If there were a prototype for an American-style imam, Adeel Zeb might be it.
In Koran study groups, the 28-year-old volunteer chaplain at American University weaves in references to U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and comedian Dave Chappelle (both Muslim), TMZ.com, frat life and President Obama.
He preaches tolerance and civic idealism and sports a pinstriped suit, a GQ-ish trimmed beard and an animated delivery he learned from the Baptist college where he minored in communications. He'd like to become part of the first generation of American-born imams, but it's a career path that is proving much more difficult than he expected.
"From what I'm hearing from my elders," Zeb says after months of fruitless job hunting, becoming an imam is "something you do when you can't do something else. It's like the last-choice career track."
Or as his wife, Nohayia Javed-Zeb, a 23-year-old law student, puts it: "Any guy with a Koran and a beard can be an imam."
Although the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the coming of age of a generation of American-born Muslims have triggered a call for spiritual leaders rooted in U.S. culture, most American mosques are led by imams from overseas who aren't fluent in English. They speak Arabic and have memorized the Koran -- the sole requirements of imams in most Muslim-majority countries.
They know how to lead prayers but don't necessarily have the professional credentials or communication skills to become community leaders: to speak to the media about Islam, advocate for Muslim civil liberties, preside at interfaith events and create youth programs, such as Boy Scout troops or speed-dating nights, that many Muslim American parents want for their children.
"I think that finally there is a realization [in the United States] that qualified imams do not just appear; they have to be developed," said Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America.
To Zeb, the need for American-trained spiritual leaders is desperate. He and his wife rattle off a list of issues on which younger Muslim Americans have asked their advice: men who wonder whether they're gay, women debating whether to wear a head covering, others questioning whether it's better to go hungry than eat meat that's not halal (prepared according to Muslim standards).
"I'm not trying to insult them," Zeb says of the imams from other countries, "but they can't speak the language. Kids get turned off from asking questions. They go on the Internet to try and find answers, and that's not appropriate."
"It's paramount -- that's not even a good enough word -- to have indigenous imams here who can understand the plight and problems of Muslim Americans," he said.
But there are no accredited imam-training programs in the United States nor standardized requirements for education, pay or benefits. Most imams don't make much -- $40,000 a year would be a generous salary, a number of Muslim leaders said -- and often don't command the same stature in their communities as Christian and Jewish clergy.Transformed at Mecca
Zeb's job hunt illustrates the challenges of transforming what it means to be an imam in the United States.
He was born in New Jersey and grew up outside Dallas as the ambitious eldest child of Pakistani immigrants who were expecting him, like the rest of the men in his family, to become a doctor or lawyer. And that was his direction, until he went to Mecca as a teen. Standing before the cube-shaped Kaaba, a building that Islamic tradition teaches was built by Abraham, Zeb says he felt the awe and power of history and the proximity to the divine.
He returned home transformed. He began worshipping at a mosque in Waco and giving sermons. After graduating from Baylor University with a management degree, he got a job overseeing a cardiology clinic, but he longed to spend more time studying Islam.
He received a bachelor's degree in Islamic studies after studying on weekends and became a spokesman for the local branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He did Muslim outreach for two Texas members of Congress and helped navigate civil rights discussions with the departments of Justice and Homeland Security.
His two-page résumé is filled with other faith-related experience: youth mentor at mosques, organizer of Islamic charity fundraisers and banquets, working with AU's Muslim students.
Yet he has been stymied in his efforts to land a paid position at a mosque. Unlike aspiring Christian or Jewish clergy, Zeb has no seminary job board, credentialing group or denominational associations to help him with his job hunt. He networked with everyone he could think of and looked on the Web site workhalal.com. He came up with five places in need of imams. In the entire country.
Not all of them are interested in hiring a 20-something imam, even if he's American-born.
"If I have a marital problem, I'll think 10 times before going to someone 10 years younger than me," says Reza Baccus, secretary of the imam committee at the 250-family Masjid al Salam in Houston, which has been looking for an imam for four years because the last one had a "lack of understanding about the culture." Someone like Zeb doesn't have "the look -- the old gray beard. This is what we struggle with as a community, the older generation versus the newer one."
Zeb's age isn't his only obstacle. When he cold-calls mosques about possible openings, he gets the same questions: Have you memorized the Koran? Do you speak Arabic?
"I try to turn every weakness into an opportunity. I say, 'Have I memorized the whole Koran? No, but I'm continuing to learn more every day. I'm not fluent in Arabic, but I understand the importance of learning it.' I try to promote my strengths: I know how to fundraise, I know how to talk with people. I sell myself," he says.
Zeb is picky, too. To him, most mosques look like "an American sports bar in England," a hangout for expatriots. He wants a dynamic place with young families, a board of directors, and an interest in politics and interfaith efforts. "A place with karate and a basketball court," he says. "A place that wants to move to the future."Preaching middle ground
Zeb's preaching style reflects a cross between a businessman and an evangelist. He finger-jabs when making a point, even a noncontroversial one: "Utilize your skills!"
Away from the pulpit, he has a shy demeanor and a babyish face that helps him blend in with college students. He likes to play video games. He wears dirty tube socks. He talks about Superman in his sermons.
His theology is upbeat. He emphasizes what he sees as Islam's wisdom, the successes of Muslim Americans in sports and politics, and the need to boost Muslim self-esteem in a time of increased prejudice. A favorite topic is interfaith relations, in particular the importance of Muslim Americans being ambassadors to other communities.
Zeb prefers the middle ground in most disputes, focusing on cultural context and not on orthodoxies about who keeps more halal or whether online chatting with someone of the opposite sex is ever acceptable.
"Find an imam you trust, and if what they say is in accordance with what your heart thinks is right, go with that," he tells students. "But don't try to find someone who will please your desires."
But Zeb's tolerance has limits. Preaching to Georgetown students in mid-February, he tells them not to celebrate the holidays of other faiths. During a Koran study session a few weeks later at American, he walks a fine line when a student asks: Can non-Muslims be righteous? Are they doomed to hell?
"It's God's choice," Zeb says after circling the question a bit. "There can be non-Muslims who go to heaven and Muslims who go to hell. It's an individualistic thing. Every person has to account to God."
Zeb's future remains unsettled. Although he's pursuing interviews with mosques across the country, he's exploring alternatives, including opening a center to train Muslim chaplains for universities. He's open to politics. Or being a professor and spiritual motivational speaker.
For now, he says, those might be more viable options than becoming a full-time, home-grown imam.