The Age of the Full-Time Imam is Over, Here's What the New Era Of Islamic Work Looks Like

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In the corporate arena, there is a new trend emerging - the freelance economy. The hypothesis goes something like this. The age of joining a company, and slowly progressing upward for 30 years and then retiring is done. This used to be the goal for many people, but it no longer reflects reality for most people. Instead, people are switching companies and careers quicker than ever before. They go through 'tours of duty' at one place, then move to another. It's also not one role. People now have multiple job titles - sometimes at the same time. It's not uncommon to have your "day job" and also your side hustle or passion project.

Similarly, the age of the full-time Imam seems to be coming to an end. Gone are the days of someone spending the ages of 8 to 18 regularly going to one masjid, and growing under the guidance of one Imam. Instead, we are seeing the rise of a similar freelance economy. Some Imams will spend 3-5 years in one place, and then move to another community (sometimes moving up, sometimes moving laterally).

The freelancing economy is there in the Muslim community now as well. Instead of working full-time in a community, a person will create a full-time income through some mix of income streams such as-

  • An arrangement with one masjid to give 2 khutbahs a month, and a weekly Halaqah
  • An arrangement with another masjid similar to the above
  • Teaching Sunday school
  • Private tutoring
  • Weekend seminars
  • Fundraising
  • Guest speaking / Traveling
  • Family counseling
  • Teaching at an Islamic school
  • Part-time resident scholar or religious director
  • Ramadan (Taraweeh, classes, khatirahs)
  • Chaplaincy
  • Performing weddings
  • Part-time youth director for one community (or more than one)

The reason for this shift is a constant inability of boards and imams to properly mesh as it comes to vision and leadership. And then when they do mesh, it is upturned in a matter of months with new elections. This is something that has been documented extensively on this website and readers are familiar with by now.

The freelance model provides both parties with a layer of security. Boards don't have to make a commitment to an Imam, and can operate more freely without their oversight (although I would personally make the case that this is usually a very bad idea). Imams are no longer tied down to potentially hostile and unstable work environments, having more freedom and flexibility to move around and try different projects. They're also able to focus their work on their strengths and not having to take on demands outside their scope, as well as create better work/life balance.

The downside to this model is the community members miss out on the long term stability of a full-time Imam. However, this is a price everyone seems willing to pay.

Let me explain.

In any type of community work, there are always checks and balances. For example, an Imam is accountable to a board. If an Imam is underperforming, then it's not too difficult for the board to remove the Imam from that position.

What about if a board member goes renegade? In this case, the checks and balances come from the community. The board represents them, and are elected by them. When the community doesn't hold them accountable, then it results in a lot of the conflicts we see now. In other words, if the community doesn't care that much, and therefore can't put enough pressure to retain a good Imam, then it seems to be a moot point whether the community benefits from their long-term presence or not.

Part of this may be due to the fact that the average community member is also "freelancing" their own spiritual development. Instead of having a deep connection and relationship with one local masjid, they'll often attend different ones regularly. Masjid hopping in Ramadan is not uncommon. Even simple tasks like providing Islamic education for your children can be done online with tutors on Skype. For our own development, we turn to our favorite teachers via online videos, podcasts, and books. So maybe we're just not that dependent on our local community providing those services anymore.

None of this is to say that one model is necessarily better than the other, but an observation of the direction in which we are trending, and how to deal with that.

For the community member, it means taking charge of your own spiritual development and your family's development. Chances are, your masjid will no longer be able to fully provide that due to the (well-documented) lack of human resource development and investment.

For the Imams, or students who wish to serve the community full-time later it means learning the landscape. It means developing the skills needed to function in a "freelance economy." And this is not unique to Islamic work, corporate and professional work is trending the same way. It is important to start identifying the skills needed and close the gap.

Finding a community with infrastructure that will take care of someone is going to be even more rare than the prospect of joining a company today and working there until the year 2046.