The Growing Shift between Mosques and Imams

His dedication has served him well

Guest post by Mobeen Vaid

As Omar Usman recently chronicled, the phenomenon of popular community leaders electing to step down from prominent posts has become a common affair as of late. Though resignations by said individuals are generally worded in polite and delicate terms, the aftermath tends to give way to more critical discussion that takes aim at the problems of our communities and the need for reform. And make no mistake, losing talented individuals, especially those that have served their communities admirably, should serve as cause for concern. But the real reform, if indeed we intend to propose one, along with the concomitant process by which it will take place has to be anchored in a full analysis of the factors at play, and though many have been – and continue to be – debated and discussed, it is my hope in this brief article to add color to that conversation.

It is my contention that these discussions tend to situate themselves in a sort of false binary of Imam vs. the board. This, perhaps more than anything else, is where the problem starts. Over the past decade or so, a common refrain from mosque attendees was its lack of effective governance. If only our mosques could learn from the efficiencies of Fortune 500 companies, things would be different, they said. The truism was in fact acted out on (and continues to be a staple of mosque criticism), as corporatized mosques are fast becoming the new norm. Executive Committees, Boards of Trustees, Directors, and Advisors, Endowment Chairs, the all-too-frequent ‘Founders Committees’ and related positions are now common in larger communities.

The unintended result of the aforementioned structural changes has been a redefinition of the Imam’s role. Whereas in less mature governance models community leaders and/or solitary board members had the ability to operate the community as their own fiefdoms, the restructured model attenuated the role of a solitary individual/leader in the governance of the community. This is not to say that they lost all influence over community governance, but that the governance model was now one that had to be negotiated against a structure in which they were no longer the CEO.

And in reality, this is how corporations work. Individuals are often stuck in jobs they don’t like, forced to fight through bureaucracies that appear unseemly, but may in fact be necessary. Very rarely do individuals have carte blanche authority to make strategic decisions that affect the entire company in a vacuum. Groups need to be persuaded, studies have to be done, and at times, peoples efforts to shift the company in a healthy direction fail. Such is life.

In my view, this is where mosque alternatives lose their luster, at least on purely governance grounds (though they certainly hold merit on others). Although initial efforts will likely demonstrate more pronounced cohesion given the paucity of participants and prevalence of like-minded collaborators, over time they will invariably run into the same governance challenges that mosques face, particularly if they mature in any serious way.

This is, of course, to say nothing of the socio-cultural realities of employee turnover in America. In 2013 turnover among the nation’s private employers (all non-government employees) was 44 percent according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even model companies such as Google suffer from an average employee retention of little more than a year – this, despite the litany of perks offered to its employees. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that people quit jobs, and it was naturally a matter of time before employee retention challenges began to make their way into professions that previously experienced greater stability, such as Imams. Even communities that planned strategically, invested in the religious pedagogy of promising youth that returned to serve as assistant or full imams, and have paid reasonable wages to said leaders have ultimately seen those people leave. This is not unique to the Muslim Community as churches face challenges all the time as it relates to their staff, and turnover can be the result of any number of things. Personality conflicts are not uncommon, employees may feel burnout, or that they simply need a change in their lives. People sometimes get depressed, hit a place of spiritual crisis, experience family problems, or tire of tasks they previously enjoyed. Stuff happens.

People who work at mosques are not exempt from any of these problems, and although it is easy to romanticize stability, sometimes people, and communities, need change.

In addition, as Omar rightly mentioned, leaders raised in the US are well aware of alternatives that they can avail themselves of. The task of community leader, especially in comparison to domestic and/or international celebrity scholar, can seem mundane. The former attends to a fairly consistent group of attendees and has the burden of being judged against that criteria, whereas the latter speaks at conferences, fundraisers, and universities. The former is a thankless task; the latter, excessively flattering. And yet the former is what sustains, what motivates and changes lives at a deeply personal level. There is no doubt a need for both, but one would be remiss if not to mention the essential contribution that local leaders play in performing work that lacks the glamour of the stage.

Being tasked with being the stead of a community of hundreds or thousands is no small responsibility, and we should both appreciate the jobs that our community leaders are presented with and work to assist them to make that job more satisfying. But we should also reform our collective ideas about what those jobs are as well as what we want our communities to be. Are corporatized communities the ideal way forward? What is the balance? Can mosques maintain their serenity when constructed as little more than rec centers with musallahs? Understanding that turnover is inevitable, how do we account for that in our community planning? I present these as questions for consideration.

The above is not exhaustive and it is my hope that it animates an active conversation being played out throughout our communities today. It is worth at least mentioning here that such conversations can have the unintended effect of fomenting availability heuristic, wherein individuals assume the situation to be far worse than it is. Alhamdulillah, our communities still enjoy a level of participation that is proportionately greater than many other faiths in modern America. Though the bad apples tend to get the lions share of attention, we have many vibrant communities that have found a way to make it work. Perhaps, if I can be so bold as to make a suggestion, the path to remediation can begin with us studying those communities and working to help our own local communities gain their own vibrancy.

GuestsThe Growing Shift between Mosques and Imams

Future Talent Shift and the Impending Breakdown of the Masjid

NBA: Finals-San Antonio Spurs at Miami Heat
It was July 8, 2010. Unfulfilled for 7 years chasing a dream and vision that the organization he was with could not help make a reality. Clad in a plum gingham print shirt, talking to Jim Grey, LeBron James famously announced he was taking his talents to South Beach.

This incident has always fascinated me. He was the hometown hero. Born and raised in Akron, playing for his local team the Cleveland Cavaliers. He took them to the finals, they should have been on the cusp of a championship. Movie scripts could not be written better. If anyone was emotionally vested in helping this organization, it was LeBron. Yet he realized that Cleveland could not help him reach his potential. So he left for an organization that would.

