“I try to explain to the parishioners that an imam is not a person who only reads Namāz five times a day in the mosque and then goes home,” says Nematulla, the imam of Jalal-Abad province in Kyrgyzstan.
That is why Nematulla is one of the 1,426 imams taking part in our project, ‘Constructive dialogues on religion and democracy’, funded by the European Union.
Through short training courses and seminars, we are bringing together religious leaders, civil society members, journalists and government officials to learn about and discuss key issues affecting religion and democracy in the country.
Nematulla has devoted his whole life to education and service to the public. Before becoming an imam, he worked in the office of the national clergy of Muslims and in the State Commission on Religious Affairs. He is still actively involved in public affairs and teaches and supports those who need his help.
Every week, Nematulla meets with religious practitioners in his small library on the edge of the city, where he conducts classes, instructs or simply listens to those who need guidance or advice. He considers the profession of the imam as respected as that of a teacher.
“In our city, for example, there are low-income families. We help them as much as possible. We attract support for them by encouraging entrepreneurs in the city to donate. Every month, the money and food collected are distributed to those in need. On top of that, I am taking care of 20 children.”
Recently Nematulla even met with a delegation from Saudi Arabia who wish to build a hospital in the Jalal-Abad region specialised in the treatment of burns. “We have discussed all the issues of the upcoming construction, and after reaching mutual agreements, we have laid down a capsule in the foundation of the future hospital.”
In addition to being actively involved in social and religious activities, Nematulla owns his own small business. “I have an engine oil service station in Jalal-Abad city. I can say that I provide for my family with the help of this business.”
It is no secret that imams face difficulties in Kyrgyzstan. Sometimes, it can even be hard for them to feed their families. “I would advise other imams to also keep a small farm or a small business just like I do. You can’t just sit back and be an imam. Every imam has abilities and talents for something, which should be used.”
Being an imam also requires a large investment of time. “With the development of science and modern technologies, there are new challenges emerging to which imams must be able to respond. Therefore, it is good when imams are aware of those developments.”
For Nematulla, the workshops for religious leaders conducted by International Alert and the Foundation for the Development of Spiritual Culture (‘Yiman’) were timely, especially the session on working with local authorities.
“For us, it was extremely necessary, because imams of mosques have to constantly cooperate with [local authorities]. There are participants among us who are already applying the acquired knowledge in practice. For example, many have already registered mosques and rented land for farming.”
The sessions also touch on important social issues, such as family and gender relations. “We have obtained a deeper understanding of family values. Of course, every family is different. That is why it is important for imams to know how to help parishioners in the peaceful resolution of family disputes, how to treat a woman, how to control one’s anger.”
We hope the lessons such as these will reach far beyond the sessions themselves. “I try to share the information I receive at the seminars with the visitors of the mosque. I think that such knowledge is extremely important for us.”