A Case for the Bivocational Imam

Muslim Matters

A Case for the Bivocational Imam

By Imam Khalis Rashaad

Photo credit:  Photodune

Photo credit: Photodune

Unless you’re living under a rock somewhere, you’ve probably heard something of the numerous stories of Imams leaving their posts. These are not your normal run of the mill, unqualified religious preachers.

These brothers are the cream of the crop. Furthermore they are relevant, speak well, look sharp and have broad support from the community. These brothers have big hearts and want to serve the American Muslim community and the broader community. They also want to provide a dignified existence for their family, have creative control, and not just be a token. I have to state a disclaimer here. This article may offend some. Although it is not my intention, some things may come off as crass. I’m writing for the Imams. This article won’t be all pretty, cleaned up and sanitized. These brothers are my colleagues in this critical work. I am an Imam as well. But I am free to speak my mind. I have complete creative control over programming and the direction of my community. I also have numerous ways of making a living outside of the masjid where I am the Imam. I am not beholden to wealthy and well connected board members who write the check for my salary. No slave master can whip me when I refuse to tow the line. I understand there are repercussions for thinking like this. I may never be the Imam of the biggest, prettiest masjid with golden chandeliers and a million dollar annual budget. However; what I do have is freedom and that’s priceless.

A Case Study?—?the Imam W.D. Mohammed Community

Imams please look at the model in the community associated with Imam W.D. Mohammed (R). I challenge you to find one Imam who is not bi-vocational. I would estimate that 20 percent work for corporations or public service and 80 percent of the Imams are entrepreneurs. Four Imams come to mind immediately. Imam Faheem Shuaibe in Oakland, California has over 30 years of progressive leadership at Masjid Waritheen. He is also an entrepreneur. He has a robust media company and is successful with seminars. Imam Mansoor Sabree is in Atlanta, Georgia. He leads a congregation that is over 3,000 members strong. He also leads the Clara Muhammad and WD Muhammad schools there, directs a nonprofit and from my last conversation with him he is also in real estate investing. The third one is Imam Makram El-Amin of Masjid Nur in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He also owns a construction company, invests in residential real estate and directs a nonprofit community organization.

The fourth one is Imam Wazir Ali of Masjid Warithudeen Mohammed in Houston, Texas. Now hold your eyes for this one. He is the Imam of Masjid Warithuddeen Mohammed and Masjid Al –Quran. You read that correctly. That’s two mosques. He is also a certified nutritionist with more alphabets behind his name than the Arabic alphabet combined. He also owns a successful nutritional consulting company. But get this, he is also finishing up his PhD and teaches classes at a local university. He does all of this and none of the communities feel short changed. I have seen him officiate weddings and lead funeral prayers as well. Imams own all types of companies. They are in IT, landscaping, plumbing, finance, media, consulting and more.

I also challenge you to find one Imam who doesn’t have complete creative control and who is enslaved to a board of directors. You see this was a model laid out by Imam W.D. Mohammed himself. He encouraged mosques to be totally independent and decentralized.

He also encouraged Imams to be intellectually free and economically self-sufficient. He even encouraged Imams to disagree with him! I once heard him say; “I would rather you not follow me, than to hang on and regurgitate every word coming out of my mouth without thinking for yourself.” I am grateful for this. Intellectual, creative and spiritual freedom is priceless. When you look at every masjid or community space associated with Imam WDM, they are totally independent. There are no tight knit executive boards, regional or supreme leaders.

I am also an entrepreneur. I have run my accounting and financial management practice since 2005. I also founded and direct a nonprofit that has relationships with inner-city schools to teach and promote entrepreneurship and finance. I used to own a barbershop and a carpet cleaning company at the same time. I was also working in corporate America in accounting and finance while I owned and ran these two businesses. During this time I was also working on my MBA, assisting with lecture rotation, teaching Arabic grammar and fiqh classes. There is another Imam in Houston that assists me at Ibrahim Islamic Center. Imam Kehlin Farooq is also an entrepreneur. He owns a beauty supply company and dry cleaners and is very heavily involved with grass roots community work as are all the Imams I mentioned. I don’t think any of us are wealthy financially. However our families do live a dignified existence and none of us are afraid of being fired from our positions as Imams.

As a bi-vocational Imam who is also an entrepreneur; I can come and go as I am pleased. I can represent my community and not feel like a token. I have seen numerous Imams that don’t know basic financial management, have zero hustle and as a result get taken advantage of. In 2015, there are Imams that are working without a contract. Unfortunately, many board members don’t value religious leadership. They only want you to teach cookie cutter Islamic programming, baby sit their children and stay in your lane. You will not make strategic and financial decisions and you will not get a seat on the board. They are always five moves ahead of you. You think you’re on the board playing chess with them but you’re not even on the board. You’re playing marbles and they’re playing chess. We need board members that act more like spiritual leaders rather than cut-throat business leaders.

Insha Allah, one-day board members will wake up and see they are crippling our communities and the future of Islam in America. I’m not waiting around for them to come to their senses and you shouldn’t either. Never put yourself in a position as an Imam where someone can control you. Conduct your affairs by mutual consultation (Shura), but make sure the final decision is left to you. Let your community hold you accountable, not some board of directors. Go and get training in a skill set outside of teaching the religion. Get IT certifications, become a plumber or figure out a way to monetize what you already know. Make plenty of Duaa. Start with the prayer of making a decision (Istikhara) and just keep going. You’d be surprised what you can get done and how fast it could get done when you work directly with the community. Figure out how to start something on your own from the ground up and then find a core group who agree with you and run with it. Run fast enough that you don’t have time to let fear of failure overtake you. If you build it the people will come. Keep your intentions pure, keep the mission (Your Why) in front of you and don’t expect overnight success.

In conclusion, I recall having a conversation with a board member of a masjid where I was a guest speaker. He was lamenting why they can’t keep an Imam. “We paid the brother $55,000 per year!” I nearly fell out of my chair and replied; “$55,000 per year is actually pretty light. Did you all provide 401K, medical and dental benefits, paid vacation, housing allowance etc?” He replied; “No we didn’t.” The conversation continued along the lines of me telling him that board members expect the Imam to be available for 5 daily prayers, perform weddings, counseling, teach Quran, tafseer, work with youth and more for that salary. I left feeling like he didn’t really get my point. And I don’t know that board members will get the point anytime soon. For Imams that are truly trying to make a difference, there are alternatives that are less stressful. Who wants to continue to put up with blatant racism, no creative control and low pay? Imams are rendering themselves as leaders with no authority. Being bi-vocational definitely has its drawbacks both for the community and the Imam. However, it’s still a much less expensive alternative than what we currently have.

Editor’s note: Khalis Rashaad is the Imam of Ibrahim Islamic Center in Houston, Texas. Ibrahim Islamic Center is a mosque that focuses not only on the spiritual needs of its members, but also on the socio-economic issues in the urban community surrounding the center. You can connect with him on Twitter @khalisrashaad or contact him at khalisrashaad.com. This article originally appeared on Ummah Wide.

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