The Innovator's Dilemma: Masjid Edition

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This article is the 4th in a series about Masjid leadership in the digital age and draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. To stay up to date on all new articles published here, please join our email list.

Why would we invest in mail-order DVD’s when that would hurt our retail business?

That’s the question Blockbuster asked itself when Netflix appeared on the block.

It’s easy to see in hindsight they should have invested in the ‘new’ business instead of holding on to the existing one. At the moment it appeared to be a rational decision made by super qualified people. They were doing everything right and had no reason to believe Netflix was a real threat.

This is a glimpse into what Clayton Christensen calls the Innovator’s Dilemma (not to be confused with the dilemma of bid'ah). An organization can be doing everything right, and yet, they’ll still lose their stature and leadership.

Do you cater to your existing audience, or adopt a new way of doing things to address future needs instead?

This is the same dilemma facing our local Islamic centers.

Masjids have reached a certain level of success by doing things a particular kind of way. Funds were collected and managed with a goal of establishing institutions - build masjids, full-time Islamic schools, gyms, Sunday schools, hire an imam, and then maybe a youth director.

This model works. And depending on how you see things, the argument can be made that it is currently working and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

Accepting that premise, however, is precisely what opens the institution of the modern masjid up to the threat of disruption. When things are working by your definition, there is no longer an incentive to see how other small organizations are attracting congregants the masjid can’t reach. There’s no incentive to listen to people who feel marginalized by the community. And there is no incentive to invest in the human resources needed to build for the future. From their perspective, the masjid is still overcrowded on Fridays, Sunday school is beyond capacity, and funds are still rolling in. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Changing this model by going from 1 imam to a resident scholar + imam + sister’s religious director + youth director + full-time admin is seen as over a 500% increase in bottom line expense. What’s the ROI (return on investment) for that? [Please refer to Your Masjid is Not a Fortune 500 Company, Nor Should It Be for a more detailed analysis on measure masjid ROI]

The world is changing rapidly. As our community centers have struggled to keep up with this change, we see people shifting to getting their spirituality online, third spaces, or other initiatives outside the masjid space.

Ignoring those changes is a sign of weak leadership. It is a failure to recognize the need to adapt and an inability to articulate a clear vision for the future. What can the masjid provide to provide spiritual guidance? How can it cultivate bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood for community members? How will it attract and engage those who are disconnected (regardless of age)? And how will it continue to do that 20 years from now with all the rapid changes we will experience in society?

This is the lens by which we must critically examine “how things have always been done.” We must find a way to honor the past while simultaneously investing in the future.

Of course, everyone thinks they’re investing in the future. There is a gap in how board or shura members see themselves, and how everyone else sees them. This gap occurs when the vision and mission of an organization get lost. Organizations drift away from the future vision and begin to focus on self-preservation. They’ll spend time doing things like rewriting the constitution and by-laws and overemphasizing their structure and procedures.

This is good management practice. The problem with sound management practice is that it is incentivized to preserve the status quo - just with more efficiency.

Focusing on the vision fosters true leadership. It enables strategic decision making to achieve the desired future outcomes.

When that strategic vision can be tied to future outcomes that the community has bought into - that is when you create momentum and practically engage in the practice of community building.


Masjid Inreach vs. Outreach


This article is the 3rd in a series about Masjid leadership in the digital age and draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. To stay up to date on all new articles published here, please join our email list.

“Why in the world would you still have an Urdu khutbah in Toronto? You’re going to lose the next generation” was my question/argument to an Imam I was having dinner with from Canada.

“We have a large percentage of people who don’t speak English that attend the masjid, someone has to serve them” was the reply.

It was at this moment that the light bulb went off. Attracting the crowd that doesn’t come to the masjid, and serving the people who do come to the masjid aren’t at odds with one another - both are important. This may seem simple and obvious, but it is difficult to implement strategically for most communities.

That strategy depends on where your community is in its growth stage.

A new masjid will focus on outreach by default. It has to put effort into attracting new congregants and establishing a base.

Once established, there needs to be a hand-in-hand strategy of deepening the engagement of existing members, while also doing the outreach to increase the number of members.

That in-reach must be intentional. While it will involve things like weekly classes - these programs are a means, and not the goal. Whoever is tasked with the spiritual leadership, or shepherding, of the community must develop a vision for what that development (tarbiyyyah) process looks like over time and how to achieve it. Success for this must be measured on continued incremental progress, and not numbers. We tend to discount activities that don’t draw a large number of people and label them unsuccessful. These smaller, focused, and longer-term efforts are needed to develop new khateebs, teachers, and community leaders from within the masjid itself.

