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The Rise of the Scholarly Gig Economy and Fall of Community Development

The lack of appropriate compensation has led to the rise of qualified scholars and imams seeking other means of financial compensation beyond the local community as paid employees – how should we actually value them as community leaders, and how should we break down their financial costs?

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The past few decades have seen many bright and talented young men leave their professional careers in pursuit of religious knowledge. They studied in Pakistan, India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and many other Muslim countries, sacrificing their careers, wealth, and many years of their life with the hopes and dreams of learning Islam and teaching it when they returned. These aspiring students of religious knowledge were usually advised against studying Islam overseas by their parents, friends, respected elders, and many community members. They were warned that the path was physically and financially risky and challenging. Nonetheless, packed with their resolve and hope in Allah, they were patient with the obstacles they faced in pursuit of knowledge. As their imaan and knowledge continued to grow and their passion for conveying the beauty of Islam increased, they joyfully returned to the U.S. with dreams of providing their communities with religious guidance. Unfortunately, within a short period of time, their enthusiasm has diminished and their frustration has increased. So, what happened?

Despite serving their communities day and night by leading prayers, giving khutbas, teaching weekly classes, giving dawah to non-Muslims, mentoring the youth, and counseling people in need, community members have continuously complained. Board members, often times ignorant about the day to day work of an imam, attempt to control their schedules, activities and speak down to them. Community members complain that the scholar follows a different madhab than their own, his beard was too short, his pants were too long, or that his voice wasn’t melodious enough. Nonetheless, they were able to deal with these issues. They knew that the prophets had faced tremendous obstacles and that they too had to exercise beautiful patience with their communities. However, there was another issue that although it existed from day one, it was becoming more of a concern as these scholars got married and had children; they were not being paid a respectable wage[1] [2]. The one-bedroom apartment was not big enough, their children could not participate in high-quality community programs, and saving for retirement was impossible.

What are the natural consequences of the financial situation that these young men were put in? By looking at many of our communities, the answer is rather obvious. These young scholars often left their positions in the masjid, painstakingly leaving their passion to serve their communities behind in pursuit of a decent wage. Some had degrees to fall back on and went back to careers in engineering or business. Others decided to learn new marketable skills such as data science and accounting. Others went back to graduate school in search of new careers. Another group decided to become independent contractors, offering their services to any community willing to compensate them for their services of teaching or even fundraising. They would travel long distances to speak, hoping to help others and make an income.

In this new Islamic gig economy, the youth and their families are the casualties, who have been left without guidance and mentorship. After their local scholar left the masjid seeking greener pastures, their masjid may have completely stopped having regular programs, resorted to finding underqualified community members to speak, or hired other popular scholars to guest lecture once in while and run back home. All of these stopgap measures have left the community without religious leadership[3].

Another group of scholars decided to start their own traveling institutes, join existing ones, or become Islamic tour guides. They had to build their brands, market their institutes online and on social media, and typically had to cater to the wealthy and educated segments of the Muslim community. They would travel the country and provide their knowledge to those with the wealth to afford these private events. Sadly, this has inadvertently led to a dawah focused on the elite, where only the haves are targeted for spiritual growth, and the have nots are of less concern since they provide little financial value. Additionally, the need to build up a scholar’s brand has the potential to compromise one’s dignity and values if one has to keep finding ways to stay popular and promote himself. Rather than blame the scholars who have taken these roads, it is more important to think about the conditions in our community that have led to the rise of this culture. In fact, due to a lack of qualified scholars nationally, traveling scholars and institutes have provided significant value. However, we also need to think deeply about the social implications and consequences of these recent trends. In this exchange between local residents and traveling scholars, communities have nothing to build on after the program. They do not have access to study circles, weekly classes, or spiritual mentoring. Furthermore, the youth are largely neglected, as traveling educational programs do not typically cater to their needs. Is this the future of community building? Is this our legacy and history?

The issue at the heart of this piece (and many other great articles[4] [5]) is the value of a scholar to a community. It is well known that Muslim scholars are paid significantly less than Rabbis and other qualified faith leaders. Basic economics will tell us the result of this, regardless of good intentions. Why would intelligent young minds ever fathom careers in religious work if they know that they will not be paid a decent wage? Are we surprised when scholars with other career options quickly abandon their positions? Only those with significant financial assistance from their family or access to private donors are typically able to stay in such positions, although they may harbor much resentment within them. Even more problematic is the frustration that their wives and children feel when they see their husbands and fathers giving so much to the community, yet they have little to show for it in terms of financial stability or quality time together. What makes the scholar’s predicament more complicated is that due to the atypical work hours of the position, which may include early mornings, evenings, and weekends, the wife of the scholar is required to stay home full time with the children and unable to work. This makes the scholar’s family dependent on his salary alone. Which brings us to the core of the matter; what should scholars be paid?

The knee-jerk response that we often hear from board and community members in affluent communities when discussing salaries is “brother, we would love to pay our scholar more, but we don’t have the funding.” This would be a reasonable response until you look at the multi-million-dollar renovations to make the masjid aesthetically pleasing and the tens of thousands of dollars spent on catering lavish iftars and interfaith dinners. Ultimately, the use of masjid funds is a value judgment. It is a value judgment that board members have to make on how to use funds that the community has provided, and a value judgment for community members on how much to invest in their masjid. For board members primarily concerned with building megacenters, what value is a beautiful building if it is devoid of congregants and someone to provide guidance to the community?[6] For community members, what is a reasonable amount to regularly contribute and invest? Is the masjid worth as much as your monthly gym pass? Is the masjid worth as much as your children’s Kumon or martial arts expenses? I am not suggesting families abandon any of their existing financial investments in themselves or their children. What I am suggesting is that we completely rethink the value of a religious scholar in our community as an investment, not a charity cause. In the business world, wealthy investors invest in people, not a business. They invest in people who they believe can create value for society. Does the Muslim community think about hiring a scholar as a fixed business asset (e.g., a shiny piece of furniture) or as an investment in a person who produces value by helping a community grow? If the scholar in your community saves and supports your child’s Islamic identity and imaan, how much is that worth to you? If the scholar delivers inspiring lectures that help you spiritually grow as a person, how much is that worth to you? These are some of the questions we need to reflect upon as we try to determine how much to invest in scholar.

