all across the country are seeking and can’t seem to find: an educated, bilingual, experienced imam who understands American culture.

The Spokane Islamic Center wants something mosques all across the country are seeking and can’t seem to find: an educated, bilingual, experienced imam who understands American culture. RNS photo by Tracy Simmons/Spokane Faith & Values. *Note: This image is not available to download.

According to the report “The American Mosque 2011” by University of Kentucky professor Ihsan Bagby, half of all mosques in the U.S. have no full-time staff, and only 44 percent of imams work as paid, full-time leaders.

In Spokane, the Muslim community has been seeking a leader for 18 months and counting.

“It’s hard for a small mosque like ours to compete,” said Mamdouh El-Aarag, who serves on the mosque’s board.

According to Bagby’s study, only 36 percent of mosques with attendance between 101 and 200 have a full-time, paid imam. The Spokane mosque draws about 250 people for Friday prayers.

For now, volunteers take turns delivering sermons and leading prayers; that’s been the routine since the Islamic center was built in 2009. El-Aarag said it’s made the community strong, but has its downsides as well. He said the volunteers aren’t experts in Islamic scriptures and worship attendance isn’t as steady as it would be with a full-time imam.