MANY YEARS AGO, whilst still studying overseas, a friend once advised me in a casual discussion to never take up the role of Imam anywhere. As our discussion was light-hearted, I more or less considered his advice to be an ‘overcautious’ perception.
Many years later, after frequenting several English-speaking Muslim communities, I find myself continuing to revisit this brief exchange due to the common problems and challenges that are associated with regards to Imams: their behavior, their educational abilities, their interaction with others and of course the many misunderstandings their respective communities have with regards to them and their roles.
Among these misunderstandings is the idea that the Imam is in charge of the affairs of the mosque. Whilst this may hold true in a few exceptional circumstances, it is usually only the case in theory alone due to the presence of committees, and the role which they play in management and decision-making behind closed doors. In such cases, the role of the Imam, from the very beginning, is set up in such a way so as to maintain the role of Imam as one which is primarily ‘symbolic’ in nature rather than practical.
No doubt, the Imam will lead prayers, perform the Friday sermon and even offer advice when prompted to do so. Beyond this however, many Muslim communities are left to their own limited devices, lacking true and authentic leadership in matters in which the community greatly needs spiritual guidance and support: be it dealing with problematic personalities within the community, bringing up children in a non-Muslim country, dealing with the media, understanding halal methods of financing and offering balanced and well-researched advice on other modern-day issues.
Although it is unfair to generalize, there is something of a perceived unwillingness on behalf of Imams to involve themselves too much with the affairs of the community out of fear that it may lead to more problems, more scrutiny, more challenges and ultimately more work. In some cases, it may very well be that positions and ideas which they already subscribe to are viewed as contentious by loud and quarrelsome elements within the community, and thus publicly adopting a clear unambiguous stance might potentially affect their standing within the community. Or ‘worse’: removal from a position to which they have grown accustomed over a period of time.
This latter point is one worthy of contemplation in the sense that many Imams, for whatever righteous or ill-intentioned reasons, may quite likely find it difficult to imagine a situation where they will no longer occupy the role of “Imam.” Thus training a younger and ‘more-energetic’ Imam, who has grown up in the West is almost never a priority. Unfortunately, in many cases, we have seen elected committees come and go whilst the Imam remains the same regardless of effectiveness in a role, ability to communicate or accomplishment in guiding the community.
In many cases, ‘true guidance’ may simply not be offered due to an incomplete level of education, lack of savvy or the absence of managerial abilities. Although all of these characteristics may conceivably be attained by an individual Imam in some form or other, it would be worthwhile noting that the presence of cultural-baggage may ideologically hinder an Imam from fulfilling real needs. In some cases, we even find Imams unashamedly transferring issues into a community which are alien to it to begin with and are by no means a priority. This should be seen as something of a concern given that the role of the Imam requires that one be able to capably engage with and relate to a broad range of people from the community.
On the other hand, it would also be fair to say that we sometimes expect too much of our Imams in light of the fact that they are very often supported with very little by their communities and in some cases with nothing at all. We may thus find situations where an Imam balances a desire to serve his community with the need to provide for his family (and possibly loved ones overseas). Anyone who considers this would perhaps be prone to admit that one of the Imam’s two jobs would perhaps need to suffer in order to excel in the other.
In a 2012 article published by Slate entitled “What Type of Clergy Get the Highest Salaries?” we are told,
Islam appears to be the least remunerative of the major monotheistic religions. Imams make around $30,000 annually and rarely receive a household stipend.”
Given that this is the case, it certainly explains the reasons as to why intelligent and genuinely dynamic young men will rarely, if ever, consider the role of Imam as a viable calling. True, there is something which can conceivably be said with regards to being overpaid –or worse, being paid exorbitantly (especially when it is made a condition by the Imam himself). What we are however alluding to is a type of livelihood where the Imam can live modestly without resorting to donations, borrowing or second or third jobs.
When looking at this issue as it is –i.e. without the luxury of idealism and through the prism of practicality (which is not entirely as easy as it sounds) — we must ask ourselves:
Would a genuinely qualified locally-born individual necessarily seek to become an Imam in the light of the fact that he has other opportunities open to him and that he does not even have the support of the community to begin with?”
Unfortunately, this is a question which many of us have been wondering for year after year. Given that the problem itself is multi-faceted, the solution must similarly be regarded likewise. In general, however, much of how we wish to move forward depends on how willing we are to gain a sense of far-farsightedness as it could perhaps be argued that the risks associated with some of the issues described could potentially be mitigated if communities were to develop a clear vision — from the get-go– of their ambitions:
- What kind of mosque it is that they wish to run
- The type of activities they wish their center to encourage
- What it is that they actually expect from the Imam
Once their wish-list is formulated, these communities would be wise to proactively develop strategies based on their agreed-upon goals — as opposed to waiting for things to occur and learning from their mistakes after wasted non-constructive years.
Regarding the importance of maintaining a vision, management expert Ken Blanchard says in Leading at a Higher Level: [i]
A vision builds trust, collaboration, interdependence, motivation and mutual responsibility for success. Vision helps people make smart choices, because their decisions are being made with the end result in mind. As goals are accomplished, the answer to “What next?” becomes clear. Vision allows us to act from a proactive stance, moving toward what we want rather than reactively away from what we don’t want. Vision empowers and excites us to reach for what we truly desire.
By this same token, there should be a concerted effort to approach leadership within the Muslim community, just as we would with any conventional role or responsibility which requires accountability; one which involves regular consultations and progress reports.
Given that the role of Imam, in many ways, can be defined as teacher, it would only seem fair and logical that we offer more respectable salaries, just as we would to any capable and experienced teacher., And like teachers in the West, we may even require that the Imam take part in regular classes, workshops and seminars in order to understand how he may enhance his own role.
In conclusion, we should not approach this aforementioned crisis as one that has no solution but rather as one which has a solution if only we genuinely seek to discover it. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said:
A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” [ii]
In this sense, each one of us, by the permission of Allah, has the capacity to ‘lead’ even if we do not possess an imamate or another titled position within our community. We need not unnecessarily fall into the false dichotomy that we, as individuals, are helpless and unable to encourage change within the community with regards to this matter. Rather, we should see ourselves as leaders in our own right who can potentially release the best in those that seek to serve it. Perhaps it may well be the case that by improving ourselves in aspects pertaining to leadership (or even striving to do so), we may see a change within the community itself and the level of success it is capable of attaining by the will of Allah.
Let us be proactive and stave off the current crisis of Imams in the West. Let each of us work with our local communities in order to develop a vision and then proceed to set goals and strategies in order to actualize it so that we may be the ummah that we were meant to be. Let us properly establish for our Imams their job description, financial remuneration, training and the moral support that they need to give us the true guidance we need.
And Allah knows best.
[i] Flaherty, J.S. & Stark, P.B., The Competent Leader: 19 Critical Skills Any Manager Or Supervisor Must Know, Human Resource Development, 2011, p. 165.
[ii] Blanchard, K.H., Leadership at a Higher Level, FT Press, 2010, p. 18.