Addressing The Diminishing Role of Leadership: The Mosque and Imam


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Da`wah Reflection Series: Part I | Part II

In the name of Allah, the All Hearing, the All Knowing

In 2012, Dr. Ihsan Baghby republished the 2011 report The American Mosque1 . In that research piece which seeks to map the growth, tendencies and leadership structure of the American Muslim community, there are a number of points to which I will call your attention as the subject of this da`wah (invitation to faith) reflection.

  • Mosques are under-staffed. Only 44% of all imams (Muslim religious leaders) are full-time and paid. Half of all mosques have no full-time staff. Program staff such as youth directors and outreach directors account for only 5% of all full-time staff.
  • Mosques are under-financed. While mosque attendance is higher than that of other American religious congregations, mosque budgets are less than half the budgets of other congregations. The median income for mosques is $70,000, whereas the median income of all congregations is $150,000.
  • The role of the imam in the mosque is evolving. In 26% of all mosques, the imam is not considered the leader, in 55% of mosques the imam is considered the leader, and 19% of mosques do not have an imam. This is a significant change from 2000, when in 40% of mosques the imam was not considered the leader, and in 41% of mosques the imam was considered the leader.

Key Points:

We can gather a number of important themes from the report as quoted above.

  1. The roles of the imam and the mosque are evolving.
  2. The mosque for the most part is understaffed and underfunded.
  3. The Muslim community lacks in effective, qualified leadership.

Reflection:

Dr. Baghby’s research has chronicled major trajectories that draw our attention to the manner in which the Muslim community has grown in the US. Coupling the report with grass root experience, we gain new insights into the form and shape the community is taking. Much of the Muslim community has grown without solid leadership and with few resources for understanding of Islam. Of interest is the reality that most communities do not have a spiritual-religious guide (for lack of a better term).

The role of the imam is diminished in the overall community and increasingly, the mosque resembles a religious center more than a Prophetic institution. The days of the “strong-man” grass roots imam that was the hallmark of the Muslim African-American community have faded, and in many places they are a thing of the past. Today many communities are instead governed by the “strong board” composed of professionals with little to no Islamic training. And let us face the reality that many of our institutions are locked in a political grind that is not very productive. Couple that scene with the lack of collaborative, visionary leadership on the da’wah scene, and then we are ready to ask a series of questions.

Before moving forward I want to add a few more layers to the scenario being built here. Along with an evolving mosque lacking in funding and leadership and a da’wah platform lacking in collaborative, visionary leadership, we find our youth struggling to make sense of the world around them. A growing professional community left to itself, sincere but lacking roots in Islamic learning, and a cry for reform in the way we interpret Islam in regards to women, society, culture and other religions puts us in a very awkward space. There is no question that we are aiming to redefine ourselves and make sense of life in a new space we now call home–and seeking to do so with integrity.

The responsibility of those on the da’wah platform is to guide this process or at least guide the discourse by seeking to answer the question: Where are going? Put differently, into what are we evolving? For most of us, our responsibility is to open up the platform to engage this dialogue. But before doing so we must commit ourselves to studying Islam and the life of the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) and to holding his model as a paragon for evolving the community. Without mature dialogue, humility, learning, guidance and leadership rooted in knowledge, piety and wisdom our community is headed for an evolution based on circumstance and whim.

In the Qur’an we learn the importance of dialogue among those of varying status, for Allah (subhanahu wa ta`ala – exalted is He) allowed the angels to engage a dialogue with Him (swt). According to scholars of Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) this indicates that Allah (swt) teaches us to dialogue with others regardless of the station they hold in relation to us, and by extension, this teaches us the very spirit and principles of leadership.

And [mention, O Muhammad] when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.” They said, “Will You place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?” Allah said, “Indeed, I know that which you do not know.” (Qur’an, 2:30)

In a Prophetic tradition narrated by Bukhari and Muslim with their chains of transmission on the authority of Umar (radi Allahu `anhu – may God be pleased with him), the Prophet (ﷺ) said: “Actions are guided by intentions…” From this we learn that an end should guide all action. Imam ibn Abi Zaid al-Qayrawani (ra) teaches us that all actions and intention should be rooted in the Qur’an and sunnah (traditions of the Prophet ﷺ), thereby teaching us the centrality of revelation in our life on earth.

We lack a transparent vision(s) that makes clear what principles and evidences are guiding our thinking and action. In the last reflection it was mentioned that Abu Bakr (ra) as a leader had clear principles to guide his leadership. The question of leadership for that generation was highly pertinent. The question of continuity of the community after the death of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ preoccupied the community not solely for political reasons but more so from the angle of keeping the effort of Prophecy alive–that is, to guide people to the best life, to Allah (swt). In the moment of intense crisis Abu Bakr (ra) illustrated the qualities of a leader concerned with the community’s well being, and hence he is remembered today as the only companion to be recognized as the amir (leader) of the Believers and the vicegerent (khalifa) of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

In the struggle for definition and existence as we aim to find a space within the broader American culture, we are tending toward loosing a sense of what a life lived as a Muslim means and entails. And we witness this reality in many adults and youth. In an environment where debate, illiteracy, conflict and confusion reign right alongside sincerity, hard work, knowledge and sacrifice, we would do well to reflect on the reality that our community was governed by volunteerism and sincerity for so long before us. Now we are in need of knowledge, mentorship, organization, wisdom, sacrifice and investment. Until that moment is seized we need to strengthen ourselves and families and support our friends in the Muslim life lived in the 21th century. And that begins with drawing near to Allah (swt), learning, practicing, being good to others and encouraging the good for others and in others. Pray and work so that we evolve into a community of iman (faith), a community of deeds and testimony, a guide for others and ourselves.