Outreach efforts will be at a larger scale and involve activities that may be less about ‘learning’. This includes more social events, family get togethers, and family night types of programs. These will favor things like enrichment and relationship building more heavily than learning or academics.

Conflict arises when people aren’t able to differentiate the two. People who are more inclined to formal study or academics will inevitably discount outreach efforts as not serious, or “edutainment.” We belittle them, not realizing that outreach efforts are the funnel that produce the people who end up attending the in-reach programs. Likewise, people who are more involved in activism or interfaith efforts will tend to discount in-reach efforts as ineffective because they don’t see immediate numbers or impact. Those in-reach efforts are the long game that is needed to continue community development.

We need to stop looking at these activities as "either/or", and more of a "both/and".

The modern mistake being made with both in-reach and outreach efforts is the over-reliance on social media. These activities, when done correctly, rely heavily on consistent personal interactions and building of relationships. When the modern masjid is expected to serve as a community center, or hub, people must meet to build community.

Social media is taken as a shortcut to achieve this. Some organizations feel that by live-streaming, podcasting, uploading, and being ever present on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Snapchat that they are automatically relevant, and doing their part to be accessible. These are great tools when used to serve a larger vision. They are an ineffective and a waste of effort if they only serve the end goal of “being on social media”.

Being on social media doesn’t automatically mean your impact is multiplied. There must be an actual vision and goal of the work being promoted. The pre-requisite to that is high capacity leadership already in place - meaning not everyone is going to be able to do this. An online presence must be strategic and not a dumping ground. What is the purpose of posting every khutbah? Or live streaming every class?

For many communities, social media is a great tool to do in-reach (NOT outreach) by letting community members stay up to date on local activities. And for a few, this online presence will translate into national or international impact because the work being done is already of such high quality that it attracts that regular audience from other locations.

Recognize what stage your community is in, develop a vision to grow it, and execute strategically on that vision.

See also: Don’t Let The Youth Run Your Social Media


How to Break Through When Community Building At the Masjid Level Stagnates


This article is the 2nd in a series about Masjid leadership in the digital age and draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. To stay up to date on all new articles published here, please join our email list.

John Maxwell’s Law of the Lid states than an organization will never outgrow the capacity of its leadership. If you have low capacity leaders, you’ll be stuck with a low capacity organization (and talented members stuck there will eventually leave). If you have high capacity leaders, you'll have a high capacity organization (and attract talented members).

“Leadership ability is always the lid on personal and organizational effectiveness. If a person’s leadership is strong, the organization’s lid is high. But if it’s not, then the organization is limited. That’s why in times of trouble, organizations naturally look for new leadership. … When a church is floundering, it searches for a new senior pastor. … The relationship between leadership and effectiveness is perhaps most evident in sports where results are immediate and obvious. Within professional sports organizations, the talent not he team is rarely the issue. Just about every team has highly talented players. Leadership is the issue. It starts with a team’s owner and continues with the coaches and some key players. When talented teams don’t win, examine the leadership.” -John Maxwell

It is common to see communities go through an establishment phase with the building of infrastructure and institutions. Once built though, many struggle to attract new congregation members. Maxwell says, "a stagnant church leader stunts the growth of the church."

Sports provides a unique insight into this phenomenon. A head coach of a team can develop young players and take them from a losing record to a deep playoff run. The first time this happens, it is a huge accomplishment. If this happens 2 or 3 times in a row without breaking through to a championship or conference title, then it starts to feel like the team has hit a wall. The coach took the team from bad to good, but someone else with a different skill-set is needed to take the team from good to great. For NBA nerds, look at the Warriors transition from Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr, and what the Raptors are now attempting after firing Coach of the Year Dwayne Casey.

Expectations change at different stages of an organizations life-cycle. As the title of the famous Marshall Goldsmith book says - what got you here won’t get you there.

The leadership challenge for the masjid is figuring out how to articulate a vision for the future while also getting new community members engaged with that vision.

At a basic level, this starts with open conversations. Dialogue is required to understand what people are looking for from the institution of the masjid. Yes, the ultimate purpose of a providing a place to pray will never change. When funds are raised under the banner of building a community, however, then a different set of expectations will come. What does community building look like? What does being part of a community feel like in practice? What worked to build the community in the past won't work to build the community of the future.

