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In the heart of France, Islamic school trains imams


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Pupils study interpretations of the Koran's twelfth chapter, at the European Institute of Social Sciences in central France.—AFP Photo

SAINT-LIGER-DE-FOUGERET: Deep in the wooded hills of Burgundy in central France, an unusual institute is training unusual students: aspiring French imams who hope to minister to the country's large Muslim population.

Early in the morning, some 200 students from across the country stream into the European Institute of Human Sciences de Saint-Leger-de-Fougeret, where they learn to chant the Koran and study Islamic theology and Arabic literature.

After seven intensive years of study, only 10 or so graduates each year to lead prayers or preach at mosques.

Estimates of France's Muslim population vary widely, from between 3.5 million and 6.0 million, though there is little hard evidence as to how many are practising. In any event, France's Muslim community is the largest in Western Europe.

Relations between the authorities and Muslims, many of them second- or third-generation immigrants, chiefly from North Africa, have often been tense.

Some younger Muslims have been tempted by extremist jihadist views and France has implemented a contentious ban on women wearing full veils.

Over the past nine years, various governments have encouraged the professional training of local religious leaders. Interior Minister Manuel Valls recently backed the practice, even if the job of imam is badly paid, if at all, and enjoys no official recognition.

“Equipped” with knowledge

The initiative goes back 20 years when the Union of Islamic Organisations in France, which has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, converted a former children's holiday centre into the institute. Its stated aim is to train imams equipped “with a solid knowledge of Islam and the socio-cultural realities of Europe.”

The idea was to provide an alternative to the recruitment of foreign imams, who often spoke no French and had little or no knowledge of French lifestyles.

“The training of imams who are products of French society is vital: Today 70 per cent of the faithful don't speak Arabic,” said the institute's director Zuhair Mahmood.

Initially financed by the Gulf States, the school depends heavily on fees of about 3,400 euros a year, board and lodging included.

“Since I was small I have dreamed of becoming an imam,” said 18-year-old Wahib, who did not want to give his last name, “but seven years is long and there are no grants.”

Apart from the rural setting, the atmosphere in the run-down prefabricated corridors of the institute is like that of any other college.

At break time men, often bearded, and women, all of them wearing head scarves, wait for coffee. The women can follow the 20 hours of weekly courses but cannot become imams.

Said, who also did not want to give his last name, was born in Morocco and now living in Nice in southern France. He took correspondence courses for two years and left his family to “deepen” his knowledge of Islam. “If I succeed, I become an imam. It's my vocation,” he said.

“I would love to pass on my knowledge to others and above all fight against extremism.” There are about 10 people in his class. They listen to the interpretations of a Koran sura, or chapter, as part of a third year theology course, which also includes an introduction to French law. They then recite a passage from the Koran.

“Being an imam, it isn't something that happens,” the 33-year-old Said told AFP. “It's a real responsibility, we have to be safeguards.”

“Radicalism is always the result of ignorance,” Said's theology teacher Larbi Belbachir added.

Traditionally, congregations of the faithful choose their imams, who carry out their duties as volunteers or are paid by gifts. Those presiding in large mosques can earn 1,500 euros a month. They are classified as educators or teachers but never as imams.

“When this profession is recognised and paid as such,” Said suggested, “perhaps there will be more vocations.”

Comments (19) Closed

Hamid Nov 07, 2012 03:13am
Trained in South Asia or Europe, they remain ignorant.
Rockstar Nov 07, 2012 06:41am
Hey Sue, Well Im pretty sure there aint no Rabbi's or synagogue's.. Im a Catholic living in karachi, Pakistan.. and we do have institutes that train priests.
Muhammad Masood Nov 06, 2012 06:41pm
Yes, Pakistan do train,ordinary person( accoding his faith) to become Priest in Church, In Gul E Iqbal, Karachi and this place is since long before 1970's
Diya Nov 07, 2012 07:18am
an imam in islam is differnt from a priest in Christianity. becoming an Imam or a religious scholar is not a vocation. an imam has to have some mean to earn money apart from leadong prayers and advising people on religion.
AHA Nov 06, 2012 08:01pm
Possible in Pakistan, but never in Saudi Arabia.
FJ Siddiqui Nov 07, 2012 06:15am
I hope and pray that in this institution they teach not only subjects but also how Islam tells us to handle difference of opinion else it will be no different than any other 'indoctrinating centers' producing closed minds and "nothing is more dangerous then a closed mind" as per saying on a Facebook page.
Rattan(Sydney) Nov 07, 2012 03:47pm
Pakistan - Islamic republic - Majority sunni muslims - thousands of madrassas - Is it a free society?
abdul narayan Nov 06, 2012 06:16am
It is far better to have properly trained mullahs than the ignorant ones you see in south asia.
rahul Nov 06, 2012 05:42am
Poor France...
MoniShaikh Nov 06, 2012 05:33am
SubhanAllah. Glad to hear this news.
gir na Nov 06, 2012 04:50am
Please teach them ,educate them , else destroy the mankind.Unless and until these communities are educated and modernised through out the world , we will continue to face this extremism .
shado Nov 06, 2012 03:33pm
Islam has so much to offer in our daily life; Islam teaches to love every human beings and give them respect as they deserve as an indivual or a group. In west UK, USA, Canada etc. are institution and seminary coming up day by day who are training muslims to become leaders of next generation all according to teaching of Rasool allah(SAW). I am seeing light at the end of tunnel, because this is the only way how the free society operates. May allah save and protect us all.
Pakistani Christian Nov 06, 2012 01:05pm
Yes, in Pakistan Priest are trained and there are quite a few Christian Seminaries.
arslan Nov 06, 2012 01:55pm
Not sure if you know this but in Pak there are christian/hindu/sikh schools as there is a population. If there was jewish population in Pak i am sure there would have been school for rabbi...thanks
Adnan Nov 06, 2012 11:03am
Frances is indeed a great country. It would take Pakistan very long to be so.
Khurram Nov 06, 2012 07:25pm
Perhaps it was better for the author to be academically and politically correct rather than acting in a typical media-style. The Christian population is higher in Pakistan than combined Muslim population in France. Historically there are far far more churches, and that too state supported than in France (I am presuming there would/should be none as France is secular country, as was claimed - but then again, in the same country Churches are given grants and priests given some official status: typical French style). Since this is a private institute which chooses to teach what is finds appropriate, like any other institution, which has nothing to do with statehood. Sue Sturgess, surely needs to grow up.
Muhammad Masood Nov 06, 2012 06:45pm
they all are properly trained, there curriculum are monitor by federal body and international body like US agencies, Norway and other countires
Sue Sturgess Nov 06, 2012 09:20am
Could you imagine Saudi or Pakistan having schools to train priests and rabbi's? France is a secular country, and as such, even minority religions are permitted to promote themselves, as long as it is done within the legal framework.
Sabiha Nov 06, 2012 04:38pm
I wish you could look at the christian churches and cathedrals and schools here.....,they are a sight to look at and people freely go there...