Integration in France: Should imams in France learn French?

Integration in France: Should imams in France learn French? June 29, 2005
Liberté, egalité, bilinguism

Elizabeth Bryant of the Religion News Service wrote an article about the French government’s plan to teach imams in France the French language. The program was launched by Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, and they are accompanied by a separate program teaching imams about French history, civics, and culture.

“The only problem we have is with fundamentalism, it’s not with Islam,” said Blandine Kriegel, head of the French government commission on integration to the BBC. “The question is, can we have a moderate form of Islam? And the answer is, yes, of course.”

Hocine Elafghani, a 72-year-old imam from Clermont-Ferrand, seems to agree with the sentiment: “I would like to learn to speak and write a bit more in French.” The program is designed to battle the growing rift between France’s Muslim community and the rest of the country. According to the Interior Ministry, about 2/3 of the country’s 1,200 imams are foreign born, and of those, less than half speak French.

Yet, this begs the questions: should these imams be learning about French language, culture, and civics? Is this an appropriate way to spend the time of the imams’ who signed up for the classes? Isn’t this “imitating the kuffar”? Isn’t the language of the Qur’an Arabic, not French? What is the motive of the French government?

These questions, I feel, are distractions. Every single imam in France should about learn about the French language, culture, and civic life. I believe it is their religious obligation. Yet, this is not so the imams can learn how to ask for the nearest bakery to buy French bread (which is, by the way, some of the best bread I have ever tasted). This is so that the imams – and the flocks they shepherd – can become part of the fabric of French society.

What is the purpose of Muslims on earth? Are we simply put here to consume and feed ourselves? Are we not supposed to give anything back? Are we another cog in the wheel of life’s machinery? Absolutely not. The Qur’an clearly defines our mission on earth:

“You are the best nation set up for humanity [because] you enjoin that which is good, you forbid that which is evil, and you believe in God” (3:110).

Our purpose is to work to establish that which is good and forbid that which is evil, using the power inherent in our belief in God. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) echoed this sentiment:

“Whoever of you sees something wrong, he should work to change it with his hands (physically). If he is unable, then he should speak out against it. If he is unable to do even this, then he should at least hate it in his heart, this being the weakest level of faith.”

That is why we are the “best nation set up for humanity.” If we fail to meet the requirements of “enjoining good”, “forbidding evil”, and “believing in God”, then we are not the best nation on earth. Period. Yet, we have to go a step further.

Although all Muslims are bound together by their faith in the larger Islamic ummah, they are still distinguished by language, color, and custom. This distinction is a blessing, and it is testimony to the Infinite Wisdom of the Loving Creator:

“And among his signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the variation of your languages and colors. Verily in that are signs for those who know” (30:22).

In the Arabic, ayatihi also means “His miracles.” Thus, it is a miracle of God that we are of different colors and languages. And the Muslims in Spain should be fully Spanish; the Muslims in America should be fully American; the Muslims in France should be fully French. What better way, then, to “become” fully French than learning the language, history, and culture of France?

Moreover, the Qur’an says:

“And never have We sent forth any apostle otherwise than [with a message] in his own people’s tongue, so that he might make [the truth] clear unto them…”(14:4).

Every Prophet began his mission with the address: “O my people!…” Wasn’t the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) sent with the same message as all the previous Prophets? Aren’t we the ambassadors of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)? How, then, can Muslims in France call their fellow Frenchmen and Frenchwomen “my people” if they are not engrossed in French culture, language, and heritage?

Now, I am sure some of you question the motives of the French government. You may be thinking that the French want to “change” Islam by offering these classes. Elizabeth Bryant’s article actually says something like that: “Indeed, the new imam training programs are part of a a grander scheme to create a moderate, Western-oriented ‘Islam of France.'” I think there should be an “Islam of France,” or an “Islam of Spain,” or an “Islam of America.” But how?

I once heard a scholar say that Islam is like a crystal river. Its waters are clear, pure, and sweet. Yet, when it flows over red rocks, it turns red. When it flows over green rocks, it turns green. When it flows over white rocks, it turns white. Islam accepts the cultural practices of a people, so long as those practices do not conflict with the principles of Islam.

It is because of this that mosques in China look Chinese, mosques in Turkey look Byzantine, and mosques in Africa look African, while remaining authentic Islamic sacred spaces. I wish, in fact, that mosques in America look more “American,” rather than transplants from the Middle East or Indian subcontinent. A French beret is as Islamic as a Pakistani Kufi. A three-piece suit is as Islamic as a Saudi thobe. As long as the core is Islamic, the outward form – as long as it conforms to Islamic norms – is completely immaterial.

Now, some of you may think I am speaking blasphemy. Hold your horses. If the French government wants the “Islam of France” to be a religion that allows Muslims to get income from usury, or drink alcohol, or eat pork, or commit adultery and fornication, then I am wholeheartedly against it. God says you can’t do those things, and thus, who is the French government to say otherwise?

If, however, the “Islam of France” means that Muslims in France would be recognized as fully French and fully Muslim at the same time, then I am all for it. It is possible to be simultaneously fully French and fully Muslim, or fully American and fully Muslim, or fully German and fully Muslim. The two are not – and should not – be mutually exclusive.

Hundreds of imams have signed up for the French classes, and I commend them for it. It may be a radical change in understanding for some Muslims, but it is one that is desperately needed and long overdue. Muslims must never be islands of isolation in the countries in which they live, and I hope the French language classes are the first step of a healthy integration of Muslims into French society. Vive le France!

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at

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