Cleveland lucked out in finding the talent, but they weren’t able to retain it.

We can talk about the importance of team (and we have), but there’s a reason certain NBA players make $21 million a year, and some make $700k (i.e. 30x less). You can have a world class organization, but without some level of talent, you won’t achieve much. By the same token, you can have amazing talent (Carmelo Anthony), but it will go to waste in a terrible organization (Knicks).

Over the past 20 years, the Muslim community in the US has seen major shifts. There was a stage where we struggled to get basic facilities off the ground. Many places were in survival mode doing whatever they could to establish Juma prayer and Sunday Schools.

Imams were brought in from wherever possible and were expected to lead and guide the community. In general, they often grew with the community. They would be there when a kid finished reading Qur’an for the first time (ameen ceremony), and most likely for their high school graduation as well. It was a spiritual pillar of support. For me, from the age of 7 until 15, our masjid had a total of 2 imams [and I only cut it off at age 15 because we moved to another city]. Now, it is not uncommon for a masjid to go through 3 or 4 imams in that same span of time (and that includes periods without an imam at all).

So what’s changed?

Communities are essentially Islamic organizations. You have talent, and this is what attracts the people. But you also have an administration that has to provide support. You can have a great superstar, but they will not perform to potential without a great coach, general manager, front office, scouts, assistant coaches, trainers, and so on. The talent is only one part, but there is a whole system that is required to make it work.

Put it another way – imagine if Barry Sanders ran behind the Cowboys’ offensive line in the 90’s.

How do we define the “talent” in our communities? Obviously there is the imam, but there are more – resident scholars, youth directors, khateebs, sisters coordinators, Qur’an teachers, and Sunday School teachers just to name a few.

The nature of organizations has changed as well. The masjid is no longer the only organizational type. We now have humanitarian organizations, third spaces, educational institutions, and a host of online outlets. Each of these organizations are magnets that attract (or compete for) different types of talent.

The masjid has for the most part been a fairly static institution. Many have tried to expand the masjid with Islamic schools and gyms, but the purpose of the masjid beyond a prayer space always opens up a debate. In this case, direction must come from one of two places – the talent, or the organization.

What happens when the two are in conflict? The community, in general, looks to the imam for guidance and vision. What can this community accomplish? What should it do? What is the best way of achieving that? What is the organization’s role in shaping or supporting the vision?

This year the Philadelphia 76’ers are tanking. This means they are losing games on purpose to improve their ability to get good young players and be successful in the future. That is an organizational strategy. In 2007, Kobe Bryant famously ripped on Andrew Bynum and building for the future when the Lakers could have had Jason Kidd.

And in 2011, the NBA owners ‘locked out’ the players due to an inability to reach an agreement on how to divide revenues in their negotiations over the Collective Bargaining Agreement – leading to a work stoppage and a shortened season. Players during that time were said to be exploring the possibility of creating another league to compete with the NBA.

When an organization starts going in a different direction, they often do so at the expense of their most talented players – who want to leave for winning situations (talent attracts talent).

Every couple of weeks on Facebook, I see a new announcement about an Imam leaving his local masjid. Although these messages are diplomatically worded, they make clear that the root is a fundamental disagreement in vision with the administration.

This was more difficult to do before because Imams didn’t have many options. If there’s only one league you can play in, then you’re stuck. Now there are other types of organizations to join – and even the option of becoming your own personal institution.

In other words, masjids no longer hold the same leverage they once did. This means having to adapt. The cheese has moved.

Change comes naturally. By definition, talented people are usually in a growth mindset. They’ve been trained to continue learning and growing and trying to reach their potential. There is a season in one’s career where teaching Sunday School is the best use of a person’s talent. There is also a season where they grow out of it and need to use their time for something more valuable. A doctor is well qualified to teach life science to middle schoolers, but it’s not the best use of their time – they need to be taking care of patients.

When an organization can’t (or refuses) to keep up, conflict occurs. The crisis has been well chronicled.

The landscape we see now is reflective of what is mentioned above. People are losing their attachment to the masjid. Fights are becoming commonplace.

Organizations will always complain that they can’t find dedicated people. There is no shortage of dedicated people. They’re simply finding other outlets.

People are pouring their energy into private institutions, third spaces, and online ventures – not because they don’t want to help the masjid, but because they feel marginalized. This is not something that will happen in the future, it’s already happening. More and more imams are leaving the masjid (in terms of full time occupation) and devoting themselves to other ventures. Talent attracts talent. People with other skills and motivation to help the community are going with them. And just to connect the dots, financial resources are usually the next to follow in this exodus.

We dream of the masjid being a community center, but without someone to lead the community, and without servicing the needs of the community – the institution will break down. It will become a place where you go for Juma and taraweeh. But for anything meaningful outside of the ritual acts of worship, you’ll have to go elsewhere (as many already are).

Now what?

Masjids and imams breaking up isn’t just a sad love story. The exodus has started. It should be a wake up call. Organizations need to refocus and realign. Take the role of being a representative for the community seriously – see what they need, find the leadership to lead it, and create the support structure to sustain it.

I’m happy that we’re developing organizations and institutions that will serve the community, and providing outlets for people to develop and grow. However, it comes at the trade-off of that happening in the masjid and the masjid no longer being the point of attachment for the hearts of the community.

The checks and balances in our community are out of whack. An administration should not be able to drive out people the community loves. They can only do this when there is apathy in the community. Although, it must be said that even when people care, constitutions and procedures get amended to formally marginalize those who do.

There is no straight answer to the question: Now what?

We need to marginalize the influence of those who want to build jannah on earth through the Masjid and shift to building our akhirah.

In short, we all need to do a better job of serving our communities and supporting those who serve our communities.

