Imam Suhaib Webb, left, talks with an attendee at a Chicago festival last… (Chris Salata / Chicago Tribune )
At the pulpit of an inner-city Chicago mosque, the tall blond imam begins preaching in his customary fashion, touching on the Los Angeles Lakers victory the night before, his own gang involvement as a teenager, a TV soap opera and then the Day of Judgment.
"Yesterday we watched the best of seven.... Unfortunately we forget the big final; it's like that show 'One Life to Live,' " Imam Suhaib Webb says as sleepy boys and young men come to attention in the back rows. "There's no overtime, bro."
The sermon is typical of Webb, a charismatic Oklahoma-born convert to Islam with a growing following among American Muslims, especially the young. He sprinkles his public addresses with as many pop culture references as Koranic verses and sayings from the prophet. He says it helps him connect with his mainly U.S.-born flock.
"Are we going to reach them with an Arab message or with a Pakistani message? Or are we going to reach them with an American message?" asks Webb, 38, of Santa Clara. He is a resident scholar and educator with the Bay Area chapter of the nonprofit Muslim American Society, but reaches others in lectures and through his popular website, which he calls a "virtual mosque."
Webb is at the forefront of a movement to create an American-style Islam, one that is true to the Koran and Islamic law but that reflects this country's customs and culture. Known for his laid-back style, he has helped promote the idea that Islam is open to a modern American interpretation. At times, his approach seems almost sacrilegious.
Although the call to prayer at a mosque is always issued by a man, Webb once joked about it being made by one of his favorite female R&B artists: "If Mary J. Blige made the call to prayer, I'd go to the mosque; I'd be in the front row."
At a Muslim conference in Long Beach last year, he suggested that mosques adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays. Afterward, he was accosted by a local imam who accused him of poisoning Muslim youth. "I told him, 'Quite frankly, you're going to be irrelevant in 10 years,' " Webb says.
He is fluent in Arabic, the language of the Koran, and studied for six years at one of the world's leading Islamic institutes, Egypt's Al-Azhar University. His time in the Middle East convinced him that not all religious practices there make sense for Muslims here.
As recently as a decade ago, U.S. congregations readily accepted immigrant imams who had arrived straight from Islamic universities, often with a traditional approach to preaching. Many spoke little English and were unable to communicate with non-Arab congregants or connect easily with youth.
But increasingly, U.S. Muslims expect their religious leaders to play a broader, more pastoral role, says Hossam Aljabri, executive director of the Muslim American Society, a national religious and education group. "Communities want imams who can come in and go beyond leading the prayer and reading Koran. They want them to fill the social role of counseling and dealing with neighbors."
Religious scholars say the faith's basic tenets would not change but much of the law that governs Islam may be interpreted differently in various communities.
Webb believes, for example, that barriers between men and women in U.S. mosques are not necessary, although they continue to be used in many traditional congregations. Unlike some imams, he does not object to music and believes Muslims here should be free to celebrate such secular holidays as Mother's Day and Thanksgiving.
But given the ethnic diversity of U.S. Muslims, finding a consensus for a single American Islam could be difficult. Some favor major reforms that would alter the faith's core beliefs. Others oppose any change.
In 2007, Webb stopped teaching at SunniPath, an online academy of traditional Islamic education, tussling verbally in the process with a few of its scholars, who are critical of what they term "modernist Islam."
"Modernists are doing a disservice to Islam.... They validate things that are slack in Islamic practice," Sheikh Nuh Keller, a teacher at the academy, said at the time. "We say to the modernists, nothing needs to be modernized."
Although Webb has spent much of his time in Egypt in recent years, his U.S. following has grown. His website, where he posts writings on such topics as relationships, personal development and Islamic studies, gets more than 10,000 visitors a day, and sparks extended conversations.
In November, one reader asked if it was OK for Muslims to celebrate Thanksgiving. Webb's response that the holiday was allowed upset some who thought that could lead to more questionable practices.
"Soon it will be [permissible] for me to take that 'Santa Claus' gig at the mall…….or it is already????" asked one commenter, Ahmed.
Others appeared to appreciate Webb's effort to balance Muslim teachings with life in the West.