The Role of Imams of Mosques in Social Reform

Maulana Waris Mazhari

Posted Nov 19, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

The Role of Imams of Mosques in Social Reform

By Maulana Waris Mazhari

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand for  TAM Editors note:  This article was written about the leadership situation in India, but much of what Maulana Mazhari discusses applies equally to the Muslim community in America.

Imams of mosques can play a very central role in promoting social reforms among Muslims, but, sadly, this is a task that has not been given the attention that it deserves. In popular perception, the role of mosque imam is seen as limited only to leading prayers, solemnising marriages, conducting burial services and so on. Unfortunately, the imams themselves have, consciously or otherwise, limited themselves to such tasks alone.  This provokes many people to ask why imams should have to undergo a rigorous course of study that extends several years in madrasas, claiming that for their present tasks their course of study does not need to be longer than a year or two. I, for one, do not agree with this view, for, if accepted, it would legitimise the limited role of the imams as simply the performance of a few rituals, as is the case now. It would be like a seal of approval to cut the imams off completely from the mainstream of society.

Several decades ago, the poet Mohammad Iqbal expressed his dissatisfaction with the then current status of the imams thus:

          Qaum kya cheez hai, qaumon ki imamat kya hai?

          Is ko kya janey yeh becharey do rakat ke imam?

What is a community, and what does it mean to be the leader of a community?

(What do the mosque imams, who lead [their congregations in] just two rakats of prayer know of this?)

In this verse Iqbal complained about the imams of the mosques of his time, critiquing them for their lack of political consciousness in terms of the agenda of establishing ‘Islamic rule’ in the form of a Caliphate. But this agenda is today irrelevant and has no link at all to ground realities. Today, what our imams should be focussing on is not the establishment of a political Caliphate, or what is called the ‘Greater Imamat’ (imamat-e kubra), but, rather, on grassroots social reform. In this way, our mosques can turn into centres for social reform. At the time of the Prophet and shortly thereafter, mosques were not just places for ritual worship, as they generally are today.  They were also centres of social and political activity. Till the end of the medieval period, education was also imparted in mosques. This was a time when the wrongful innovation or biddat of a division between ‘religious’ (dini) and ‘worldly’ (duniyavi) education had not yet come into being. Lamentably, these other roles of mosques ceased to be in the ‘modern’ period.

The biggest drawback or limitation that the imams of mosques suffer from, and which greatly limits the social reformist role they can possibly play, is their lack of proper training. Simply no arrangement exists for the training of our imams, just as no such arrangements exist for would-be madrasa teachers as well. As far as I know, in the whole of India there is not a single institution or organization that provides training to imams to enable them to play the role of social activists or reformers. The fact is that, especially in north India, which has for decades been victim of communal politics, the ulema community is characterised by a peculiar sort of traditionalism and stagnation that is not at all conducive to positive thinking and action. The imams’ lack of proper training makes them underestimate and underuse their own abilities and talents and severely limits the positive influence they can have on others. It further reinforces the narrow sphere of their present role as simply ritual specialists. They simply cannot think beyond leading prayers, slaughtering animals on Eid al Adha and conducting nikahs.

That every person and social group suffers from some or the other weakness is a truism that does not need any explanation. Yet, it is a fact that the weaknesses of some people or groups can have a much more negative impact on the wider society than that of others. This rule applies to the imams of mosques, who are unable to understand the role they can play in positively influencing the wider Muslim community and in promoting a range of badly-needed reforms within the community. One simple indication of this is that, with very few exceptions, the imams of mosques never make burning social issues and problems the subject of their Friday sermons or their private conversations with others. Instead, they often deal with ordinary and inessential issues in their speeches.

The possible role that imams of mosques can play in social reform is much greater than that of madrasa-based ulema, who, lamentably, are now restricted to the four walls of their madrasas and whose work is now largely limited just to teaching. If at all they appear on any platform to promote social reform, it is not on their own volition. Rather, it is because they are generally invited by ‘lay’ Muslims to grace such occasions, and they do not hesitate to charge them, in cash or kind, for this ‘work’. The only possible exception to this are the activists of the Tablighi Jamaat, who, admittedly, have their own share of weaknesses and shortcomings, but believe that they would be rewarded by God for their efforts.

