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


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.

Showing 9 comments
  • Adam E

    Well said Omar. If I can add some thoughts to this, I would say that this freelance economy for Imams/Duaat does not seem like it will last forever. We notice that most of them are US born/raised individuals who are bringing rare and new talents of “American Lingo” with “Traditional Islamic Understanding”. Hence why imported Imams did not command the same demand as their successors. Likewise there are vast opportunities to deliver quality educational programs/services in communities where vacuums of infrastructure, leadership, and organization provide a scenario for the Imams/Duaat to deliver one-time or periodic services for a premium. It is a first-to-market phenomenon that will dwindle down as two simultaneous trends take place:
    1) US born graduates of Shariah/Islamic Studies and activists that are charismatic/have knowledge simply increase in number through the next decade or so.
    2) Communities will transition from “immigrant led” to “US-born led” which should, in theory, naturally provide solutions to lack of infrastructure, leadership, and organization.

  • Usman Waheed

    Interesting that you feel that the community is responsible to take care of the individual. Besides mandatory prayers, what else does the Masjid community provide for any individual? When we start building institutions that cater to the communities then we will see communities more satisfied with their institutions.

  • Mir Alikhan

    You nailed it Omar. I grew up through the era of you name it… Moon fighting, to prayer timning issues, to topic of the Jum’a khutbah to many many more daily rants board members put out there and in the end it’s the Imam of a community who takes the hit and ends up loosing his job, his community and the people he is attached to needless to say community ends up jepordizing the future of their community which is the YOUTH. Great topic i hope we all learn our lessons from this in sha Allah.

  • Mohammad Afzal

    In this new era global communications, Imams now can provide many community services from their homes.
    We should provide Imams with a home equipped with, library Fully equipped with all modern gadgets, 2 separate room for men & women, facility to address/communicate with people anywhere on the globe, A New Masjid car.
    The less financial worries Imams get, better they can focus on community.
    Communities & their boards should not undermine the services & dignity of Imams, in satisfying their personal agendas. It is heartening to see an Imam leaving to petty issues of the community.

  • Culamhusein A, Abba

    A most interesting post. Much food fr thought here. Though the ‘freelance economy’ as applied to Imams has its advantages to both, the Boards of Masjids and Imams, it has its drawbacks. The most important is spelt out in the article itsel: “The downside to this model is the community members miss out on the long term stability of a full-time Imam.” And the saddest part is also spelt out in the article: “However, this is a price everyone seems willing to pay.” I wish ‘everyone’ realize how heavy a price this is.

    Another observation by Omar Usman hits the nail on the head: “…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.”

    Instead of holding the board accountable most groups tend to take another route, establsih a Masjid of their own! On the whole, this is detrimental to the community.

    I for one wholeheartedly second Mohammed Afzal’s suggestion as to what we should be providing for our Imams. I realize that finances of Masjds are limited and that most Masjids are not in a position to privide everything that Mohammed Afzal lists. What is important is to establish a firm and warm relationship between Masjid managements and Imams and between the communities and the Imams.

    It would be interesting to have some thoughts from Masjid manaagements and, more importantly, from Imams.

  • Sam

    Why bother with imam and masjid. Just pray at home. Why do we need someone else to lead ? We know better than these people bringing outdated and backward Arabian traditions to the great American intellectuals. We can have women leading us, we can pray along side women. We can interpret all the islamic text without need for any imam. Shaykh Google and youtube are enough for us.

    • Siraj Mohammed

      I hope you were sarcastic there and not serous. If latter, I humbly urge you to reconsider your thought process. You don’t want to be responsible for sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of our youth, or push those who are already confused farther away from truth

  • Brother

    @Siraj, what I take from Sam’s comment isn’t only sarcasm, but a worrying/real (and very subtle) thought-process which has affected our minds in recent times, related to such ‘freelancing economy’ methodology.

    Imagine what our forefathers/salaf would think of ‘takeaway Islam’ such as the one (subtly) introduced/recommended…

    A sign of qiyamah is that knowledge will be lifted… This could either mean people with knowledge will be less or not considered/respected as much as they used to be… Hence our shaikh’s/imams are slowly/subtly/modernly sidelined, divided from one-another, not consulted/revered etc.. it is thoughts like ‘freelancing economy’ which are the poison leading to this degradation..

    The most important knowledge in life is that of Allah. The most important people are those who carry/practice this knowledge. Our shaikh’s should actually lead us more than ever, be at the forefront of our boards, masjids, services… They need to be consulted in all our lives… They hold the light of Allah in them, and Alan does not give His light to any random person.

    @Omar (authors), I would urge you to re-think how you are affecting the masses/laymen with such articles, even if you are thinking you’re presenting a balanced view.. you’re inadvertently legitimising the grounds which will be fertile to individualsm and self-teaching rather than sitting with mashayakh/scholars and learning as our Salaf have done.

    Wallahu a’lam

    • Omar Usman

      Affecting the masses is perhaps a very generous estimation of the reach of this blog 🙂 My person intent is not the lens by which a certain audience may take it, or even to be balanced, but rather more to convey to people the reality we are dealing with.

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