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Value Your Local Imam Even If He Is Not “Famous” | Imam Omar Suleiman

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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:

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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

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Imam Omar Suleiman is the Founder and President of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, and an Adjunct Professor of Islamic Studies in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at SMU (Southern Methodist University).He is also the Resident Scholar at Valley Ranch Islamic Center and Co-Chair of Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square. He holds a Bachelors in Accounting, a Bachelors in Islamic Law, a Masters in Islamic Finance, a Masters in Political History, and is currently pursuing a Phd. in Islamic Thought and Civilization from the International Islamic University of Malaysia.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Muhammad

    November 29, 2018 at 10:51 AM

    Excellent and well said. May Allah accept all your efforts for the sake of Islam.

  2. Avatar

    Omar

    November 29, 2018 at 11:33 AM

    Great article. I think it’s just the times we live in. People are more concerned about who makes them ‘feel good’ about their Iman as oppose to who is the one closer to Qur’an and Sunnah …Who is more known to the people rather than who is more known to Allah.

    So many times I’ve heard people say… You gotta hear the tafsir by such and such an “aalim” because he’s the most popular celebrity speaker in the world. While the person holds no credentials of being a scholar or an aalim. And their local Imam has more ijazahs in Hadith and tafsir and does more for their community than the celebrity Shaykh ever could.??‍♂

    The same kind of mentality is adopted by the other side of the spectrum where people with cultish attachment to their masjid and imams consider only their Iman to be rightly guided while every other people, imam or masjid whether it be across the street and the same “sect” as them but deemed to be misguided because they don’t follow “my” masjid.

    My sincere advise to all my brothers and sisters. Only Allah knows who is guided and who is misguided. The so called “celebrity Shaykh” that you follow *could* be the first to enter hell and the local Imam that spent his nights in secluded ibadah could be the closest to the Prophet in the Hereafter – and vice versa. So never show one down over the other because you could be slandering someone whose already got his place booked under the throne of Allah fifty thousand years before the creation.

    A dua I always make is for Allah to guide me to the one who is most pleasing to him. Not the one that makes me “feel good” about my faith, is well known or the one that inclines to my “cultish mentality”.

    If your ultimate goal is Jannah then stop attaching your faith to labels of speakers and seek the one that is most pleasing to Him. May Allah guide us all, ameen.

  3. Avatar

    Rafia

    November 29, 2018 at 11:59 AM

    Well written ma sha Allah – I think people particularly say this specially in our times because they need a BIG example to look towards OR they are not that much involved in the masjid to understand the situation of their scholars. In their own way of given circumstances and resources, they do their best – Alhamdulillah!
    And I totally agree, no one should abuse an imam in your name. You are a human too and might have ignored some areas that are needed by the community in many ways.
    Every Imam/Sheikh/Ustadh we learn from should be given enough benefit of doubt that in the end they are only humans like us.
    Personally I think #celebritysheikh phenomenon becomes “Iamyourfan” & “whatever they say is right” – which is wrong. We need to broaden our ilm enough to know deen ourselves.
    May Allah bless the scholars among us and make them beneficial for all, ameen

  4. Avatar

    Atif

    November 29, 2018 at 12:02 PM

    AsalamuAlaikum,

    Well written article ?. I’ve never really come across this in the UK. The imam’s here have always been looked up to by members of the community and myself (even when I don’t agree on issues like the mawlid). Although, I don’t about much about job security but given the imam has been the same for years, I’d say it’s must be okay.

    In general, you shouldn’t be like someone else or wish others to be like someone they’re not. If you give a person a job then you have the trust to let them do it.

    The imams job is to impart knowledge but it’s up to the listener to check and verify the knowledge is correct before implementing. It shouldn’t really matter how it is delivered. If the people are interested they’ll pay attention.

    Keep up the good work.

  5. Avatar

    Hemiar

    November 29, 2018 at 2:02 PM

    Jazak Allahu Khayran. May Allah reward you for all your efforts; within the muslim communities, and without.

  6. Avatar

    Rayhaneh

    November 30, 2018 at 9:59 AM

    Well said and it’s the fact that us moslem we can do more in our masjid and pay more regularly and we hope some one else does it.i always witness how much others they do and pay for their churches and yes Imam of any masjid should have regular descent salary in order to have time to put it in Allah’s way to be able to teach our next generation . May Allah(swt) give us all the wisdom to do more.?

  7. Avatar

    Sabri

    November 30, 2018 at 1:46 PM

    Jazakumullahu Khayran. So True in the (anti)-social media era we live in. May Allah reward our local imams and those who support them with Al Firdaws.

  8. Avatar

    Saffia

    November 30, 2018 at 9:04 PM

    JazakAllahKhair. I completely agree with your points in this article. Our entire community has become engrossed with popularity and entertainment. Every organization has to spend 10-20 thousand dollars on their fundraiser just to get an audience to attend. Our community is spoiled on being entertained before they will consider supporting an organization, a mosque, an event of any kind, or a speaker.

  9. Avatar

    Jerome Yakubu

    December 2, 2018 at 3:51 AM

    My dear IMAM,
    As-salam Alaikum Wa rahamatullam, Wa barakatuh.

    There’s a lot you need to know about the MUSLIM congregation that you lead in prayers and the ISLAMIC COMMUNITY in which you are the IMAM.