Omar UsmanFuture Talent Shift and the Impending Breakdown of the Masjid

Your Masjid is Not a Fortune 500 Company, Nor Should It Be


Being professional doesn’t mean being corporate.

This is a myth being perpetuated in our community – one that I fell for myself.

Inherently, it cannot be the case. Islamic work, by definition, is non-profit. Corporate work, by definition, is for maximization of profit.

Before continuing, one objection must be addressed, and that is the existence of “for-profit” Muslim enterprises or institutions. In these cases, the nature of the work dictates the underlying values of an organization. A Muslim business that sells lotas, for example, would be for maximization of profit. It is difficult to envision a scenario where they might go around donating lotas, distributing free lotas to increase lota awareness, or ask the community for good-faith contributions to help fund lota research and development.

An Islamic organization may choose to utilize a “for profit” status in terms of legal and tax filings – but if the nature of the work is community oriented, the general mode of business is still in the non-profit arena. This would include things like educational services, counseling services, or even in some case humanitarian ones. In other words, the bottom line is the proliferation of a service as opposed to maximization of profit.

It is easy to look at corporate models as an ideal. There are clearly defined hierarchies. There are analytical metrics to quantitatively judge performance and success. Investors must see direct returns.

Nonprofit work is messier. Results cannot necessarily be measured every quarter – it might take 25 years to see results. Investors may not see returns until the next life.

This is why universities offer different courses of study for an MBA, or a Master’s in Non-Profit Management. They’re just different. Here are a few ways they are different that are important for Muslims in administration capacities to understand:

1) Human Capital vs. Commoditization 

Human capital is the lifeblood of community work. There is nothing that can replace a good imam, youth director, or teacher. Community leaders are highly sought after due to the value they provide to their congregations.

The corporate mindset is to commoditize the Islamic worker. This is where boards begin to demand things like “must deliver 50/52 khutbahs a year, must hold programs with at least X number of people in attendance,” and so on. It shifts the focus from the human element of interaction to creating a system where everyone is replaceable if certain metrics are not met.

The most unfortunate consequence is that this type of commoditization is passed off as succession planning or sustainability. Community work cannot be measured on these types of metrics. How do you quantify the value of a person growing up for 15 years under the spiritual guidance of their local imam, going to him for issues when confused or faced with difficulty, and growing up as a strong confident Muslim? It’s difficult, and that’s why lazy (or corporate) boards fall back on metrics like “must be there for Isha salah 5 minutes before iqamah 363/365 days a year.” This is what creates inflexibility of community leaders being able to attend programs such as MSA and interfaith talks – in order to meet corporate style requirements.

A community leader or teacher that provides counsel, direction, and education cannot simply be considered another employee (which is what the corporate mindset dictates).

2) Competition

The corporate mindset is entrenched in competition. Everything is focused on talking points like market share. The underlying attitude is that of a scarcity mentality. If another Islamic center opens up within 10 miles, fundraising dollars will be lost. If our Imam employee speaks on another platform, teaches for another organization, or even helps anyone else – he is violating his loyalty to our organization or institution.

Institutes will focus on how to draw students away from one program and funnel them into theirs (in order to maximize revenues, not benefit).

The core principle for Islamic work is – “And cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression.

The moment another Islamic organization, school, or masjid is seen as competition – you’ve lost the plot.

Complement one another, help one another – the end goal should be the same.

3) Revenues and Barakah

There is no concept of sacrifice in the corporate arena. Every dollar spent must show a calculated return. Even investing in an employee’s education comes with an expected return – otherwise they wouldn’t stay in business.

Islamic nonprofit work requires having some level of reliance in Allah (swt) [tawakkul]This is not to say finances should not be watched – but it means that not every financial decision can be quantified with such a quantifiable return on investment in the financial sense. How do you value the return on $20 spent on lunch with a young member of the community who is struggling with their faith?

Yes, there are corporate equivalents. Ultimately, they are all tied to some kind of return. A budget allocated to entertaining prospective clients still comes with an expectation of a larger return via sales. Dawah work doesn’t have such a tight lead generation and conversion metric that a consultant can throw on an Excel spreadsheet. What if a $100 Islamic class changes someone’s life?

How do you value a khateeb that inspires just one person to return to practicing their faith after 3 years of regular talks – slowly chipping away? If performance is judged solely on tuitions collected and revenues generated – instead of lives touched, value added, or impact made – then we’ve again lost the bigger picture.

Corporate financial math ignores the key multiplier coefficient of barakah.

Corporate thinking has its place – in business. There are many great corporations and lessons to be learned from them (every organization can learn a thing or two from Apple, Google, and even sports franchises). These lessons cannot permeate their way into the management of Islamic organizations to such an extent that they trump our Islamic values, the respect we give our teachers, the human element of Islamic work, and the ultimate end goal of what we are trying to achieve.


Omar UsmanYour Masjid is Not a Fortune 500 Company, Nor Should It Be

Don’t Let The Youth Run Your Social Media

I will look after you and I will look

Here’s how it goes.

Masjid organization wants to be relevant.

They see that all the kids are on that Facebook thing. And a few of them are even on that Tweeter thing.

Well if that’s what the kids are doing, that’s what we need to do to be relevant.

Turns out most of these kids show up to events they hear about on Facebook. Fantastic. Now we know how to reach them.

So what’s the solution? Just get one of these kids to manage the masjid social media accounts because they’re experts! First foolproof solution to anything in the history of running a masjid.

Unfortunately, the same logic also justifies the following conclusions: I own a car, therefore I can be a mechanic. I use Netflix all day, they should just hire me because I’m an expert.  And with all the money I’ve spent on Apple products, they should just let me replace Tim Cook.

Being an avid user of something does not an expert make. Nor does being 18 automatically make someone hip and relevant. Do kids still say “hip” nowadays?

