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

The respect and acknowledgment that our local imams deserve need to be reemphasized in the era of "celebrity shuyukh".

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.

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

  1. Muhammad says:

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

  2. Omar says:

    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. Rafia says:

    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. Atif says:

    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. Hemiar says:

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

  6. Rayhaneh says:

    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. Sabri says:

    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. Saffia says:

    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. Jerome Yakubu says:

    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.

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