    Please, read this from an AFRICAN, born into Islam from generations of ISLAMIC ancestry, who have been living in the United States of America for 43 years and counting, since July 1975, in a large city in the Midwest America with a very large population of MUSLIMS.

    Alhamdulilah Rabil Alamin, All glory be to the Almighty Allah (SWT) who had blessed me with good health and stability to be a CONTINUOUS member of the same mosque since March 1981 up till today.
    I AM A LIVING WITNESS TO ALL KINDS OF PRESSURE IMAMS GO THROUGH IN THE MOSQUE AND THE COMMUNITY THEY PRACTICE IN, HERE IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
    My dear brother IMAM,
    Interestingly, your post herein ask fellow Muslims to RESPECT their IMAMS, …. Are you asking that the MUSLIMS that you lead in prayer should RESPECT you and regard you as their SUPERIOR in any circumstances?

    Please allow me to ask you this SERIOUS QUESTION.

    While leading a prayer in your mosque here in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
    Have you ever asked yourself which kind of MUSLIMS are lined up behind you while you lead the prayer? …. Have you?
    Have you considered the difference in their NATIONALITY, their TRIBES, their AGES, their PROFESSIONS and their backgrounds? …. Most importantly, their STATE OF MINDS at the moment they are praying behind you leading the prayer in the mosque.

    Your post here lays more emphasis on ‘RESPECT FOR IMAMS’ by the Muslims around him.
    You only know RELIGION, you actually don’t know much about HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY.

    Please note that I keep capitalizing the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
    It is a very different world here in the USA to practice ISLAM as known in other parts of this world away from the USA. Too many MUSLIMS are in your mosque praying behind you because they are there ONLY to pray to the Almighty Allah (SWT) to relieve them of their PAIN as they suffer on that particular day.l

    As an IMAM anywhere here in the United States, You have THREE things working against you.

    1. RACISM
    2. TRIBALISM
    3. NEPOTISM

    RACISM has to do with the country (USA) where you practice ISLAM as an IMAM.
    Wherever you may come from, be you an Arab, an African, an Indian, a Pakistani a Chinese, an American (White or Black) or others, THERE IS ALWAYS GOING TO BE A MUSLIM BROTHER OR SISTER, LINING UP BEHIND YOU IN PRAYER ROOM, WHO LOOKS AT YOU DIFFERENT FROM HIM INSTEAD OF LOOKING AT YOU AS A BROTHER MUSLIM AND ACCEPT YOU 100% AS ISLAM ASKS US TO DO…. Truth told.
    Those kind of people come with different, different PERSONAL PROBLEMS, they are NOT in the mosque to RESPECT any IMAM, they are in the mosque to just pray to the Almighty Allah to EASE them off of their personal problems and just leave.

    U.S. IMMIGRATION SERVICES have messed up so many Muslims badly, here in the USA.
    Among those that line up behind you are ‘SOMEBODY’ who were ‘SOMEBODY’ from their countries of origin before they migrated to the USA to seek greater pastures.
    They are the DOCTORS, the LAWYERS, the ENGINEERS, the ACCOUNTANTS, the PhDs and others who were successful in their trades back in their home countries before migrating to the United States.

    Trust me ….. TOO MANY OF THEM ARE NOT HAPPY PEOPLE AT ALL.
    UNHAPPY PEOPLE NEVER HAVE TIME TO RESPECT ANY IMAM.
    They come to the mosque to pray to the Almighty Allah to ease them of their unhappiness, and that is all about it.

    Here in the United States of America, THINGS HAVE CHANGED FOR THE WORSE FOR MUSLIMS PRACTICING ISLAM, it gradually started since 1992 or so, when the USA went to war with Saddam Hussain in Iraq and the Arab world have not been in PEACE since then till today.

    Things TOTALLY got completely bad for Muslims after the sad event of September 11, 2001 when those two Towers in New York were destroyed, so many lives lost and it was concluded that the Arabs (MUSLIMS) were the perpetrators of such evil acts. Since then, MUSLIMS, regardless of what their professions may be, were LESS respected anywhere in the USA and the western world.

    My dear brother IMAM,
    How do you expect any unhappy Muslim Medical Doctor, an unengaged Muslim Lawyer, a not-so-happily-employed Engineer or a least-paid Muslim accountant and others who are treated with absolutely NO RESPECT at their places of employment, just because they are MUSLIMS to have time to RESPECT you when they have such PAINS in them when they come to the mosque?

    UNHAPPY MIND IS A WICKED MIND WITH NO RESPECT FOR ANYBODY.

    How do you expect a MUSLIM brother who migrated to the USA from his home country to seek a greener pasture or SECURITY for his life because of all kinds of WARS raging in his country which have destroyed almost everything he may have in his country, who then get here in the USA to find it difficult to get a well-paying job here in the USA, to be respectful of any IMAM, whose job, to him, is to lead the prayer for the 20 minutes or so and let him go back home.

