Rethinking the Importance of Structure
By AZHAR USMAN
It is well-settled that one of the defining characteristics of modernity—of what makes contemporary civilization work—is its reliance upon structure. As a rule, to be successful at anything in the modern world requires process and procedure. In a word, structure. In this regard, throughout my life, I have observed an interesting phenomenon among Muslims: they seem to believe that this rule does not apply to them. I refer to this phenomenon as Muslim Bubble Syndrome (MBS). It is as if so many Muslims believe that they live in a bubble; that they are not subject to the simple and undeniable rules that apply to the entire universe around them.
Perhaps some illustrative examples shall prove useful.
First, the very notion of institution building amongst Muslims—in the Muslim world as well as throughout the Western Muslim Diaspora—is quite popular as a concept. However, on the ground, almost every so-called Islamic institution that I have observed in North America and Europe is run and managed like a zoo or a circus. (Actually, strike that. I recently took my kids to the circus and even it was well-organized and professional!) Consider, for example, American mosques, most of which are haphazardly managed by a group of volunteer board members and a few (if you’re lucky!) paid staff members. Invariably though, key decisions regarding day-to-day operations are left to volunteers, most of whom treat their volunteer commitments to the mosque the way they would social commitments to acquaintances: “Yeah, we really should get together some time.”
The problem is easy to diagnose: unprofessionalism. Most mosque managements suffer from MBS. They are convinced that everything can be handled by a bunch of half-committed volunteers, in spite of the fact that everything in the world around us indicates otherwise. Nearly every American church and synagogue is run and managed by a full-time staff of paid professionals. Why? Because in the world outside the Muslim Bubble, people understand that there is an industry of religious workers. There is nothing insincere or ethically problematic about being a “religious professional.” Business schools across the U.S. offer specialized degrees in religious nonprofit management. Non-Muslim institutions employ such individuals; Muslim organizations are generally unaware of their existence. To create comparable institutions, Muslims will have to invest as heavily in developing a cadre of Muslim religious professionals as they have in acquiring land and erecting buildings, on which countless millions of dollars have been spent.
Interestingly, it seems little thought has even been put into the governance structures of American mosques. Most seem to follow corporate models, with presidents and executive committees, volunteer boards of directors, paid memberships and elections—but why? Who decided that this is the best, most efficient or most effective manner of running and managing a mosque? Have other models been tried? How were mosques managed throughout Muslim history? Sadly, the mosque president—who is likely a full-time physician or engineer—probably has no answers.
And of course, even those American mosques that seem to have figured out that they must have a paid full-time imam if they are ever to become legitimate organizations are nonetheless highly unrealistic with their expectations and demands on such an imam. He must be college-educated with amazing oratory and rhetorical abilities for Friday sermons, preferably a hafiz (i.e., entire Qur’an committed to memory—especially relevant for leading nightly prayers every Ramadan); must be fluent in both English and Arabic (Urdu is a major plus!); be able to teach and relate to young and old alike (and play basketball with the “youth,” of course); and don’t forget his public relations skills because he has to field and handle all interview requests from local and national media whenever anything “Muslim-related” breaks in the news (which is basically every day!). And for good measure, he might as well be a licensed psychologist and/or social worker to handle the pre-marital, marital, post-marital, family and mental health counseling and therapy needs of the entire community. All this for an underwhelming $50,000 salary plus so-called competitive benefits. By these standards, American imams are either the most under-qualified bunch of employees—or low-grade superheroes!
Mosque management aside, Muslim professionals will go on at length at dinner parties, coffee houses and hooka bars across the globe about the problems of the world and how they, of course, have all the answers. This is a variant of MBS known as Muslim Empire Syndrome (MES), which is the phenomenon of being so self-unaware that one thinks one could solve the problems of the entire world, or the non-existent “Muslim Empire,” or American politics, or whatever, but for the fact that one has been trained as a specialized physician who cannot even solve the parking challenges of his local mosque. (And yes, this column admittedly suffers from a hint of MES too.)
Another example of MBS I recently observed is the lack of uniformity in the method of citation of authoritative religious sources in Muslim literature, or lack of standardization of rendering Arabic phrases into English, or even mere transliteration of Islamicate languages into English characters. A friend recently told me that he wants to transliterate a famous Urdu book into English letters—which I honestly think is great—except that he announced that he plans to invent his own system of transliteration to render Urdu sounds into English since, as he says, his system is going “to be so much easier” than what’s out there. Of course, the countless academics who have been working tirelessly for decades on creating and developing uniform systems of transliteration are all idiots—and he, a professional computer network engineer, is going to work out a superior methodology during his spare time.
The great irony in all this is the fact that Islam is a highly structured religion, with meticulously worked out theological formulations and perhaps even more legal formalisms. It is hoped that the coming Muslim generations inevitably taking up the responsibility of Muslim institution-building will be more successful at developing an intelligent understanding and application of their faith that syncs with the undeniable realities and irreversible trends of modernity. Who knows, maybe one of them will even hold the pin that pops the bubble?
AZHAR USMAN is a leading Muslim comedian. He co-founded “Allah Made Me Funny”—The Official Muslim Comedy Tour” in 2004, which was subject of an entire episode of ABC Nightline in March 2005. His website is www.azhar.com