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  1. Retrieved (2014) from: http://faithcommunitiestoday.org/sites/faithcommunitiestoday.org/files/The%20American%20Mosque%202011%20web.pdf []

6 Comments

  1. Osman says:

    Fantastic and on point analysis! May Allah reward you for bringing such an important topic to our attention.

  2. Paul Bartlett says:

    Salaam alaikum. A worthwhile article which addresses the sometimes sad situation of many mosques in North America today. Probably, there are many Muslims from the “old countries” who think of mosques in terms of what they are familiar with. They innocently do not realize how different the situation is in this continent.

    In many (not necessarily all) situations, the “local mosque” is the only contact many Muslims and non-Muslims alike have with the Islamic ummah, for good or for ill. In the instance of many non-Muslims who might otherwise be attracted to Islam, if their experience of the mosque is unsuitable, they might be lost to Islam altogether (but Allah swt knows best).

    That was my personal experience many years ago. The mosque was
    so “ethnic” and so indifferent to converts that eventually I quit going and pretty much fell away from practice of Islam entirely, and I know that I am not at all alone.

    We should not try to bring the patterns of the mosques in the “old countries” to North America. This is an entirely different situation. Allah knows, we need sound leadership in our mosques, including leaders who speak fluent English (French or Spanish, depending on locality) and who have some understanding of where westerners are coming from. It is not a matter of accepting western values which are not in accord with Islamic values, but it is a matter of *understanding* those values so leaders can successfully address the issues of so many people.

  3. O.I. says:

    These statistics are really fascinating and not only reflect the Muslim population in the United States, but it also reflects how communities are redefined in 21st century America (and subsequently, the world at large.)

    A quick background on myself so you may understand the context from which I am conveying my observations. I was born and raised in the Washington D.C. metro area, lived for 6 + years in Los Angeles, and have been working as a designer between Tokyo and D.C.

    One can first view the issue at an infrastructural and urban standpoint. In America, we love our (big) cars and our suburbs, which have now fully proven to be socially alienating and environmentally detrimental. Even though the U.S. has many dense cities, a good number of Americans live in suburbs or exurbs (commuter towns). For instance, in D.C., the majority of people who work in DC actually live in Maryland or Virginia, thus millions of people flock to D.C. during the day time, and millions are then stuck on the free/highway upon their return to their cookie cutter homes and white picket fences. So if we take that scenario as an example, the majority of the people attending the mosque on Friday prayers do not feel bound to that mosque because its contextual relationship to the individual is pragmatic i.e. ” I work in DC, I go to a mosque near work in DC, but I live in Maryland or Virginia” (or, I work in Manhattan, but I live in Jersey), thus there is this dual association between multiple mosques but neither of them are binding. This is not to say that the mosques in dense cities do not have committed worshippers who support the mosque on a constant basis; there are numbers of mosques that can be found with dedicated members and support, which will be explained in my next point. Another observation that I noticed is that mosques that were located in denser (urban) environments had a stronger sense of community within the mosque compared to mosques located in suburbs. Reason being, mosques in a dense urban context becomes extremely accessible because people can either walk or take public transportation (this is assuming you live in an urban context). If a mosque is easily accessible, a constant and consistent flow of worshippers will most likely attend the same mosque. However, mosques located in suburbs have many constraints that sometimes indirectly make attendance difficult for the worshipper, i.e. insufficient parking , ease of traffic, and/or distance of travel, thus the worshipper may only end up going to Friday, Eid, and Taraweeh prayer(s) because those constraints unfortunately get in their way of their worship and daily tasks. Yes– we do have very strong brothers and sisters out there who are willing to drive miles any time of the day to reach a mosque, and may Allah (SWT) keep their heart, bodies, and mind firm in this constancy and patience. However, the majority of people who attend mosques in the suburbs are greatly affected by the former constraints, and spiritual rigor is not always the answer (even though it should be).

    Another important issue is that the actual mosque can give a false and negative impression to the worshipper. It really disheartens me first as a believer, but secondly as a designer, that many of our mosques are horribly designed and ill-maintained. This is tragically ironic because Islamic architecture was and still is a precedent for architects of many and coming generations. Yet, for some odd reason in the U.S., some mosques are not funded properly, thus their vision is not translated clearly into reality; the building sustains many design flaws leading to leaks and countless repairs; the bathrooms and ablution facilities are not designed efficiently; insufficient parking space; finally and most importnatly, there is no sense of programming of space which may lead to community interaction. Again, it must be reiterated, I have been inside some spectacular mosques in the U.S. that achieve great feats of efficiency and community involvement through design, however, I have unfortunately seen many mosques that fail in those aspects.