    Nothing destroys a home and family in the USA more than the INABILITY of the MAN OF THE HOUSE to provide for the family. …. This happens EVERYDAY here in the USA, due to poor EMPLOYMENT that pays almost nothing or UNEMPLOYMENT itself that renders the man of the house so weak in the management of his own family…. How do you expect such a MUSLIM praying behind you to have time to RESPECT you as an IMAM?
    UNHAPPINESS IN ONE’S SELF ALWAYS BRINGS THE WORSE OF EVERYBODY EASILY.
    Not every MUSLIM that lines up behind you is a HAPPY MAN …. That is another TRUTH told.
    It is what living in America brings to the lives of immigrant Muslims.

    All the above narrations is based on RACISM,
    Now, allow me to remind you that you will also go through TRIBALISM every day.

    As of today 2018,
    TRIBALISM is another problem with ISLAM and among the MUSLIMS who practice ISLAM here in the USA.
    Do you think if you are a YEMENI and an IMAM that leads prayers in any mosque in the USA, every SAUDI ARABIAN in your congregation will give you the RESPECT you think you deserve as an IMAM? …. I don’t think so.
    Somewhere in his mind will be the thought of the war currently going on between his country and yours.

    Same goes with if you are an AFRICAN, who probably studied so hard and very knowledgeable in Quranic verses than most Arabs themselves, having graduated from a university in an Arab country and excelled higher than your Arab classmates, Do you expect 100% RESPECT from those non-Arab MUSLIMS who you lead their prayers every day in the mosque? …. Please DO NOT EXPECT such respect, There is ISLAM and there is REALITY.
    Same goes for an INDIAN Imam expecting 100% respect from any PAKISTANI brother Muslim in his congregation and so on and so forth.

    Here in the USA, every MOSQUE is MULTI-NATIONAL, MULTI-TRIBAL, and MULTI-CULTURAL that houses CHARACTERS of all kinds …. A very high percentage of them are still STRUGGLING to make ENDS MEET here in the USA and they are aging faster and faster, almost making them feel hopeless in succeeding in whatever they do in the USA.

    ARE YOU GETTING PAID ANY SALARY AS AN IMAM?
    Never expect the RESPECT you think you deserve from everyone, IF YOU ARE PAID ANY SALARY WHATSOEVER AS AN IMAM, regardless of your knowledge about the religion of ISLAM.
    You are an EMPLOYEE in a take-it-or-leave-it job, replaceable at any moment.
    Have you ever asked yourself if any prayer was ever POSTPONED because you were absent?
    That should tell you how easy it is to replace you, because there’s always an equally learned Muslim that can lead the prayer flawlessly.

    Now, let’s talk about NEPOTISM.
    As described in the dictionary, NEPOTISM is …. “Favoritism shown to relatives or close friends by those in power (as by giving them jobs)”.

    Unlike back home where each and every one of us migrated to the USA from, HERE in the USA, the mosque is OWNED, MANAGED AND FINANCED BY THE COMMUNITY. …. You are just an EMPLOYEE of the establishment.
    Unless you build your own mosque and manage it, you can’t dictate to anyone whatsoever.
    Any Muslim can pray five times a day WITHOUT an IMAM, an IMAM is not an IMAM if he has nobody lining up behind him in prayers.

    I am from Africa, Our mosques are run like they run the CHURCHES here in the USA, whereby the IMAM and the PASTORS are allowed to take home a certain percentage of the DONATIONS made to the MOSQUES on Fridays or the CHURCHES on Sundays.

    Here in the USA, You are EMPLOYED as an EMPLOYEE to lead the prayer and perform other duties as laid down in your letter of appointment as an IMAM and that is it! …. you get paid your SALARY and the Board of Directors determine whether to renew your contract or not. …. Here in the USA, being an IMAM is a JOB, not a ROYALTY whatsoever. …. There is nowhere in the Qur’an that all Muslims must look at their IMAM as their SUPERIORS, here in the USA, that will be too difficult, the FREEDOM and the LIBERTY is so much practiced and enjoyed by everyone …. In any country where they have no respect for their PRESIDENT, an IMAM of an Islamic mosque should be very happy he still have a job and not push it, because he leads prayers for so many UNHAPPY PEOPLE who are not as COMFORTABLE living in the USA as you may think they are …. TOO MANY PROBLEMS OF DIFFERENT KINDS FOLLOW EVERY MUSLIMS TO THE MOSQUES IN THE ISA EVERYDAY.

    Some Muslims here in the USA are OLD PEOPLE who are retired, some migrated to the USA at a very OLD AGE from Arab countries with good knowledge of the practice of ISLAM and more importantly the knowledge of the contents of the Holy Qur’an, Some can even boast that they are more knowledgeable in ISLAM and the Holy Qur’an than the IMAM himself … but they are UNEMPLOYABLE in most American JOB MARKET due to lack of educational qualification or OLD AGE. …. Those ones are ready to take your job for a FRACTION OF HOW MUCH YOUR SALARY IS TODAY.

    Not only that,
    Those OLD, UNEMPLOYABLE and JOBLESS ones are RELATIVES of some prominent members of the BOARD OF DIRECTORS of your mosque …. That is when and where NEPOTISM comes in.
    So many of them want your job as an IMAM for their OLD, UNEMPLOYABLE and jobless relatives for HALF THE AMOUNT PAID YOU AS YOUR SALARY. … Be very, very careful how you demand RESPECT from those who are JEALOUS of you as IMAM of the mosque.

