Paying our Imams

The daughter of an imam writes in the comments:

We want people to go learn and become scholars but then we get no benefit from it as people have families to support. If they are working 5-6 days a week where is the time left for teaching or studying? Many graduates for that reason have ended up just working normal jobs because their knowledge is not valued and the community is not going to support them. So whilst we lament the lack of knowledge in our community we also are generally not prepared to use money to support those with knowledge.

I believe Muslims are very cheap when it comes to knowledge. People will complain about paying $100 for a course but will not blink an eye buying a $5000 plasma TV.

Being the daughter of an Imam I really saw how undervalued people of knowledge are. Don’t you think it is sad that when you have an Imam for one of the richest communities in the Muslims that his family used to get a lot of things from the salvation army and church groups? That he never bought new clothes or shoes for himself for over 10 years and used to get them second hand? My mum used to say to my dad to go become a taxi driver because at least it paid to support his family.

This is an excellent point and one of the more pressing issues that our community needs to tackle. If we accept that religious knowledge is important — and some of us would argue it is the highest form of human knowledge — then how do we ensure the best people acquire this knowledge and then ensure that they can benefit the community with it.

The two problems are linked and come down to the issue of funding: how do we ensure our religious leaders are paid enough money such that we, firstly, make religious knowledge attractive to the best and brightest of the community; and, secondly, ensure that those who acquire this knowledge can lead a dignified life providing for their family in a similar manner as they might have been able to had they pursued a field other than the Islamic sciences.

Of those people who return from overseas institutions such as the Islamic University of Medina, they fall into one of the following categories: they go on the dole; they take up alternative employment such as taxi driving; they undertake further vocational study; or they become an imam of a mosque (assuming they can find a position which is actually very difficult).

If they return to study or take up other employment, it is possible that the community will not get the full benefit of their knowledge and, for the individual, he will become distracted from pursuing research and further study in the Islamic sciences. They will, however, be able to provide for themselves and their families: which for most people is their most pressing need.

If they go on the dole, then they will have free time to run classes, answer questions and benefit the community. They will probably be provided with cheap housing by the state and a variety of other benefits. There are, however, a variety of reasons why we don’t to see our religious leaders lining up each fortnight to hand in their social security forms.

If they become an imam of a mosque, they will be paid either by the mosque (which is itself funded largely through donations) and/or they will receive a small stipend from an overseas organisation. In Australia, the two largest funding sources for imams are al-Rabita al-Alam al-Islami (Muslim World League) or, in the case of the Turkish imams, the Turkish government. The amounts they are paid, as the comment above illustrates, are often fairly meagre.

Of all the options, the best, most dignified and most appropriate is to pay imams, religious leaders and scholars a wage which is commensurate to their importance in our respective communities. Of course, this assumes that religious knowledge is valued enough in our communities for this to even be a viable idea at all; and that is itself not necessarily a given.

However, what models or approaches are available to better fund our scholars, imams and religious leaders?

Here are some hastily brainstormed initial ideas (some of which will be entirely questionable or distasteful). In no particular order:

  1. We could treat our imams and religious leaders like other specialists and professionals and pay a consulting fee when we avail ourselves of their services. We think nothing of paying a lawyer for legal advice, so we might pay a scholar for religious advice. For example, paying for classes or even, to use an extreme example, paying for personal consultations;
  2. We, as a community, could establish foundations seeded with donations that then invest the money with the income being used to fund religious leaders;
  3. Our mosques and other religious organisations that employ scholars and imams might look to establish future revenue streams beyond simple donations when they are first established. For example, when building a mosque, one could also build shops and offices on the site that could then be leased out to fund the maintenance of the mosque itself and the employment of the imams;
  4. We stop seeing religious scholarship as a full-time job and accept that all imams and religious leaders will seek employment the same as everyone else;
  5. We only encourage people to seek religious knowledge, which usually means time abroad, after they have acquired an appropriate vocational qualification;
  6. We privatise our mosques and other organisastions such that people must pay a membership to use them. A mosque thus becomes like any other service provider or facility in which the people using it must directly contribute to its upkeep and operation. This is, of course, a rather extreme measure. Alternatively, mosques could sell memberships which carry particular entitlements beyond that available to normal visitors. A member might be entitled to the front row during Ramadan (for example);
  7. We could actively and more aggressively promote philanthropy within the Muslim community. For example, many private schools have full-time fundraising managers whose job it is to ‘target’ companies and individuals for donations, sponsorship and the like. At one end of the spectrum, this may mean money bequeathed in people’s wills to the mosque and, at the other end, it could mean corporate sponsorship of particular mosques or events;
  8. Mosques and other organisations could provide Islamic finance. There have been recent changes to the regulation of non-bank financial institutions in this country that make it easier (and cheaper) for Islamic organisations to provide financial services to their members (as many Christian denominations currently do).

Any ideas?