Financial Reality Check:

Let’s discuss specifics. How much should a scholar be compensated? The answer is that it depends. It depends on such factors as the city that the community is in, the qualifications and experience of the scholar, and the job expectations. For example, hiring a scholar in Los Angeles (median home price of $690,000) will cost significantly more than hiring a scholar in Albuquerque (median home price of $200,700). It is unreasonable to expect a scholar to squeeze his family into a studio or one bedroom apartment. It is also unreasonable to expect the scholar to live far away from the masjid and commute long distances multiple times a day if the masjid is in a more affluent neighborhood (if this happens, don’t be surprised if the scholar doesn’t show up as often). The salary should take into consideration the income required to rent in the city[7] and what is considered a livable wage[8]. For example, in Los Angeles, a family requires an income over $118,000 to rent a two-bedroom apartment, assuming a 28% rent-to-income ratio. To demonstrate the variance in the cost of living, San Francisco and New York residents require over $165,000 in annual income to afford renting a two-bedroom apartment, whereas Denver requires an income around $78,000.

A religious scholar should be treated as a professional who brings substantial skills into the position. A religious scholar is expected to be a competent public speaker, community educator, counsel community members, provide Islamic legal and spiritual guidance, research contemporary topics, and many other tasks. A religious scholar typically has secular and religious bachelor’s degrees, although many hold master’s and doctorates. Compensation should take into account the level of education and experience of the scholar.

A community needs to factor in whether they need a full-time or part-time scholar. The IRS defines a full-time employee as someone who works 30 or more hours in a week. Therefore, any scholar working 30 hours or more should be treated as full-time, and less than 30 hours as part-time. In some cases, part-time positions are desired by both the masjid and scholar, especially if the community has financial constraints or if the scholar prefers the flexibility to pursue other interests simultaneously. In addition to base salaries, comprehensive medical insurance (health, dental, and vision) and retirement plans should be standard for the full-time scholar and his family. Retirement plans are important for both the scholar and the community. In the absence of a retirement plan, the scholar is unable to leave his position financially and is forced to cling to his role. For the community, allowing a scholar to retire and be financially stable is important in and of itself, but also ensuring younger scholars can transition into the role and continue building the community. There should also be a built-in structure for annual raises, due to factors such as increased experience and inflation-induced increases in the cost of living. While an entry level salary may not afford a young scholar the income to rent or purchase a home, annual raises and merit-based promotions should create a salary trajectory that allows the scholar to raise his growing family in the community he works in. Professional development opportunities, continuing education funds, and sabbaticals should also be considered part of the compensation package to ensure the scholar grows in his skillset and ability to guide the community. Sabbaticals allow scholars to write and produce beneficial material or travel and spend time learning from senior scholars.

A separate consideration from salaried scholars is how to compensate contracted/freelance work, which is defined here as an agreement for a scholar to provide a specific guest lecture, program, or service to a community[9]. Compensation needs to take into consideration distance of travel, local traffic, and other factors that affect the time investment of the scholar. Contracted work is not as consistent as full-time salaried work and should be treated as a form of consulting, where higher rates per program are expected. One suggestion[10] is to pay the local contracted scholar 0.5% of the average local scholar’s salary in your region for a program. For example, if the average salary is $100,000, a local guest scholar should be offered approximately $100,000 x .5% = $500 for a lecture. Additionally, if the speaker is coming from out of town and travels from far away, travel time should be considered in the honorarium. Some obvious guidelines include paying for food, travel, and accomodations[11]. Of course, level of expertise and experience must be factored in, as this is only meant to be a starting point.

Unfortunately, as it stands now, a local contracted scholar would be fortunate to receive $100-200 for a lecture, which may take many hours to prepare. Just to demonstrate how low this rate is, let’s do a little exercise. Imagine a scholar made an agreement to do 30 lectures in a month (which is unheard of), spread out at different local Islamic centers. Assuming a rate of $150 per lecture, the scholar would earn 30 x $150 = $4,500 for a month x 12 = $54,000 for a year. This does not include health benefits, retirement, sick time, taxes, or anything else. Is this a fair and equitable way to treat a scholar? To add insult to injury, scholars are often expected to work for free, spiritually bullied by boards and community members that religious work should be done fi sabillah (or free sabillah?). Scholars despise negotiating and arguing over money, which leads to them typically accepting whatever low offer they have been given, while deep down they feel abused and taken advantage of. Somehow, this problem needs to be remedied. Scholars could hire agents to negotiate a reasonable package on their behalf. This might help individual scholars, but not the profession at large. A better solution might be the formation of a scholars union that sets standards and guidelines for compensation (to be discussed in a future article, inshaAllah).

