Saturday, May 07, 2005


The young man lived a comfortable life with his wife and children in Islamabad. He taught Islamic sciences at the International Islamic University. The university provided him with a house, a car with driver and a comfortable salary.

Then one day, an expatriate Pakistani comes to visit him from Sydney, Australia. The young academic is told he can earn at least 10 times as much by moving to Australia and working as imam for a growing Urdu-speaking Muslim community in the outer suburbs of Sydney.

The young man is also offered free accommodation near the mosque. He is offered a salary expressed in Pakistani rupees. He is shown the contract and invited to sign. The young man signs. Within weeks, a plane ticket arrives. The man resigns from his comfortable job to take up what he thinks is an even more comfortable job in a more prosperous country.

What the young man did not factor in was the following:

*The salary was expressed in Pakistani rupees. When converted into Australian dollars, it was much less. It was hardly enough to buy groceries.

*The incoming imam would be employed by the Islamic Society, whose executive members often were do-it-yourself scholars who believed everything they read in Fatawah Rahimiya (a book of answers to questions made to Mufti Abdur Rahim Lajpuri, a prominent Deobandi scholar) or for whom Behishti Zewar (a popular book of hanafi law written specifically for Indian Muslim women) was more important than the Qur’an.

*The Islamic Society was the subject of an attempted takeover by a number of factions, and the imam was expected to favour one faction above others.

*The house was a run-down old shack with hardly enough room to swing a cat, let alone roll a turban around your head.

Over the next few months, the imam was expected to lead the prayers, teach kids Qur’an, settle domestic disputes, give fatwas on moonsighting, sight the moon, unsight everyone else’s moon and be a jack-of-all-deeni-trades. He worked 36 hours a day, and was paid less than $20,000 a year.

The imam made a genuine attempt to learn English. Instead of appreciating his efforts, the Punjabi doctors on the executive were upset that he spoke better English in his sermons than they spoke in their surgeries. He also spoke fluent Urdu, Punjabi and Arabic. And despite having ancestry from Thana Bhawan (a village in Saharanpur, India that has produced some of the Islamic world’s finest legal minds), the imam knew the limitations of texts executive members would quote to him when passing judgment on an aspect of his sermon they disagreed with.

After 10 years or so, there was a change in the executive. The imam was dismissed without 48 hours notice. He was accused of a range of crimes. He allegedly missed leading some prayer services as he had domestic duties to attend to. He also dared to enrol in some computing courses, and even committed the ultimate sin of arranging alternate sources of income to supplement the halal rations being thrown his way by the Islamic Society.

The imam was distraught when he came to see me. After telling me his story, I remember telling him that he would look back in 10 years time and see his dismissal as the best career change of his life.

2 years ago, I saw him again. By this time he was running a number of businesses and teaching at a Qur’anic school. He confirmed my prediction made a decade before was correct.

We keep complaining about how useless our imams are, how little they know and how much they stuff up when making public statements. Yet we expect so much from them. An imam serving a modern Muslim community in a western country is not just someone who leads the prayers and performs weddings and funerals. An imam is expected to be a teacher, marriage counsellor, psychologist, mufti and social worker. Typically, imams are more educated and articulate than the executive members that supervise their performance.

In Australia, it is common for imams to be employed on short-term contracts. Imams commonly are dismissed with little or no notice and for the flimsiest reasons. Job security and work-life balance are usually absent from an imam’s contract.

Practitioners of physical and mental health are well-paid and respected professionals. Practitioners of spiritual health are paid peanuts, yet their paymasters often behave more like monkeys than the employed maulana.

Practitioners of Australian law (like me, alhumdulillah!) are usually well-paid and also well-respected. Yet imams, the practitioners of Islamic law, are frequently faced with blank-cheque fatwas from executive members which they are expected to endorse and justify.

I know of qualified Islamic scholars in Sydney and Melbourne who manage kebab shops. I once asked one of them why he preferred making kebabs to teaching and leading prayers. He remarked: “May Allah save us all from the curse of being an imam at a mosque!”.

