Guest Post: Made in America – What is an Imam Worth in the U.S.?

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Guest post by Dr. Jerry Hionis, Jr., PhD.  

Let’s put this as bluntly as possible: in the American Muslim community, the masjid is more important than the Imam. Don’t believe me? How many times have you been to a masjid without a resident Imam? How many times have you met a prospective Imam without a masjid? My feeling is that the latter out weighs the former – at least, it does for me. Enter the mythical beast called the Imam Shortage.

Does this shortage exist? If so, why? One possible reason voiced for this shortage is there are just not enough qualified Imams here in this country. Maybe, but economic theory dictates that when there is a shortage of a good or service demanded, prices should increase and many will race to supply the unsatisfied demand. A more plausible reason then is that masjids refuse to pay the high salaries and benefits demanded by Imams from the U.S.; that is, why are U.S. Imams more expensive than the Imams from back home”.

The answer, at least to the economist, is one of supply and demand. Suppose a masjid is planning on hiring an Imam. The masjid has two possibilities: an Imam from the U.S. and an Imam from Pakistan.

Pakistan [1], being an Islamic State with a vast Muslim majority, has both a greater number of Imams and training institutions than the U.S.. Given the wealth of institutions, the cost to become a scholar (both implicitly and explicitly) is quite low. Since the “Imam investment” costs are low, the supply of Imams in Pakistan is quite high. The situation in the U.S. is the polar opposite: fewer Imams and fewer training institutions. Beyond Zaytuna College, most religious scholarship in America is either garnered by taking individual courses around the country at varying roaming institutes OR going abroad. Either way, the costs are much higher. Therefore, Pakistan is being used only as an example of a country with an active Muslim majority. The example could also be done using Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Qatar and so on. The cost of becoming a credible scholar/Imam in the U.S. is going to be substantially more than Pakistan.

So, if the market price for the American Imam is greater than the market price for the Pakistani Imam, the masjid simply will choose to hire the Pakistani. For the U.S. Imam to get the job, he must then sell his services for less than the market value and lose on his years of investment. In economics, that is a serious problem. How can we expect future prospective Imams to invest their (and, possibly, their family’s) time, money and resources on religious study and training when they know that they will have to sell their services cheap?

Assuming all of the above is true, the majority of masjids in America then would have Imams, albeit from somewhere outside of the U.S.. So why are there so many unfilled Imam positions? The reality is that while the U.S. Imam is facing a price war with the proverbial “Pakistani Imam”, the masjid is really weighing two options: U.S. Imam or nothing.

For the masjid to pay the U.S. Imam his market price, he must bring something to the table that not having an Imam lacks. Such “something extras” include: (i:) legitimate spiritual growth; (ii:) DIRECTION of and for the community; (iii:) increased presence and relationship with the community; (iv:) a hands-on scholar, who knows the culture, to replace Imam Google and Sheikh Yahoo; (v:) a bridge between various ethnic cultures; (vi:) an avenue for the youth to help guide them through an increasingly secular world; and so on. All of these factors have economic value to them and are, for the most part, year round services. In the other corner is building of a newer and bigger masjid. The never-ending masjid expansion project also has added value: (i:) bigger hall for Jumu’ah services, Ramadan and ‘Eids; and, (ii:) social value of having a religious building up to par with other established religions – both in hopes of increasing membership and funding. Again, these have economic value, but are not really year round benefits. It is then up to the masjid and its governing body to decide which option is more valuable.

To conclude, there is no Imam shortage in this country – and if there was, it would be easily solved by increasing the price/salary paid to an Imam. Yet, on average, prices for an American Imam are not increasing, while masjid fundraising attempts are growing more frequent and more invasive. For many communities, the benefits to masjid expansion far outweigh that of a permanent, culturally acute Imam.

We have all been to brand new masjids that are beautifully built and are packed from wall to wall on Friday. Come Sunday to Thursday, its just an empty 5 million dollar box. A box that does not bring the community together. A box that offers no spiritual growth. A box that cannot give da’wah for seekers onto the path of Islam. A box that cannot help the youth who is questioning his or her faith and is on the road to apostasy. Simply put, a box that is a very bad investment if no one is going to use it it ten or twenty years from now. In Philadelphia, like in many other cities, one can drive around and notice all the old abandoned churches (many are now masjids) whose communities fell apart. In economics, the production of any good or service needs four factors: Land, Labor, Capital and Entrepreneurship. The American muslim community has invested enough in land and physical capital in this country to begin growing roots for decades to come. Now it is time to start investing in leadership and the labor needed to ensure Islam’s future in America.