The American Muslim community is in a spiritual and intellectual crisis. With the prevalence of secular, liberal, progressive, and other unIslamic worldviews creeping into our communities and children’s lives, the need for capable religious scholars to guide our communities is critically important. However, acquiring talented scholars to address the needs of our communities requires giving proper respect, which in its most basic form is providing reasonable wages. If we decide otherwise, we should not be surprised when communities fail, youth and families become lost, and capable scholars end up far away from their communities.

May Allah protect us all.

[1] Abuelezz, M. (2011). A Survey of American Imams: Duties, Qualifications and Challenges: a Quantitative and Religious Analysis (Thesis, University of Georgia).

[2] Comparely: Salaries for Imams

[3] NPR: As Islam Grows, US Imams in Short Supply

[4] MuslimSI: So How Much Should Islamic Clergy Make?

[5] MuslimSI: How a Community Masjid can Provide a Competitive Salary for an Imam

[6] In a study (Higher Education in the 21st Century ) conducted by Harvard about college experiences that included 2,000 interviews across 10 college campuses, one of the biggest takeaways was that colleges need to invest in people, not buildings. Students wanted access to more people to help guide them with their personal struggles rather than investments in technology and infrastructure.

[7] https://smartasset.com/mortgage/income-needed-to-pay-rent-in-us-cities-2018

[8] http://livingwage.mit.edu/

[9] IbnAbeeOmar: The Age of the Full-time Imam is Over – Here’s What the New Era Looks Like

[10] http://www.artrainer.com/how-much-should-you-pay-a-guest-preacher/

[11] While this may seem obvious, there are many cases where traveling guest speakers spend their own money for travel, food, and lodging and are not compensated at all for speaking.

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Osman Umarji was born and raised in Southern California. He obtained a B.S in Electrical Engineering from UC Irvine and worked in mobile phone development. He then studied Islam in Cairo and in Al-Azhar University, focusing on Islamic legal theory. He was previously the religious director at the Islamic Society of Corona-Norco.He is currently completing his doctorate in Educational Psychology at UC Irvine, focusing on child and adolescent motivation and identity development. He is also an adjunct professor at UC Irvine and Cal State University, Long Beach.

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Avatar

    DI

    April 25, 2019 at 12:32 PM

    Masha Allah excellent article! I remember having the scholar’s union idea a long time ago – I am glad it is happening. From what I see Muslims in America are following the trajectory of the Christians – mega-mosques, prosperity gospel and privatized programs for the rich. It is easy to forget money is a fitna and I recall the history of the “Hour of Power” church and don’t want that to happen to Muslims. The Jewish community gives their rabbis a trial period with goals and yearly reviews and after a certain number of years, they make that rabbi permanent and they can not fire him. Its like getting tenure as a professor. I think a similar idea should be used. Allah blesses and debases a community based on how they treat their ulema.

    And I may add, you can find out finances of many masajid / organizations online…or at least get an idea. In the USA, you want to find their Form 990 or 501(c)(3)

    For example – AlMaghrib Institute has 1.5 million in assets http://990finder.foundationcenter.org/990results.aspx?990_type=&fn=almaghrib&st=&zp=&ei=&fy=&action=Search

    And Bayyinah has 3.7M http://990finder.foundationcenter.org/990results.aspx?990_type=&fn=bayyinah&st=&zp=&ei=&fy=&action=Search

    Here is the annual revenue reported for Texas mosques: https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&q=islamic+center&state%5Bid%5D=TX&ntee%5Bid%5D=&c_code%5Bid%5D=

    It is your democratic right to see this information. You can find similar accounting for charities in the United Kingdom online too.

    It behoves Muslims to utilize the tools available to us in the West. And I think it makes sense to stop using cash in masajid to discourage people lining their pockets or stealing and to switch to only credit card/debit card sadaqa using initiatives like GivePoint atm machines in mosques. https://givepoint.com/home

    di.

  2. Avatar

    Abu Muslim

    April 25, 2019 at 2:02 PM

    Agree with the broad points, however, its depressing to see how uneducated our scholars are on what it means to be liberal or progressive and how in their minds, everything bad goes in that bucket. This is what leads to Muslims for Trump which has done more harm and insult to our prophet and God than any liberal or progressive president would have ever been able to do. Perhaps our scholars should also be more educated.

  3. Avatar

    Tricia

    April 25, 2019 at 2:37 PM

    And now imagine being a Muslim woman scholar. Even more futile !

  4. Avatar

    Umm Ismaeel

    April 25, 2019 at 5:22 PM

    I am the wife of a scholar and I can tell you that all he said is true.

    My husband is working day and night and he is never home and the people expect him to work for free or for a little compensation. We have no insurance, no plan for retirement. We do not own a house, even if he spent almost all his life working here in America and he is 65 years old. If he dies suddenly, me and my children will be on the street because he spend all his salary every month.

    The people in the community think he is rich but we are the poorest of them, just my husband is too shy to ask at least an increase of the salary due to inflation. Since 25 years his main employer gives him the same salary and never increased it, so he had to take other sideline jobs.

    This is the sad reality. I have to say that I am in the same situation, it is even worse because I am translating religious texts. If I were a normal translator, I would receive 10 cents per words, but because I am translating religious texts, I am offered 2.5 to 3 cents with absolutely no benefit, because it is freelance. I am happy that some people agree to give me a little bit more than the market, but I am criticized for asking for more than other people.

    I am grateful that the brother is talking about this, but I do not expect any change soon. My son who would like to become a sheikh like his father says that he needs to study medicine or engineering in order to make a living aside from his job as a Muslim scholar. He is only 10 years old!

