Known as the 'Young Imam', Sabah Ahmedi is on a mission to change false narratives about Muslims through being relatable and making people laugh
Known as the ‘Young Imam’, Manchester born and bred Sabah Ahmedi decided at 17 that he wanted to dedicate his life to the service of Islam by becoming an imam. After training for seven years, Ahmedi has been an Imam for the past three years and has won awards for using social media to combat stereotypes and misconceptions about who an Imam is.
Fresh from a visit to New York to wrap up work on a project with the UN on combatting Islamist extremism, Ahmedi speaks to Reader’s Digest, and addresses Islamophobia, the representations of Muslims in the media and why he’s on a mission to change people’s opinions of Islam.
RD: Firstly, for those who aren’t aware, what is an Imam?
An Imam is basically a priest, but a Muslim version. You’ve got it to keep it sweet, and not get too technical [laughs].
Why did you choose to become an Imam?
When I was younger I had aspirations to join the police force like my dad, become a teacher like my mum, or become a doctor or lawyer. But at 17 I decided to give my life at the service of religion, and I honestly feel like it was through the prayers of my elders and parents, and the blessing of God really that I decided that this is what I want to do.
People think that an imam is someone middle-aged with a massive white long beard, that they’re serious and have no banter. So I just help people know that an imam is also someone you can relate to.
Do you think Muslims are poorly represented in the media?
Yes. A third of Britons believe that Islam threatens their way of life. Unfortunately there’s a minority of individuals who have tarnished it for the majority [of Muslims].”
To attribute a terrorist attack or violence to any religion is not true because no religion preaches violence and terror. So [in my opinion], religion should be taken out of every media report when terrorism and violence is involved…and unfortunately [the media] does have a massive part to play in why people are scared [of Muslims]. So we have to change that…
I think we live in an age where conversation and dialogue needs to happen, and that’s why I work on social media as the ‘Young Imam’, just to give people a safe space to ask questions and see what life is like as a young British Muslim, and as a father.
Sabah Ahmedi with Trevor McDonald after winning Community Person of the Year at the Visionary Awards
How do you demonstrate through your work and life that the fundamental meaning of Islam is peace?
It’s all well and good when we say ‘Islam means peace’, because it does. But we have to show through our own example and actions that Islam really does mean peace. So on my Instagram page every day I put a reel out talking about an Islamic teaching or helping and motivating people to be the best version of themselves or reconnect to God.
Through my Instagram stories, I talk about helping your neighbour, dropping food off [to them], taking your neighbour’s bins out.
It’s just the smallest things that I try to connect people with. Islam teaches that when you make food at home, make a bit more and give it to your neighbour. So I’m just trying to help people connect on our common denominators, because once they do, it’ll help remove the misconceptions and help them see that, actually, Islam is a decent religion.
"As human beings we all share common values; spreading love, helping people"
I might have a beard, and I might [have] a different [skin] colour to someone else but as human beings we all share common values; spreading love, helping people. And I think sometimes we judge people based on the way they look, when really we’re all the same inside. Every religion teaches unity in God, fulfilling God’s rights and the rights of his people.
And once we can unite on that, we can get rid of a lot of the fear that people have.
How do you feel about there being an onus put upon prominent Muslims to publicly condemn every act of Islamist terrorism or extremism?
Look I can’t speak for anyone else, but as a Muslim, if the ship is sinking and I jump off, what use am I? Get on board, and get rid of the water. As an individual, and as a Muslim, I’m trying to help people learn about Islam and remove misconceptions.
What they see on TV, the attacks they see and the injustice they see that is done in the name of my faith—I’m helping to counter those by inviting people into my mosque, helping them to see what life is like as a Muslim, showing them how we pray, having food together with them. So when they see [terrorist attacks reported on] TV, they’re like, ‘hold on, I’ve met a Muslim, I’ve been to a mosque, I know what the teaching is about this.’
Does it frustrate you that when there’s a terrorist attack carried out by a different religion or in the name of White supremacy, it’s reported differently?
It’s a double standard. When there’s a [Muslim] perpetrator of an attack, his faith is blamed, and when someone’s not [Muslim], mental health issues are blamed.
Have you ever been in situations where you’re being a Muslim has been a problem?
Of course. We’ve [me and my wife] had glass and stones thrown at us.
My wife Melissa converted to Islam when she was 13, and she’s a White British convert, and she wears the hijab. We’ve had issues on the Tube, where people have looked and talked. I’ve ignored it a few times and the third time I was like, “guys, if there's an issue let's have a chat about it.”
And these two middle aged men said, “No, we’re not looking at you, we’re looking at someone else.” But there was no one else on the Tube. They got off at the next station and were clearly taken aback that I challenged them. It was all respectful though.
My wife gets the funniest of looks, as if me, being a brown Asian man, [I] forced her to convert and wear a headscarf where that’s not the case. My wife is a very strong, independent secondary school RE teacher. She chooses to wear a headscarf and that’s entirely her choice.
"As an individual, and as a Muslim, I’m trying to help people learn about Islam and remove misconceptions"
There appears to be a lot of misconceptions around why women wear the hijab. What has been your experience in trying to combat these prejudices?
I’ve met people who have said that their issue was that the niqab doesn’t allow [Muslim women] to integrate into society.
Their issue was that it doesn’t allow them to integrate into society. I said: “I'm sure you came into this coffee shop wearing a mask?”
They said their problem was with the colour of the veil being black.” So I said: “You’re wearing a black top.”
I then asked her: “Are you a feminist?”, and she said yes. So I said: “Then why can’t you let [women] wear what they want to wear?”, and I then asked, “have you ever met a lady in a niqab or hijab?”. She said no.
I said: “Why don’t you come to the mosque, meet one, and have a chat with them.” She never came.
What do you enjoy the most about being an Imam?
Oh man, I love meeting people. I love connecting with people, having a chat about life. It’s nice to impact people and help them.
I’m on my own journey of learning and I will be for the rest of my life. I pick up some things from them and they pick up some things from me.
People find it really easy to have a chat with me, a lot of people have opened up to me about drug abuse, domestic violence, suicidal thoughts. And I feel happy enough that they’re able to trust me in that sense. And a lot of them are not even Muslim but they feel like they can chat to me.
I just try to help them through my own experiences in life. And as a member of my own community and as a faith leader, it’s important to be there for everyone. That’s what Islam teaches you to do.
Just because someone is different to you [it] doesn’t mean we don’t share the same values.
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