Imam who loves the Blues

Hey, wait a minute. That was my delayed reaction this morning after reading an excellent St. Louis Post-Dispatch profile of a young, hip new imam:

Over the last decade or so, Asif Umar has practiced an unusual Ramadan tradition. The 27-year-old St. Charles native, who started last week as the new imam at the largest mosque in the area, celebrates the end of Islam's holiest month by going to a Blues game with his buddies.

"He's a sports junkie," said Umar's friend Nauman Wadalawala, a third-year law student at St. Louis University. "Whenever we go to a Cards game, he always has to wear his Pujols jersey. It's interesting to see this religious scholar, sitting in good seats, with his beard and Cardinals jersey."

Umar, whose parents came to the United States from India in the 1970s, is the first native St. Louisan to lead the Daar-ul-Islam mosque, also known as the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis. He also represents the ascendence of a distinctly American brand of Islam, a new generation of Muslim-Americans who were born in the United States and who spent their teenage years in the often uncomfortable glare of the post-Sept. 11 spotlight.

Immigrant parents of American-born Muslims who once insisted that their children become doctors and engineers have begun relaxing those expectations for a new crop of young Muslim-American scholars who feel drawn to be faith leaders, said Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Page 1 piece by Godbeat pro Tim Townsend. But after finishing all 1,300-plus words, a strange question occurred to me: Did the story even quote the imam himself?

A quick check revealed that sure enough, it did — but only briefly:

Umar may be utterly familiar to other young American Muslims, but he's not what most non-Muslims might expect in an imam.

As Umar says, "Not every imam went to a Catholic school in the suburbs."

For a typical feature introducing a new imam, pastor, priest or rabbi, a reader might expect the reporter to sit down for an interview with the spiritual leader and flip on the digital recorder. The routine story appearing in print would be told mainly from the perspective of the person featured.

Alas, Townsend's profile of Umar is neither typical nor routine.

Here's why: The writer does his homework. He interviews friends, experts and Muslim leaders — quoting no less than nine of them. He packs the profile with compelling anecdotes and insights as well as revealing context on the significance of Umar's selection.

Beyond the commendable sourcing, Townsend struts his stuff as a religion beat specialist. He defines terms such as hafiz, fiqh and Alim. He explains that Islamic law is "the rituals and social contracts that make up the daily life of an observant Muslim" and that memorizing the Quran "is a task Muslims regard as a noble, virtuous endeavor looked upon highly by God."

I do wish the piece had included just a few more quotes from the imam himself. For example, I'd love to know why he enjoys Blues hockey and what his experience was like attending a Catholic school.

I also wish the piece had avoided its one use of the word "Islamophobic" in favor of a less loaded, more concrete term.

But those are minor qualms with what is a fine piece of daily journalism.

Kudos to Townsend and the Post-Dispatch.

St. Louis photo via Shutterstock

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