Young Imam Serves as Islam's Face to Community Sheikh Rashid Lamptey, the new imam at the Dar Al Noor mosque in Virginia, plays a dual role: He's the face of Islam to his congregation and to Americans who might be wary of Muslims.
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Young Imam Serves as Islam's Face to Community

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Young Imam Serves as Islam's Face to Community

Young Imam Serves as Islam's Face to Community

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Now, we're going to meet a young imam at a brand new mosque in Manassas, Virginia - that's near Washington, D.C. It's a second part of our series about clergymen and women just starting out. It's called "The Young and the Godly." Today, Sheikh Rashid Lamptey. He's serving a growing mosque in one of America's fastest growing religions. Islam already has more than two million faithful in the U.S.

As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, the imam plays a dual role. He's the face of Islam to his congregation and to other Americans who might be wary.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: The day is sunny and hot. The hamburgers are on the grill. The kids are jumping on the moon bounce, and several hundred people are milling around Dar Al Noor mosque. Members of the congregation, neighbors, even Governor Tim Kane is coming.

James Dade, a non-Muslim who lives nearby, mans the grill as he chats with his Muslim friend. He gives this assessment of his new neighbors.

NORRIS: Very friendly, very helpful, very community-oriented. My friend - if there's more Christians like my friend, we wouldn't have any problems in this world.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: A happy appraisal on this big day - the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new mosque. Sheikh Rashid Lamptey, the new imam, can barely contain his excitement as he waits for the governor to arrive.

SEABROOK: Everyone is down here: the politicians, the security men. We have their trust. They have our trust. This is what we want to establish - the trust, so that we can work together towards a more peaceful community.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Asalaam aleikum.


BRADLEY HAGERTY: Thank you so much. Thank you so much.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Governor Kane welcomes the mosque to the community with a few words of Arabic.

But drive for half a mile and the reception is chillier. People outside of the Safeway aren't sure what goes on at the mosque in their community. One person asks if they sacrifice cows. The answer is no.

NPR producer Katia Dunn spoke with Amanda Weeks and Johnny Wilson, whose views ranged from the curious to the suspicious.

NORRIS: I know that they're separated, like, the men and women - when they pray, they're separated. They take off their shoes and they wash before they go in.

NORRIS: I wouldn't say basically that it's the Muslims who are the terrorists, but they do some things that cause some concerns for me.

KATIA DUNN: Mm-hmm. Such as?

NORRIS: You know, off the top of my tongue, I can't name any, but there are some things that they do that cause some concerns.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: A worry echoed by Brianna Altman.

NORRIS: And after 9/11 - and we have over 20 people in this community that lost their lives that day - it makes you think about it. It's very difficult. And like I said, it does take a leap of faith to really believe that they are here peacefully.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The imam has his work cut out for him, and he knows it.

SEABROOK: Muslims have to be careful because they have a picture that is not nicely painted of them.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: I ask Imam Lamptey about this as we sit in his office one muggy July day. The ceiling fan whirrs on high speed. He wears a blue prayer cap, a navy suit, and royal blue shirt that billows a bit over his slim frame.

Lamptey was born in Ghana, the fifth of eight children. Ghana is predominantly Christian, but Lamptey's father was an imam, a very religious man. The kids - not so much.

SEABROOK: Growing up, we were kids who would never mind. We prayed when it is time to pray, but we didn't care so much about it until I had this epiphany of doing something about my religion.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: He studied Christianity, Judaism and Islam, eventually settling on the faith of his childhood. He won a scholarship to a university in Sudan. He earned two masters' degrees in Arabic and Islamic studies, which qualified him to become an imam. But Lamptey had no intention of doing so. He became fluent in Chinese and moved to Beijing to teach at a university, when he was literally called to be a spiritual leader.