    Personally, I have witnessed IMAMS come and GO, they all lost their jobs as IMAMS because of those reasons I listed above…… This is AMERICA, a CAPITALIST country, believe it or not, DOLLARS come first before RELIGION. Some will intentionally commit un-Islamic sins and go to the mosque and beg the Almighty Allah (SWT) for forgiveness.

    CONCLUSION.
    Try as much as possible and practice INCLUSION.
    A mosque is NOT a good mosque if anyone feels NOT included.
    A mosque, here in the USA is supposed to be a place where everyone is TOTALLY welcomed, regardless of race, ethnicity or age. …. That is what ISLAM should mean.
    Make everybody feel welcomed around you.
    Although, they are seeing you different, preach ISLAM, preach BROTHERHOOD and SISTERHOOD and you will receive the RESPECT you deserve.

    Ma a salam.

  10. Avatar

    Youshay Siddiqui

    December 18, 2018 at 2:47 PM

    Its as usual graceful to listen to you and learn from you my beloved Sheikh Omar Sulaiman. I remember you in my prayers. I have benefited a lot from you, by the will of Allah.

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#Society

The Culture Debt of Islamic Institutions

The reality across America is that too many people have used the masjid to serve their own egos, fulfill their desires for power, and give themselves a big building as something to point at and say, “I built that.” Too few have created a vision for the spiritual upliftment of a community and then worked to serve it.

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Our community institutions are in debt – cultural debt. And the bill is due.

There are major consequences when the bill comes due on a debt you owe. Personal debt can lead to bankruptcy or foreclosure and the loss of your home.

If paid off before the bill comes due, debt can be a tool. Many communities in North America have utilized the qardh hasanah (goodly loan) as a way to expedite construction projects and then pay people back over time. When businesses fail to pay debt back, they are forced to liquidate and go out of business to satisfy their creditors. In extreme cases, like the economic crisis of a few years ago, major institutions repeatedly utilizing debt as a tool became over-leveraged, creating a rippling collapse.

Financial debt is not the only type of debt an organization carries. Every decision made by an organization adds to a balance sheet of sorts. Other types of debt can be technical, or even cultural.

Consider a new company that keeps making the decision to cut corners with their technology infrastructure – creating ‘technical’ debt. At a certain point, the infrastructure will need to be replaced. If not properly planned for, the cost to fix it could cripple the company.

Put another way, impatience and short-term decision making create (non-financial) debts that can destroy an organization.

The cultural debt for an organization, especially Islamic organizations, can be the most devastating.

These decisions may appear rational or well-intentioned compromises, but they come at a cost.

For example, if a community prioritizes money into a construction project instead of an imam or youth director, what is the cost of the compromise? A 5-year construction project means an entire segment of youth who will be aged anywhere between 13 and 18 risk being disconnected from the masjid.

What about the cost of marginalizing the one sister on the board multiple times such that other sisters become disenchanted and unengaged. Or what if the marginalized board member is a youth, or a convert, or a person of color? How is the collateral damage to those segments of the community assessed?

What about when the same 2 or 3 people (even without an official title) remain in charge of a masjid and aggressively push out people not in line with their agendas? Dedicated and hard-working volunteers will end up leaving and going to other communities.

What about when a few people are responsible for creating an environment so toxic and exhausting that volunteers don’t want to come to the masjid anymore? And they get so burned out that they refuse to get involved in a masjid again? Who is going to pay the bill for all the talent that’s been driven away?

What is the spiritual debt on a community that refuses to invest in an Imam or scholar for over 10 years? An entire generation will grow up in that masjid without a local resource to take guidance from. What is the impact on those kids when they grow up to get married and have their own children?

What is the cost of having overly-aggressive daily congregants who yell at people, make people feel uncomfortable, and ultimately make them want to stay away from the masjid?

Will the construction committee that decided to build a customized dome instead of a more adequate women’s prayer space ever make it up to them?

What is the cost on a community of building a massive albatross of a school that can’t cover its own overhead – and yet services less than 5% of a community’s children?

What is the cost on a congregation when the Friday khutbah becomes associated entirely with fundraising instead of spiritual development?

Did anyone plan to repay this cultural debt when they were making decisions on behalf of the community? Who is paying attention to it?

Some communities are able to shift, and make strides. Some communities are able to recognize a larger vision for growing and developing a community spiritually.

For other communities, they are now over-leveraged. The culture debt is due. To continue the financial analogy, they’re at the point of declaring bankruptcy.

These are the masjids that are empty. These are the ones where, pardon the crassness, after a few people die off, the masjid will most likely die out as well because there is no community left to take over.

These are the communities that people avoid, where they refuse to volunteer, and eventually where people stop donating.

The culture debt of the community is that people no longer feel a part of the community, and therefore the infrastructure they worked so hard to build will crumble.

Cultural bankruptcy is the loss of people.

Can the culture debt be repaid? Is there a way out? How do you undo the loss of people?

I was really hoping to have a nice and tidy 5-step action plan to fix this. The reality is, it’s not going to be easy. People don’t realize the collateral damage they’ve caused over the course of 10-20 years despite the good intentions they had.

How do you get them to accept responsibility, much less change?

It’s not going to happen. The change will be outside the masjid. This means there will be a continued rise in third spaces. Parents are using online tutors instead of Sunday schools, making their children even less attached to the masjid. There will be an increase in small groups of families getting together in their homes instead of the masjid to try and build a sense of community. There will be an entire generation of new adults who will not even desire an attachment to the masjid beyond the Friday and funeral prayers.

