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).

[line] [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.

[line] [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).

[line] [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.

Showing 9 comments
  • Enosh
    Reply

    Great analogy with Lebron James mA. But in my opinion perhaps a further analogy you didn’t make in the article is that lebron James eventually made his way back to Cleveland…

    Eventually as believers we will find our way back to the masjid in my opinion. Yes, the talent will move on and gather more skills and leave the red tape and uncles that hold them back…, but eventually… They know were there heart is and the memories of the masjid and it’s intrinsic wiring into the life a believer will bring them back to the masjid. But this time, they will come back with more talent and championships to show for it (james) iA. Because they know where there heart is, they deep down wanted to stay all along.

    I am hopeful… our masjid will hang up banners iA- Allah will help us.

  • Najm
    Reply

    It seems to be plain wrong to me when the Imam tells me that he’s not the Imam. Actually, he’ll subtly indicate that he doesn’t have power to do X, sort of reminds me of a family where the wife wears the pants!

  • Mir Alikhan
    Reply

    Masha Allah well written. It shows that you did not have to go through any references or conduct any kind of study to write this article because these kind of unfortunate situations can be found in ever community. I grew up in Arlington Tx and similar incident went on with our imam and needless to say he was very much loved by the “youth”, but sadly he must have gotten sideway with an uncle and humiliatingly fired. I stumbled through my youth and the teenage with many temporary Imams brought in some of which were very good I.e. Main Al Huda (May Allah protect him) then I moved to Denton Tx to complete my college studies, there I came across yet another humble Imam Shaykh Ahmed Al Ra’afi (May Allah protect him). For the second time in my life I lost yet another excellent leader and a guide because some uncle was not in line either with his school of thought or may be wouldn’t bend the rules Allah knows the best. A I took this with a pich of salt and moved on to the next phase in my life. After finishing my education I moved to Tyler Tx this time around I’m working and unfortunately not so engrossed in who is leading the community mostly because of my pervious heartbreaking experiences, but one Ramadan when I was doing my stay at the Masjid I got a chance to sit one on one with our beloved imam Shaykh Faisal Ahmad (May Allah protect him) me being being the ilm addict got fooled (Alhamdullilh) again and got lured to his knowledge and always tried to helped in every way possible to avoid any ruffling of feathers between the beloved imam and the administration not discounting the uncles. One day the ultimate “moon fighting” issue came up and you know exactly what happen to our imam…. They not only fired him for that but hit him with many other false accusations, also they humiliated him by yelling and even snatching the masjid microphone and many times threatening him with law enforcement. Shaykh Faisal Ahmed was not your typical imam that was brought in from India or Pakistan or Egypt or somewhere he is a born American and well educated both in Deen and Dunya. Before going to Syria to study the Deen of Allah he successfully worked for IBM as a software engineer and held many patterns with the company. The administration was so currept that they cheated him his agreed salary and went down so low that they sent him and his family an eviction notice.
    My point here is that something is got to be done with this situation in our communities and this can only be done by getting involved and tip the numbers against the ones who have the tunnel vision.

    Mir Alikhan

  • Mezba
    Reply

    Salaams.

    Too many Americans sports metaphors to complicate the article for someone who doesn’t follow NBA or NFL. Simply put, mosques with a traditional male dominated culturally backward mindset are losing new adherents.

    • Abdurrahman
      Reply

      Lol.. I follow NBA and I was thinking same thing.. This really could be summed up pretty easily. Don’t want to lose your imam to third parties, etc.. Then pay him! Don’t know why an imam is expected to behave any differently than any of the rest of us. Everybody expects an imam that is a scholar/PR guy/speaks impeccable English/youth advisor/counselor all while working for 30K with no health insurance.

  • Abdul-Salaam
    Reply

    Great article. At first I thought this was only the masjid I attend, so it’s somewhat refreshing yet disheartening to see this going on in the ummah.

  • Tanveer
    Reply

    Am sure you are writing by your experience being involved in your local community and by far I agree with most of your assessment, but at times it’s a two way street. Some organizations where administration & leadership is doing their best to excel (I know it might be a minority), but either the Imam or general public are an hurdle.

    • Enosh
      Reply

      True

pingbacks / trackbacks

Leave a Comment

Contact Us

Send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Start typing and press Enter to search