The author of a new handbook for imams says it provides a professional -- and Canadian -- protocol for Muslim leaders not available before.
"The role of the imam has been constantly evolving in the West," says Shahina Siddiqui, president of the Winnipeg-based Islamic Social Services Association.
"At home (in Pakistan) it is just someone who leads the prayer. Here the role is more."
To address that evolving role, Siddiqui produced a 50-page downloadable handbook for imams addressing topics such as Canadian marriage laws, counselling practices, mediation, domestic violence, care of vulnerable persons, and hate speech. It also provides samples of marriage contracts and certificates and points to further resources.
Siddiqui says the whole handbook outlines best practices for counselling, performing civil and religious marriages, or addressing conflicts.
"The whole handbook deals with social services. It doesn't deal with any theology," she says.
"We have shared what our expertise is, what our mandate is."
While researching and writing the manual, Siddiqui referred to the professional conduct protocols for clergy produced by other denominations, including Roman Catholic, United Church of Canada and Mennonite.
"I knew that churches and synagogues already have these guidelines," she says, referring to guidelines around clergy misconduct.
Thought to be the first Canadian handbook for imans, it is available online at www.issaservices.com and may also be distributed in hard copy if requested, she says.
Memorizing the Qur'an and studying at an Islamic institution was the traditional path to become an imam, says the chairman of the Canadian Council of Imams, a Toronto-based organization with a membership of 50 volunteer and part-time imams.
"Most of imams (in Canada) are coming from other countries. We are in need of establishing our own education (program) in the Canadian context," explains Mohammed Iqbal AlNadvi, a volunteer imam who holds a PhD in Islamic law.
He says Canada has no formal post-secondary training programs for imams, but Muslims can attend a chaplaincy training program in Hartford, Conn.
AlNadvi says some of the material concerning mediation does not apply to the situation in Ontario because imams are not allowed to offer that service, but other information in the handbook will be useful for members of his organization, which meets monthly to discuss common concerns.
In Winnipeg, which has a smaller Muslim community and only a handful of mosques, there are only a few part-time imams, as well as several volunteer prayer leaders and marriage commissioners, says the newly elected president of the Manitoba Islamic Association.
"We'll read them (the guidelines) and I think we'll probably forward them to our prayer leaders and it will be a resource for them. We're also working at moving away from the model where the imam does everything," says Idris Elbakri.
"We've grown as a community but we need to match that growth with appropriate services and make changes as necessary."
That's exactly why this document is important, says Siddiqui, to address issues before they arise so imams and other people in the Muslim community understand the protocols and procedures.
"The community is growing, it is maturing and we're seeing issues we've never seen before."