Muslim Chaplains Are Not Imams: Tricia Pethic

Dr. Ingrid Mattson, a Canadian-born Muslim convert and the first female President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), spearheaded the establishment of the nation's only accredited Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary.

She once lamented that chaplains often take on the title of imams after graduation.

Imams are generally men and serve as Muslim prayer leaders within the confines of mosques. They fulfill a vital role in the community, but do not always have the ability to observe the roles demanded of them sufficiently.

Minimally speaking, a person who leads the prayer of others is an imam, although in the American context, much more has come to be expected of them.

They are expected to fulfill pastoral roles of mediating disputes, catering to the needs of immigrants, functioning as a father figure to youth and more.

These tasks were embodied in the first imam, the Prophet Muhammad.

But in Muslim societies, the function of an imam tends to be pared down to a prayer leader who holds classes where he imparts knowledge to others, while the extended family and society tend to take on more of the emotional functions.

Imams have limitations. As males, they do not have quite the same ability to get women to confide in them. The traditional madrasa curriculum has not prepared them for much of what the congregation demands.

Some Muslims are uncomfortable with the word chaplain because of its Christian origins. However, a chaplain is a religious leader who functions outside the traditional house of worship and serves people in society's institutions, be they prisons, hospitals, the military or universities. They are trained in counseling and making referrals to specialists, if necessary.

Indeed there is the pastoral role of the Prophet, and we can glean wisdom from his reports. But posing parables to 7th century Arabs is different, pedagogically, from trying to keep and capture the attention of modern people who passively receive all sorts of stimulation from technologies and the soundbyte media culture.

We need updated literature on how to counsel people who live in our time, not only because of our fast-paced culture, but because of the different issues we deal with, pornography being an example.

Chaplains should proudly wear the title of a chaplain, not in competition with an imam, but to complement the imam. 

They fill in the gaps with a focus that is not mainly about "Here is how you should live," but rather, "How is that attempt working for you?"

It is not a lecture, but a dialogue.

Female chaplains don't have the luxury of adopting the title imam with all its authoritative connotations. They are "stuck" with being chaplains. And as long as their male counterparts distance themselves from the term, chaplaincy will not be normalized in the Muslim community.

Muslims languishing in prison cells, suffering in hospital rooms, struggling with their identity on campus - all of them demand that Muslim chaplaincy be normalized and recognized with its proper place in our society.

For more information about the Islamic Chaplaincy program at Hartford Seminary, visit http://hartsem.edu/islamic-chaplaincy-program-0



                                                                Tricia Pethic

Tricia is the Muslim chaplain for University of Hartford and at an all-female federal prison in Danbury, CT. She blogs at www.thecivilmuslim.wordpress.com.