[1] Pakistan is being used only as an example of a country with an active muslim majority. The example could also be done using Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Qatar and so on.

Dr. Jerry Hionis graduated from Saint Joseph’s University in 2004 with a degree in economics and philosophy. His post-graduate work includes both an M.A. and PhD from Temple University in  Mathematical Economics and Development Theory. Beyond teaching economics as an adjunct professor at a number of institutions in the Greater Philadelphia area, his research includes the theoretical study of civil wars and political conflict theory.

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GuestsGuest Post: Made in America – What is an Imam Worth in the U.S.?

7 Comments on “Guest Post: Made in America – What is an Imam Worth in the U.S.?”

  1. Siraaj

    I guess that really depends on how you define “Imam” – what are the scope of his responsibilities?

    In one community I attended he simply taught Qur’an memorization and led the prayers. He could barely speak English.

    In another community, a similar type of imam existed in conjunction with a resident scholar who took care of the Friday khutbahs, khatirahs, Islamic education classes in the K – 12 Islamic school, and was available with office hours (counseling, fiqh questions, etc).

    Another question, do the imams have the skill set communities are looking for? If someone is trained overseas as an imam, they are likely trained to fit into that cultural context and its needs. In Western Muslim communities, it seems our masaajid are not just this, but community centers, and the imam is often called on for duties not trained for either in domestic or overseas training.

    1. Z

      That’s the ‘Pakistani’ Imam..
      besides Zaytuna, there are many more institutes and darul ulooms in the US. People just go for is popular and has star factor. Some prominent institutes are IIE in Elgin IL. Darul Qasim in Chicago Suburbs. Darul-Uloom Al-Madania in Buffalo, NY. Who are lead by some of the most well grounded, high caliber, deep in knowledge, senior scholars in the US.

  2. F

    Umar ibn Al Khattab (RA) once said to his companions, “Make a wish.” So one of them said, “I wish that this house was filled with gold so that I could spend it for the sake of Allah and give it in charity.” Another said, “I wish it was filled with precious stones so that I could spend them for the sake of Allah and give them in charity.”
    Umar (RA) again said, “Make a wish.”
    His companions didn’t know what else to say.
    Then he (RA) said, I wish that it was filled with men like Abu Ubaydah ibn Al-Jarrah, Muadh ibn Jabal, Salim the freed slave of Abu Hudayfah, and Hudayfah ibn Al-Yaman (RA)*, so that I may employ them in the service of Allah.”

    The Messenger of Allah (SAW) did not focus on building structures but he focused on building people who revolutionized the entire Arabian Peninsula in 23 years.

  3. rabia

    people should pay Imams well because there are such huge demands on their time. not only is it a year-round commitment, but often 24 hours a day too – with demands that far exceed other employment. They give of their time, emotions, and spiritual energy.
    One has to consider this as well.

  4. mohsin

    Salaams

    I do agree with most of this. The only thing that I wanted to mention is that an imams position does require them to guide the community and advise them on qestions and concerns that the people of the community. But at the same time the imam should also be able to communicate with the youth and relate to them as well. From what I have noticed in the Boston area of the states some Musjid’s have imams from south Africa UAE Pakistan India, but these imams are able to relate to the community as they were mostly born in western countries, so its a lot easier for them to relate and communicate to the youth as well as others in the community.
    I totally agree with the article, we picking an imam we have to ensure that Islam will be around in that community not only on Fridays, Ramadan and eids but everyday of the year.
    Alhumdullah I feel blessed that in my community in Cambridge ontario . we have had the same imam from india who was told by his teacher to come here and never to leave for the last 20 years, because of him that are currently 15 youth that are styludying to become alims molanas in different countries across the globle. Also a number of others who have studyed and opened up Islamic education institutions in old Churches in our area alhumdullah.
    A goal for an imam and the community should be how can this house of Allah be full for Every namaaz.
    Jakallah
    May Allah guide us and accept everyone for his Deen.

  5. Shahgul

    The masajid are empty because we are not importing cheap imams from abroad any more. They are also empty because once you get a quality US based imam, the administrators of masajid get uncomfortable seeing the imam become popular and powerful. Communities that don’t have administrative problems have no problem retaining good quality imams, even at lower wages, as Imaming is a labor of love mostly.

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