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 , 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. 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.