Typically when we think of leadership of the Muslim community we may think first of an imam or religious scholar in charge of a community, however there are different types of leaders in our community and pseudo-leaders as well. It’s important for us as a community to truly understand what leadership is and who our leaders are in our community and more importantly make important distinctions between pseudo-leaders and legitimate leaders.
Leadership in Islam
First, let’s discuss what it means to be a leader in Islam. Leadership in Islam is something that is a central part of the missions of the Prophets of Allah (peace be upon them all). Just as a shepherd is needed to lead a flock leaders are needed to guide and represent a community. Leaders provide guidance, direction and focus for the communities they serve by using their skills, experience, knowledge and expertise. Leadership comes in several forms and isn’t just relegated to religious leadership, but community-building, business, education and other areas.
We also must remember that in our tradition leadership was never a position or status ever proactively sought. When one truly becomes a leader in the truest sense of the word the burden and expectations are enormous. Many leaders have to make personal sacrifices for the well-being of the communities they serve and have a responsibility to serve their communities in the most professional, just, and ethical manner. If any one seeks more limelight or attention is not a leader who is genuinely seeking to serve others.
We are reminded of the humility and the understanding of leadership by Abu Bakr (RA) when he accepted the burden of leading the Muslim community after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him):
“O people, I have been appointed over you, though I am not the best among you. If I do well, then help me; and if I act wrongly, then correct me. Truthfulness is synonymous with fulfilling the trust, and lying is equivalent to treachery. The weak among you is deemed strong by me, until I return to them that which is rightfully theirs, insha Allah. And the strong among you is deemed weak by me, until I take from them what is rightfully (someone else’s), insha Allah….Obey me so long as I obey Allah and His Messenger. And if I disobey Allah and His Messenger, then I have no right to your obedience. Stand up now to pray, may Allah have mercy on you”
[Al-Bidaayah wan-Nihaayah (6/305,306)]
Who are Our “Leaders?”
In this section we’re going to use the word “leader” loosely. Typically when we think of “leaders” we may equate it to celebrity and the notoriety of particular figures in our community. However, I’d argue that despite these individuals having a media presence or a large following on various social media platforms they don’t truly represent a community or the Muslim community in the truest sense of the word. They may represent themselves, their cause, their brand/image, or their organization or company, but can’t definitively say they represent X hundreds or thousands of Muslims. After thinking about the various individuals who claim to be “leaders” in our community I felt it became important for us to clarify who is who in our community to truly understand who represent our community and are true leaders. The following are categories of active individuals in our community—some are “leaders” and others in the list are actual legitimate leaders we have in our community who lead and speak on behalf of Muslims in the Muslim American community:
- Religious Scholarship (Masjid Imams)
Out of the 11 categories the individuals who can truly say they represent a community is our religious scholarship that are leading their congregations. They can definitively give a number of congregants they represent and can speak on behalf of their community.
- Religious Scholarship (Educational Institutions)
Religious scholarship who are affiliated with educational institutions typically speak on behalf of their institutions and themselves. Typically they can’t truly or definitively say they represent a community. They may represent their institution and their students, but a community no.
- Religious Scholarship (Freelance)
This type of religious scholarship I would call the “Celebrity Imams” who do nothing but speaking engagements city after city and conference after conference or fundraising banquet after fundraising banquet. These scholars can’t truly say they represent a community or give definitive numbers of community members they represent.
- Masjid Board Members
Masjid board members are the only 2nd group of the 12 in this list that can and should be able to say they speak on behalf of their community. They should have statistics and data of how big their congregation and how many community members they have.
- Community Non-Profit Organizational Leaders (Executive Directors, Presidents of Organizations, etc.)
Typically national and local organizations represent themselves and cannot truly say they represent again—-a definitive number of community members. Unless the organizations have members who are paying or unpaid membrs they can’t truly say they speak on behalf of or represent a community.
- Community Activists (Passionate about Multiple Issues)
We have multiple Muslim Americans like this who may be passionate about multiple issues, but typically don’t have a community which they represent. Sometimes these individuals get the media airtime and/or limelight, but don’t truly represent a community. They may represent a Muslim stance on a particular issue, but cannot truly say they speak on behalf of a community.
- Community Organizers (Issue-Focused)
Community organizers are individuals who focus primarily on one issue they are passionate about either by themselves or via an organization they promote and raise awareness about various issues, but yet again they don’t represent a community.
- Thought Leaders & Subject-Area Experts
Much like community organizers thought leaders and subject-area experts may provide their expertise on certain areas and they may doing great work on raising awareness about particular issues not typically talked about in the Muslim community, but truly they don’t represent a community.
We have plenty of Muslim American and international Muslim academics, but yet again do they speak on behalf of a community?
- Educators & Teachers
We have educators and teachers who typically focus on teaching Islam to Muslims, but yet again do they represent a community?
- Influencers (i.e. social media celebrities, etc.)
This by far is the most dangerous group that claims to speak on behalf of the Muslim community. We’ve seen the negative and positive impact of social media celebrities in our community. We’ve seen both the fake hate crimes and social media celebrities crying wolf and we’ve seen the positive impact of social media celebrities changing the narrative of Islam and Muslims using viral videos and images. Unfortunately, social media celebrities typically are only a one-way street where they push out opinions and views on issues they may be passionate about most often with little to know knowledge on the subject and end up misrepresenting Islam and Muslims.And of course as we’ve discussed above they cannot truly say they represent a community.