Without this open dialogue and connection, organizations will become progressively insular and lose their vitality. Bridging the generational divide (as outlined in the previous post) will mean changing approach on how things may have traditionally been done. Ultimately, it boils down to adaptability.

Is our organizational structure flexible enough to bypass some of the bureaucratic red tape that has accumulated over time? Are project specific ad hoc groups more successful than standing committees? Are we willing to experiment and find out via trial and error? How do we involve people in ways that fit their personal interests and skills?

When things have been done a certain way for a long time, or the same group of people have been in leadership for a long time, a particular culture embeds itself. Maintaining status quo will often take precedence over engaging newcomers. It becomes harder for people to get involved and thus develop relationships with community members.

Leadership will always say they want to grow, but the actions indicate wanting to keep things the way they are. This is natural, as sometimes there is a loss of intimacy in community relationships. People will be nostalgic for the good old days when it was a small group of families praying in an apartment. That's natural. Keeping an organization alive and thriving requires a shift in mindset to stewardship for the future.

Growth requires accepting a new phase in the life of a community. The vision must progress from a small group of leaders to being distributed amongst a larger group of members. This engages people, increases diversity, and introduces new talents to the organization. That increase in leadership capacity, in turn, raises the lid on what the institution can achieve.

The process for doing this is not clear cut. It starts with dialogue - actually listening to what people want. Once that is identified, the organizational structure that exists must be rethought in a manner that will enable more engagement. In some cases this means existing leadership may have to accept that they helped make the masjid good, but someone else may be needed to make it great. Find a way to usher them in and help the community reach a new stage of growth.

The next post in this series will discuss how a masjid should focus its inreach and outreach efforts in the social media age. Please make sure to subscribe to the email list so you don’t miss any updates. 

People Don't Like Their Local Masjid Anymore Because of The iPhone


This article is the 1st in a series about Masjid leadership in the digital age and draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. To stay up to date on all new articles published here, please join our email list.

Who is the masjid president? Who is chairman of the board? How many board members? How do we stagger terms? What about a board of trustees, or executive committee? Should we hire an imam? This is what we tend to focus on in our communities.

While these questions may be important, they ignore a much more important one. How does the structure help or hurt the vision and mission of the masjid?

Many communities were established with specific objectives in mind. The physical structure was established as a place to build community through Friday prayer, Sunday school, and other activities. This vision is reflected even in the physical layouts of purpose-built Islamic centers.

The combination of these vital activities and close physical proximity were the ingredients of community building. Through this, people developed an affinity for their "local masjid". The local masjid was the platform through which all community events happened and bonds were built.

Governance structures to protect this model were introduced. Constitutions were carefully crafted to ensure no outside party could come in and take over or disrupt the local community that had been built.

Instead, the iPhone has now done that job. It was a major domino in a series of events that resulted in the socially networked age we live in - with all of its positive and negative consequences.

Over the past few years, we have seen things change dramatically. More specifically, our expectations of what the masjid provides the community have changed.

With this, our religious experiences are no longer connected to the physical community. We can connect ourselves to seemingly any community in the world. If the local masjid is not catering to our needs, we can find viable alternatives online.

At a deeper level, the technology empowered people to be active participants - to have their voices be heard. Prior to this, if there was friction in the local masjid, you had to tough it out and fight it. This is the attitude we see with elders. They lionize the idea of toughing it out and fighting no matter what. This makes sense, because they had no other option.

Now, however, we have options - and new expectations.

If we're free to participate in online communities, why does the local community shut us out?

I'm free to pursue education, activism, or other projects with people I'm digitally connected to. Why am I not able to do the same in the local masjid?

I'm connected now to new causes and issues affecting Muslims around the globe. Why is my local Muslim community oblivious to them?

The intersection of these points is where we see a generational divide. The "irrelevant uncles" versus the "inexperienced youth". The masjid is an ideal and unique forum for multi-generational interaction that essentially gets wasted due to this conflict.

And when conflict happens, people double down and get defensive. For the youth, that means leaving the local community and going to other communities (whether online or offline) where they can freely participate and contribute meaningfully. For the elders, it means doubling down on preserving the institutions they built.

Preservation mode is a death knell. Preservation is not the purpose of a masjid or of building a community. Preservation mode does not allow an organization to adapt and react to the changes happening in society (and it's changing ever more rapidly than before).

Commitment to the local community has been replaced with a commitment to purpose.