Your masjid’s social media is an important communication tool. The vocabulary, tone, and photos all reflect the culture of the masjid. The way that the social media manager replies to comments becomes indicative of what kind of people run the masjid.

It’s okay to let someone young manage these outlets for you. Just make sure that they properly understand:

  • How to manage social media to build engagement
  • What type of message(s) should be conveyed from the Masjid platform
  • The appropriate decorum or replying to comments and questions
  • What type of content to share on which social media platforms
  • Technical details of how to promote events, set up campaigns or ads, and how to properly share different types of media
  • An understanding of how to move people to an intended action (e.g. attending an event, donating, or just signing up for the email newsletter)
  • Good writing skills
  • Ability to read and understand analytics data to see what works and what doesn’t
  • Creative enough to properly maintain and update cover photos and profile photos, and do basic editing of event photos uploaded to page

Almost sounds like a job description. This is not something irrelevant you can pawn off. The masjid’s online presence is often the first impression people get of a community. A website that hasn’t been updated since Ramadan 2003, or low quality YouTube recordings of weekly khutbahs (that stopped 3 years ago), and unanswered posts on the Facebook page all scream that this is a community that just doesn’t care.

Find someone qualified to handle your digital presence. In fact – “Director of First Impressions” is not a bad job title. Find someone qualified and empower them. And if your community is big enough, consider making it a paid position and invest in someone talented.

Omar UsmanDon’t Let The Youth Run Your Social Media

The crisis of imams in America 3: The resurrection of Dhul-Qarnayn

Cross posted from Mohamed Abdul-Azeez on Medium

Dhul-Qarnayn: an extraordinary historical figure mentioned in the Quran and alluded to in other scriptures; a just leader who travelled across the land to liberate, assist and serve. His name literally means “the man of two epochs” in reference to the generations of people he impacted and his legacy that endures. According to the scriptures, he erected a barrier to keep the savage tribes of Gog and Magog entrapped and temporarily protected humanity from their inevitable reign of terror.

By every standard, Dhul-Qarnayn was a hero. A selfless, altruistic leader and an inspiring role model who dedicated his life to the service of his fellow man. The narrative of this story omits essential details, however. How many men were in his task-force? What was his leadership style? What was his succession plan? What kind of institutions did he rely on? What was his fundraising strategy? Could his undertaking be led by another man, or was it simply carved in stone as Dhul-Qarnayn, Inc.? Did Dhul-Qarnayn represent a successful institution, or was he that institution? We do not have answers to these questions, and it’s not because they don’t matter. The reason it wasn’t even essential to shed light on the assisting institutions that made Dhul-Qarnayn’s journey successful is because in his story, just like any story of spiritual inspiration, what really matters is the human connection with the “role model.” We have an essential need to find people who inspire us spiritually and once we do, we take them as role models. The story is entirely about Dhul-Qarnayn and not his organization because, at least in the world of the ethereal, people follow people not institutions.

Its not just about Dhul-Qarnayn, however. Men and women of faith acknowledge, without hesitation, that while it’s true that God intended on institutionalizing spiritual purposes through the revelation of scriptures, He still made sure that those scriptures were carried by and implemented through the efforts of fallible human beings, often known as prophets. Through those prophets and messengers, God allowed the often neglectful human eye to observe spiritual truths through the actions of men who, just like everyone else, are prone to making mistakes. Prophets became the epitome of righteousness and their actions became the standard of propriety for human behavior. The same logic holds true past the age of the prophets. Humanity still derives its moral directives and spiritual guidance from the actions of other human beings, role models, leaders, etc. and certainly not institutions. It is commonplace for someone to say that he or she is inspired by Ghandi’s non-violence, Mother Teresa’s benevolence, or Steve Jobs’ creativity. The same person will seldom attribute his or her moral inspiration to the Indian National Congress, the Vatican or Apple!

Does this have any bearing on the “Crisis of Imams in America”? Yes indeed, in every possible way.

The ultimate wisdom of our western democratic ideals ingrained many ideas in our minds. We are taught, ever since we were kids, that institutions should be self-sustaining regardless of who’s in a position of leadership. We are taught to focus on the creation of a working system that will always deliver despite who’s steering it. We are taught to “gauge the righteousness of men through good institutions, and not the righteousness of institutions through good men.” We are taught that “those who are still alive can never be fully trusted not to go astray,” therefore, attach yourself to systems and structures and not men. The impact of these ideas surpassed the boundaries of political institutions and penetrated into the spiritual realm as well, particularly American mosques. Being primarily built by immigrants who flocked to the US from undemocratic countries, most mosques in America embraced these same ideals and found salvation in them. Conventional wisdom suggested that we’re supposed to build institutions that are independent of men. There are elections, boards, committees, policies, procedures, plans, rules, regulations, programs and events; all organized by people but independent of them. People, so goes the argument, will come and go but the mosque will and must stay forever.

Although at face value this argument might make sense, in reality it doesn’t hold water within spiritual settings. The Muslim community in America has created relatively efficient, professionally run and well-funded organizations. They organize events, have programs and look seemingly active and successful. Essentially though, those places of worship are void of the one thing that a place of worship cannot survive without: spirit. Many of our mosques feel like corporations, or worse, government agencies. So much attention is given to building maintenance, websites, bookkeeping, flier design, financial sustainability, and event programs while the least amount of attention is given to the one asset that matters the most: the human being. It is important to have calligraphy on the walls or to purchase the most recent update of QuickBooks, but it is not nearly as important to visit the brother at the nearby hospital or help the new convert integrate. Spending money on the remodel of the social lounge is approved like a breeze, but spending money on the needs of the people that will use it is almost never considered. At a fundraising event everyone is welcome, but at a board meeting very few are. Even when we organize programs, we simply decide what’s important for our community, instead of making the effort to ask them about how they want their donation money to be spent. And while some board members and volunteers focus on administration, media relations, fundraising, interfaith, etc., there arises the need to conduct religious services. How do we achieve that when most of us are not qualified? Well, let’s hire someone to take care of it and let’s call him the religious director or director of religious services or religious guide, all euphemisms -or as board members would like to characterize them, “professional” labels- for the imam. This is how religious services are treated! The one aspect that matters most, the one thing that actually brings people to the mosque, the one domain that actually gives the mosque or any religious institutions its identity, becomes just another field of work, all in the name of professionalism.

