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Last Updated: Friday, 5 August 2005, 00:18 GMT 01:18 UK
Dawn to dusk: An imam's life
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Maulana Saeed consults his library
Completing our series of features on religious leaders, the BBC spends a day with an imam who explains what they do in their communities.

It can't be easy rising in the middle of the night. Most of us only ever do it for the entirely selfish reason of an early flight to summer sun.

But there are people who do it day in, day out, all year round.

Maulana Saeed Ahmed's day in Preston begins with the first of five prayers he will lead in a mosque as one of the imams to the city's estimated 11,000 Muslims.

And so for Maulana Saeed (Maulana is comparable to 'the reverend') the summer months have seen him wake at between 4am and 5am and head round the corner to the Jamea Masjid (loosely meaning central mosque) where he will hold a brief prayer, before returning home.

Mosque: 11,000 Muslims in Preston
"I'm required as an imam to go to the mosque but for most people it's a case of a short period of being awake in their own homes before returning to sleep again.

"The prayers show that someone is in constant contact with God throughout every day of their life," he says.

"Islam says that our loyalties lie with God: for all that he has given us in life, worship him five times a day. It's the least that we can do in return."

The life of an imam is rooted in a community; his principal task is to literally lead the prayers but also to deliver the Friday sermon, the Islamic equivalent of the Sunday service in a Christian church.

Maulana Saeed shares his responsibilities with a colleague. Among their other duties are education and pastoral care. He teaches in two schools while his colleague, Maulana Ilyas, focuses on the pastoral and outreach elements of their job.

Their final responsibility is leading ceremonies for the dead, starting with the ritual washing of the body in the mosque and ending with prayers by the grave.

British education

For Maulana Saeed, Preston has been his community ever since his father brought him to the town from India as a little boy in the early 1970s. His father was the then imam to the growing community and had presided at the original mosque - a converted vicarage.

Leading prayers: An imam's day.

But what makes Maulana Saeed different is his education: along with a growing number of imams, his initial education was here in the UK, rather than abroad.

While there has been much historic criticism of imams serving mosques without a hint of English being spoken - something credited with alienating youths who grow up British - there is a new breed of imams who it is hoped are more attuned to modern British life.

The Home Office has imposed language tests on immigrant ministers of religion (something that has particularly taxed Britain's Hindus who are concerned at the declining number of available priests in their temples), but British Muslims are seeking to expand how they train their own imams.

In the case of Maulana Saeed, he went to a local state school before taking his Islamic studies at one of the first Islamic seminaries in the UK. He then gained a place at Medina University in Saudi Arabia, one of the principal seats of Islamic higher education in the Arabic world.

"It was a beautiful experience," he says. "It would be like a Roman Catholic priest going to work in the Vatican. Some of the best years of your life."

But given that many people see Islam and modern Britain as two separate worlds, how does all of this work in practice?

Office parties

An imam's duties include providing ethical guidance to his community. One issue that has come up for Maulana Saeed in the past has been what to do about Christmas office parties.

It's very easy to give the right guidance because people [non-Muslims] do not appreciate how good a job the Prophet and his companions did in passing the messages on and providing guidance
While there is no doubt in Islam that drinking is 'haram' (forbidden) the advice he says that is given by many imams does not prevent people attending parties where drink is available.

"A lot of what happens is about perceptions - we have to ensure that we do not give a bad impression of our religion. The best thing to do of course would be not to go to a pub. But what happens if you have something special coming up, the departure of a work colleague, a special party and so on?"

Maulana Saeed said a Muslim would need to consider for themselves whether attending the party is something they should do because, as someone who wants to play a positive role in society, they would like to wish their departing colleague well in their career, or celebrate the success of their work and so on. This, he says, illustrates the subtleties of Islamic thought that non-Muslims tend to miss.

'Do the right thing'

"Living in society means you have to make sure that you do the right thing," he says.

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"And it's very easy to give the right guidance because people [non-Muslims] do not appreciate how good a job the Prophet and his companions did in passing the messages on and providing guidance.

"The guidelines set what is permissible and what is not. It's just a case of applying them to modern society."

So what does he think when people suggest that religiously observant Muslims don't fit in well, that they cannot live comfortably in modern Britain.

"People talk about this but I'm not personally aware of this supposedly internal dilemma that Muslims are supposed to face.

"There are enormous numbers who go to mosque and colleges at the same time; they don't have a problem integrating while sticking to their religious principles.

"A lot of Muslims from around here are into football. I know people who go to mosques and also went to Istanbul to support Liverpool in the Champions League final, Muslims and non-Muslims travelling together.

"At the end of the day, it's about respect for each other. But where people demand that someone should compromise their beliefs - that's where clashes arise, in whatever circumstances."




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