Value Your Local Imam Even If He Is Not “Famous” | Imam Omar Suleiman
In December 2005, I formally took my first Imam position at Masjid Abu Bakr in New Orleans where I would serve for 6 years. With the recovery of the city after Hurricane Katrina underway, it was a stressful time with many other masajid not having their imams back. At that time, I was just a “local imam.” My national profile was minuscule and I used to routinely invite scholars and preachers to benefit our community.
All the while, I barely had a minute to myself. I was expected to do everything from keeping the library clean to marriages and divorces, and counseling, and funerals, and teach Quran, organize events and handle every little detail, and interfaith work, and assist in disaster relief, and still fundraise for our expansion projects, and of course save everyone’s kids from destroying themselves.
I had just gotten married in 2007 and lost my mom (may Allah have mercy on her) the same year. Living 2 houses down from the masjid, people would knock on my door regularly in the odd hours of the night when we had just put our first baby girl to sleep, block my driveway during salah times, and request drive-by marriage ceremonies at any time of the day. I felt like a doctor on call, all the time. But I definitely didn’t have a doctor’s salary.
And for some people, I still was falling short. I would be questioned for every salah I didn’t make at the masjid, usually because I was tending to someone’s needs. My khutbahs, recitations, and clothing style were constantly up for debate. And my boss would effectively change every year because of board elections.
Now, let me stop here and say that I loved my masjid and left on great terms to pursue other opportunities. I made friends that became family, and I wouldn’t trade those 6 years for anything. But the lifestyle I just mentioned certainly wasn’t unique to me. I know many imams who work tirelessly for their community only to constantly be deemed insufficient.
And in recent years, a particular critique has become common: “Why can’t you be more like (insert “celebrity shaykh” name). Suddenly, I find myself on the other side of that equation. Imams and scholars are put down in my name. And though I despise the term “celebrity shaykh” and certainly never asked for it, I fully recognize that scholars and teachers that don’t have my profile are abused by it. Hence why I’m writing this article in defense of the imams and scholars who do so much for their communities on the ground, only to be diminished because they don’t have an inflated online presence.
Most of my teachers would never be recognized by those who know of my work. My father-in-law was the imam of a masjid for over 2 decades and played a significant role in developing me not just with ijazas, but as a person (and of course, I owe both him and my mother in law for my wonderful wife who has helped develop me every day for the last 12 years).
Some of my most blessed teachers that reside right here in the United States hold regular classes that are underwhelming in attendance. This past weekend I had the blessing of sharing the stage with one of my beloved teachers and mentors, Dr. Hatem Al Haj. I would do anything for the opportunity to sit in his classes on a weekly basis even now. And when it comes to just sheer work being done for communities, the Imams in inner cities (particularly from the community of Imam WD Muhammad) have been torchbearers. I am put to shame when I compare my own work to Imam Rafiq Numan in New Orleans or Imam Khalid Shahid here in Dallas.
So a few points to consider:
- A person’s fame or lack thereof is not an indication of their knowledge level. That means that some scholars who enjoy a particular profile indeed do have the credentials to match that profile, while others don’t. And in more cases than not, the most knowledgeable gems are building communities away from public sight.
- Don’t belittle your Imam because he’s not someone else. Allah has given us all our own unique qualities. Build with and around your imam instead.
- An imam is not a Prophet. The expectations of an imam are usually entirely unreasonable, and they are ridiculously under-compensated. That creates bitterness on the part of both the Imam and the community. No other faith community invests less in the pieces around their clergy to build a successful community. You want your Imam to build right, let him focus on being a good imam as opposed to 7 jobs in 1. Part of that is a clear job description with clear expectations on both sides. What the imam does beyond that is part of his own personal growth in the sight of Allah, in front of whom we all must hold ourselves accountable.
- Don’t wait for someone to be discovered nationally to benefit from them locally. Many times we only recognize the blessings of a teacher after others recognize it for us.
- An imam having a national profile might actually be bad for your masjid due to time constraints, so be careful what you wish for. That’s not to say that there aren’t some who have done a wonderful job of maintaining commitments to both their local communities and the broader Ummah. But it does mean that you might be making a big mistake replacing your local Imam for his lack of prominence while he is fully committed to building your community.
- You want a secure imam, give him job security. That’s not to say that there aren’t reasonable grounds for the removal of an Imam, or that sometimes you just don’t have the right fit. But what type of caliber and commitment are you expecting when the position you hire for has a new boss every year or two through notorious masjid board elections. And this is not meant to demonize those boards since there are some really good ones out there, but to say there has to be a way to safeguard the imam from those cycles.
- Whoever does not thank the people, does not thank Allah. It means something to hear words of appreciation, especially when you’re so accustomed to criticism and overwhelmed by an unreasonable workload. So to the imams who teach our children, lead our prayers, represent us in our communities, bury our loved ones, perform our marriages, and do so much more…
May Allah reward you AND YOUR FAMILIES for all that you do for OUR FAMILIES. May you be celebrated by Allah and the inhabitants of the heavens. That is where true “fame” lies.
And to those who abuse their local Imams in the name of us “celebrity shaykhs”, please stop it. #NotInMyName