    • Avatar

      Masud

      April 26, 2019 at 12:10 AM

      According to Quran & hadith, it is illegal to take money for performing the function of salat. Imam is also liable to come prayer during its specified time. Islam is only for the satisfaction of Allah. So, avoid preaching earning money through Islam. Come to point what Quran & hadith says. Pls don’t invent anything new?

      • Avatar

        Ahmed

        April 26, 2019 at 10:35 AM

        Please indicate where in the Quran and hadith it is prohibited to earn money by doing Islamic work. The Prophet SAWS paid companions for doing Islamic work: https://sunnah.com/urn/2302970

    • Avatar

      Siraaj Muhammad

      April 27, 2019 at 10:04 AM

      Salaam alaykum Umm Ismaeel,

      Jzk for your comment, it was shared on MM’s twitter acct and received quite a strong response:

      https://twitter.com/MuslimMatters/status/1121593339864727553?s=09

  5. Avatar

    Shaka m

    April 25, 2019 at 7:37 PM

    Welcome to life in a capitalistic society. We all know that there are the 1% of Ulama who mashallah make more than their fair share. Of course there are also many others who obviously do not make enough. But this can also be said of any other profession. How many PhD’s are supplementing their income by driving uber? Furthermore there are numerous imams that just go through the motions and mail it in… also no different than in any other profession.

    • Avatar

      ahmed

      June 6, 2019 at 8:23 AM

      Salamualaikum! Our community today is no different from rest of the country today. You only click on one of the top 3 results on Amazon.com. Similarly, some celebrity scholars keep getting most of the $ and keep asking for more $. The sheep (community) are happy.

      Ideally we need endownments and funds to take care of scholars. But thats too far. So it is better for scholars to take up mainstream careers and focus on their scholarly pursuits part time

  6. Avatar

    Umar

    April 26, 2019 at 1:02 AM

    I agree with the issue completely. An alternative solution would be for the scholar to get a normal job and do scholar stuff “on top”.

    The issue with a scholar getting paid by a masjid means he is under their (very often islamically uneducated and sometimes egotistical) control, therefore he has to do their bidding.

    If he/she were independent it would work better.

    This would be reducing the role, and outsourcing parts to other paid people. A scholar should just be doing spiritual guidance and islamic technical questions as that’s their training, not marriage counselling, career advice, media etc. etc.

    • Avatar

      vahid

      April 27, 2019 at 12:39 AM

      So you expect an islamic scholar to work two full time jobs? Not a very realistic approach. Everything works perfectly in the mind, but in reality not so much.

      • Avatar

        Umar

        September 19, 2019 at 2:57 AM

        No not two full time jobs. Two part time jobs.

  7. Avatar

    Paula

    April 26, 2019 at 9:53 AM

    The trend for Muslims follows that for other members of clergy in the US and is not Muslim specific. That should have been included in the article to help gauge the situation.

  8. Avatar

    FP

    April 26, 2019 at 11:44 AM

    Masajid, especially in larger, metropolitan cities, have become mafia masajid. They are usually run by secularly educated, doctors, lawyers, engineers and businessmen, for whom the masjid is just another business. They must compete with the other masajid. While this can be a good, halal competition, their drive and greed soon take over and they value quantity over quality. They value aesthetics and external beautification over the values and knowledge imparted to their communities. All of this is done, mostly to show off – to say so and so masjid has such and such famous Shaykh and/or qari to lead taraweeh. Then in order to maintain the superficial high standard, they must cater to the upper class of their communities, thus falling into a vicious cycle. May Allah protect us and grant us sincerity.

    • Avatar

      FP

      April 26, 2019 at 11:50 AM

      Moreover, some masajid will blacklist a recently laid off Imam/Qari (even if let go under understandable circumstances). Or they will not allow, directly or indirectly, a recently let go Imam to work in the vicinity for fear that they will lose their congregants, their Sunday school and/or Quran Memorization students. But they see no problems with the capitalistic notion that 2 similar businesses can be next to each other. If they are businessmen already, they’ll try to open their own halal business near their masajid for their individual benefits.

  9. Avatar

    Noura

    April 27, 2019 at 8:14 AM

    As the wife of a Shaykh who goes through this, I agree completely with every sentence in this article. Allah Musta’an. And to Umm Ismaeel in the comment above, I feel you sister, I feel you completely!

  10. Avatar

    DI

    April 27, 2019 at 8:48 AM

    I think my comment got caught in the spam check…

  11. Avatar

    Mezba Mahtab

    April 27, 2019 at 2:42 PM

    I don’t know why mosques spend a lot of money on aesthetics. A little is OK, but I would think people would be more attracted to mosques with a better caliber of scholar(s) than how beautiful the mimbar is.

    Also, the waqf system needs to be established here.

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Question:

I just had my nikkah done with my husband and we are having our rukhsati done soon (in the next few months). The reason for [the] delay is just mainly to prepare for the wedding and  [to] accommodate family members’ schedule [for] the wedding. After the nikkah is it permissible to do all the acts that are permissible between a husband and wife even if the rukhsati hasn’t been done?

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“It’s much worse than the flu.” An Epidemiologist’s Perspective on COVID-19

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In light of the suspension of Jummah prayers and the mosque closings across the nation, I want to share my expertise as an epidemiologist.

Some people are in denial of the enormity of the crisis and do not agree with the rulings on Jummah prayers being canceled. Others think that this crisis is hyped up. They are asking, isn’t this like the flu or just a little worse than the flu?

It is not.

It is much worse than the flu.

Before I explain why, I would like to iterate that we must not panic. We cannot think clearly if we panic. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) reminds us in the Quran:

“It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces Towards East or West; but it is righteousness- to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the Allah-fearing.”