This premise creates a completely different set of questions the masjid must focus on than the ones at the top of this post.

How can the masjid create a community in which diverse points of view are expressed without fear of reprisal? What work is the masjid doing to improve society, the community, and the individual lives of congregation members? How does the masjid foster the building of relationships? How does the masjid balance the needs of the local community while still being connected to national and global causes? How can individual congregation members be empowered to contribute meaningfully?

When the focus is on achieving these goals, then the structure can be corrected. What kind of physical space should be designed to enable these outcomes? What is the best governance structure to enable these outcomes?

These things must be changed. When people come to volunteer, but are stuck in a framework of preservation, they are made to feel as if they have no voice. The elders, although saying they welcome change and involvement, are signaling (whether intentionally or not) that they want to continue things the way they are.

Major changes are needed quickly. Preserving the 'way things are' at this stage will render the local masjid completely irrelevant.

The next post in this series will explore strategies communities can use to adapt to this new landscape. Please make sure to subscribe to the email list so you don't miss any updates.

A Leadership Lesson from The 4 Types of Imam/Board Relationships


I'm going to start with the punchline. This post isn't really about masjids or imams. It's about leadership, the impact of it, and one of its most essential laws.

"Leadership ability is the lid that determines a person’s level of effectiveness." -John Maxwell, Law of the Lid (21 Laws).

Extrapolated further, an organization will never outperform the potential of its leader. To succeed, an individual must develop his or her ability to influence and add value to others. By extension, an organization needs to fulfill the mission set forth by the leader.

How this applies to a masjid begins with a few critical questions. Who, exactly, is the leader? Who is setting the vision for building the community or running the organization? How does their leadership ability impact the ability to carry out that vision, and how do we see this manifest itself in a community?

To explore this, we'll look at this following chart in detail.

High Competency Board / Low Competency Imam

This is the rarest of the scenarios.

It is pertinent here to define what is meant by a 'low-competency Imam' for the remainder of this post. This means someone serving in a capacity of spiritual leadership for the community without any actual qualifications or training. In other words, they lack the requisite qualifications needed for the position as well as the general leadership ability needed to develop a community over the long-term.

*The definition of a low-competency board seems fairly obvious so we won't belabor the point.

A high competency board will, by definition, have low tolerance for anyone not at their level. This situation is rare because a low-competency person would likely never pass the interview process. If they somehow attained a formal role, the most likely outcome is that they would either move on to another community or a lesser role within a year or two.

Low Competency Board / Low Competency Imam

This is surprisingly the most stable of all four scenarios.

The thing about low competency is that its hallmark is insecurity. There is a constant need to portray an image that is better than reality. This scenario thrives in situations where there is co-dependency. Since both parties are weak leaders, they gain their justification from the other.

Stability should not, however, be confused with progress. It would more accurately be described as stagnation.

In these situations the board and Imam retain their positions, but the community does not grow. There is a dearth of actual educational programs or progress. New people may come and try the masjid out for a while, but will quickly move on to other places.

The Imam/board partnership in this case is constantly looking to showcase their "wins" to whoever will listen. So you'll find them constantly bragging about previous accomplishments or openly giving themselves credit for whatever achievements they may have made.

Low Competency Board / High Competency Imam

This is the scenario most people end up hearing about. Community gets an awesome Imam. Community grows. They experience some big wins.

It's usually short lived though, as the Imam eventually leaves because of "board politics."

This is the classic conflict that happens with the Law of the Lid. In this case, the Imam has a much stronger leadership capacity than the board. He knows how to build the community and serve their spiritual needs. The board would simply need to get out of the way and play a supporting role.

Except if the board feels threatened. Remember, insecurity is the hallmark of low competency. If they feel they are working but not getting credit, or that the Imam is outshining them, or that the Imam is not carrying out the vision the board wants to execute - then there will inevitably be conflict.

A high capacity person cannot stay subjugated under a low competency organization for long. They'll enjoy some success, but it usually doesn't end well. This happens all the time in sports. Think about a low competency owner (like James Dolan or Jerry Jones). They'll enjoy some huge wins (like winning a Super Bowl with Jimmy Johnson coaching), but in the end there will be a falling out of some sort and people will move on.

The sad part is, the board usually replaces the high competency imam with a lower competency one - starting that cycle of co-dependence we talked about above.

High Competency Board / High Competency Imam

This seems to be the ideal, but it has its pitfalls.

