Demanding Professionalism in our Masjid
By Yahiya Emerick
Where do you go if your son is rebelling? What do you do when
your daughter wants to marry someone against your wishes? Your uncle
is feeling depressed lately. Who can help him recover? Your spouse
is too materialistic and is neglecting the spiritual life of your
family? Who can help?
If you have ever been faced with issues similar to these, then
you have probably tried to get help in the one place where you would
expect to get it: the Masjid. Perhaps you called or paid a visit
to the Masjid office in the hopes of finding a sympathetic ear,
or maybe you met with the Imam or director to discuss what's ailing
But if your experience is like most people in most places, you
wound up having to look elsewhere for assistance. You just couldn't
find the support you needed in your local house of worship. Maybe
no one answered the phone; maybe your calls were never returned
or, if you did manage to get a personal meeting, perhaps the Imam
or director spoke little English or merely used the opportunity
to lecture you on fiqh issues. Hardly a solution to real life problems!
If we say the Masjid is the focal point of the community and open
its doors five times a day for prayer, shouldn't the Masjid be open
for other needs the believers have as well? But what I've seen all
too often is that those who build and operate the Masajid have little
expertise in organizing a life-giving institution. Just because
someone can make a million dollars living off medical insurance
billings doesn't mean he can run a spiritual and communal project!
What I'm telling you is not the disgruntled ramblings of an emotional
person. I'm quite happy being Muslim no matter what the strengths
or weaknesses of my community are. After having visited countless
Masajid across the country, I wish merely to call your attention
to a most pressing issue; that of the need for professionalism in
I don't know how many of you are "reverts," or, people
who have accepted Islam, but if you are reading this, do you remember
what going to church or the synagogue was like in earlier years?
Put aside for a moment the faulty theology and mistaken notions
that were taught in those places. Remember what the structure was
like. If you needed counseling, the minister or rabbi was well qualified
and available. If you had children there were fun and interesting
youth activities throughout the week. If you were poor you may have
received help. If you merely needed a good book on your religion,
there was a wonderful, staffed library on premises. Do you see where
Nearly every single Masjid built and operated in North America
has been built, funded and operated by immigrant Muslims. (With
the exception of a large number of African American Masajid.) After
extensive interviews with immigrant Muslims, it seems the perception
of the Masjid "back home" is of a place to make salah,
do janazah, 'Eid celebrations, etc... Family and personal matters
are handled through other channels: relatives, friends, youth clubs,
etc... After all, everyone's a Muslim so the Masjid is just a small
feature in the spiritual and social life of the community.
Enter the new world: the immigrant builds a Masjid with the good
intention of having a place for the community to gather and make
Salah and do Eid, etc... But when members of the community have
needs that only a Muslim would know how to deal with, bingo! There
are no Muslim relatives in great abundance. The few Muslim friends
one may have are all busy making money and there are no Muslim youth
clubs or community activities beyond dinners once a month or fundraising
events. So where does the community member go? He or she seeks out
non-Muslim help at best or leaves the problem unsolved at worst.
The Masjid has no place in their life.
Even if the Masjid has a few pitiful programs to enhance the life
of its members, more often than not, they're staffed only sporadically
by people who just came from a village back home. They are not professional
in their manner according to Western standards- they may not even
show up on time to anything- and they are not equipped to deal with
the issues confronting the Muslim minority experience. I'm not saying
all volunteers in the Masajid are similar to this description. Don't
get me wrong. But in all my time as a frequenter of Masajid, I've
only met about nine or ten truly competent people.
Contrast the above scenario with the average church or synagogue.
The institution is built to serve as a community center right from
the start. Youth programs are a priority and are well-planned and
fun. Women are represented on the board and on all committees. Volunteers
are chosen for their trustworthiness and reliability. They are made
to feel that their job means something and they are well-coordinated
and friendly. The minister or rabbi speaks English fluently, even
if they are an immigrant, and knows Greek, Hebrew or Latin on the
side. In order to be the leader of the community, the minister or
rabbi had to undergo extensive training which included, besides
the religious subjects, counseling, administration, management,
music and singing, public speaking, research, etc.... culminating
in the award of a D.D. (Doctorate of Divinity).
I'm sorry, but the little certificates from madrasahs all over
the third world do not prepare an Imam for the task of leading the
Muslim community in North America. Before you take offense at this
statement, consider this: what is your definition of an Imam? Islamically,
the Imam is supposed to have some authority over the community.
He is to be elected by the Muslims and given respect and listened
to. But in every Muslim community I've been in, the Imam has no
authority, little respect and merely leads the prayers and recites
some du'as. At the most he may teach some classes here and there
on Qirah or Aqeedah. Even if he is a hafiz the situation is still
pretty much the same.
If this is your definition of what an Imam means, then you need
to remember all the complaints we have about why the Muslim world
has declined in the last five hundred years. Islam was relegated
to the Masjid. Imams were prayer leaders and little more. Islam
had little hold over a person's personal or social life. This is
how Islam is viewed in Muslim countries; this is one reason why
the immigrant Muslims had to leave their countries to begin with.
Their homelands are, by and large, screwed up.
So why do we want to set up our Masajid here on the same model
that caused our destruction over there? I can't figure it out. Ministers
and Rabbis are considered authority figures in their respective
communities and generally have the allegiance of most members. Our
Imams are usually under-educated and have no authority with little
backing from anyone. Some wealthy patron, pretending he knows how
to be a Nasjid director, is almost always the real power in the
Baitullah. And it's real hard to tell such a director that his local
Muslim community is drifting away from the faith when he lives in
a mansion and drives a Mercedes. He'll say to himself, "I made
a fortune, therefore, I know what's best for the local Muslim community."
Meanwhile, all around him, the youth are becoming kuffar, the women
are forgetting Islam, the elderly are being abandoned in homes,
the people who want to convert are disillusioned and the men are
'Eid Muslims only, if that. Everyone turns to the non-Muslim society
for support, help, entertainment, money and even spiritual meaning.
Until and unless we inject professionalism in our Masajid, then
our community will continue to shrink even though pundits cry about
there being six million of us.
We need trained staff, even if you have to pay them. We need Imams
with professional training in many subjects related to human relations
and we need a process of inclusion that would make women, the youth
and the luke-warm Muslims feel a part of the over-all life of our
Masjid. In short, the Masjid is not just a place of prayer that
we can build to heal our guilty feelings of doing haram business
dealings- it's a place for Muslims and their lives. By its very
nature and what it must mean for the community, it must be run professionally,
and not like a club.