The imams of mosques have much greater opportunities to closely interact with ‘ordinary’ people—to address them, as during the Friday congregational prayers, and to participate in their occasions of joy and sorrow. This is why they can play a much more effective role in social reform than the ulema of the madrasas. But this is not possible unless they have proper social awareness or consciousness and a fine understanding of contemporary social, problems, concerns, challenges and new ways of thinking among people. Sadly, this is sorely missing, and to a degree even more than among the ulema of the madrasas. This is because, by and large, imams of mosques are graduates of madrasas who have not done very well in their studies, or what can be called ‘second grade ulema’. They receive very low salaries, and are under the constant watch and strict control of the mosque authorities, who place numerous restrictions on their social activities.

In large parts of India, imams of mosques play a leading role in fanning sectarian rivalries and conflicts. I personally know of several cases where imams routinely deliver fiery speeches that are filled with hatred of other Muslims sects. This has resulted in creating huge divisions among the local Muslims who had earlier lived in peace and harmony with each other. It is an undeniable fact that such imams are driven by deep-rooted sectarian prejudice and hatred, and that they have a vested interest in picking on minor issues on which the different Muslim sects differ and magnifying them all out of proportion, making them appear as issues of major theological import. In this way, they project themselves as the leaders, indeed saviours, of their own respective sects, while, at the same time, they cleverly divert peoples’ attention from the crucial issues and questions that ought to agitate them, such as poverty, illiteracy and so on, and for which these half-baked imams have no solution. In this, they are no different at all from any run-of-the-mill, low-grade politician, who is ever on the prowl for an opportunity to promote his political interests. It is not simply faulty education that is to blame here, but also grossly inadequate training. The imams have been trained simply to deliver speeches, and not to do any practical social work at all.

Another hurdle in the path of encouraging the imams of mosques to play a pro-active role in social reform is their own rather pitiable economic conditions. The salaries they receive from the managers of mosques are generally insufficient to make their ends meet. This is why they are often compelled to curry favour with the rich. Because of this, they are simply unable to engage in the task, which the Quran lays down for all Muslims, of forbidding the bad (nahi an al-munkar) with regard to the rich on whom they depend, although it is often the rich who are primarily responsible for a host of social evils. On the contrary, such imams even supplicate God for their rich patrons! I firmly believe that such imams cannot be entirely blamed for this behaviour. When our whole society is so corrupt, we cannot expect just one section of it—the ulema and the imams—to exemplify virtue. That said, it must be recognised that to encourage the imams to play a pro-active role in social reform it is crucial that they be economically empowered themselves.

The Imams of the Mosques and Contemporary Challenges and Demands

A central responsibility of the imams of the mosques is, undoubtedly, leading prayers, which is what Iqbal rather sarcastically referred to in the verse that I quoted earlier. The importance of this task cannot be underestimated. At the same time, this responsibility must be undertaken in such a way that it enables the imams to have a positive impact on the wider society. The opportunities that regularly leading prayers afford to the imams of interacting with a large number of people must be made proper use of in order to promote the agenda of social reform. At the same time, there must be a concomitant expansion in our understanding of the nature, purpose and functions of the mosque as an institution so that it does not remain confined to being a space for ritual worship, but regains its role as a place where education is imparted, social welfare schemes are implemented, and discussion and dialogue on a range of social issues takes place in a planned and well-organised manner.

Many Indian Muslim organisations admittedly do stress the need for social reform, but in this regard they have not taken the practical support of mosques and their imams, which could have been very effective. It must also be recognised that the notion of social reform as envisaged by many of our leaders and their organisations is very narrow and constricted, being limited just to a few issues such as dowry, denial of inheritance rights to daughters, misuse by husbands of their right to divorce, wasteful expenditure, the prevalence of certain Hinduistic customs, immorality, and so on. Leaving aside the issue as to what exactly Muslim organisations have done, in practical terms, about all these matters, and how effective, if at all, these efforts have actually been, the question that must be asked is: Is addressing just these issues enough for the comprehensive and meaningful reform of Indian Muslim society? No one denies the need to address all these various social ills, but, surely, there are many issues beyond just these that also need to be tackled. Sadly, however, they are almost totally ignored by Muslim leaders and organisations.

One of these sorely neglected issues is caste and caste-based discrimination among the Indian Muslims, which, in part, is a consequence of erroneous interpretations of the concept and rules of kufu or social parity that relate to marriage. This has made a complete mockery of Islam’s insistence on social equality and brotherhood.

A second such issue is the denial to Muslim women of their social and educational rights. They have been wrongly prohibited from taking up a range of social or public roles that Islam, properly understood, allows them. This has led to a big chunk of the Muslim population being rendered virtually paralysed.