The best version of this would be what most people consider the culmination of synergy. Everything's awesome. The community is rapidly growing and developing. Programs are taking off. They're doing things other communities can only dream of doing.

The pitfall is that this situation can be ripe for a well-meaning ego clash. High competency individuals are extremely confident in their abilities, and have a track record full of validation to back it up. This is something that can be controlled and prevented, but needs to be watched out for nonetheless.

So Where Does That Leave Us? 

In a vacuum, none of these options is truly ideal. Especially since that second scenario (of co-dependency) is often the longest lasting of the four.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but they can be distilled down to a couple of big picture items.

Understand that these scenarios are not static. Someone may start off in a position with low competency, but through dedicated study, growth, and mentorship, they can achieve high competency. This is a critical part of leadership development. Your ability is not fixed, you have the capacity to grow and develop yourself if you put forth the effort.

The other part of this is that boards experience rapid turnover due to the election model in our communities (which I believe is a broken system altogether, but that's another post for another time). A community can go from high competency board to low competency board in a matter of weeks depending on their elections. This can cause rapid upheaval and instability.

There is a third party that can provide checks and balances for the Imam/board relationship - the general community. Realistically, the community should be able to prevent destructive scenarios like a low competency board running off a high competency Imam, or hiring a low competency Imam in the first place. They're the ones who elect the board and they are the audience served by the Imam.

There's only one reason this doesn't work.


People simply don't care. They let people get away with things, and that's ultimately what has caused a lot of the issues that plague us. When the people don't demand better, they won't receive better. The leaders, the organization, and the community will fall back to the existing level of their lid. And unless each individual takes on the onus of improving that lid, the status quo will continue to perpetuate.

Future Talent Shift and the Impending Breakdown of the Masjid


It was July 8, 2010. Unfulfilled for 7 years chasing a dream and vision that the organization he was with could not help make a reality. Clad in a plum gingham print shirt, talking to Jim Grey, LeBron James famously announced he was taking his talents to South Beach.

This incident has always fascinated me. He was the hometown hero. Born and raised in Akron, playing for his local team the Cleveland Cavaliers. He took them to the finals, they should have been on the cusp of a championship. Movie scripts could not be written better. If anyone was emotionally vested in helping this organization, it was LeBron. Yet he realized that Cleveland could not help him reach his potential. So he left for an organization that would.

Cleveland lucked out in finding the talent, but they weren't able to retain it.

We can talk about the importance of team (and we have), but there's a reason certain NBA players make $21 million a year, and some make $700k (i.e. 30x less). You can have a world class organization, but without some level of talent, you won't achieve much. By the same token, you can have amazing talent (Carmelo Anthony), but it will go to waste in a terrible organization (Knicks).


[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ver the past 20 years, the Muslim community in the US has seen major shifts. There was a stage where we struggled to get basic facilities off the ground. Many places were in survival mode doing whatever they could to establish Juma prayer and Sunday Schools.

Imams were brought in from wherever possible and were expected to lead and guide the community. In general, they often grew with the community. They would be there when a kid finished reading Qur'an for the first time (ameen ceremony), and most likely for their high school graduation as well. It was a spiritual pillar of support. For me, from the age of 7 until 15, our masjid had a total of 2 imams [and I only cut it off at age 15 because we moved to another city]. Now, it is not uncommon for a masjid to go through 3 or 4 imams in that same span of time (and that includes periods without an imam at all).

So what's changed?

Communities are essentially Islamic organizations. You have talent, and this is what attracts the people. But you also have an administration that has to provide support. You can have a great superstar, but they will not perform to potential without a great coach, general manager, front office, scouts, assistant coaches, trainers, and so on. The talent is only one part, but there is a whole system that is required to make it work.

Put it another way - imagine if Barry Sanders ran behind the Cowboys' offensive line in the 90's.

How do we define the "talent" in our communities? Obviously there is the imam, but there are more - resident scholars, youth directors, khateebs, sisters coordinators, Qur'an teachers, and Sunday School teachers just to name a few.

The nature of organizations has changed as well. The masjid is no longer the only organizational type. We now have humanitarian organizations, third spaces, educational institutions, and a host of online outlets. Each of these organizations are magnets that attract (or compete for) different types of talent.

The masjid has for the most part been a fairly static institution. Many have tried to expand the masjid with Islamic schools and gyms, but the purpose of the masjid beyond a prayer space always opens up a debate. In this case, direction must come from one of two places - the talent, or the organization.