It’s within this ruthless structure that an imam is invited to serve, more as an afterthought. He joins the community and gets plugged into the existing system with little say about how it is or how it should be. He takes a leap of faith and jumps into the dark waters of our Muslim community. Despite all the unknowns, the imam tries to swim and stay afloat, and does his best to serve within the framework set for him by the board and the “job description.” Overtime, however, the imam realizes that there is a wide gap between board’s “professional expectations” and the actual needs of the community. People start coming to the mosque for the one thing that matters most to them: spiritual growth. And they seek the help of the one person that is most qualified to render it: the imam. Gradually, the rift between board’s expectations and the imam’s actual activities grows wider. The imam is sought after to speak, to counsel, to appear at events, to arbitrate, to heal and to socialize. And finally, when the imam is in tune with the community and its needs, and after it took years for him to actually figure it out, it becomes too late for him to realize that he angered the board beyond repair, and ultimately, he ends up losing his job because he’s not at the mosque leading isha prayer every night.

Had there been a board and bylaws that invited Dhul-Qrnayn to become the spiritual leader of the movement to stop Gog and Magog, the human race would have gone instinct, because it is certain the board would have fired him for not following his job description. But that didn’t happen because it was Dhul-Qarnayn that appointed a board to help him execute his vision not the other way around. For the current grim state of affairs at the massajid to change, the same needs to happen with the imam. This is not a call for imams to take over their masaajid, but rather, a call for the Muslim community to give their spiritual leaders what they need to do their jobs: spiritual leadership! You can’t bring an imam on board and expect him to do his work and serve tirelessly, without empowering him with the ability not just to execute plans, but to devise the policies by which those plans are created in the first place. The imam is not an employee of an organization; he is -or at least should be- the spiritual engine that pushes it forward. It is precisely because we choose to ignore these realities, that our masaajid in America continue to bleed talent, and the Muslim community is not being propelled forward.

In almost every example where an imam founded a mosque or established a community, and stayed on top of its hierarchy, that that community grows, thrives and prospers. Imams must still find ways to run their institutions professionally, have boards and committees, implement working bylaws, and recruit and train an efficient volunteer corp. Ultimately however, imams must continue to be the spiritual leaders of their organizations, and the ones who build its vision with the community and ensure that vision is pursued. In those exceptional cases where the imam is not qualified and didn’t deliver, the community’s support to such masaajid will eventually dwindle, and that will force such imams to either go out of business or relinquish power. It is a self-correcting process at worst.

It is understandable that there are legitimate questions about this proposition. It is one thing for an imam who founded an organization to lead it, but can imams as late-comers to existing organizations be plugged into such positions? Are imams equipped with enough administrative and managerial skills to lead their masaajid? Can an imam be both spiritual leader and manager at the same time? How can we protect the community from the tyranny of the imams? How will the imam being on top of the hierarchy allow the mosque to re-focus its attention and resources on serving the human being? How can existing mosque structures accommodate for this methodology? Who keeps Dhul-Qarnayn in check if he goes astray?

I plan to answer these questions in my next essay inshaa’ Allah.

For more from Imam M. A. Azeez click here for his Facebook page. You can email him at

GuestsThe crisis of imams in America 3: The resurrection of Dhul-Qarnayn

Occam’s Razor Solution – Fundraising for Human Resources vs. Construction


I had an epiphany while listening to an interview with Scott Harris, founder of charity: water, about one of the common debates in the Muslim community:

Invest in structures or human resources?

Everyone is fighting over the same piece of the pie. There are only so many fundraising dollars. Financial commitments have been made to one thing and therefore other priorities must be postponed. Essentially – we’re in a bind and while we’d love to hire more people, we simply can’t.

So here’s the epiphany.

Charity: water is a reputable non-profit that provides clean water to people who don’t have access to it. Here’s the kicker. 100% of your contributions go directly into building the wells. One hundred percent. How is that possible?

Every charity has overhead of some sort. Salaries have to be paid. Web hosting has to be provided for. Someone has to pay for things like paper and print toner. How in the world are they able to guarantee that 100% of donations go strictly into the actual on the ground work?

Simple. Profound.

They have private donors (angel investors) who have decided to cover all the overhead [see the details here]. This enables contributors like you and me to let 100% of our funds go directly into the cause we care about.

That’s it. 

It is maddeningly simple.

How do we apply this to our communities?

Why not fundraise for both human resources and structures? Let the community dictate where the funds go. The board, after all, is a representative body of the community. They’ll tell you by way of their donations what they want the money spent on.

The biggest barrier to this is scarcity thinking. Or to put it another way, a severe and debilitating lack of tawakkul. People think there is a fixed amount of capital in the community and it must go to whatever a handful of people deem most important. This is the same thinking that causes people to fight when a new masjid opens up – “they’ll take our donors away!”

Instead of saying we can’t hire an assistant imam, or sisters coordinator, or youth director due to lack of funds – why not approach the community and say, we’d like to hire a sisters coordinator and this is the cost. If you want it, show us.

The biggest problem is we never give the community the chance to make that decision.

