By Imam Luqman Ahmad
One thing for sure; leadership is not easy, and any imam, amir, masjid board president or board member will tell you that leadership for the Muslim community has its particular trials and tribulations. Yet, as Muslims, it is imperative that we have leaders. At the very least, someone must lead the congregational prayers and the Friday prayer (Jum’ah) service. Additionally, there must always be stewards of the faith who take upon themselves the responsibility of leading, caring for, and serving the Muslims. Our principle leaders in Muslim America are people made from imams, amirs, association presidents, and board and shura (council) members. Individually and collectively, they have a tremendous responsibility to try to get it right, because their decisions on our behalf have consequences. May Allah guide our leaders, strengthen them and grant them wisdom for the tasks ahead.
American Muslim leaders have many challenges moving forward in this New Year. As we begin 2017, we are not only clearly a divided nation, we are a divided Muslim community as well. In the United States, there is nothing that divides Muslims more than the political infighting, the racial, ethnic and religious sectarianism, and the disputes about money. Our division as an ummah reflects that we are human, and to some degree, reflects our diversity, our different histories, backgrounds and circumstances. The challenge here is that there is a difference between diversity and divisiveness. The former is inevitable in a mixed society but the latter has to be dealt with using tact, justice and a high moral standard.
On the bright side, American Muslims, because of our diversity, may be in the best position to mitigate our differences in a morally conscious way and in the process help heal an ummah which has been torn apart on the inside and the outside. However, in order to do that, we must allow all credible voices be heard. We need to listen to all sides; not just the elated voices that tout our progress, but to the sincere and observant voices of constructive criticism. This is why we need to have these types of conversations.
American Muslims are tired of division, they are tired of masjid politics as usual, they are tired of masjid organizations playing musical-chairs with our nation’s imams, and they are tired of not being able to talk candidly and truthfully about important issues that affect our communities. America’s masaajid need to be geared more towards faith and morality than they are towards politics and prestige, and in order to do that we have to be able to have honest conversations about any and everything that affects us. That’s the hard part.
The easy part is that once we unpack the national conversation about what’s under the surface about us Muslims, especially regarding racism and the racial/ethnic divide as some communities are starting to do, we will begin to see a clearer path moving forward as a people of faith in the United States. How can we improve our masaajid and their function in our community? What type of Muslim America do we want to see in the next twenty years? How can we do better? How can our nation’s mosques be more equipped as incubators of morality, ethics, and justice and not take on the guise of museums? Here are some thoughts that we might want to consider.
Separating Politics from Religion
At the top of our agenda, or near the top, should be curtailing the influence of politics in the practice of our faith and giving the religion back to Allah. Mosques by definition, belong to God Almighty. Thus, everything that mosque communities embark upon in the name of our religion should be entirely for His sake and not for the sake of our public image, politics, and not simply for the sake of defraying criticism. Muslim goodwill needs to be genuine, authentic and characterized by sincere measured or spontaneous acts of goodness for goodness sake, and dislodged as much as possible from public image considerations.
Islam is the only major religion in the United States of America whose political and advocacy organizations eclipse its religious institutions (Mosques and congregations) in size, influence, financial strength, and representation of its American adherents. Muslim political organizations and advocacy groups exert an ominous and unhealthy influence over local mosques even to the point where national advocacy organizations routinely issue recommendations and talking points for imams of mosques in the United States. This raises a lot of eye-brows. It paints a veneer of disingenuousness over our domestic face, and gives the impression of a fifth column lurking in Muslim America. Such influences also bolster suspicion and animosity towards Muslims while handicapping many of our nation’s imams from making their own decisions about sermonizing and serving their communities. Subsequently much of the American public see Muslims through the projection cast by the Islamic political and advocacy organizations that speak on our behalf, and not as individuals and congregations of faith, each having its own identity.
American Mosques should not be perpetual launching pads for Muslim political and advocacy organizations, and these organizations should not be the chief architectural forces behind shaping the domestic American Muslim agenda and identity. Mosque leaders should learn how to measure successes in moral value based upon our scriptures, and not in political currency which usually only amounts to photo-ops, and elbow rubbing with politicians.