- Pseudo-Experts & Pseudo “Community Leaders”
Lastly we have the pseudo-experts and pseudo “community leaders” who while the groups above speak over each other fill the void in the media and promote negative images of Islam and Muslims and provide fuel for Islamophobes.
National vs. Local Leadership
We need to make a distinction between national and local leadership. The Muslim community has national organizations that claim to speak on behalf of the national Muslim American community while local leadership may not agree with or align with the national Muslim organizations’ views or approaches to certain national level issues. Communication and connection between the national and local leadership is important in order to coordinate and streamline efforts.
…So Who are Our (True) Leaders?
There are a couple of questions we need to ask ourselves when it comes to truly understanding who our leaders are:
- Who exactly speaks on behalf of the Muslim community and represents us and how?
- What is our definition of a “leader” in the Muslim community? Is it number of followers on social media, media presence or are is it they represent an actual number of Muslim community members?
- What are their credentials to speak or represent the Muslim community?
- Are the folks who speak on behalf of the Muslim community qualified to talk on behalf of the Muslim community?
- Are folks who speak on behalf of the Muslim community truly representing a community in the truest sense of the word or are they representing themselves or a particular issue?
- If unqualified folks or pseudo-leaders/experts/folks who don’t really represent us are speaking on behalf of the Muslim community how do we support and elevate the voices of qualified leaders who can actually speak with knowledge, understanding and represent the Muslim community?
- Is it fair for national figures both academic and non-profit organizations to speak on behalf of the national Muslim community?
- How do we ensure that folks stay in their lanes when it comes to speaking on behalf of the Muslim community? How do we ensure that folks who are unqualified to speak on certain issues know when their expertise ends and where others’ begins?
- How is our inability to have a more concentrated effort to support legitimate leadership impacting our ability to change the narrative of Islam and Muslims in our communities, the media and politically?
In order to solve the issues and answer the above questions more questions may need to be answered:
- Are you a leader in the truest sense of the term? Do you have leadership qualities and the knowledge, expertise and skills necessary to lead a community?
- What of the 11 categories mentioned above do you fit into? What are your limitations in terms of knowledge/expertise and when should you defer to others?
- Do you truly represent a community? Do you have members you represent? Do you have an actual number you can definitively say you represent?
Once Muslim American leadership at both a national and local level can answer the above three questions we cannot truly say we are leaders or represent the Muslim American community. The inability to support actual leadership is what is making it difficult to change the narrative of Islam and Muslims and also help grow and improve our community at a grassroots level and a national level. While we may complain about media bias we need to truly as ourselves are we doing a good enough job of supporting and elevating the true leaders in our communities? While we struggle with this we unfortunately see the void filled in with pseudo-experts and pseudo “community leaders.” They hog the limelight and airtime and jump at any opportunity to get interviewed or invited to speak at events or conferences or panel discussions.
Solutions to the Decentralization of Leadership
In order to fix our decentralization of leadership is to nominate a Muslim Pope (just kidding!). Here are a couple of ideas:
- Learn what the Quran, Sunnah and the Seerah say about leadership and what it truly means to lead, serve and represent a community
- Strengthen our Masjids and their operations (pay decent salaries for our imams/scholars and hire female scholarship and teachers)
- Centralize Islamic education back in the masjids and hire qualified Islamic teachers who have been through both traditional schools as well as gotten professional degrees in education.
- Masjids need to do an assessment of how large their congregations and membership—masjid boards need to ask themselves: how many Muslims are we representing or serving?
- Invest and provide viable career options for qualified imams in masjids. This way we have religious leadership at each masjid able to actually represent their congregations and their community.
- Non-profit Muslim American local and national organizations need to do a serious assessment of who their members are or even if they have members they’re representing
- Individuals who self-appoint themselves leaders need to understand their limitations in both skills, expertise and knowledge. They need to know when and when not to speak on behalf of the Muslim community or Islam. Unfortunately on one side of the spectrum we have scholars speaking on current events/issues with little to no knowledge on the subjects and on the other side we have activists and community organizers
- Self-identify if you fit into the 12 categories mentioned above and know if you’re qualified to speak on behalf of the Muslim community. Yes, the media and journalists may ask for a Muslim perspective of an issue or a topic, but you may or may not have that expertise or experience to answer the topic. Know when and when not to speak on behalf of the Muslim community. If you don’t know a topic or an issue it’s okay to defer to other individuals who may be experts—you’re not losing your dignity or losing points lost if you defer to someone else!
- Begin to assess your own individuals who you may categorize as “leaders” and individuals you appreciate, look up to and respect and remember that they are human just like the rest of us—avoid putting anyone on a pedestal no matter how big their platform is, how many lectures they have delivered or how many media appearances they’ve had or social media follower they have
- Pray for our true leaders and for our community who don’t often get the limelight or fanfare and work tirelessly to build communities and attend to the needs of their communities by making huge sacrifices in their personal lives to help others.
- We must begin to be far more critical of our sources of Islamic knowledge and our sources. This is not to say to look at every imam or scholar with suspicion, but don’t get caught up in falling in love with the messenger—focus on the knowledge you’re extracting and appreciate the teacher, but focus on bettering your relationship with Allah via their teaching
- We also must be critical of leadership in our institutions be they masjids, non-profit organizations or educational institutions. Ask the tough questions about financial and operational transparency—ask for quarterly and annual reports, demand accountability and justice if there are instances of injustice. It’s been far too long our institutions have operated in mediocrity, unprofessionalism, and a lack of transparency.