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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.

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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. 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. 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. Tricia

    April 25, 2019 at 2:37 PM

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

  4. 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!

    • 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?

      • 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

    • 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. 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.

    • 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. 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.

    • 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.

      • Umar

        September 19, 2019 at 2:57 AM

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

  7. 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. 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.

    • 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. 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. DI

    April 27, 2019 at 8:48 AM

    I think my comment got caught in the spam check…

  11. 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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