Surah Al-Baqara, verse 177

While we should not panic, we should also not be skeptical about the unanimous consensus of all medical experts. Medical experts are authorities on medical issues.

“O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you. If ye differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if ye do believe in Allah and the Last Day: That is best, and most suitable for final determination.”

Surah An-Nisa, Verse 59

This is a true crisis

We need everyone to do their part to prevent infections. The following is concise Epidemiology 101 for the non-epidemiologist regarding why there is so much concern by health authorities on the seriousness of Covid-19.

This is a crisis because of two simple mathematical reasons: the case fatality rate and the reproductive rate.

Case Fatality Rate

First, the case fatality rate – or the death rate – is the number of people who die if they have the disease, which in this context is the infection. In other words, out of the people who have the infection, this number represents how many will die.

For the flu, the case fatality rate is 0.1.For Covid-19, the case fatality rate based on the 133,000 so far infected as of March 13 and the 4,945 who have died is 3.7. This is not the true case fatality rate as some people with the mild infection are not being counted.

Some experts believe the case fatality rate is 2.0, which is 20 times higher than the flu. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who for over three decades has been the Director of the National Health Institute (allergy and infectious diseases) gave an estimate of 1.0 when he testified to Congress several days ago, and 1.0 is 10 times more than 0.1

If everything else that is important (such as the reproductive rate) was the same between the flu and Covid-19, then the number of people dying would be 30,000 times 10, which is 300,000.

Reproductive Rate (Basic Reproductive Number)

The other important number is the reproductive rate. The word “reproductive” in this name is not focused on the reproductions of the virus in one body, but the reproduction of cases. Technically this is called the basic reproductive number, but for ease of communicating, I will call it the reproductive rate.

The reproductive rate is related to how infectious the organism is from one person to another and what steps society is taking to limit the infections from spreading.

The exact definition of the reproductive rate (basic reproductive number) is the expected number of cases directly generated by one infected case in a population where all individuals are susceptible to infection.

Case Fatality plus Reproductive Rate Equals:

For the flu, the reproductive rate is 1.3. For Covid-19, the reproductive rate is between 2 and 3. The reproductive rate for Covid-19 is twice as high as the flu virus. Therefore we have to multiply the estimated number of deaths of 300,000 by 2, which is 600,000.

The case fatality rate could be lower than 1.0, it could be closer to 0.8 In fact, in South Korea, it is 0.9 so far. In Italy however, it is almost 5% because there are so many elderly people in Italy. In both of these cases, the case fatality rate of COVID-19 is still many, many times higher than that of the flu, which is 0.1.

To put it simply, at even a 1.0 case fatality, we can expect 600,000 people to die from COVID-19 in the US alone if we don’t follow the CDC guidelines. That’s not counting the huge number of people with other diseases who are at risk of dying from the effect of the healthcare system being overloaded beyond its capacity.

This is bad news. However, this disaster scenario is based on us treating it “just like the flu.” If we decide to take things seriously instead, and treat this as an emergency as it truly is, then InshaAllah 600,000 people don’t necessarily have to die. Following CDC guidelines to reduce the spread of the disease as well as the impact to the healthcare system can save hundreds of thousands of people.

We can lower the case-fatality rate and the reproductive rate, and the number of lives saved will be much, much greater than the number of lives who will die.

This is good news. We can, and will Insha’Allah, save lives by acting to lower the spread of COVID-19.

Malaysia reported an additional 190 confirmed infections on Sunday, an increase of 80% of cases over a day and bringing its total to 428. Most of the cases stemmed from a Muslim religious gathering held from Feb. 27 to March 1, which authorities said was attended by 14,500 Malaysians and about 1,500 foreigners. Malaysia is the worst-infected nation in the Southeast Asia. Bloomburgquint.com

We need to be on the same page

I mean this literally. We need to be on the same page, and that is the webpage of the CDC website:

The CDC, of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the agency responsible for preventing and limiting epidemics. You can keep yourselves, families, and the public at large safer by following their guidelines. Familiarize yourself with the following, and please ensure that all your family and friends have too:

1. How COVID-19 spreads

2. Symptoms

3. Steps to Prevent Illness

4. Older People and People with Chronic Diseases at Higher Risk

5. What to Do if You are Sick

6. Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

The first five sections are the responsibility of every person to learn, since every person can spread the infection and thus contribute to the reproductive number of COVID-19.

“The Muslim is the one from whose hand and tongue people are safe. ” – Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (An-Nasai)

For the many health professionals in the Muslim community, I encourage all health professionals to see the following resources on preparing your  practice to deal with Covid 19.

Do not go to Mosques until further notice

This is not an issue of a certain school of thought, but is the judgment of scholars from all schools of thought. Medical and religious experts are in agreement with regards to the suspension of Jummah for the protection of the community.

Please read the following joint statement by the Fiqh Council of North America, Islamic Society of North America, Islamic Medical Association of North America, and American Muslim Health Professionals. See also this declaration from the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America regarding the suspension of Friday congregation. 

Mosques are higher risk than churches

In Iran, the first cases started in Qom, a city that often sees more attendance to mosques and more gatherings than other cities. Most cases were in Qom and then spread to other cities. The number of grave plots dug for the dead and dying is large enough to be visible by satellite imagery.

How is this relevant to the disease, and why are mosques more vulnerable than churches or other places of worship?

