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

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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 m.azeez@tarbiya.org.

 

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