Omar UsmanOccam’s Razor Solution – Fundraising for Human Resources vs. Construction

The Crisis of Imams in America Part 2: The Un-Mosqueing of America’s Imams


This is a crosspost from Imam Mohamed Abdul-Azeez and originally appeared on Medium

Arabs have a popular proverb that goes as follows:

“If your friend is made of food, don’t eat him completely.”

The proverb refers to the normal human tendency to inadvertently take advantage of people who are willing to make sacrifices for us. The problem is that if we continue to abuse people’s willingness to help, there will be no one left to do so. A similar dynamic exists with Imams in America.

What do Imam’s really do?

One of the questions I’m often asked is this: other than leading prayers and delivering the weekly khutba, what do you guys really do? Of course such questions usually come from people with whom I meet for a counseling session, see at wedding ceremony, or converse with during an interfaith event. The audacity of the question has never prevented me from answering in an insightful manner, despite having to exert extra effort to curb my agitation.

Similar to popular memes on social media that showcase the discrepancy between people’s different perceptions of a given activity or a profession, multiple questions arise as to the function of the Imam. What is the Imam supposed to do? What does the community expect him to do? What does his family want him to do? What would his board like for him to do? And most importantly, what does he really do?

Well, let’s begin with what conventional wisdom suggests. Imams, by definition, are prayer leaders. Thus they lead, or are supposed to lead, the five daily prayers. In addition to that, they have to prepare the Friday sermons (khutbahs) for their congregations every week. Imams are also expected to conduct religious activities — such as halaqas, talks, Qur’an study circles, etc. — on a weekly basis. Many Imams are involved in marriage officiation, since they are the presiding clergy in a community. They counsel couples on marital issues and resolve familial disputes. They are called upon to to organize adult education classes, teach the youth and participate in full-time or weekend schools. They are required to maintain good communication with their communities via email and social media in order to answer doctrinal and legal (fiqhi) questions, as well as issue non-binding juridical opinions on complex issues (i.e. fatwas, or fatawa).

It goes without saying that the standard for good Imams in the multicultural and pluralistic communities we reside in here in the West requires that they furthermore be involved in interfaith dialogue and attend proselytizing (da’wah) events. The most qualified Imams are also involved in sensitivity training for law-enforcement and media personnel, advocate for social justice issues, work with local organizations on homelessness and hunger, and strive to maintain working relations with elected officials.

To make things even more exciting, Imams are expected to partake in the social activities of their community members, such as weddings, Ameen parties, birthday celebrations, graduation ceremonies, picnics, gatherings, etc. After all, what kind of Imam would one be if one is not available for hospital visits and funeral services?

As if to complicate matters more, Imams are often perceived as being the first-stop for media interviews, appear as guests on the news or radio, and issue quotes for newspaper articles. This is ever more pertinent these days when the international scene is so intense and the tide of Islamophobia is overwhelming. Now, I’m not sure how it is with other Imams, but I know I spend a good deal of time on prison ministry, catering to the needs of Muslim inmates in some local prisons, providing them with mentorship and information, and occasionally giving talks at correctional facilities. I also speak on a regular basis at colleges, high schools and universities. I’m frequently invited by teachers to answer their students’ questions and inquiries about Islam.

Of course one would be remiss if one ignores to mention every Imam’s favorite: fundraising! Imams are the chief fundraising agents of their mosques. They have to speak at fundraising banquets, work with community members to donate and participate in all fundraising activities of their centers. This involves a lot more than preparing a speech. It often requires strong personal relations with community members; taking people out for lunches and having them over for dinners; sending emails and making phone calls; definitely lots of prodding, goading and guilt trips; and of course, tons of facebook statuses.

Naturally, the Imam holds the greatest sway over his community members by virtue of his spiritual position. This makes him the most effective recruiter of volunteers. You can have all the committees you want, but if the Imam is not involved in the solicitation and organization of volunteers, it makes it harder to inspire and retain the most important asset our institutions have. More importantly, Imams are involved on a regular basis in the process of organizing volunteers through committee meetings, project management and task execution. Imams spend countless hours every week meeting with committees and overseeing the work of volunteers. Some Imams have assistant staff members, such as youth directors, assistant religious directors, etc. Those fortunate Imams carry the added burden of managing employees, which can be another full-time job.

Now, the irony is that all the aforementioned activities leave out the need for the Imam’s own spiritual rejuvenation and continuous education in order to better provide for the community and his own well-being. Attending conferences and taking educational sabbaticals are completely unheard of in our community. If we assume that, just like all other human beings, the Imam also has family and kids, and requires a modicum of leisure time for his psychological health, you can appreciate how serious this picture is.

Say what you want to say about job descriptions, but the reality is that most Imams have no choice but to partake in most, if not all, of what was previously mentioned. And despite that, it’s barely appreciated and never considered to be enough! The Imam’s phone doesn’t stop ringing and email notifications never stop buzzing. If the Imam is late in responding, people take it personally, become vexed, and then perturbed. This situation devolves into a quagmire when the Imam fails to balance all of the responsibilities given to him; particularly if he’s not getting any help or supporting staff. Often, he ends up leaving a trail of frustrated people.

Since the Imam is only one person (and cloning is still illegal), an Imam is forced to make the difficult judgment call on where he needs to spend the next hour. If he decides to visit a sick person at the hospital and pray side-by-side with him or her, he will likely miss a prayer at the mosque. If he decides to accept the invitation to speak at a class in the local junior college, he will have to pass over the dinner invitation he received from a donor. If he answers one phone call seeking advice, three will go straight to voicemail. If he decides to please his kids and take them out for dinner, he will have to displease a horde of people who expected him to be somewhere else. We have created an unfortunate state of affairs whereby everyone needs the Imam and, due to the heightened and impossible expectations set for him, everyone is left frustrated with his limited human (and time-spatial) capacity. This often leaves many Imams in a deep state of confusion and anxiety that rips the pleasure from many of the functions they fulfill and, as experience has shown, forces them to eventually step down.