A third such issue is inter-Muslim sectarian rivalry and conflict, that has completely destroyed the unity of Muslim society.

A fourth pressing issue is the extreme emotionalism and lack of necessary to patience among a section of Muslim youth who, totally oblivious to ground realities and the sensitivities of practical conditions, are driven by utopian schemes.

A fifth crucial issue is narrow communalism or asabiyyat that has led our religious and political leadership to defend Muslims even when they are in the wrong and are clearly oppressors, going clearly against the hadith of the Prophet wherein he very clearly declared that anyone who expressed such communalism was not among his people.

A sixth such burning issue is the misuse of religion for worldly purposes. This is by no means a new problem, but the forms and proportions it has acquired today are proving to be disastrous for both Muslims and for Islam. This is expressed, for instance, in the setting up of numbers of maktabs and madrasas in every little lane and locality, and in completely ignoring Islamic rules and ethics in seeking donations for these institutions. The enormity of this problem is such that even reliable ulema are now forced to admit that founding new madrasas has become a virtual industry. It should be noted in this regard that a major portion of money collected by way of zakat is given to madrasas, because of which other vitally important institutions such as hospitals, modern schools and colleges, orphanages, and social welfare organisations catering to the poor and the needy, are left starved of funds. Muslims, sad to say, hardly have any good quality social welfare organisations, although they never hesitate to remind themselves and others of the great importance that Islam gives to social justice and to serving the poor. Our people will very willingly donate millions of rupees to construct a palace-like mosque, but few of us are willing to financially help desperately poor people living in the vicinity of such mosques who need money urgently for medical treatment, for having their daughters married off, or for educating their little children, who are forced to work in roadside eateries and dingy factories to help supplement the family’s meagre incomes. There are almost no Muslim NGOS worth the name engaged in helping such needy people. Our pseudo-religious commitment is restricted only to supporting the setting up of more and more madrasas and mosques.

The point I am trying to make here is that while talking about and seeking to promote social reform, we need to address these burning issues as well that, lamentably, are generally ignored by our organisations and leaders. And since the imams of the mosques can, if properly trained and motivated, play a crucial role in social reform, it is necessary that they, too, are made properly aware of these issues as well.

The Role of Imams of Mosques in a Plural Society

Imams of mosques have additional roles to play in a religiously-plural society like India’s. In the process of training imams and the very important and in the sensitive task of shaping their minds as would-be community activists, the fact and the implications of religious pluralism must be taken into proper account. A religiously-plural society has its own particular sensitivities that must be respected, and if a social reformer is not aware of these and does not respect them as he should, he is bound to fail in his efforts.

The Meccan phase of the Prophet Muhammad’s life is more important for us as a model for how Muslims living in a religiously-plural society should engage in efforts for social reform. This phase was characterised by patience and avoiding conflict and confrontation. In this phase the Prophet paid greater stress on the internal reform of the fledgling Muslim community, tending to avoid involvement with external problems and issues.  As with the Prophet, one can observe varying approaches to social reform in the case of his Companions, each approach being suited to particular the conditions they were faced with at a particular time. Following their example, Muslim social reformers must be able to properly gauge what sort of model of, or approach to, reform to follow depending on the context they are faced with, choosing the model or approach that is most appropriate to the situation at hand. In today’s context, they need to mould their approach in the light of a host of challenges that Muslims (and others) are faced with. In the specific Indian context, these challenges include Hindutva chauvinism, on the one hand, and extreme emotionalism among a section of Muslim youths, which is, to a great extent, a reaction to the targeting of Islam and Muslims in certain countries. This sort of response, it must be noted, is in no way beneficial to the Muslims at all, having, for instance, led Pakistan to the brink of disaster. It is crucial that in a religiously-plural society like India’s, the imams of mosques neither remain wholly silent on political issues affecting Islam or Muslims nor wag their tongues uncontrollably on such matters. Instead, they must learn to deal with these and other such affairs carefully, in a wise manner as befits those who are committed to God’s path and who seek to invite others to it.

To conclude, it is imperative for the imams of our mosque to play a pro-active role in efforts for promoting a wide range of much-needed reforms in Muslim society. They are well positioned to play such a role, being constantly in close touch with a large number of people at the local level. It is imperative that Muslim organisations turn their attention to this issue and devise appropriate programmes and institutions for this purpose.


[Waris Mazhari, a graduate of the Dar ul-Ulum, Deoband, is the editor of the monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Ulum, the official organ of the Deoband Madrasa’s Graduates’ Association. ]