[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat happens when the two are in conflict? The community, in general, looks to the imam for guidance and vision. What can this community accomplish? What should it do? What is the best way of achieving that? What is the organization's role in shaping or supporting the vision?

This year the Philadelphia 76'ers are tanking. This means they are losing games on purpose to improve their ability to get good young players and be successful in the future. That is an organizational strategy. In 2007, Kobe Bryant famously ripped on Andrew Bynum and building for the future when the Lakers could have had Jason Kidd.

And in 2011, the NBA owners 'locked out' the players due to an inability to reach an agreement on how to divide revenues in their negotiations over the Collective Bargaining Agreement - leading to a work stoppage and a shortened season. Players during that time were said to be exploring the possibility of creating another league to compete with the NBA.

When an organization starts going in a different direction, they often do so at the expense of their most talented players - who want to leave for winning situations (talent attracts talent).


[dropcap]E[/dropcap]very couple of weeks on Facebook, I see a new announcement about an Imam leaving his local masjid. Although these messages are diplomatically worded, they make clear that the root is a fundamental disagreement in vision with the administration.

This was more difficult to do before because Imams didn't have many options. If there's only one league you can play in, then you're stuck. Now there are other types of organizations to join - and even the option of becoming your own personal institution.

In other words, masjids no longer hold the same leverage they once did. This means having to adapt. The cheese has moved.

Change comes naturally. By definition, talented people are usually in a growth mindset. They've been trained to continue learning and growing and trying to reach their potential. There is a season in one's career where teaching Sunday School is the best use of a person's talent. There is also a season where they grow out of it and need to use their time for something more valuable. A doctor is well qualified to teach life science to middle schoolers, but it's not the best use of their time - they need to be taking care of patients.

When an organization can't (or refuses) to keep up, conflict occurs. The crisis has been well chronicled.

The landscape we see now is reflective of what is mentioned above. People are losing their attachment to the masjid. Fights are becoming commonplace.

Organizations will always complain that they can't find dedicated people. There is no shortage of dedicated people. They're simply finding other outlets.

People are pouring their energy into private institutions, third spaces, and online ventures - not because they don't want to help the masjid, but because they feel marginalized. This is not something that will happen in the future, it's already happening. More and more imams are leaving the masjid (in terms of full time occupation) and devoting themselves to other ventures. Talent attracts talent. People with other skills and motivation to help the community are going with them. And just to connect the dots, financial resources are usually the next to follow in this exodus.

We dream of the masjid being a community center, but without someone to lead the community, and without servicing the needs of the community - the institution will break down. It will become a place where you go for Juma and taraweeh. But for anything meaningful outside of the ritual acts of worship, you'll have to go elsewhere (as many already are).

Now what?

Masjids and imams breaking up isn't just a sad love story. The exodus has started. It should be a wake up call. Organizations need to refocus and realign. Take the role of being a representative for the community seriously - see what they need, find the leadership to lead it, and create the support structure to sustain it.

I'm happy that we're developing organizations and institutions that will serve the community, and providing outlets for people to develop and grow. However, it comes at the trade-off of that happening in the masjid and the masjid no longer being the point of attachment for the hearts of the community.

The checks and balances in our community are out of whack. An administration should not be able to drive out people the community loves. They can only do this when there is apathy in the community. Although, it must be said that even when people care, constitutions and procedures get amended to formally marginalize those who do.

There is no straight answer to the question: Now what?

We need to marginalize the influence of those who want to build jannah on earth through the Masjid and shift to building our akhirah.

In short, we all need to do a better job of serving our communities and supporting those who serve our communities.

Your Masjid is Not a Fortune 500 Company, Nor Should It Be


Being professional doesn't mean being corporate. This is a myth being perpetuated in our community - one that I fell for myself.

Inherently, it cannot be the case. Islamic work, by definition, is non-profit. Corporate work, by definition, is for maximization of profit.

Before continuing, one objection must be addressed, and that is the existence of "for-profit" Muslim enterprises or institutions. In these cases, the nature of the work dictates the underlying values of an organization. A Muslim business that sells lotas, for example, would be for maximization of profit. It is difficult to envision a scenario where they might go around donating lotas, distributing free lotas to increase lota awareness, or ask the community for good-faith contributions to help fund lota research and development.

An Islamic organization may choose to utilize a "for profit" status in terms of legal and tax filings - but if the nature of the work is community oriented, the general mode of business is still in the non-profit arena. This would include things like educational services, counseling services, or even in some case humanitarian ones. In other words, the bottom line is the proliferation of a service as opposed to maximization of profit.