SEABROOK: I was in China when I had letters from Ghana telling me that, look, you went and studied. You need to come back home and help the people. So I immediately packed my stuff and went back home.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Soon Lamptey was appointed Ghana's deputy national imam - the second highest Muslim cleric. He was 23. He served a large mosque and it was there that he first saw a Fulbright scholar from Connecticut named Gerusha, who had converted to Islam. Eventually, Gerusha returned to the United States. She left a gaping hole in the imam's heart and in the practice of his faith. He says duty to God is one-half of Islam; the other is duty to your spouse.

SEABROOK: Because in that half, that is where you get tested a lot. So I decided this is the time for me to go into marriage. And I looked around and I realized, well, she sounded very religious and at the same time very attractive. So I said okay, let me settle down with this beautiful lady.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Lamptey visited Gerusha's family in the fall of 2002. He took the opportunity to travel to New York to see the wreckage of the twin towers himself. Lamptey could not believe what had been done in the name of his faith.

SEABROOK: I stood at Ground Zero. I tried my very best. I couldn't find one simple reason that says we can throw a bomb or put an airplane into a building and say that this is for religion. I couldn't find one. I felt the melancholy, the weight of it, and I said, time has come for us to really stop using religion for our ulterior motives, and teach people what the religion really stands for.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Now, he has his chance - as the new imam at Dar Al Noor. While Lamptey must always contend with hovering suspicions, he spends most of his time tending to the spiritual needs of his own congregants and laying down the standard on how half of them are treated.


SEABROOK: So ladies can do what the men do provided they comport themselves right. It's no problem.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: At noon prayers one day, I watched as Lamptey encouraged the women to move forward and participate in the service, which, he says, is true to the spirit of Islam.

SEABROOK: And this may sound a little controversial to a lot of people, but men and women can pray in the same room, though the women are delayed behind the men. But they should be in the same setting. The women should not be taken far away and hidden from the public.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The imam's duties range from spiritual guide to resident psychologist, sorting through the never-ending details of his people's lives. The work begins with 5 a.m. prayers.


BRADLEY HAGERTY: In between prayers, he teaches the Koran and youth class. He preaches at funerals and weddings. He counsels parents and children, couples in love, and those in distress.

SEABROOK: It's a very huge responsibility to be an imam. You're exposed to everything in a community. You hear stories from families, sacred deals, I mean, things that you don't expect to hear on people's private issues and all that.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Almost as he uttered those words, Lamptey glanced out his door to see a woman and her mother outside his office. They had been waiting for two hours.

SOPHIA: I'm good. How are you?

LAMPTEY: I'm good. You came for your appointment?

SOPHIA: Yes, I was.

DUNN: We've been waiting for you the last two hours.

SEABROOK: I'm sorry.

SOPHIA: That's all right.

SEABROOK: Come on in.


DUNN: Thank you.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The woman, Sophia, has been abandoned by the man she married in Pakistan. She's come to the imam to sign her divorce papers. Lamptey grants her request and then gives her encouragement.

SEABROOK: This, to tell you the truth, is a blessing in disguise. At least, he has not stained your life yet.

SOPHIA: Right.

SEABROOK: Yeah. He has just run away like a chicken. And tomorrow, you will find a real man.

SOPHIA: Insh'allah.

SEABROOK: And you'll be happy then.

SOPHIA: Insh'allah.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The imam says he will find a match for Sophia. He'll help her reshape her future. It's the same message he's delivering to his congregation as they negotiate their spiritual lives in a post-9/11 America.

SEABROOK: It is up to us Muslims to really put our religion out there and make it very transparent for people to see and understand that this religion is not about bombing, it's not about killing, it's not about marrying 70 women in heaven, as I heard somebody was saying. It's about accountability. It's about sincerity. It's about forgiveness. It's about love.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Lamptey rises to leave. It's time for evening prayer.

SEABROOK: (Praying in Arabic)

BRADLEY HAGERTY: A reminder for the imam that even in a new country, he can take comfort in the ancient rhythms of faith.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

NORRIS: You can find more stories in our series, "The Young and the Godly," at our Web site,

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