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

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