People will replace the local community with online communities (and sometimes the dubious online personalities leading them)

People will replace the local community with online communities (and sometimes the dubious online personalities leading them).Click To Tweet

We all see the masjids in our community that have been hit hardest by this culture debt. They’re the ones that used to be full and are now empty – while the same 2 or 3 people remain in charge for literally decades. They’re the ones that we fear will eventually close down or be sold off due to a lack of any real community – because the community was never invested in to begin with.

Those in positions of influence should seriously take account of the consequences of their actions on the community. Recognize the wrongs that were done and do your best to rectify them. At the least, seek forgiveness for the ramifications of your actions.

We can no longer make the excuse of having to do what we had to do in order to get institutions up and running from scratch. As the saying goes – what got you here won’t get you there. The reality across America is that too many people have used the masjid to serve their own egos, fulfill their desires for power, and give themselves a big building as something to point at and say, “I built that.” Too few have created a vision for the spiritual upliftment of a community and then worked to serve it.

And now we see the consequences of those decisions. The culture debt is due, and we might not be able to pay it back.

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#Life

I Encountered A Predator On Instagram

A predator on Instagram posing as a hijab modeling consultant, going by the name of @samahnation, tried to prey on me- an underage, 16-year-old. We don’t know if the photos on Instagram page have been stolen from a victim. These predators operate under various names.

instagram predator
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It was a Wednesday night in April and as I was getting ready to go to bed, a direct message popped up in my Instagram inbox. A little background; my personal  account on Instagram is private and it is rare that I let anyone, whom I do not know, follow me. But seeing that this was a grown “woman” with a baby and I had at least seven mutual friends, I let her follow me. 

I will say, I was definitely in the wrong to respond to someone I didn’t personally know. Somehow I thought her 105K followers gave her credibility. 

I was gravely mistaken. 

I opened the direct message. 

She had sent me a message complimenting me. This wasn’t new to me because I often get messages with compliments about my appearance from friends — we are teenagers. However, the stark difference was that I didn’t know this person at all. (I came to learn that these types of messages can go under the category of grooming). After complimenting me, she asked whether I had ever considered modeling for a hijab and abaya company. 

Many young women are targeted by predators on Instagram. Here is my story. 'After complimenting me, 'she' asked whether I had ever considered modeling for a hijab and abaya company.'Click To Tweet

I replied, saying that if I had more details I’d consult with my parents and give her an answer the next morning; to which she responded demanding she must have an answer the same night as she had other offers to make. 

I then went to ask my mother. Mama was sick with the flu, quite woozy, but despite her state she said,

“this sounds like a scam to me…”.



I decided to play along with it and test her. 

I told @samahnation to tell me more and how I could verify her and her company. She then sent me numerous copied and pasted answers —hecka long— about how I could trust her; how the company would pay me and how they will still make money in the meantime. 

hijab modeling scam

Thankfully, I was apprehensive during the entire ordeal, but as you can see, this type of manipulation is so real and possible for young women and girls to fall prey. This experience was honestly quite scary and jarring for me. I was so easily distracted by what she was portraying herself as on her profile. She had a GoFundMe for a masjid in her bio and posts of photos depicting her love for her baby.
predator

I began to do some research. I stumbled upon an article about a ‘Hijab House’ model scam. Using the title of ‘consultant director’ for a well-known hijab company, Hijab House, predators were allegedly preying on young girls in Australia. Hijab House has denied any link to this scam. 

Hijab House model scam

 

The predator went as far as to blackmail and pressure their victims into sending nude photos, or doing crazy things like smelling shoes! Eerily enough, @samahnation’s Instagram bio stated that she was based in Melbourne, Australia.


The more I engaged with this predator, the more ludicrous their responses and questions got. And this happened within the span of 24 hours. 

She went as far as to ask me if I would answer questions for a survey, saying all that mattered was honesty and that the purpose of the survey was to make me uncomfortable to see if I “won’t fall under pressure.”

Clearly, this last statement about being a speech analysis specialist was a complete fabrication. Again, may I reiterate that even older people can fall prey. You don’t have to be young and impressionable, these manipulative perpetrators will do anything to get what they want.



As shown below, the situation reached an obscene level of ridiculousness. You can see clear attempts to gaslight me and pressure me into answering or changing my stance on my replies.


This was the last thing I said to the predator before I blocked and reported them in an attempt to get them caught. Observe how as soon as I called this person out they immediately became defensive and tried to manipulate me into thinking that what they were doing and asking me was completely normal- that I was the crazy one for asking for proof. 

Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg. They had asked me questions I found too lewd to even answer or take screenshots of.

This bizarre encounter was honestly astonishing. I do not even know if I was talking to a man or a woman.

Alhamdullilah, I am so glad because even if I was a little bit gullible, I was aware enough about predatory behavior that I didn’t fall victim to this perpetrator. I am especially grateful for my mother, who has educated me about predators like this from a very young age; whom even in her drowsy state was able to tell me it was a preposterous scam.

I could have been blackmailed.

