For many of us, 2020 will have been the most disruptive year in living memory. While the ‘new normal’ we have been obliged to navigate has, by now, considerably aged, much uncertainty still lingers in the air due to the Covid-19 global pandemic. In June, staff and students of Cardiff University’s Islam-UK Centre held our annual symposium virtually on the theme of ‘Surviving Research in Difficult Times’ to explore the impact of Covid-19 on our research methodologies and to collectively discuss creative responses. In this blog post, I want to update specifically on the research project for which I am principal investigator, ‘Understanding British Imams’, which promises to be the largest study of this important group of Muslim religious professionals ever undertaken.
In late 2019, we launched a national survey designed to capture basic biographical details about the people who lead prayers at Britain’s mosques. The objective of this was simple: to generate a credible evidence-base which will enable us to answer such basic questions as ‘How many imams are British-born?’ or ‘How many imams are fluent in English?’ When the Covid-19 lockdown hit in March, data collection was in full throttle, and we had garnered responses from over 700 UK mosques. (Because many mosques employ more than one imam, the total number of imams we have data for is over 1000.) Given the heated intra-community debates about whether mosques should voluntarily close and the subsequent efforts of many imams to connect virtually with their congregations, we decided to put data collection on hold and focus our efforts, instead, on analysing the data we’d already gathered. Over the following weeks, the raw data was carefully organised, duplicates weeded out and each completed survey response meticulously checked and cross-referenced. Before publishing our findings, however, we are planning another push to drive up the total response rate to over 1000 British mosques. The survey therefore remains open and so please do circulate the link widely among your networks and encourage any British imams or mosque-goers you know to complete it!
The Covid-19 lockdown also provided us with an opportunity to get to grips with a corpus of published literature on British imams. Several key themes emerged that have helped us refine our thinking and finetune our data collection strategy. Religious authority in contemporary Islam is something which has been written about extensively (see, for example, the recent work of Masooda Bano or Zareena Grewal) but, for the purposes of this project, we are focussing specifically on the figure of the British imam as the person who has been formally appointed to lead prayers in a British mosque. While nestled within broader conceptions of Islamic religious leadership, and despite some inevitable overlap, this definition should be distinguished from, say, the role of historical caliphs, media spokespersons, shuyookh, pirs, marabouts, muftis or popular online preachers.
There is also a sizeable corpus of work on imam-training methodologies within different UK maslaks – particularly the seminary (Dar al-Uloom) system transplanted into the UK from South Asia. This provides useful insights into journeys of individual and institutional formation that lead to the pulpit. The figure of the British imam was also subject to wider public scrutiny after the 7/7 terrorist attacks and the changed socio-political context which followed. Consequently, several thinktank and government reports are principally concerned with examining the extent to which the imam is an agent of “radicalisation” or “integration” within British Muslim communities. A separate genre of literature consists of articles published about British imams in mainstream media outlets. With respect to these, we are pleased to have secured funding for an undergraduate student to compile a comprehensive database of such articles and conduct some preliminary analysis, under the auspices of the Cardiff Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme.
There is also some utility in placing the literature on British imams into conversation with studies of Judeo-Christian religious leadership (Douglas Turton’s book on ‘Clergy Burnout and Emotional Exhaustion’ in the Church of England is relevant, for example), the comparative fortunes of their European counterparts (see, for example, Hansjörg Schmid’s new paper on Swiss imams) or an emergent body of scholarship on female religious authority in British Islam. What our literature review has made resoundingly clear, though, is that very little ethnographic work to date has documented the ordinary life experiences of Britain’s Muslim prayer leaders. This is a gap we hope to fill through this project.
Interviews with British Imams
As lockdown restrictions have eased over July, we are pleased to report that the qualitative element of the project has now commenced in earnest. While the results of the national survey provide a high-level, macro overview of the British imamate, this necessarily lacks detail and nuance. A series of in-depth interviews conducted with imams around the country will therefore supplement the survey, allowing their lived experiences to be captured in their own words. How does an imam feel, for example, when he climbs the pulpit and faces the congregation ready to deliver the Friday sermon? Though he supports members of the congregation in all sorts of ways, who does he turn to for help, advice, guidance and spiritual or pastoral care? What are his working conditions like, and what type of relationship does he have with the mosque management committee? What are the changing demands of his role in a twenty-first century Western context? Is ‘Continuous Professional Development’ an important need for modern imams and, if so, who should deliver the courses and what should their content be?
In exploring these issues, we want to capture the entire gamut of British imam experiences. We are therefore interviewing imams who lead prayers in large ‘mega-mosques’ as well as those serving in smaller converted house-mosques; imams preaching in cosmopolitan urban centres as well as in remote rural villages; imams with decades of prior service and those who have just started out; imams born overseas as well as those who received their training in Britain. The fieldwork plan has been carefully structured to include imams from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and denominational affiliations, and we also plan to conduct interviews in community languages so as to directly capture first-generation migrant experiences. Along with interviews, we will be ‘shadowing’ imams (once, hopefully, social distancing regulations ease up further!) allowing us to observe first-hand and with an unparalleled level of insight the day-to-day demands of their vocation. So, if you are a British imam or know one who you think we should really be speaking to, then please drop us a line on email@example.com. We’d be delighted to hear from you!
Dr Riyaz Timol is a Research Associate with the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK and principal investigator of the Understanding British Imams project.
 For want of a better word, maslak could simply be translated as denomination.