To make matters worse, the gap is far and wide between what masjid leaders assume Imams do, or are supposed to do, and what Imams have to do. Board members who have been legitimately selected by their community members to manage the affairs of their mosques feel entitled — and rightly so — to manage staff members, including Imams. The problem, however, is that the requests boards put to Imams, or expect them to fulfill, are often incongruent with the real needs and realities of the community.

Imams often find themselves sandwiched (or wedged) between the expectations of boards and community members. If you please your board, you get to keep your job; fail to deliver to the people you are accountable to, despite pleasing the community, and you put your own financial security in jeopardy!

This cannot be healthy — not for Imams, not for boards and certainly not for the community. Only a super-human Imam can handle such a supernatural feat. And since we don’t have any super Imams in the community, what ends up happening is that with all the continued pressure, Imams inevitably reach their breaking point. It’s not surprising, given the dismal state of affairs, that most qualified Imams in America are systematically stepping down and leaving the community in shambles. In other words, America’s Imams are being unmosqued when we need them the most!

What is to be done to avert this crisis of Imams in America? How can we retain and empower our Imams? How can we strike a balance between efficiency and accountability? How can we help imams do their jobs while maintaining community oversight?

We will discuss all of that in the next essay, God-willingly.

For part 1 of this series click here:

For more from Imam M. A. Azeez click here for his Facebook page. You can email him at


GuestsThe Crisis of Imams in America Part 2: The Un-Mosqueing of America’s Imams

The Crisis of Imams in America


This is a crosspost from Imam Mohamed Abdul-Azeez and originally appeared on Medium

Since my departure from the SALAM Center a few weeks ago, the chatter has been deafening in the community about the role of the Imam and the expectations the Muslim community should have of him. This new found free time has allowed me to engage in some deep rumination about my experience with SALAM and our community at large. Interestingly, more than 5 of the most well equipped/most well-known Imams in America have left their posts over the past two months alone. Before them, scores of Imams step down almost every month. In fact, the average time an Imam spends with his mosque is usually less than 5 years (which means I was a survivor :-).

Mosque in-fighting is a staple of the American Muslim’s experience It happens everywhere and affects everyone, but no one likes to talk about it publicly because, according to conventional wisdom, “we should not show non-Muslims our dirty laundry”. All of us can tell tales about mosque turmoil as often as we share stories about rowdy cousins and bad restaurants.

I’ve asked myself time and time again: why is it that good, God-fearing people who are very sincere and want to serve the Creator and His people, start fighting and bickering and dragging the community with them to deep turmoil once they enter a masjid environment?

This phenomenon cannot be a result of personal traits, since its so widespread across almost all Muslim communities in America. Unless by some act of God it so happened that all masjid leaders and Imams are crooks! It cannot be a matter of limited finances because the Muslim American community is one of the wealthiest communities, however much we might mismanage them. I doubt the involvement of the FBI, trying to mess up our mosques on purpose, as conspiracy theorists might ramble on about sometimes!

What is it then?

The one thing that is less talked about within the context of our mosque affairs is structure. What is the makeup of our mosque leadership and how are they organized? Let me answer a few other questions first before I get to this one.

How are places of worship organized in America? A few models could be identified:

First, you have the model of a top-down church hierarchy, represented by many Christian groups such as Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Mormons, etc. in which “clergy” members report to a clearly defined hierarchy from priest to Arch-bishop to bishop, etc. In this model the chain of command is clear. Clergy members report to their superiors, and while they are still sensitive to the needs of their local communities, they are only held accountable by their superiors (i.e. other clergy).

Second, there is the independent church model, represented by many Baptist, Evangelical and other churches. In this model, a Pastor goes into a neighborhood, founds a new church and people start gravitating around him inspired by his message and teachings. A board is formed, and committees are put in place in order to fulfill the vision of this pastor. While this model still bears elements of checks and balances, the pastor is clearly accountable to his congregation and not the board, and a significant majority is required to force him to step down.

The structure that is often implemented in the Muslim community (usually in Sunni institutions) doesn’t fit either of the aforementioned models. In our case, a group of laymen, usually professionals in other fields, come together and establish a mosque. They put together and comprise the board, write bylaws and policies, establish committees and procedures, etc. and then find an Imam to lead prayers, deliver khutba, teach the youth, etc.

Now the Imam that is hired is usually one of two people:

Its either a simple Imam, who may or may not speak English well, who’s usually from overseas with little experience and limited skills, who serves at the pleasure of the board, keeps a low profile and does what he’s told. In this case the Imam keeps his job, the relationship with the board continues to be peaceful, but the community doesn’t grow.

The second type of Imams is one that either grew up or lived a significant number of years in America, is eloquent, well educated, skilled, charismatic, and comes with a vision and an agenda to transform the community. This Imam/activist usually empowers the community to grow and people gravitate around him, but the very factors of his success become the seeds of his doom. Over time the relationship with the board grows sour because of diverging views, he gradually becomes a threat to the board and masjid leadership, and in almost every single case, such Imams quit or are forced by their boards to step down.

This model is not only a failure because it rewards mediocrity and punishes innovation. It is bad news because it creates an environment where the community is not connected spiritually. In political and social settings, it is understandable to talk about the necessity of attachment to institutions and organizations and not people. The same cannot be true in a spiritual setting. People need to see their leaders become a reflection and an embodiment of the teachings they perpetuate. Families need to be connected with their Imams. The Imam needs to be there, side by side with the family, from the very beginning. When one gets married, the Imam is there. When one has his first child, the Imam is there. When the family needs counseling, the Imam is there. When the child joins youth group, the Imam is there. When the family needs a social camp, the Imam is there. When the child grows and heads to college, the Imam is there. When the child becomes an adult and is now looking for a spouse, the Imam is there. This is how a community is built. Without that personal connection with the Imam, you will always have communities that come together for events and activities and not ideas and spirit. The connection cannot be organic without a role model.

