Understanding British Imams
Understanding British Imams is a three-year research project based at Cardiff University’s Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK.
Background to the research
Imams are the largest group of Muslim religious professionals in Britain who work principally within mosques leading prayers, delivering sermons and providing guidance to their congregations. However, there is growing evidence to suggest that this role is being expanded to encompass pastoral care, chaplaincy, charity work or wider community projects such as inter-faith activity or civic events.
Further, the pressures of a post-9/11 and 7/7 socio-political climate, in which counter-terrorism measures become increasingly conflated with integration issues, have foregrounded the imam as a figure that may guide his flock in either constructive or destructive ways. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, the British imam has only rarely been the subject of in-depth ethnographic research.
Generously funded by the Jameel Research Programme, this project aims to fill this lacuna by conducting the most detailed and rigorous study ever undertaken of British imams; and communicating the results, and interest in Muslim religious leadership in the West more generally, to many beneficiaries.
The project will transform our understanding of British imams and create a lasting reference point for future research on Muslim religious professionals.
Our research aims
The research has several aims which can be summarised as follows:
- To compile a comprehensive national database of British imams consisting of basic biographical details such as age, ethnicity, education, language usage and country of birth. This is being done through a meticulously planned national mapping exercise involving multi-sited mosque visits and telephone interviews.
- To develop rich insights into the lived experiences of British imams. This will be achieved by conducting in-depth interviews with 40 imams of all denominations across Britain.
- To document a ‘day in the life’ of an average Imam. This will be achieved by shadowing 10 imams for 24 hours each as they go about their ordinary day-to-day activities.
- To elicit the views of a range of key stakeholders on British imams. This will be done by interviewing 10 ‘experts’ and conducting five focus groups with mosque congregants. An online web portal will enable members of the public to also participate and contribute views.
- To assess existing provisions of ‘Continuous Professional Development’ for British imams and develop, based on the research findings and in collaboration with key community stakeholders, robust evidence-based training packages with the potential of national rollout.
The project team
Dr Riyaz Timol - Principal Investigator
Dr Timol’s PhD dissertation was shortlisted for the 2018 BRAIS - De Gruyter Prize in the Study of Islam and the Muslim World. As the Principal Investigator, he has overall management of the project contributing to data collection, analysis and write-up.
Professor Sophie Gilliat-Ray - Co-Investigator
Professor Gilliat-Ray has been researching Muslim religious professionals in Britain for two decades, with a focus on Muslim chaplains. Her role involves shaping the overarching intellectual contributions of the project, especially as a specialist in the sociology of religious professionals.
Imam Dr Haroon Sidat - Research Associate
Dr Sidat’s recently completed PhD consisted of a detailed ethnographic study of a British Dar al-Ulum (Islamic seminary). Having served as a part-time imam for several years, he is uniquely positioned to conduct the bulk of the fieldwork on this project.
Seherish Abrar - Research Assistant
After completing a bachelor’s degree in Religion and Education at the University of Huddersfield, Seherish was awarded the Jameel scholarship for postgraduate study at Cardiff University. She completed the MA ‘Islam in Contemporary Britain’ in 2019 with her dissertation centring around the religious authority of female ‘Ulama in British Muslim communities.
Maulana Muhammad Belal Ghafoor - Research Assistant
Following his BA in Islamic Studies at the University of Leeds, Belal completed the Diploma in Contextualised Islamic Studies and Leadership at the Cambridge Muslim College. He has also served as an imam and teacher in both mosque and seminary settings. As a Jameel Scholar at Cardiff University, Belal’s MA thesis examined Muslim religious leadership in Scotland.