“United we rise and divided we fall” as the old saying goes. Yet despite repeated admonitions in the Qur’an to stand together and work for the common good of Islam, African American masjids have historically displayed a distressing pattern of fracturing and spiting apart. We all know of course that it is only through maintaining strong, cohesive communities that vital institutions come into being, but all of that is completely undermined by this disturbingly persistent trend. In this post I’ve attempted to identify some of the critical factors which account for this divisive tendency.
In the first place, Muslim civilization itself has completely failed to formulate a workable theory for political succession, on any level; national, state, or local. This lack of a political theory on the macro level directly impacts the affairs of Muslims on the local level, especially those of our masjids. The history of dynastic “succession” in the ummah is one of endless coups, plots, schemes, Machiavellian machinations, and bloodshed. Viewed from this broader perspective, it is easy to understand why Muslims lack a workable protocol for the transitioning of power. There simply is no historical template on how to do it.
Another endemic problem is the proprietary – “Imam for Life” – mentality that afflicts perhaps most (and Allah knows best) African American so-called “Resident Imams”. In essence, these leaders come to view their respective communities, both in terms of the people and assets, as their own personal property. Unsurprisingly, this can often be quite literally true, with the jamaat’s property legally held by the imam, his family, or cronies, leading to still further questions of transparency and accountability. Under this type of Stalinistic regime, the imam becomes essentially a beneficent (or not so beneficent) strongman, and a personality cult is formed around him as opposed to any strong organization. This type of dictatorial structure does not – and indeed cannot – accommodate any talented, energetic up-start, who would be quite naturally viewed by the leadership as a mortal threat. In this instance then, one of the men has to go – usually the up-start. He will either leave, taking those whom he has recruited from the community with him, or the imam’s “security team’ will summarily put him out. (For further notes on this important point look for my coming post entitled “In the Glow of Love” – I’ll explain the name later).
Another factor which accounts for the fracturing and splitting is dissatisfaction with incompetent Imams. When the sermons become tiring, uninspiring, or just void of beneficial knowledge, the people – in their spiritual hunger – will invariably turn to others for their nourishment. Failure to “re-up” on ones Islamic knowledge (that is of course if one ever had any to begin with) is the perfect way for an imam to invite challenges to his leadership. I myself have listened to many incompetent imams and the ignorance uttered from their mouths was simply breathtaking. Furthermore, too many imams positively refuse – or are just unable – to develop proficiency in the Arabic language. They don’t fully appreciate that in this information age, laziness and weak scholarship are not acceptable. In order to address this problem in the future, a process must begin to professionalize the position of imam. Aspirants to the office must be made to undergo a rigorous program of Arabic, Quranic commentary, and jurisprudence, to be awarded a degree upon its completion. All of this assumes that we indeed have an educational program that might admit these brothers, which of course we do not. But we must develop one (inshallah).
Also, when an imam feels secure in his Islamic knowledge and knows for as-surety that his community respects him for his erudition, he will no longer see other gifted brothers in the community as threats to his position. He’ll become their teacher and mentor, and find ways for the community to benefit from their talents.
It is a fact that African American Muslims expect the imam to know everything about running an institution, when all he may be really qualified to do is teach religion. Here too we find fertile ground for division, for what do you do when the imam wants to play the role of accountant, administrator, architect, business manager, and so on, but positively lacks any qualifications to do so? Again, the solution here is professionalization and the adoption of corporate structures that delineate clearly job descriptions and hold people accountable.
Another source of trepidation for the imam is the lack of any kind of retirement package. Has anyone ever really thought about this? If, for example, a man has given many years of his life to the service of Islam as an imam, is he going to now give up that position as an old man with no retirement benefits. Isn’t it fair for him to ask,”what shall I do after this”? It is precisely for this reason that many younger brothers, those who perhaps nurse the desire to be an imam themselves, are forced to “start their own thing”. The old imam, who is fearful and has nowhere to go, will not give the young man any play.
Finally, the primary reason that most people find it impossible to work with others comes down to nothing more than ego-mania. Unfortunately, for many brothers being an imam is just another way to become a celebrity, to have people buy their CDs and shower them with praise. For these types, they must always be the “star of the show”and the center of attraction. Pride, the deadliest of all spiritual sicknesses, makes his head fat and his ego over-blown, and in self-love he cannot countenance anyone else sharing the “limelight”. It is these sick individuals that always cause the most trouble in any community. If they are the up-start, you’ll see them always trying to gain a following amongst the community. If they’re the imam (God forbid), you’ll see them always trying to take credit for any good that is done, whether they had anything to do with it or not! Let us all remember that we are here to serve Allah, in the hope that He will accept from us our deeds. None of us should ever believe that we are “all that”, but rather, let us humble ourselves and try to work collectively for the betterment of this religion, humanity, and of course ourselves.