Talk to your parents or a trusted adult

I am grateful for having an open channel of communication, that my relationship with my mother is based on trust and I could go to her when this occurred. This is a reminder and a learning opportunity for all of us how these scary things can happen to anyone. We must learn how to take caution and protect ourselves and our (underage) loved ones against such situations.

Sis, please talk to your parents. They love you and will be your first line of defense.

Grooming

Grooming is a very common tactic online predators use to gain the trust of their victim. According to InternetSafety101, young people put themselves at great risk by communicating online with individuals they do not know on a personal level. “Internet predators intentionally access sites that children commonly visit and can even search for potential victims by location or interest.

If a predator is already communicating with a child, he or she can piece together clues from what the child mentions while online, including parents’ names, where the child goes to school, and how far away the child lives from a certain landmark, store, or other location.
Online grooming is a process which can take place in a short time or over an extended period of time. Initial conversations online can appear innocent, but often involve some level of deception. As the predator (usually an adult) attempts to establish a relationship to gain a child’s trust, he may initially lie about his age or may never reveal his real age to the child, even after forming an established online relationship. Often, the groomer will know popular music artists, clothing trends, sports team information, or another activity or hobby the child may be interested in, and will try to relate it to the child.”

These tactics lead children and teens to believe that no one else can understand them or their situation like the groomer. After the child’s trust develops, the groomer may use sexually explicit conversations to test boundaries and exploit a child’s natural curiosity about sex. Predators often use pornography and child pornography to lower a child’s inhibitions and use their adult status to influence and control a child’s behavior.

They also flatter and compliment the child excessively and manipulate a child’s trust by relating to emotions and insecurities and affirming the child’s feelings and choices.

Predators will:

* Prey on teen’s desire for romance, adventure, and sexual information.
* Develop trust and secrecy: manipulate child by listening to and sympathizing with child’s problems and insecurities.
* Affirm feelings and choices of child.
* Exploit natural sexual curiosities of child.
* Ease inhibitions by gradually introducing sex into conversations or exposing them to pornography.
* Flatter and compliment the child excessively, send gifts, and invest time, money, and energy to groom the child.
* Develop an online relationship that is romantic, controlling, and upon which the child becomes dependent.
* Drive a wedge between the child and his/her parents and friends.
* Make promises of an exciting, stress-free life, tailored to the youth’s desire.
* Make threats, and often will use child pornography featuring their victims to blackmail them into silence.”

Gaslighting 

Another interesting observation I made is the clear gaslighting this pedophile was trying to perpetuate throughout my conversation with them. You may ask what is gas lighting? 

According to Psychology Today, gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. “Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed. For example, in the movie Gaslight (1944), a man manipulates his wife to the point where she thinks she is losing her mind,” writes Dr Stephanie Sarkis. 

Another interesting observation I made is the clear gaslighting this pedophile was trying to perpetuate throughout my conversation with them. You may ask what is gas lighting? Click To Tweet

Recognizing signs that you may be a victim of gaslighting:

Second guessing. Are you constantly second guessing yourself when talking to this person or questioning your own morals that you wouldn’t have thought twice about otherwise? For example, when this person popped up in my inbox I wouldn’t have thought twice about blocking or just deleting the message if it was a man but, since it seemed to be a woman I was duped into thinking that it was more acceptable or I could trust them more.

Feeling as if you are being too sensitive. Again I cannot emphasize this enough that you must trust your instincts, if you are feeling uncomfortable and your internal alarm bells are ringing- listen to them! Anyone can be a victim of gaslighting or manipulation. 

Feeling constantly confused. Another sign that you may be falling victim to gas lighting is when you are constantly confused and second guessing your thoughts and opinions.

Three takeaways:

1. Trust your instincts (I’m going to reiterate this, always trust your gut feeling, if you feel like you are uncomfortable whether it’s a situation you are in or if you don’t have a good feeling while talking to a certain person I advise you exit the chat or don’t answer in the first place.)
2. Never answer to someone whom you don’t know. I will say this was my first and biggest mistake that I have made: allowing this person’s messages into my inbox, and replying to their ridiculous claims and questions. Now that I think about it I don’t even know if this was a woman or not.
3. Set your boundaries! This is probably the most important tip to take away from this article. Setting up your boundaries from the beginning is so important. Whether it is a friend, partner or colleague, if you do not set your boundaries from the beginning of your interaction or relationship with that person; people will not respect your limits and choices later on. Especially if your boundaries have to do with religion, moral compasses, or even specific pet peeves you have. I cannot emphasize how much boundaries matter when it comes to any daily interaction you may have in your daily life.

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#Society

Are You Accidentally Supporting Corrupt Nonprofit Organizations and Charities?

Muslim Nonprofit fiefdoms
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Former Pennsylvania State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell has a compelling story.  Even the State Attorney General, who recently charged her with several crimes, alluded to the pain she experienced in her life.  It was a remarkable story of perseverance after being affected by gun violence, triumph and helping others. Yet, there she is, facing time in prison for using a charity called “MECA” for assorted alleged acts of theft, fraud, and other crimes of dishonesty.

According to the Attorney General, Johnson-Harrell has accepted responsibility for her crimes and is pleading guilty.  She has also resigned from her public office.  Johnson-Harrell has stated she may dispute some charges. She like any other defendant is innocent until the state proves her guilty.