    Finally, who are the Imams? And more importantly, are they relating to the context, are they relating to the younger generation who will be supporting the mosque in the future? I once went inside a mosque where the Friday khutba was 15 minutes long, in Arabic, but the majority of the worshippers were from Southeast Asia. And it really broke my heart, even though I am of Arabic descent, many of the youth that I saw at that particular mosque are 3rd generation Americans who most likely do not speak their parent’s language, let alone Arabic. Thus, they sit idle in the mosque without any deep connection other than the fact that they need to go to the mosque on Fridays to listen to an Imam that they do not understand and pray 2 Raka’at, and this “tradition” will ensue until they get older and it’s passed down. Therefore a tragic cycle is created where the mosque is viewed as a symbol of our worship but not as a place of learning and intrigue, of discovery, and finally, of community. Again, there are some inspiring Imams who are truly relating to the context and are reviving the hearts for many believer. Unfortunately, these Imams are either few in number, or bureaucracy does not allow them to stand in the Mihrab because the mosque board does not agree with some views.

    We have the solution right in front of our eyes. Only in a mosque will you find people from all over the world sitting next one another knee to knee, and standing next to one another, from shoulder to shoulder, devoid of pride and racism; only Islam can bind hearts in such a fashion.

    These are observations. If I have said anything that is beneficial and true, it’s from Allah SWT, and if I have said anything that is false, it’s from my own tongue.

    • O.I. says:

      Also, Jazak Allah Khair Yusuf Rios for writing this article.

    • O.I. says:

      Salam Paul Bartlett,

      First, may Allah SWT keep you firm and patient with the experiences you had to endure.

      There is no doubt in my mind that unfortunately, some mosques have social ills (racism) and / or discrimination against (re)converts. It should also be noted that there is even intra-racism and intra-discrimination in the Muslim community as a whole, which goes beyond the status of being a (re)convert and religion, but purely based on the social construct of race. Yet, what we should emphasize is that although some worshippers do have slight (or large) amounts of bigotry stained on their hearts, they have no other choice but to “stand shoulder to shoulder…” with people they may heedlessly socially disregard – that was my point.

      I can only imagine what your experiences are as a convert, but I do bet that you feel you are outside looking in – I get that feeling when I am in the Arab world. Depending on your community and where you are located, the inclusive process can be extremely fluid for converts (or the complete opposite, where brothers and sisters are discriminated against). At least I can testify for the Mosque I use to attend in South Central Los Angeles, brothers and sisters would give shahadah and people would rush to give them salam and comfort them. Some of the Khateebs were also converts; so depending on the context and where you are located in the U.S., many people are desensitized to convert interactions and view them no different as any other Muslim sister or brother. If I could give you advice, it is to be patient but to also express your concerns; I can assure you for every negative interaction you receive because of who you are, there are countless numbers of Muslim brothers and sisters who will listen and befriend you regardless of who you are, which should always be the case (unfortunately it isn’t). InshaAllah you will feel and find ease within the Muslim community.

      As for funding of the mosques. It is true that mosques in the Muslim world are funded by the government. But what we have to realize is that compared to the first half of the 20th century in the U.S., Islam is quite established in the U.S. This means that many 2nd and 3rd generation American Muslims are attending the mosques and do not have any attachment to their parent’s motherland. The issue is not funding per se, almost all mosques in the U.S. are built through donations and you can not make a clear statement that people are not funding mosques because they’re not use to that practice. After fasting, giving sadaqah is a practice that is sometimes visually difficult to witness. The issue is two fold. First expectation v.s. reality. Competent builders and designers are not hired to construct mosques, thus a good portion of the funding given by sadaqah is directed to overt electric and maintenance bills instead of investing in a library, recreation room, or field trips. Second, since there is a lack of communal programing as stated in the former issue, worshippers do not find any deeper attachment to the mosque other than a place of pure worship, devoid of social interaction. And as you have said (and in my previous post), are the Imams connecting with the majority of the worshippers in a deep social, cultural, and spiritual level?

    • Though rather lengthy, this is one of the most insightful remarks I’ve ever read regarding the state of the American Masjid. You have hit on several points and brought out some very significant issues.

      As a part-time/traveling/assistant Imam myself, I understand much of what you’re saying. It is very difficult for a truly dynamic person to make any changes in most communities because of entrenchment from the board or old-school ways that don’t want to die.

      Also, sadly, many Imams simply do not have enough Islamic education to be an Imam. Sometimes they’re just the one who was chosen to be the Imam.

      And as far as the grass-roots AA Imams from the inner city, I’m personally glad that’s fading out. That form of leadership led to the “all powerful” Imam who was prone to abuse his authority and do whatever was necessary to consolidate power.

      May Allah bless us with more and better leaders, Ameen.

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