The title of this article may to some make you think “Duh, imams in masjids are important.” While we claim to know and understand the role and importance of imams and scholarship how many of us would be elated if our sons or daughters said they wanted to pursue careers in Islamic education or Islamic scholarship? Would we encourage them or discourage them due to the inability for them to make a living salary or make ends meet? Deep down each and everyone of us know that there is no job market or career growth for most individuals who seek careers in Islamic scholarship or Islamic education. We tell our children to learn Islam on the side and focus on “real careers” or “real jobs” in engineering, medicine, business, law, IT, etc. We emphasize their university degrees and academic success which is absolutely fine, but if we aren’t encouraging the growth of the job market and demand for religious scholarship where does that leave the spiritual and religious guidance of our community? The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was a foundational part of the spiritual and guidance of the early Muslim community. Today, our imams and scholars take the role of providing religious and spiritual guidance to our community. Yet we haven’t truly supported the growth of the field of religious scholarship in our community.
Our inability to make viable careers for imams is holding our community back from growing or improving— in terms of their religious knowledge and spiritual growth. We claim to stress the importance of Islam to ourselves, our families and friends and even our non-Muslim neighbors and colleagues yet we don’t support the growth of our communities by supporting our spiritual guides: imams and scholars. Our community is facing immense challenges and the lack of religious guidance is hurting virtually every demographic in our community—the largest neglected demographic being our youth. Masjid boards that don’t emphasize the need for a well-qualified imam or scholar at their masjid are doing a huge disservice to their communities. Some masjids operate on unqualified volunteer teachers or volunteer khateebs (speakers) for jummah khutbahs (sermons) to teach Islam to the community. Masjid boards need to think twice about how the lack of qualified individuals teaching Islam to a community can negatively impact the growth of a community. Having multiple individuals who may or may not have the Islamic knowledge can cause entire communities to be misguided and misinformed.
Masjids with no imams or qualified imams are like a doctor’s office not having a doctor, or a farm without a farmer or a flock of sheep without a shepherd. It’s important to ensure that the religious guidance comes from well-qualified imams and that your masjid has an imam who is in-tune with the needs of the community and is relevant to the those needs and demands. Several issues arise with either not having an imam or not having a qualified imam in your masjid: misinformation about Islamic beliefs and practices, spiritual crises and misunderstanding of Islam, the inability for Muslims to get spiritual knowledge and spiritual nourishment from their masjids, and lastly and most importantly the inability to understand how to apply Islam to current issues, current events and personal issues.
We have imams and scholars who dedicate their entire lives to educating themselves about Islam and learning how to teach it and they end up with little to no support or careers in the fields they’ve dedicated their lives to. Imagine for a moment a medical student dedicates a significant part of their life to studying medicine, then specializing and then entering the job market to only find that a job market doesn’t exist and the little job opportunities that do exist are not viable or dead-end job opportunities with little to no career growth and awful pay.
We under pay them, we overwork them, we mistreat them, we put shackles on their wrists by telling them what and what not to do or say, we underappreciate them, and simply marginalize them and devalue them by not allowing them to truly impact the communities they are meant to serve. A good imam if supported with the right infrastructure and resources can do wonders in positively transforming a community into a community of religious conscience. When we devalue and not allow for career growth or a market or even a demand to be created for imams we see the negative impact show itself in a couple of ways:
- Ignorant and misguided communities and community members
- Spiritual and Islamic educational voids often filled in with volunteers with good intentions maybe, but simply not qualified to teach Islam be it on the pulpit, in a class, or in short lectures
- Disengaged and spiritually sick community—especially youth— who don’t have an authentic source of knowledge to answer their questions about Islam and how Islam relates to their lives
Masjids that are lackadaisical, lazy or negligent in having an imam (or hiring a qualified and competent one) at their masjids are slowly but surely destroying and eroding their community. At most the community will come to jummah and Ramadan prayers. A small minority of the community may attend daily prayers. But when our masjids lack any spiritual guidance or education it’s essentially spiritual suicide for a community. A masjid that doesn’t have an imam for too long or a qualified imam can wreak chaos and have a detrimental impact on the community. Having a masjid without an imam is like having a farm with no farmer or a kitchen with no chef or having a flock but no shepherd or having a doctor’s office without a doctor.
We see several imams and scholars in our community unaffiliated with masjids due to our masjid boards’ inability to retain imams due to either masjid boards’ mismanaging conflict between the masjid board and the imam, masjid board ego, restrictions on the imam, disrespecting the imam, and the list can go on and on. Imams who typically have bad experiences in masjids tend to tell other of their fellow colleagues not to apply to specific masjids and the impact of even one negative experience by one imam can impact other imams’ views of even being employed at a masjid. We’ve all heard the awful stories of imams clashing with masjid boards and the (most often) the masjid board’s mismanagement of the conflict. This is not to say masjid boards don’t have the right or a legitimate reasons to fire imams, but the point is that hiring and firing of imams should be done in a professional and Islamic manner.
It’s unfortunate, but due to this we’re seeing imams and scholars resort to doing speaking engagements, fundraisers, speaking tours, and workshops just to make ends meet. They aren’t affiliated with masjids and aren’t able to truly impact our communities and guide our communities. At most when you hear a traveling imam or a scholar’s lecture at a conference or event you may get a temporary spiritual high, but it’s just that a temporary spiritual high. Having a full-time well-qualified imam at a masjid they’d be able to increase the spirituality and religious knowledge of a community at a consistent level. Our community is no longer in need of celebrity imams and scholars. We need imams and scholars who’re focusing on changing the lives of Muslims in communities. We need imams and scholars focusing on healing the spiritual sicknesses of the heart that Muslims are facing. We need imams and scholars to focus on teaching Muslims how to apply Islam to their lives and the world in which they live. We need imams and scholars to provide spiritual and religious guidance in times of confusion.
Masjid boards need to ensure that their imams are:
- Well-qualified and trained in reputable institutions
- Understand their roles and responsibilities (and expectations)
- Given clear goals and objective to meet
- Given performance reviews on a quarterly basis
- Paid a decent salary (Nothing less than $100,000)
- Are given bonuses and incentives when objectives and goals are met
- Given good benefits (healthcare, pension, etc.)
- Given adequate vacation time
- Given career growth opportunities (i.e. additional training and certifications)
As long as we fail to invest in our religious leadership and create viable careers in masjids we will see masjids that fail to truly build a community of religious conscience and see any spiritual growth or educational growth in our communities. Masjids without imams or qualified imams are nothing more than musallahs (places of prayer). We can no longer see our communities crumble due to the lack of us investing in religious scholarship. If we end up with youth confused about Islam and individuals leaving Islam all together we have no one to blame but ourselves. We must invest in our religious scholarship and must begin not only investing in legitimate institutions to train well-qualified imams and scholars but begin creating viable career paths and a job market for imams and scholars to contribute to the growth and improvement of our community.
The very future of our community depends on this.