What is also undeniable is that many of the kinds of things the Attorney General accused Johnson-Harrell of are common with nonprofits, both Muslim and non-Muslim.  Indeed, the President of the United States has also done egregious things with his “charity” in New York, undetected by law enforcement despite his public profile, until news media started asking questions. The President faces no criminal charges. 

My purpose here goes beyond Johnson-Harrell’s legal troubles. Instead, it is to help nonprofits and their leaders stay out of trouble and to give donors an essential tool in being a thoughtful donor. We often donate because of “social proof.” Someone invites you to donate online; a friend invites us to a fundraiser, we hear a good speech or testimonial, and we give.

 We often don’t particularly care about accountability. We should. Let’s dig deeper to understand how charities work so that we can be better donors with the limited funds we have to give with excellence. 

The Role of Government Oversight in Charities 

What state a nonprofit is in makes a difference.  The state attorney general typically has regulatory authority over the nonprofit sector.  Charities have tax benefits because of the social good they theoretically provide. But what happens if the charity is not keeping faith with its beneficial role?  If a CEO of an environmental charity pilfers funds for personal use, you cannot reasonably expect a family of ducks to sue. The Attorney General is there for the ducks, the trees, the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill, the beaches, the works of art, the future poor patients who are not yet poor or sick, and everything else charity should benefit.  At least that’s the idea 

Abuse by nonprofits is a violation of the public trust.  It is public corruption against society and not merely cheating a donor. 

Because of this role, from time to time, you see lawsuits and even criminal prosecutions by state attorneys general for corruption by nonprofit leaders. A high-profile state representative like Johnson-Harrell is an obvious target since prosecuting her lets the rest of us citizens know law enforcement is paying attention. But these lawsuits and occasional criminal prosecutions are rare compared to how rampant nonprofit corruption is. Attorneys General typically don’t put adequate resources into regulating the more than trillion-dollar nonprofit sector. 

Religious Charities Can Usually Get Away With More

In some states, for example, California, religious corporations are exempt by statute from oversight for things like breaches of fiduciary duty. The lack of accountability is remarkable since religious charities can be extremely corrupt, something known to Americans for much of its history.  Exposing religious charity corruption has long been fodder for documentaries and movies. Certain Christian preachers on TV are known to abuse nonprofit status to flaunt extreme wealth with no negative consequences.

People who run religious nonprofits, including Executive Directors and board members, can still be criminally prosecuted, but you usually would not expect it. Various taxing authorities also have authority over charities. The IRS is the primary regulator for charities nationally. For the most part, though, the IRS has been leaving nonprofits, even obviously bad ones, alone. Religious nonprofits, like those classified as “churches,” don’t need to file Form 990s, annual disclosures required for other nonprofits. Therefore much of what these groups activities are opaque to both the government and the public. 

With some notable exceptions, governments and law enforcement at all levels mostly ignore nonprofit corruption. The times they do is typically the exception that proves the rule. 

For the most part, then, sorting out the good nonprofits from the bad ones is left to donors. We all contend with hard-sell data-driven marketing tactics from social psychology.  We don’t usually don’t know how to distinguish between good organizations and bad. 

Look Beyond The Pitch

Stories of nonprofits and their leaders can be compelling. But narratives can also be used to manipulate, distract, and hide. The raw charisma of a speaker quoting Quran and Hadith can be waived up to donors to make them think they are doing good work in the path of Allah when they may sometimes be enabling criminality. Charisma and the power of stories can get us to contribute to causes better than just about anything. 

There are various red flags to look out for, but I will focus on perhaps the most obvious one, an executive of a charity acting as a member of the board. 

No Real Board Accountability

Johnson-Harrell was on her own nonprofit board while also serving as an executive.  This practice was also present at scandal-plagued Ta’leef Collective. State law does not typically forbid a CEO or other employee (like an imam) from being a board member, despite it being a glaring conflict of interest. It has never been nonprofit best practices to have employees oversee themselves since it is a horrible idea on its face.  The only possible real justification for this is when a nonprofit is new, small, all volunteer-run, and there are not enough volunteers or funds available to make accountability a priority.  While there is potential for abuse here, we tend to ignore it out of practicality. 

Now larger nonprofits can have employees, as well as others, with personal, family or business interests with the charity (like a vendor) on the board might point to a “conflict of interest policy.”  Of course every nonprofit should have one in case unexpected conflicts come up.  They are not, however, solutions to self-created problems the organization never needed to have.

Accountability is Hard 

It still begs the question:  Why engage in the reckless practice of having an executive overseeing himself or herself?  Are there no sufficiently qualified people in the Muslim community capable of helping with the board of an organization?  Unlikely. 

What we do know is the main reason Muslim leaders (non-Muslims as well) chose to police themselves is that real accountability is hard, maybe even a little messy. 

You may have heard this story before: An Imam and a Masjid Board have a conflict, resulting in the Imam leaving.  The Imam does not go quietly, though, since he is angry with the board. He tells his supporters (of which he has many in the local community) that boards are incompetent, imbecilic, don’t understand the “youth” or whatnot.  The best way to run a Masjid, you see, is for the Imam to call all the shots. He will usually adorably say all this with the earnestness of someone who feels he is the first person who ever had this insight. Plenty of Muslims believe him and are hurt by whatever petty drama took place at the Masjid last week. They will join his new storefront Masjid, sometimes across the street from the Imam’s former Masjid. 