Of course there are exceptions to this assessment, but statistically most American mosques fall under one of the two categories.

What is even more interesting is that this latter category of Imams, once they step down from their posts, they mostly try to join other communities and accept an Imam job elsewhere, hoping to still do what they love, continuing to serve their communities and supporting their families. Unfortunately within a few years the cycle repeats itself and most of them end up stepping down again. Instead of joining a new masjid, a select few of these Imams establish their own task specific institutions, such as Quran memorization, Arabic education, youth work, counseling, etc. This causes scores of community members, who are getting nothing from their mosques now that their Imams have left, to gravitate towards those “institutions” seeking services. The newly found institutions feel pressured to offer a variety of spiritual and educational services that mosques failed to offer, and they gradually evolve into a “we-are-not-a-mosque” type of mosque, or as some label them “third spaces”, in which the vast majority of masjid services are being offered, but the institution continues to have a separate identity from a full-blown masjid. Some Imams quit their Imam careers altogether, and pursue lay jobs or academic careers, trying to avoid the pain they experienced within the confinements of dysfunctional masjid structures.

For some reason, very few Imams opt for the establishment of a new mosque under their leadership, following the second Christian model mentioned above. The main reason for this is that the culture of an Imam starting a new mosque doesn’t exist in America, at least among the immigrant community. In addition to that, most successful Imams might not have the educational or the real-life experience that would allow them to manage and lead a successful and financially viable religious institution.

So here’s what our situation looks like:
Millions of Muslims live in America, more than half are probably youth; mosques are failing to offer the needed programs and services; most qualified Imams are being pushed away from serving their people; young American Muslims are being “unmosqued”; ISIS and al-Qaeda are recruiting!

Not a cool/pretty picture is it?

Now what am I suggesting:

First, the notion of praying at the most convenient location needs to change. The Muslim community needs to reward success and punish failure. People cannot pray at locations where services are not offered. They should not support those places financially either. Be selective on where you pray and where you send your kids.

Second, qualified Imams in America should never allow themselves to serve under unfair and inequitable conditions. Start your Qur’an halaqa in the basement of your own house, and when it grows big enough go ahead and venture out to establish a new community.

Third, Imams needs to study a lot more than Islamic sciences. If you want to make a difference in the American Muslim life, you need to have clear understanding of management, public relations, civics, finances, and other needed fields of knowledge that will help you become the leader of your community and manage its affairs.

Fourth, Imams need to consider another element beside the stability of leadership structure and that is financial sustainability. One can never worry about building a masjid or starting an institution or establishing a new community without worrying about its financial stability. More time needs to go into creative finances and sources of funding than goes into construction. Conventional fundraising is no longer sufficient.

Fifth, it is obvious the Imam cannot do everything. Find people who can help. Invite them to volunteer for key positions, operations, finances, youth, etc. under your direction. If there’s anyone who has the power to inspire people to serve it is you! And once you get your finances in order, invest in people and hire the best element out there and institutionalize your center.

Omar UsmanThe Crisis of Imams in America

Why Getting Volunteers For The Masjid is a Vision Problem


Guest Post by Siraaj Muhammad

Volunteers tend to flock to quality initiatives that have been established and successful, and the role the volunteer plays is clear (and desired). And likely overlaps with “their” cause or interests – for some, that’s a soup kitchen, for others, it’s spreading religious knowledge, and still others, it’s youth programs.

Part of the problem is that masjid boards (that I’ve seen anyway, can’t speak for all) don’t directly engage community members. They don’t know them, and so they don’t know their strengths, and they don’t have a vision of something bigger beyond infrastructure expansion, so they don’t see the potential value of someone in a project later down the pipeline.

Then you add in there the comfort and familiarity of aligning or working with people of the same ethnicity and complicate that with gender politics, and you have all sorts of Unmosqued running around the interwebs talking about disenfranchisement. While those problems exist, a big big big big big big problem underlying all of that is business and project leadership / management incompetence, starting with vision and going into expansion nirvana.

As an example, women’s prayer halls are complained about often. If you came from a country where women weren’t allowed in the masjid, you built something in the 80s or 90s with a token space and thought you were being overaccommodating. You don’t know what you’re doing, you build an institution, and 20 years later when the community is established, people retroactively complain about sexism because their progressive professor filled their head with nonsense about male / female power dynamics.

But 20 – 30 years ago, your stakeholders were a limited set of community members and the women were nowhere near educated as they are now, nor were they demanding such spaces (whether for cultural reasons, “I’m not that religious and I don’t care reasons”, or whatever), and you, the unconscious incompetent, did what you could, and these were the seeds of our first communities. They weren’t perfect, but they got the job done. Fast forward to today, the immigrant blueprint for community building hasn’t really changed overly much.

Before we can solve these problems, I think it’s more important to first define what the role of the masjid should be in a community – large, small, and so on. Then you can define what’s needed, who’s needed, and then some. It’s like our problem with the imam, we want him to be everything to everyone at minimum wage with no health care fii sabeelillah. That was fine and dandy when you’re bootstrapping your startup masjid in 1983, but we need an American Muslim Community Blueprint 2.0 – what services should a masjid provide? How does it accommodate it’s men, women, and children? How does it reliably fund itself without endless marathon donations? What models exist in other 501c3 communities that have worked and how do we adapt that to our needs?

Lots to be done, but I’m more for obliterating the tweaks and hacks to the status quo, and more in favor of sweeping re-architecture of the masjid community blueprint and socializing it with new communities.

GuestsWhy Getting Volunteers For The Masjid is a Vision Problem