(I also asked him why there were no prices listed on his menu. He said: “Brother, here we do ijtihad for our customers”.)

It’s said that you get what you pay for. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. But in the average Sydney mosque, executive committee monkeys are paying peanuts to imams and expecting them to perform tricks like circus animals. Little wonder our communities operate like a circus.

4 comment(s):

  • Salam, I had no idea of this. Truthfully, in a case like the one you mention it's amazing they managed to get a man of such high caliber in the first place. In Egypt I have always wondered how imams were remunerated. I will try to find out and report it here on Ihsan.

    By Blogger Anna in PDX, at 5/09/2005 02:13:00 AM  

  • Salaam,

    this is a very common issue - we have well heeled masjid goers who'll come along in their latest cars etc, but will balk at the idea of actually paying living wages that an imam and family can actually live on... at one masjid in my area, the imam was considered "part time" and then expected to work 60 hours a week. That obviously meant that he could not really pursue outside work to supplement his income... well he left...

    There are a number of very good imams who have qualifications from a variety educational institutions - from Cairo to Najaf to Qum to Karachi to Delhi and add in Istanbul to spice things up...

    Then we also have the US based academia (that these days primarily favor only the "progressive/moderate muslim" kind - in keeping with the broader US interests).

    Of-course the other problem is that the community is divided up into tiny little communities - so it is difficult for a congregation of 20 families to really pay a good salary. But one that is 200-300 families really has no excuse.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/11/2005 02:53:00 PM  

  • I was an ordained Lutheran minister for 12 years, and I can tell you that such treatment is not confined to the religion of Islam. It is common in christian churches also, and I daresay in synagogues as well.

    There will be varying degrees of problems with pay, working conditions and the expectations of the members of the congregation depending on the type of organizations and whether there is supervision and standards set by any national organization the congregation may be part of.

    Unfortunately, in the minds of many people "religion" means a system of controling other people and getting what they want. People try to manipulate God by their prayers, offerings and righteous deeds, and they want their ministers to justify them and tell them what they want to hear.

    Often they also wish to pay as little as possible to get these services and look upon the minister as a hired servant instead of a leader and teacher.

    The prophet Isaaih wrote: "These people worship me woth their mouths, but their hearts are far from me. They worship as doctrines the traditions of men."

    I am no longer a minister and have no wish to go back into that situation. I understand very well the man who would prefer to run his restaurant instead of preaching sermons and giving advice to people who don't want to hear it.

    I don't know the answer to this, but it confirms my belief that there is very little difference between people or religions. God bless all of you.

    By Blogger Jay, at 5/15/2005 04:35:00 PM  

  • Salaam,

    there are many such indsidious (sp?) and malicious (sp?) things that go in muslim masjids/communities.

    i can give one example from the community that i grew up in in high school and that my parents are still part of. the community has grown and prospered since i left for school. they built a new masjid, adjacent to the islamic school. its a suburban commuity evenly divided between wealthy professionals, middle class small business owners, and then working class folks doing odd jobs.

    the community was trying to raise moneys for both the islamic school which runs K to 8th grade, and for the imam who was trained from a couple of unis in saudia and egypt.

    the community was short on being able to pay for the school and for the imam's meager salary, and had planned two seperate fundraisers for each. they were planned and announced in advance.

    on both occaisions, on the day of the fundraisers, some of the wealthiest members of the community help private parties/dinners and invited all the other welathy/professional members of the community to their home. why would one do that, fully knowing that the community had planned a fundraiser for that day where the more priviledged memebers of the community would be better able to help and support?

    almost all of the these people send their own children to expensive private schools. its mainly the middle and working class fmailies who send their kids to the islamic school which has been very flexible and accomodating to families with limited means, and where most of the teachers (some very qualified) are working on very slim salaries and expense budgets.

    the imam also, though he was rather conservative, was doing a lot for the community. marital counseling, youth counseling, quran classes, sunday school, being an imam, soup kitchen, etc etc....

    May Allah guise us to the Straight Path.

    rab rakha,

    By Blogger malangbaba, at 5/21/2005 12:36:00 PM  

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