  • Many attendees do wudu at the mosque. CDC guidelines are to not to touch the eyes, nose, or mouth, as these are mucous membranes. During wudu, the nasal mucous membranes are touched up to 3 times, the eyes mucous membranes are touched up to 3 times during the face rinse, and the mouth mucous membranes are touched up to 3 times.
  • Wudu does not require soap, so coronavirus particles (from an infected person) remain even after completing Wudu.
  • The vast majority of mosques do not have automatic sensors in their water taps, and attendees open and close them by hand shortly after touching their eyes, nose, mouth.
  • Almost all people close the taps with their bare hands versus holding a paper towel.
  •  Even if paper towels are used, there can be cross transference to the paper towel roll. There may be ways to limit transference but the risk cannot be eliminated.
  • People often relieve themselves before doing wudu, and clean their private areas with their left hand. We don’t have data on coronavirus in mucous membranes in the private areas, but we do know that the virus can often be in the GI tract in addition to the respiratory tract and eyes and nose, etc.
  • CDC guidelines say to use Social Distancing, staying 6 to 10 feet apart from others. But in the congregational prayer, we are standing shoulder to shoulder and some are also foot to foot.
  • Some attendees touch their faces after making dua, which is the first step in the virus’s transmission.
  • There are often handshakes and sometimes even hugs among some attendees, further spread person-to-person transmission.
  • A higher percentage of Masjid attendees are elderly, and thus, further susceptible to infection.

Allah tells the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ that he has been sent as a mercy to all the worlds, and in following his sunnah, we strive for the same. By attending the mosques in the time of a pandemic, whether for the regular salah, Jumah prayers or ‘Eid prayers, we will not be a mercy to mankind. We will be a danger to it, spreading the coronavirus and increasing the number of people who suffer from it.

The bottom line, according to the epidemiology of this disease, is this:

It is guaranteed that some – likely a large number- will get infected if people go to mosques. And some of those people will die. And it is guaranteed that the infection rate will increase in the wider (non-Muslim) community because of this as well.

What to do if you think you have COVID-19

In general, call your doctor or ER if you think you are sick with Coronavirus. Do not automatically go to the ER or the doctor, first call ahead. Before even calling, familiarize yourself with what the symptoms of COVID-19 are.

Separate yourself from other family members and people at home, and call your doctor to get instructions to see if you need to be tested and to receive other very important instructions regarding supportive care to address your infection and to prevent the spread of it to other household members.

The doctor will instruct you as to whether you need to come to his/her office or go to the ER and when you need to go. Also by calling first, if you do need to go to the doctor’s office or the ER, they will make preparations to prevent the spread of infection from you to others as you come.

Social distancing in action: Death rates for the 1918 flu pandemic were heavily reduced by social distancing measures taken by the city of St. Louis, but not Philadelphia.

Do not delay calling your doctor since some people might deteriorate quickly, but try to read the CDC guidelines before calling so you can know whether you even need to call.

If you develop emergency warning signs for COVID-19 get medical attention immediately (call 911 to get immediate help).  Emergency warning signs include*:
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to arouse
  • Bluish lips or face
*This list is not conclusive.  Please consult your medical provider for any other symptoms that are severe or concerning.

In summary

  • We must not panic, but we must be prepared.
  • We must recognize that this is a crisis due to the case fatality rate and reproductive rate of COVID-19
  • Read the sections on COVID-19 at www.cdc.gov.
  • Do not attend congregational prayers, Jumah prayer, weekend schools, etc. until further notice
  • Believe, with the help of Allah, that we can change the bad news to good news if we follow all the CDC guidelines in every section

Let us be calm but also serious. Let us also be grateful that we live in a time when governments are much more proactive than the past. Let us be grateful to our medical community. Let us not overwhelm ourselves with unverified articles or forwards on Whatsapp. Let us read and circulate medical information from only authorized sources such as the CDC.

And let us remember that we are so vulnerable and fragile and that we must often remember and supplicate to Allah for forgiveness, protection, and guidance. Thank you and may Allah keep us, our families, and all safe. Ameen.

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Like Tinder, But Safer: Troubleshooting Arranged Muslim Marriage

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Like many people in my mid-20s, I approached my parents about getting married and initially chose to use a more traditional route. That is to say, creating a resume – or biodata – and sending it to matchmaker aunties. I wanted this approach because I wanted to be able to balance my American, Desi, and Muslim identities. I wanted things to be done in a halal way with my parent’s knowledge. However, over the past 2 years, my experience with the process has left me jaded.

Before I continue, I want to preface with two things. The first is that my parents are wonderful. We’ve butted heads, but I recognize that they are doing what they think is best, via a method that they’re used to. Providing critical feedback of the method should not be taken as critical to my parents.

The second is that while I have critical feedback, I am not intending to discredit the entire process. Meeting people through family is hardly a bad thing, and maybe what some people need. It is very possible that I will still end up using this process. That said, there are changes that need to be made, especially in the modern world. I want to make sure that my younger brothers and sisters can get an idea of what the process is, and what they’re in store for.

Superficiality

The biodatas that we send and receive are inherently superficial. They are, in total, the person’s education/career, info on their parents and extended family, and pictures. There’s nothing written about the person’s personality barring, perhaps, a few sentences about their interests. This doesn’t provide any real depth of information about the other person at all.

Then there is the emphasis that is placed on the pictures. It is important to acknowledge that physical attraction plays a role in all of this. I think one of my early mistakes was that I was trying to pretend it didn’t matter at all, and that’s not reasonable for a marriage. The problem, however, is that given the lack of personal detail in the written part of the bio-data, we are left with the photo being the most personal piece of information presented. Unless you really care about where a person’s grandfather went to University in the 1940’s, that photo ends up being the most important thing you’re making your choice on.

