Yusuf* was a young man in a hurry when I met him in London nearly two years ago.
Just back from a much-needed holiday, the 20-something imam (prayer leader) of one of London’s Muslim mosques was playing catch-up: juggling meetings, e-mails and text messages when he wasn’t leading prayers. The busy round of activities for the holy month of Ramadan was gearing up.
But Yusuf took a short break to talk about his life and work. And his hobbies: soccer, tennis and a punching bag he pounds at home.
“I love theme parks, too,” he added enthusiastically. “I love the extreme fear rides” — the faster the better.
The recreation gave him a brief respite from his many responsibilities, which included teaching Islam, overseeing the mosque’s school, counseling and office management. He wanted to spend more time introducing what he called the “right message” of Islam to the community — and countering the media-fueled image of Islamic radicals in London. He referred to the radicals as “so-called Muslims who give Islam a bad name.”
But the mosque council — Yusuf’s deacon board, you might say — wanted him to handle even more of what he called “stupid, like, administration stuff” around the mosque.
“You don’t need an imam to do that,” he complained, shaking his full-bearded head and adjusting his skullcap. “The true way of the Prophet (Muhammad) we try to emulate is that he went out and got people and brought them in. But the committee members I am under, their mentality is you need to be here. I have so much stuff to do here that I don’t actually get out and do the stuff I really want to do.”
Yusuf’s family came from abroad, but he’s a Brit — born and bred in England. He attended school with other children but also memorized the entire Quran, Islam’s holy book, in Arabic. Then came time to choose a course in business, law or continuing Islamic studies.
“I prayed and asked God for guidance, and I asked my family members and teachers, ‘What way should I go?’” he recounted. “I went to sleep and I got a sign that following and understanding the Quran and the saints and the prophets in detail is the way for me to go.”
So, at 18, he began an intensive, eight-year course at an Islamic school. Even after that, not all Muslim scholars become imams. “As an imam, you have to be a counselor to people because you are a leader of a community,” he explained. “People come to you with their problems and you’ve got to be able to help them.”
People come to him with plenty of problems — especially family issues. Many Muslim marriages are in crisis. Couples enter his office asking for divorces; he tries to help them reconcile. Immigrant parents come to him deeply worried about their children, who get into drugs, drinking and other kinds of trouble in secular London.
After describing his busy life, Yusuf looked at a text message on his cell phone. He apologized for cutting short our visit and got up to rush to the next appointment.
I’ve wondered in the months since how Yusuf’s life is unfolding.
Does he spend more time in the community, as he wanted, or is he still swamped with “stupid, like, administration stuff”? Many a pastor can sympathize with his frustration about conflicting demands.
I mention Yusuf because Ramadan is approaching once again. The annual season when Muslims fast and seek God begins Aug. 22 this year. For some, it’s little more than a family ritual. For sincere spiritual seekers, however, it’s a time of deep repentance and prayer. That’s why followers of Christ pray for the world’s more than 1 billion Muslims throughout Ramadan.
Imams influence millions of Muslims. Who influences imams? If frequent reports from around the world are true, Christ Himself. As with so many other Muslims who begin to seek Christ, the encounter often begins in dreams.
In Southeast Asia, an influential imam became a believer after repeated dreams about a white-clothed man who told him to study the Bible. He reportedly has led some 3,000 other Muslims to faith in Jesus. He asks them if they have had similar dreams of a man clothed in white robes. If so, he tells them, “That is Jesus. He wants to speak with You, because He wants you to follow Him.”
In North Africa, an ex-imam was jailed years ago after becoming a follower of Christ. He led many fellow Muslim inmates to faith, however. The “Christian imam” has been transferred from one prison to another. The same thing happens each time: He starts churches in the prisons.
In another region, an evangelistic team arrived in a Muslim village to show the JESUS film. The largest wall in the village was the wall of the mosque, so team members asked the local imam for permission to project the film onto it. He granted their request. That night, after the film was shown, he was the first to respond to the call of Christ. Hundreds followed.
Perhaps Yusuf, the busy young imam in London, will respond to Christ one day. Pray for him — and for all the imams of the world.