It is easy to look at corporate models as an ideal. There are clearly defined hierarchies. There are analytical metrics to quantitatively judge performance and success. Investors must see direct returns.

Nonprofit work is messier. Results cannot necessarily be measured every quarter - it might take 25 years to see results. Investors may not see returns until the next life.

This is why universities offer different courses of study for an MBA, or a Master's in Non-Profit Management. They're just different. Here are a few ways they are different that are important for Muslims in administration capacities to understand:

1) Human Capital vs. Commoditization 

Human capital is the lifeblood of community work. There is nothing that can replace a good imam, youth director, or teacher. Community leaders are highly sought after due to the value they provide to their congregations.

The corporate mindset is to commoditize the Islamic worker. This is where boards begin to demand things like "must deliver 50/52 khutbahs a year, must hold programs with at least X number of people in attendance," and so on. It shifts the focus from the human element of interaction to creating a system where everyone is replaceable if certain metrics are not met.

The most unfortunate consequence is that this type of commoditization is passed off as succession planning or sustainability. Community work cannot be measured on these types of metrics. How do you quantify the value of a person growing up for 15 years under the spiritual guidance of their local imam, going to him for issues when confused or faced with difficulty, and growing up as a strong confident Muslim? It's difficult, and that's why lazy (or corporate) boards fall back on metrics like "must be there for Isha salah 5 minutes before iqamah 363/365 days a year." This is what creates inflexibility of community leaders being able to attend programs such as MSA and interfaith talks - in order to meet corporate style requirements.

A community leader or teacher that provides counsel, direction, and education cannot simply be considered another employee (which is what the corporate mindset dictates).

2) Competition

The corporate mindset is entrenched in competition. Everything is focused on talking points like market share. The underlying attitude is that of a scarcity mentality. If another Islamic center opens up within 10 miles, fundraising dollars will be lost. If our Imam employee speaks on another platform, teaches for another organization, or even helps anyone else - he is violating his loyalty to our organization or institution.

Institutes will focus on how to draw students away from one program and funnel them into theirs (in order to maximize revenues, not benefit).

The core principle for Islamic work is - "And cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression."

The moment another Islamic organization, school, or masjid is seen as competition - you've lost the plot.

Complement one another, help one another - the end goal should be the same.

3) Revenues and Barakah

There is no concept of sacrifice in the corporate arena. Every dollar spent must show a calculated return. Even investing in an employee's education comes with an expected return - otherwise they wouldn't stay in business.

Islamic nonprofit work requires having some level of reliance in Allah (swt) [tawakkul]This is not to say finances should not be watched - but it means that not every financial decision can be quantified with such a quantifiable return on investment in the financial sense. How do you value the return on $20 spent on lunch with a young member of the community who is struggling with their faith?

Yes, there are corporate equivalents. Ultimately, they are all tied to some kind of return. A budget allocated to entertaining prospective clients still comes with an expectation of a larger return via sales. Dawah work doesn't have such a tight lead generation and conversion metric that a consultant can throw on an Excel spreadsheet. What if a $100 Islamic class changes someone's life?

How do you value a khateeb that inspires just one person to return to practicing their faith after 3 years of regular talks - slowly chipping away? If performance is judged solely on tuitions collected and revenues generated - instead of lives touched, value added, or impact made - then we've again lost the bigger picture.

Corporate financial math ignores the key multiplier coefficient of barakah.


Corporate thinking has its place - in business. There are many great corporations and lessons to be learned from them (every organization can learn a thing or two from Apple, Google, and even sports franchises). These lessons cannot permeate their way into the management of Islamic organizations to such an extent that they trump our Islamic values, the respect we give our teachers, the human element of Islamic work, and the ultimate end goal of what we are trying to achieve.


Occam's Razor Solution - Fundraising for Human Resources vs. Construction


I had an epiphany while listening to an interview with Scott Harris, founder of charity: water, about one of the common debates in the Muslim community: Invest in structures or human resources?

Everyone is fighting over the same piece of the pie. There are only so many fundraising dollars. Financial commitments have been made to one thing and therefore other priorities must be postponed. Essentially - we're in a bind and while we'd love to hire more people, we simply can't.

So here's the epiphany.

Charity: water is a reputable non-profit that provides clean water to people who don't have access to it. Here's the kicker. 100% of your contributions go directly into building the wells. One hundred percent. How is that possible?