Unpacking the Conversation About Race, Racism and Division
There is hardly nothing more beautiful than to behold the islamic architectural splendor of a gloriously erected minaret attached to a newly built masjid or islamic center as it rises up on the horizon. That sight, as many of us can attest to, is a uniquely exquisite and uplifting experience. Unfortunately for many African American Muslims, this image although it represents progress for Muslims in America, symbolizes another no-fly zone for them because African Americans and convert Muslims, do not feel welcome in many of our nations illustrious and beautifully built houses of Allah. The truth of the matter is that we have an undeniable racial problem in Muslims America, and it may be the biggest elephant in the room. We don’t like to talk about it, but that will not make it go away. Pointing fingers at people and looking for someone to take the blame won’t make it go away either. This is our problem and our nation;s imams, boards of directors, mosque chairpersons and policymakers are well-advised to put it at the top of their agenda. The racial ethnic divide in Muslim America may be at an all-time high at a time when this country is already on the precipice of racial unrest.
Mosque leadership needs to embark upon an open and honest discussion about the racial gulf in Muslim America. We owe it to ourselves and to our Lord to be true to our faith and candidly address this issue because it is a major cause of division in Muslim America. It will be a sober conversation. However, we can get through it and we will be much better off at the other side of this conversation. It will free us from denial and open the door to the long path of healing.
We must accept that there are two Muslim Americas, one for immigrants and their children and another for indigenous American Muslim converts and their children; the majority of whom are African American. The sooner we can accept our reality and work towards comprehensive solutions to bring about better understanding and unity amongst Muslims in our country, the better it will be for us all, and our faith.
Un-shackling Our Nation’s Imams
Many, if not most of our nation’s paid imams, are hamstrung and limited in what they can say, what they can do, and how much they can independently interact with other imams and communities. Mosque leaders should give American Muslim Imams greater autonomy to shepherd their communities according to their own knowledge, their relationships with the people in the community, and their experience, and not based upon any national consensus or pre-scripted role.
Our nation’s imams are conspicuously absent from speaking in behalf of or representing their flocks in the public eye. They are lauded for their melodious recitations of the Quran and their beautiful sermons, but once they step out of the mosque, and even while still in the mosque, their voices are muted. American Muslims need to be represented by American Imams, not our political leaders. Mosque leaders should allow our imams assume their rightful roles as stewards of our faith, and not silence them or control what they can or cannot say. Not only is every congregation different and unique; every region, city and neighborhood is different with its own social personality. The imam needs to be a reflection of that and be able to navigate the many nuances of his religious and social environment.
Mosques Should Pick Battles Prudently and Carefully
In the current climate of anti-Muslim sentiment, many mosques find themselves scrambling to respond to bigotry of different sorts as well as waiting with cautious trepidation about what this new administration will bring to the table. While it’s necessary to deal with bigotry, it is not necessary that masaajid respond publicly to every insult, every threatening letter, or every local criticism or sensational event. Mosques need to pick their issues carefully. Many local incidents of anti-Muslim sentiment could be handled locally on a neighborly basis without calling in the law and Muslim advocacy organizations, who sometimes exacerbate and politicize matters or blow them out of proportion. Many neighborhoods see the local Muslim mosque communities as isolated islands in the community having no real stake in the neighborhood. We have to take at least some responsibility for this uncomfortable paradigm. One thing we can do is to not counter all antagonism with counter-antagonism. Our faith doctrine requires us to take the higher ground and at least sometimes show patience and magnanimity to our detractors, and every once in a while, extend the branch of forgiveness to our critics and detractors, even to bigots.
All of the above are my views in these matters after serving as an imam for twenty years and interacting with dozens of our nation’s mosques, and not representing any organization. I admit that these suggestions are not without controversy and that if implemented, will take time. I also realize that they are easier said than done. However, I humbly offer that our mosques and mosque leaders would benefit from some of these advices, and judging by the circuitous, low yielding routes we’ve taken in the past, we owe ourselves a fresh set of eyes and voices that speak to our condition.
[American born Luqman Ahmad is a Sunni Muslim, the son of converts to Islam. He is a Philadelphia native, a graduate of Omdurman Islamic University, a writer, consultant, patriot, and until recently, has been the Imam of a Northern California mosque for 20 years. Currently he delivers the Friday sermon (khutba) at the Islamic Society of Folsom in Folsom California. He is author of the new book “Double Edged Slavery”, a critical and authoritative look at the condition of African American and convert Muslims in the United States. He also authored, “The Devil’s Deception of the Modern day Salafiyyah Sect”, a detailed look at modern-day extremist salafiyyism, the ideology which in part formed the mindset of ISIS. He is a former executive committee member of the North America Imams Federation (NAIF), a founding member of COSVIO, (the Council of Sacramento Valley Islamic Organizations). He blogs at imamluqman.wordpress.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]