Like “Tinder, but safer,” a friend said to me, as I explained how these situations played out. That’s not far off from how the experience played out for me. We’re not given much time to make a decision on the bio-data, so the result is the superficial, un-Islamic swipe based on attractiveness alone.

How many times have I heard, “Oh, she’s too fat,” or “Oh, she’s too short,” or “Too tall,” or “She’s pretty dark isn’t she?” Bengali speakers will recognize the word “moyla,” [dirty] used to describe women who are slightly darker, which is terribly problematic.

It’s not just that women are being chosen based on their looks alone, but on top of that, they’re being held to Eurocentric notions of what is deemed attractive. We’re all being held hostage to a standard designed by and for an entirely different race of people, and I have been told that it would be weird for me to be attracted to a darker-skinned woman because in the minds of many, dark skin is undesirable.

The superficiality is worse for women, but even as a guy I felt it. I’m fine with how I look, but you can only hear, “Oh, your face looks weird in that picture,” or, “He’s not tall enough,” so many times before it starts to mess with you. Men face another superficial judgment as well: the problem with men being reduced to their ability as moneymakers. I’m a graduate student and there are people in my class who have a spouse and children and are making it by just fine on the stipend we receive. But, inevitably, it will come up that I’m not making tons of money, so how can I support a family? While recognizing that men do have an Islamic responsibility to financially support their families, it troubles me that the process boils men down to one thing and one thing only – money, and not just having enough of it, but lots of it.

Age

I’m relatively young, 27 in May, and so when I started this process two years ago, I told my parents that I was willing to go +/- 3 years, just because I thought that would be a good range to encompass people I’d have some similarities with. However my prospect of an older wife – even a day older – was rejected with quite some vigor. I’ve been disqualified from matching with some women because they were born just a couple of months before I was.

The majority of the biodatas sent to me are of women still in college, between the ages of 19 and 22. It doesn’t matter when I say that’s too young, or how that I feel like I’d be taking advantage of someone who hasn’t fully grown up yet. I get told that I’m wrong.

Do you know how many random aunties and uncles have told me that a 7-8 year age gap is necessary to make a marriage work because otherwise, the women “will demand too much?” It’s shocking that I’m being told specifically that I need a wife young enough to be manipulated and shaped to my desires. When I push back on this, I’m, again, told that I’m weird.

I’m being constantly told to reconsider my age preferences as if wanting to marry a woman in her mid-20’s is a weird thing to do when I myself am in my mid-20’s. The sheer number of times I face this makes me think it’s an inherent flaw in how our cultures think, and not something unique to my situation. This is to say nothing of the fact that people will, to our face, tell me (26) that I’m too young for marriage, but my sister (25) is rapidly passing her expiration date.

Race

As a Bengali man, I have no problem marrying a woman of Bengali descent, but it’s annoying that even in 2020, it’s seen as a taboo to marry outside of your race in Desi culture. I personally have had it conceded to me, that if I choose an Indian or Pakistani woman on my own, that might be ok, but nothing else. Not an Arab. Certainly not someone with (black) African descent. And a white/Hispanic/black convert would cause a genuine scandal.

And even this concession is not universal, as there are many Bengali parents I know who will not let their child marry anyone outside of their own culture. Even when people have pushed through it and married outside of their ethnic backgrounds, there is still gossip and concern as to how the parents could “let this happen.”

Going into this I thought, “Well, all I have to do is show a few videos from Imams talking about how inter-racial marriages shouldn’t be taboo for Muslims,” but it doesn’t matter how many of these clips I show, it falls on deaf ears.

I understand the concern of losing culture and heritage to life in the West, I get it. But if I want to teach my kids about their Bengali roots I can do that with a wife of any background, and if I don’t want to teach them, having a Bengali wife isn’t going to make me any more likely to do so.

Ultimately, the feeling I get is that the older generation wants in-laws who they can go and have chai and gossip with, to do traditional things they saw their parents do with their in-laws. And again, while I empathize with the desire to do something familiar, this seems like an unhealthy reason to dictate why your children can’t marry someone from another race or culture.

Classism

I understand that families need to mesh and that it makes things easier if there are similarities that exist. However, in what world am I reading a biodata and seeing what a woman’s uncle does for a living, and then deciding that she’s marriage material?

It doesn’t work for me that way, but it works on the minds of the older generation, and there are even ways of working the class distinction to your advantage. Uncles in the community have actually told me that marrying into a “lower class” may be good if you want someone to be subservient to you because they’re thankful you brought them to your status. But they’ve also told me that marrying a “higher-class” woman isn’t bad either, because a rich father-in-law could have its perks. Caveat- beware of them being snobby with you, since you may be expected to be thankful, subservient one instead.

I can’t even wrap my head around what people are talking about here, but it’s yet another factor that I end up having to deal with during this process.

Religion

I want a wife who cares about the deen and prays 5 times a day, and I want this not to be a controversial take.

I have been told that’s unrealistic. Literally a couple of weeks ago, an auntie told my sister that ‘modern women’ do not pray regularly and so I should not expect that in a future wife. She said this, of course, to my sister who is both a modern woman and someone who prays five times a day without fail.

It’s crazy to be told that I’m being too picky because I want a wife who already has her religious-ness established. I have been told, by both aunties and uncles, that it’s better for me to marry a wife who isn’t too religious yet so that I can shape her deen. This isn’t about mutual growth in faith as you may hope for in a marriage. This is about controlling women with religion by only teaching her what I want to teach her. When older women tell you this, it raises so many concerns about what they’ve been through and what they want future generations of women to go through.

