In a few remarks that garnered much debate, a well-known and respected UK scholar, Sheikh Zahir Mahmood, recently wrote:
We have minarets worth £150,000 but only pay £15,000 for the imam.
We invest more in structures than in people.
We must be the only community with such utter lack of any vision.
Nobody was guided by a minaret!
The issues raised are three-fold: the physical structures of mosques, the investment into Imāms and community fundraising. This article briefly outlines some of the debate and concerns surrounding these issues and highlights possible avenues for tackling them; so that we are not simply commentators and denigrators but agents of change.
Physical Structures of Mosques
It is true that there are virtues of building and furnishing mosques. First, it constitutes a form of Sadaqah Jariya. Allāh also says,
“The mosques of Allāh shall be maintained only by those who believe in Allāh and the Last Day; perform As-Salāh, and give Zakāh and fear none but Allāh. It is they who are on true guidance.”
Further to this, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) is reported to have said:
“Whoever builds a mosque, Allāh will build for him something like it in Paradise.”
Facilitating the building of mosques is a worthy endeavour and there is no disputing it. Some would evidently argue that “no one was guided by a minaret”. I would contest that, in quite a literal sense – yes, many people are. Minarets serve the functional purpose of signpost for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike to identify, from afar, that a mosque exists. It is an emblem of the Islamic presence and, quite sentimentally, offers a sense of comfort to Muslims to know that said road or town has a proud, strong community of Muslims.
More practically, the purpose of the minaret is for the adhān to be heard far and wide. Further to this, the ‘towering minaret’ is an identifying marker that allows foreigners in an area to locate a mosque. How many Muslims have been ‘guided’ to a mosque by following a minaret in the skyline? Whether they be in their resident country or abroad. For that matter, how many non-Muslims have done so too? Many. Many have followed the sound of the adhān filling the skies from the minarets, and found themselves at a mosque only to later embrace Islām.
There is far more to a mosque than its minarets, and mosque committees often seek donations to expand their mosque structures in various ways. That is beyond the scope of this article, but the same principle stands. Dedicating funds to the physical structure of a mosque need not be so vilified. If the planned expansion or design of a mosque serves a purpose that will bring tangible benefit to the Muslim community and congregation that is not the same as a merely perfunctory adornment.
However the problem lies in the pouring of funds into grand designs that serve no purpose. The expansion and renovation of a single grand, intricately designed mosque which houses chandeliers, carved pillars and varnished mahogany banisters has pledged almost £10 million of which £5 million has admirably already been raised by eager Muslim donors, and yet another, smaller, simpler mosque which serves as an Islamic secondary school, provides Arabic classes and other services similar to that which are provided by the larger mosque, is struggling to repay a debt of £100,000.
If we look at the example of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) and his mosque we see how simple in structure it was, so much so that the Sahāba (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhum) even prayed on the earth itself.
Allāh says in the Qur’ān,
“O children of Ādam, take your adornment at every masjid, and eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He does not love the extravagant.”
In a chapter in his Saḥīḥ entitled “Chapter on the building of mosques”, Bukhāri records:
Abu Sa’eed said: The roof of the mosque – i.e. the mosque of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) – was made of palm branches. ʿUmar (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) ordered that the mosque be rebuilt and he said: Protect the people from rain, but beware of using red or yellow (for adornment) and distracting the people.
In this narration we are reminded that simplicity in the building of a mosque is paramount. It is a place of worship and its design should not be extravagant or distracting, rather it should serve a functional purpose.
Anas (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) said: They build mosques and boast about that, but they do not use them for worship except rarely.
Ibn ʿAbbās said: You are going to adorn (mosques) as the Jews and Christians adorn (their places of worship).”
Ibn ʿAbbās is also narrated to have said: The Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said: “I have not been commanded to build lofty mosques.”
For all the functionality of a mosque, there is little use in being guided to a mosque if the Imām within its walls is severely ill-equipped for his role. Donating money to build a mosque has become more important than paying for an Imām or contributing to the running of the mosque.
Investing in the financial upkeep of an Imām
With the rising suspicion of where our money goes we are less wont to donate to causes we cannot see the physical effects of. We would rather see a mosque built before our eyes, assured that our money was well spent on those bricks and those prayer mats, than imagine our money filling the pockets of an individual. Sadly, this mind-set is, in part, due to a lack of empathy and understanding that our Imāms may be fathers, brothers, husbands or sons who, like any of us, need to earn a living.
In light of Sheikh Haitham’s article released last week exposing the unfortunate scandal of some da’ees charging extortionate rates for their time, I would like to point out that there must be a distinction between one who swoops in for a term and makes off with a pot of gold and the one who toils away daily to support the community. The local Imāms of our mosques are working day in, day out for the Dīn, leading our Ummah and serving as the ‘man on the ground’ for our communities. For most, this occupation is likely their only occupation by which they continue studying, provide for their families, deliver regular and timely sermons, offer counsel to those seeking clarification in matters of the Dīn, mediate in situations of conflict and much more.
We have failed to realise the treasured position of Imāms in our lives and our communities. It is only when we face real-life problems i.e. a divorce or death in the family, financial concerns or a child gone astray, that we rush to our local, knowledgeable Imām in the hopes he imparts some wisdom to help fix our issue. However, if we have not insisted on and invested in the provision of good scholars in our mosques, there will be no good scholar to support us when we need it. It is in our best interest to ensure our Imāms are paid sufficiently for them to maintain their position as a full-time occupation to which they dedicate their knowledge, time, efforts and resources.
