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 your life.
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 the Masajid.
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 I’m going?
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.