Sana Rahim was born in the cowboy country of southeastern Wyoming, to Pakistani parents who had emigrated so her father could earn a doctorate.
She speaks Urdu with her family, but can't read or write the language. She recites prayers in Arabic, but doesn't know exactly what each word means.
Now a 20-year-old junior at Northwestern University, she, like many other American-born Muslims, is most comfortable with sermons and lectures in English, although they can't always find U.S. mosques that offer them.
"I don't really get the time to study Arabic," Rahim said. "With all the different groups in America, English is a unifying thing that ties us together."
Like Jewish immigrants who fought over English-language prayer and Roman Catholics who resisted the new Mass in English, U.S. Muslims are waging their own debate about how much English they can use inside mosques without violating Islamic law and abandoning their culture.
The issue is part of a broader discussion within the Muslim community about young U.S. Muslims and their alienation from American mosques. Houses of worship founded by older immigrant Muslims often held fast to the culture and language of their native countries. For them, English in the mosque threatened Muslim identity. Their American-born children, however, can't relate.
"This is a constant problem talked about — young people in mosques," said Shahed Amanullah, co-founder of salatomatic.com, which lists thousands of mosques and reviews from users. "It's not just about the Friday prayers. It's the response that mosques have to the cultural reality of growing up Muslim in America. If young people don't find what they need in the mosque, they'll find it on the Internet."
The language of obligatory Friday prayers, called juma, is not part of the debate; those prayers must be in Arabic, the language of the Quran. The disagreement focuses on whether that requirement should extend to the sermon, or khutba, on Fridays, the Muslim day of congregational prayer, and other assemblies in the mosque.
Imams and scholars who insist on using Arabic say it's mandatory because the Prophet Muhammad gave his sermons in the language. Others say that Muhammad used Arabic only because it was what he and his community spoke, and that Islam is a universal faith.
On suhaibwebb.com, a Web forum for Muslims in the West, writer Abu Majeed said in a post last month that while his English-language sermons were accepted without protest at several U.S. mosques, he was derided by one South Florida congregation as a modernist who violated Islamic law. Foreign-born imams, or prayer leaders, who moved here to serve immigrant communities, have sometimes reinforced the thinking that only Arabic is acceptable. Other mosques might use Arabic and Urdu — a language from Pakistan, India and elsewhere in Asia — but no English.
"My worry is that younger people who do not find the mosque a satisfying experience, and women who find it a hostile environment, will drift away from the mosque," said Abdullahi An-Na'im, a specialist in Islamic law at Emory University School of Law. "That means the mosque will become the exclusive domain of a very archaic understanding of Islam."
'Blind leading the blind'
On a recent Friday, at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, Imam Mohamed Shamsi Ali climbed the narrow stairs to the top of the mimbar, or pulpit, and began his sermon in English. The mosque is one of the largest in the city and attracts a diverse group of Muslims who sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the carpeted floor.
Shamsi Ali spoke about the need for a positive outlook, human dignity and connecting prayer and fasting with behavior. He underscored his points by quoting Arabic verses from the Quran. The imam is Indonesian and a fluent English speaker who said later in an interview that he struggles with all the invitations he receives to lecture Muslim student groups.
"My schedule is tight because I'm among the very few who can address the English-only speakers," Shamsi Ali said.
Some imams bridge the language gap by giving a lecture in English and a short sermon in Arabic at Friday prayer. But only the sermon and the prayer are obligatory. As a result, many people skip the English-language talk, even if they don't understand the Arabic sermon, said Asad Ba-Yunus, 35, an attorney in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and board member for the Islamic Society of North America.
Muslims of South Asian descent often have a particularly strong attachment to using Arabic for sermons because it is a tradition in mosques in their native countries. About one-third of Muslims in the United States are of South Asian descent.
Amanullah, 41, said he found a particularly dramatic example of the problem in a predominantly South Asian mosque he visited one Friday in California. The prayer leader read a sermon written in Arabic, even though neither he nor the worshippers understood the language.
"It was the blind leading the blind," Amanullah said. "Nobody in the room knew what the sermon was about. It could have been a recipe for baba ghanoush and no one would have been the wiser."
Location matters. In small communities comprised of immigrants from many countries, the prayer leaders have no choice but to use English so they can be understood. However, in major cities, immigrants usually arrive in such large numbers that they can find a mosque where their native language is spoken.
The growing number of American-born Muslims is likely to force a resolution of the issue.
Imam Hassan al-Qazwini leads the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich., a community with a mix of recent immigrants and families who have been in the U.S. for generations.
When he first arrived at the center in 1997, he noticed most of the mosques in the Dearborn area used Arabic only. He decided to give his sermon first in English, then in Arabic to serve English speakers. He also lectures in English on Friday nights for young Muslims and again on Sundays, even though some older attendees speak only their native language.
"Some people say I'm too Americanized," said al-Qazwini. "I would say I'm being realistic. We have to be realistic. There are more and more Muslims who are born into this faith in America and there are more and more people who are converting to this faith in America and these are non-Arabic people."
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