These are often pop-up institutions born out of vainglorious temper tantrums, built on the foundation of one man and some upset donors who soon move on to chase the next shiny thing, or simply rejoin their old Masjid. Such places typically do not last over the long haul. If you have been around a Muslim community for a few decades, you have seen several come and go.

Badly Governed Respected Institutions 

More of a long-term threat for the Muslim community is when real institutions with staying power with endowments, employees, and buildings go the route of slipshod accountability-free governance where an executive gets to oversee himself.  Eventually, when you set up institutions with plain-as-day opportunities for corruption and abuse, everything can collapse. It happened in a spectacular style for Christian institutions with no real accountability for the people running it (many are still like that).  Many Muslim institutions we all respect that do good work have nonprofit governance so poor they almost seem custom-built for corruption. 

The beautiful Crystal Cathedral outside Los Angeles once boasted a massive endowment, a global TV viewership for its “hour of power” and donor memorials that would last forever.   It fell into bankruptcy because of the same kind of nonprofit governance increasingly common in the Muslim community. Inadequate or non-existent board oversight is a form of structural corruption, even if no abusive practices are currently taking place.  It should be enough of a red flag that someone can abuse authority with no real accountability. Unless we start demanding accountability from Muslim leaders, those we trust our donations to, we should reasonably expect more criminal charges as we saw with MECA, scandals like Ta’leef, and spectacular failures like the Crystal Cathedral. 

Other Board Members May Not Be Much Help

One response by self-interested board members may be to point to the existence of “independent” board members to keep insiders (like the CEO or equivalent) in check.  You should never assume this creates accountability. We cannot stereotype nonprofit boards, of course, and many operate in different ways. I have seen Muslim institutions were board members: 

  •  Have no visibility into the organization’s operations, budget, or much of anything else important. Though they do have meetings and manage to argue about things. 
  •  Never attended board meetings despite being members for many years and did not know if the charity has been having meetings all these years.
  •  Were never informed they were members of the board, despite their names being on public information filings with the state.
  • Helped start the organization as Ph.D. students and got a lifetime membership on the board, but that was decades ago when they lived in the United States.

Those who dislike accountability prefer “straw” board members who are either not present or can be “handled” by management.   A well-known example of this is Theranos, a Silicon Valley “unicorn” startup with a fake blood-testing product. Many supposedly sophisticated investors were reassured when the company stacked its board with famous octogenarians and nonagenarians. None of them knew and did not bother to ask if the entire operation they were overseeing was a fraud

These kinds of board shenanigans generally take place where there is a CEO who is also a board member and would prefer to run things without dealing with pesky difficult questions.  Board members are there for the appearance of accountability but are often little more than seat-warmers. 

It’s Not About a Leader’s “Integrity”

Some Muslim leaders will take a call for accountability as a personal insult to their integrity.  This sentiment is misguided. Instead, it is about building systems that make our institutions sustainable. I don’t know Johnson-Harrell.  However, no Muslim can honestly claim to be better than her, either in intent or commitment to the community.  Yet, without a system of accountability, the fallibility of decent men and women magnifies.

 You need to have a Shura (mutual consultation) in leadership, that is how the Quran advises us to handle our affairs.  A nonexistent or fundamentally insincere “Shura” designed to not hold anyone accountable is asking for trouble.

Muslim nonprofit leaders can find their freedom to spend charitable dollars without meaningful accountability intoxicating. Leaders who you would never think can make severe errors in judgment start to make them.  It only gets worse from there. 

Work in an Islamic charitable institution is bigger than one man or woman.  If you create a charity with no meaningful checks and balances, your work won’t be sustainable. 

Abu Bakr raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), the first Khalifah, could not determine his salary as the leader of Muslims.  He was always accountable, and as I pointed out in a previous article, he preferred it that way. Muslim leaders should welcome accountability and not think of it as a personal slight when asked about the issue from within the community.

What Board Members Should Do 

If someone entrusted you with oversight of a charity, there are helpful educational resources that can help you be excellent. Use them.  Remove board members with conflicts of interest, especially employees and vendors. 

You need to prepare for and be present at meetings.  Hold the organization and each other as board members accountable.  Don’t be on the board to win anyone’s favor, least of all the CEO or Imam. You have an Amanah (a trust), to make sure the charity is operating with excellence in everything it is doing.   Ask difficult questions that donors will rarely know to ask. Read all financial statements and reports, that is where the mischief happens.  Make sure no executive can “handle” you into submission.  If you cannot do these things, don’t be on the board. 

The common denominator in virtually all nonprofit corruption cases is executive domination. Don’t be used.

What Donors Should Do

Encourage charities you like that have weak governance to change their practices. Uncritical support can enable structural problems, which can be destructive to the organization over the long term. Sometimes, the best contribution you can make to an organization is to encourage them to reform their governance. You can do this as a small donor. Don’t expect major donors to request such changes. 

You may not know much about the organization’s finances or how good or bad the organization’s operations are. However, you do know an employee or vendor is on the board of a charity is a signal the organization is uninterested in holding its leaders accountable. There are plenty of good charities worth supporting. If the charity remains stubborn about not allowing accountability, move on to the next one. 

 

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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