When I tell people I want a religious wife, they seem to translate that as subservient to me, not Allah. And that scares me. I don’t mean to fetishize anybody, but I want a wife whose religion drives to be bold, to stand up for what’s right, to be outspoken. I want to partner with someone whose religiosity pushes me to be a better version of myself, not to do what she’s told.

Marry Back Home

I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me, as someone who has lived their entire life in the US, to think that I’ll mesh much better with someone with a similar background. This isn’t universal, some people will genuinely get along better with people from “back home,” and that’s fine, but this needs to be a personal choice.

Yet, I keep getting told that it would be better for me to marry from “back home.” I have been told, straight up, if you bring a wife over here, she’ll be more “indebted,” to me because I brought her to America. Setting aside that I don’t want to marry someone who just wants to marry me for a Green Card, why would I want to marry someone who feels like they owe me?

I fail to see how marrying from “back home” is an issue of compatibility in this case, it feels way more like an issue of subservience.

You can see here that the concern isn’t about finding a spouse who matches with my personality, it’s about finding someone who’ll come and cook and clean and bear children for me without speaking up about it because they feel like they owe me. Which segues to…

Gender Roles

I want to preface this section by saying that this is one topic where my parents haven’t, at all, been the source of my concerns, but rather, this something that comes up when talking to certain members of the community.

For men, there is an emphasis on making money to provide for a family, and for women, raising children and taking care of the home. There’s no problem with this model, but it is not the only model. It’s a valid option, but I am being told it’s my only choice.

In the eyes of many, the preference is to pick a homemaker. This seems at odds with the desire to select a woman with a good education, making it seem that I’m then not expected to let her utilize that education professionally. After all, it could be embarrassing for me if my wife makes more than me, and I have been told to be careful, because a wife who makes too much money could be “too independent.”

I must also be careful to stay in my exclusive role as a moneymaker too, and not try to go beyond that. I had pictures with my nephews in biodata because they mean the world to me. I was told to take them out because somehow a man taking care of children is deemed…bad?. I also like cooking. I once said this to an auntie and I remember her saying, “Why do you like doing girl’s stuff?”

Quite bluntly, I don’t want a wife who will only cook and clean and raise children for me. I want someone I can share those duties with because they’re my equal partner, an idea that, to me, keeps getting glossed over in this process. Every couple deserves the opportunity to figure their marriage out for themselves.

Quick Marriages

There are limits to what we can(‘t) do as Muslims. I understand that we shouldn’t have 3 year-long courtships or live together before getting married, and I am not advocating that. But we should be allowed some time to make such an important decision. I’ve been shown bio-datas and have been expected to come back with an answer in two days – just two days – about whether the information on this piece of paper is the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.

Please, can we have a few months? Can we talk, and try to make sure that this is the decision we want to make (chaperoned)? When reviewing potential spouses, try to make sure everyone is one the same page about how much time you give to each other in order to avoid heartbreak and confusion.

Nature Of Relationship With Parents

My parents and I have a pretty good relationship. It’s relatively open and comfortable, but it’s still a Desi parent-child dynamic. Expressing a dissenting opinion is disrespectful, which means it can be harder to speak up without fear of disappointing them.

Plus, my parents and I never openly spoke about sex or physical attraction, at least not in-depth. To go from that to suddenly having to talk to your parents about the physical aspects that you’re looking for in a wife is awkward, and it can lead to miscommunication.

It’s a culture clash on top of a generational one. I have a hard time articulating what I want to my parents, and it’s not easy to figure out. If you know this before starting the process, you can make an effort to speak as openly about things as you can. You can even recruit an older cousin or friend, or an Imam you trust to help you. Don’t do what I did and go by yourself, have people to support you to make sure you and your parents are communicating well.

In Conclusion

It’s not reasonable to expect that you’ll get everything you want in a spouse. There will be compromises that are made, whether they be with yourself or with what your parents want. But don’t sacrifice on the points most important to you. Determine those, know what your must-haves are, and negotiate on other things. Make sure your potential spouse is on board. It can be awkward, especially with how many of us were raised, but talk to your potential spouse about these important things.

While this was a reflection of my own experience, I place emphasis on the aspects I feel are more universal. Speaking to other Desi Muslims in my age bracket, it certainly does seem that my concerns are relatively common. Obviously, there are individual factors that are at play, but these were things that came up regularly when speaking to elders in the community.

I also, again, want to stress that this isn’t an attack on my parents. While I have a level of frustration with how this situation has played out, I recognize that this is what they’re used to. And to their credit, they have made some concessions. Furthermore, it’s not just parents who are playing a role in this. The (often unwarranted) voices of certain elders are given undue emphasis, and that, I think has complicated the situation even further.

Ultimately, I’m not telling people that they shouldn’t consider arrangements or biodata, but if you do, then you must openly discuss this with your parents. Make sure they know what you want, and stand firm if it’s something important, even if it complicates things. It may put a strain on your relationship with your parents, but it’s better to open about things now than to have anger and resentment towards them for years later.

I’ll end with a specific piece of advice to the brothers: You have a duty to learn about why these issues are red flags and to push back on them yourselves. Women can be labelled as too rebellious if they push back themselves, and we need to be aware of this. Speak up for your (biological) sisters, family members, and friends when you notice their discomfort. Make sure you establish with your potential spouse that she is actually on board with the process, not just going along with it because she feels that she needs to. It might be awkward, but it’s important to establish a clear line of communication with someone even before you get married.

May Allah bless us all with happy, healthy, and fruitful marriages. Ameen

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