Every charity has overhead of some sort. Salaries have to be paid. Web hosting has to be provided for. Someone has to pay for things like paper and print toner. How in the world are they able to guarantee that 100% of donations go strictly into the actual on the ground work?

Simple. Profound.

They have private donors (angel investors) who have decided to cover all the overhead [see the details here]. This enables contributors like you and me to let 100% of our funds go directly into the cause we care about.

That's it. 

It is maddeningly simple.

How do we apply this to our communities?

Why not fundraise for both human resources and structures? Let the community dictate where the funds go. The board, after all, is a representative body of the community. They'll tell you by way of their donations what they want the money spent on.

The biggest barrier to this is scarcity thinking. Or to put it another way, a severe and debilitating lack of tawakkul. People think there is a fixed amount of capital in the community and it must go to whatever a handful of people deem most important. This is the same thinking that causes people to fight when a new masjid opens up - "they'll take our donors away!"

Instead of saying we can't hire an assistant imam, or sisters coordinator, or youth director due to lack of funds - why not approach the community and say, we'd like to hire a sisters coordinator and this is the cost. If you want it, show us.

The biggest problem is we never give the community the chance to make that decision.

If Someone Handed You $5 Million, What Would You Build For the Community? Not What You Think.


Someone posed this question to me recently (seriously, not hypothetically). Let's say there's a benefactor who has given you a blank check to build something of use for the community - what would you build? The thinking was why not build a better version of the Bayyinah or Qalam Campus, or a super amazing youth center?

This question presupposes that by simply having the funds, you can shortcut the headache and have an amazing facility. It's true - you will have an amazing facility, but that might be it.

I'm fortunate, alhamdulillah, to have had an insider's view (from an administrative capacity) of the launch of both institutions as they transitioned to full time campuses. As I reflected on the question, I realized one of the most important lessons about the process. As cliche as it sounds - it's the journey, not the destination.

Those programs succeeded in large part on sweat equity. Hustling and grinding. Traveling to dozens (if not over a hundred) Islamic centers and teaching courses, making connections, developing students, and establishing relationships. People see the finished product and think that with some money it can be recreated. The truth is, the final product is a culmination of years of hard work. It's that work and those relationships which enable the success of establishing something. I'm fairly positive if you hit rewind, and handed those institutions $5 million about 8 years ago - they would have a fantastic facility and full-time staff. But this money is not able to buy results. It is not able to buy credibility. It is not able to buy a reputation.

You can build a fancy youth center, but unless there is a community that they feel a part of, the structure will not make a difference. The greatest masjid stories are those that started out with 5 guys praying juma in the living room of a 2 bedroom apartment. Not the stories of empty multi-million dollar facilities.

In many ways, how you get there is more important than where you go. Once you arrive, it's quickly on to the next thing. You have to have traction to make that jump.

We can all dream about what kind of institutions we'd build if we had unlimited capital, but the reality is "build it and they will come" is a proven failure. Show people you care, serve them, and whatever you need built will happen by the grace and blessing of Allah (swt).

What Brown M&M's Have to Do with Your Masjid's Adhan


The rock group Van Halen (remember this?) had a provision in their performance contract that called for a bowl of M&M's backstage - but with all the brown M&M's removed. This might sound like the typical ridiculous and illogical request a famous group might make, particularly when it's said they would cancel a performance if they found a brown M&M - but there's a lesson to be learned.

David Lee Roth explained it in his autobiography,

Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We'd pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors — whether it was the girders couldn't support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren't big enough to move the gear through.

The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say "Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes . . ." This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: "There will be no brown M&M's in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation."

So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you're going to arrive at a technical error. They didn't read the contract. Guaranteed you'd run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening. []

When it comes to running our masajid, there are a lot of brown M&M type of scenarios. For example, on Friday, is the adhan called out with the proper pronunciation? This can serve as an easy way to tell how much attention is paid to these types of details. What about when a person who regularly leads prayers having bad tajweed? What about a regular khateeb who shaves his beard?

For some, these details might be nit-picking. The reality is that it indicates the level of care and concern of the community and those in charge. We've settled for too long with lowering the bar instead of challenging ourselves to raise it.

It's a lot like clean bathrooms. Everyone has something that represents their brown M&M's. This is not a case of ignoring the small things for the sake of the big things. The onus is on those of us in charge to pay attention to the details and make sure we get the little things and the big things right.