Investing in competent Imāms
There is an ‘utter lack of vision’ within the Muslim community for failing to invest in our scholars. We have all heard of “Sheikh-Google” and the rising phenomenon of seeking clarification for matters of the Dīn online. This is dangerously problematic as Muslims are convinced by unreliable sources or are educating themselves in matters which require much attention to context, specific juristic approaches or nuanced discussions.
Though there are merits to the online community there is a decreased value placed on the traditional manner of sitting at the feet of scholars, learning the Dīn in the physical presence of the people of knowledge and treasuring the time and effort our Imāms dedicate to their local communities. In an article entitled “10 Jewels in Seeking Knowledge”, taking a mentor and keeping the company of people of knowledge were highlighted as key in the progression and development of a student. As Ustadh Alamgir Islam is quoted as saying,
“Be in the company of those who bring ʿilm to life.”
Sheikh Zahir’s comments could also be taken to understand that a lack of funding results in poorly qualified, poorly skilled Imāms. If we do have good, educated Imāms, a lack of funding means they are unable to dedicate their entire time to their role as they seek remuneration through other means. It may be that it is impossible to meet with them after Salāh hours because they have booked talks or sessions elsewhere, are off leading Ḥajj or Umrah tours or are attending weddings.
Unfortunately, we have a situation where many do not realise that the purpose of an Imām is more than an individual who leads the prayer. As Imam Shakeel Begg outlines in an article, Imāms are responsible for calling to Islām, counselling, engaging in social work, working towards community cohesion, providing education, offering matrimonial and funeral services, and propagating and explaining the true teachings of Islām in a time when there is an increase in Islamophobia and a greater number of Muslims are misunderstanding and misapplying the religion of Islām.
Imāms are, by definition, the leaders of the Ummah. If they are uneducated in the Dīn, bringing with them cultural baggage that has no basis in Islām yet which they profess as Islamic truth, they can confuse or mislead their congregations. Many mosque committees still insist on enlisting Imāms from abroad who speak little to no English at all and cannot engage or relate to our youth or the diverse Muslim community in the UK. They do not inspire or motivate and have not grasped what it truly means to be an Imām. Some Imāms are completely ignorant or uninterested in contemporary issues that are affecting Muslims today. As such, they are unable to advise, guide or offer solutions to Muslims in how to deal with controversial matters, hostility or other trials they are facing. This results in Muslims seeking clarification, support and guidance in colleagues, peers or unreliable sources which, quite terrifyingly, can often lead our confused brothers, sisters and an entire generation of our youth astray. It is imperative that mosques hire well-educated Imāms who have legitimate Islamic schooling, approved by a sound scholarship. We would not entrust our health to a doctor that was not qualified nor entrust our children to teachers who were not vetted, so how can we entrust our greatest treasure, our Dīn and our identity as Muslims, to be guided by inadequate Imāms.
Imāms are also at the forefront of dialogue with other communities. Schools regularly arrange visits to local places of worship for students and it falls on our Imāms to represent the teachings of Islām; in knowledge and manners. Again, if there are some Imāms who are unfit to be our leaders how can they be the ambassadors of our religion to non-Muslims?
The imbalance in allocation of funds mentioned suggests an imbalance in our priorities. That “we have minarets worth £150,000 but only pay £15,000 for the imam” indicates a problem with where we are directing our funds. Nevertheless, to the average mosque attendee who donates to the mosque, it seems implausible that they stipulate where they wish their donation to be used. In donating to the mosque, brothers and sisters believe they are contributing to the building, upkeep and running of a mosque in its entirety – including the acquisition and maintenance of a competent, intelligent and inspiring Imām.
There is an urgent need for local training schemes to develop the skills and mind-set of our Imāms. It falls, then, on individual mosque committees to, first, provide more information as to the total running cost required for the mosque and the whole of its staff (including the Imām) and, second, allocate the funds they have attained in a more conscientious manner, considering the imperative need for a good scholar as the Imām over the debatable need for intricate design work on the furnishings.
Investing in programmes to nurture scholars
“The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) did not leave behind wealth or commodities but he left behind the knowledge and pristine principles of Islām. He also left behind Companions, men and women who had a deep understanding of these principles and a thorough insight in applying these principles. These men and women were the leaders who took the message of Islām to the world and brought Islām as a solution for humanities ills and problems.”
This is what we need today. We are short of leaders who take the teachings of Islām and apply them to a contemporary context. We place great value on secular academic progression, and yet, we fail to give due importance to nurturing and developing the future scholars of our Ummah. The earlier generations of Muslims were pioneers in all fields. They led discoveries in medicine and astronomy, for example, but they were also jurists, exegetes and callers to Islām. As Muslims we should foster within our homes and our communities a value for scholarship. Organisations such as the Muslim Research and Development Foundation (MRDF) exist to achieve precisely this by way of initiatives such as Sabeel, a development programme which aims to develop Muslim brothers and sisters with such knowledge and understanding as makes them leaders well-founded in traditional Islamic principles and able to promote the pristine teachings of Islām.
I have only highlighted some of the issues we face and suggested some ways to move forward in this article. The points mentioned serve only as an outline that requires exploration in much greater depth so that meaningful guidance and solutions can be presented. Doing so was not the aim or scope of this article, but I hope this conversation may be continued to the benefit of our community.
 Al-Qur’ān, 9:18
 Narrated by al-Bukhāri (450) and Muslim (533) from the ḥadīth of ʿUthmān (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu).
 Al-Albāni in Saḥīḥ Abī Dāwūd
 Abū Dāwūd (448)