My fifth grade classmates and I at John Neumann Catholic Elementary School looked forward to the arrival of Father Joe every school morning. He didn’t realize that, from the playground and classroom windows, many of us were watching intently as he sped into a street parking spot in his fancy sports car just before the start of school. He would then emerge from the car wearing dark, Ray Ban Wayfarer sunglasses. Although none of my classmates and I ever spoke to him -I think he was a school administrator and not a teacher – we thought he was the coolest adult we knew, by far. In fact, one of my friends nicknamed him Father Joe Cool. In my mind, when I think of a priest, I remember Father Joe Cool. Sometimes I even wonder, if an Islamic country has a Mullah Joe Cool, who fascinates the young Muslims of his town.

The core theme of Islam is belief in one God. This monotheistic concept sounds fairly typical to you, me and everyone else who lives in 2004. However, this clarity did not exist in the Arabia of A.D. 610, when Muhammad, the founder of Islam, lived. The Arabia before Islam subscribed to polytheistic beliefs.

Islam changed Arabia. In 12 years, Arabia went from a land of tribal, pagan warlords to a society unified by belief in one God. The revolution of the Islamic religion is that each Muslim stands equally before God. For the first time in Arab history, paupers and princes alike had equal access to God. The Quran – Islam’s holy book – dictates that Islam must have no religious hierarchy. Unlike Catholicism, for instance, Islam is a decentralized religion, with no divinely sanctioned head office or cleric. Each Muslim has his or her own personal relationship with God.

Many people ask me if it was hard to grow up Muslim in Pueblo, where they correctly suspect I was one of few Muslims. Pueblo has no sheikh or mullah, to my knowledge. However, this absence did not affect my ability to be a Muslim. The fact that Islam does not require clergy is a blessing. A Muslim can practice Islam as she sees fit and will be accountable for her actions on Judgment Day.

Muslims, however, have created and appointed clergy for guidance. Shiite Muslims set up a formal clergy system, with leaders called imams. The head imam is given the title of ayatollah. In Iran and Iraq, which is the other majority Shiite country, the imams hold political power as well as interpret Islam for Shiite Muslims who choose to follow them. Sunni Muslims have also adopted titles for community leaders, less out of a religious requirement than a community need. The basic functions of an imam are to lead the five daily prayers and maintain the mosque building. In many mosques, to prevent any imam from becoming too entrenched, the prayer leader position will rotate. Most Muslims also know an imam they trust and from whom they seek religious advice. In many American mosques, a board of directors will interview candidates for the imam position and hire the best-suited individual. Because America does not yet have a viable imam seminary, many of these imams must come from foreign countries, where their understanding of American policies and politics is skewed by their own, foreign prejudices. In reality, the parishioners -individuals who likely grew up American – probably do not share the imam’s views.

The terms “sheikh” and “mullah” are more general ones. “Sheikh” is the Arabic term for a leader of any kind. The head of an Islamic state, or even a small province in Arabia, who may have no religious training, can properly be called a sheikh. A Muslim leading a community that follows his interpretation of the Quran can also be called a sheikh. Sufi Muslims, who espouse a mystical and spiritual interpretation of Islam, often call their spiritual leaders sheikhs.

A mullah, technically, should have studied Islam in a seminary or other educational institution and have an advanced degree in religious studies. However, because of Islam’s decentralized nature, no officiating body exists to certify that those institutions providing ministerial education are teaching proper Islam. Many mullahs around the world have, on their own, begun weighing in with political views, often anti-American ones.

As confusing as this sounds, it is important to remember that Islam does not require any of these spiritual leaders. Nothing an imam, sheikh, or mullah says is required of Muslims. Sheik Muhammad Yassin of Hamas, who was recently assassinated, did have some religious education and also a following, which does justify his using the title of sheikh. However, his founding of Hamas does not gain any particular credence among Muslims simply because he is a sheikh, nor must all Muslims recognize him as a religious leader. Just as Christianity has its own ordained pastors and clergy, no single one of them represents the views of all or even any Christians. Father Joe Cool was probably one of a kind. It would be silly for me to expect all priests or Catholics to drive sports cars and wear designer sunglasses.

Who, then, speaks for Islam and Muslims? In truth, no one Muslim can speak for all Muslims and Islam. Some may have a following they can speak for. But, just as each Muslim has individual and equal access to Islam, each Muslim has the responsibility to speak for themselves and Islam as best they can.

Asma Gull Hasan, a Pueblo native, is an attorney and writer living in San Francisco . Her latest book is “Why I Am A Muslim: An American Odyssey