The role of Muslim clergy in the West must change

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Shared by Dr. Ashraf Abbasi

The role of Muslim clergy in the West must change

An invitation to self-reflection and change for my fellow clergy

I have tried to come to terms with the emerging fact that I do not have the time to do the things I want to do or write the things I want to write. As for the latter, I’ve had a number of projects waiting in the wings or left hanging half-finished.

One of these is a longer piece about the need for the Muslim clergy to radically shift its role not only among the believers, but among society at large. Because I realize I will not — at least in the next year or so — have the time to write this the way I would like to (full of carefully-researched narrations and Quranic quotations and exegesis to convey the force of timeless scriptural, moral authority, no doubt), I figure it’s better to write something — anything — about it, rather than waiting for the “right time” that may not come.

My central premise is this: the role of the clergy today must be to walk with the people, rather than lead them from behind a veil of sanctified authority. We must immerse ourselves among the poor and the marginalized, the neglected and the abandoned, the exhausted and the hopeless. We must not simply share our lives with them, but entwine our existence and fate with theirs.

I saw elements of this in Iraq, and perhaps this was by virtue of the sheer number of clerics. However, even there, the clergy are in essence a caste of their own. They live by a separate set of societal rules and mores designed, I suppose, to protect their dignity and reverence. As the Holy Household are meant to be God’s intermediary, it is as though the clergy are now the intermediary between these sacred symbols and the faithful.

I see in the West, and perhaps this is by virtue of the sheer dearth of clerics, a clerical class elevated to the role of spokespeople for a religion in exodus. Here, the clergy are viewed either with an awe and reverence that is often — though not always — unearned, or disdain; but in both cases they are held in esteem or contempt for largely the same reason: we are marked by separateness. We are meant to be distant from the worldly life around us. We are meant to be “better than” the laity, something to which they can aspire.

It is now my belief that this is all terribly wrong. If we look to the example of Imam Ali, we see him surrounding himself, even as head of state, with the poor and marginalized. We may marvel today at his profoundly austere life, but we nearly always miss one of its key functions: not to express his moral superiority or sanctity, but because he believed that no leader should live at a standard of life higher than the lowest of the people he serves.

This kind of personal austerity runs as a thread through the lives of the Holy Household. It is easy to find example after example of Fatima’s bare kitchen or weathered fingers, or acts of remarkable generosity from Imam al-Sajjad. Doubtless there are lessons of spirituality and self-sacrifice, of rejection of worldliness, in these stories. However, if we examine only the most obvious spiritual dimensions, we neglect an equally important aspect: these are figures who God appointed to lead humanity on the path of salvation, individuals who lived among the oppressed to serve them as the embodiment of the Lord’s mercy. Their service was not a pretext for ministry, rather it was their ministry.

I ask my fellow religious scholars to throw off the robes of separation. I do not mean the traditional uniforms of the clergy, but the divide that keeps us apart from the rest of the faithful, and especially the most neglected among us.

I am reminded of how much Iraqi hospitality hurt my heart. Once, visiting a rural village, we were invited to the home of its leader. It was an incredibly modest dwelling, constructed in the most elementary fashion. Inside, we were sat at a spread fit for a king: red meat, grilled fish, mountains of carefully prepared and arranged food. When we had finished eating, I saw that the leftovers were brought back for the rest of his family, who had actually prepared the meal, to share.

When we left, I was troubled, and asked another shaykh how they had provided such a banquet. They had, I was told, spent an enormous sum, and perhaps taken a loan. I had not been prepared for the answer to hurt me as much as it did. When I expressed my pain, I was told that it was a matter of hospitality, of pride: anything less would have been shameful for our hosts, and they were happy to have served us.

To this day, I have never felt right about that experience. It would be easy to excuse myself, to say that if I had declined to partake, it would have been insulting to the host. And while that is true, it does not soothe my conscience. And I am reminded of this story any time I attend a function at a mosque where food is served at the end, and members of the clergy are always served first and sometimes at their own spread. It is all backwards.

We, as members of the clergy, should be the ones going into debt to provide food for the poor. We should be those who serve the food, those who eat last, and those who eat the scraps and leftovers — not as a matter of demonstrating our supposed spiritual enlightenment or moral superiority, but for the sake of God’s love and mercy. We should be the first to sacrifice, not the beneficiaries of the sacrifices of others. And as for spirituality: how can we even hope to spiritually enrich the lives of the most materially impoverished of our communities if we do not share in their poverty, their reality?

A good first step to remedying this problem is for members of the clergy to hold jobs. One of my dearest teachers once inquired about moving to America, and asked me if he could work as a farmer (and if he could dress in his turban and dishdasha while doing so!). I told him that probably he could, but why would he want to? Shi’i communities across the country were in need of clerics. He would be paid simply for fulfilling that role. His response: “It is makruh for a clergyman to refrain from work and live off of others.” Moreover, I realized that this is one of the greatest reasons that clergy are often totally out of touch with their communities. It is not because they are often recent immigrants, or because cultures differ, although both of those things could be easily overcome by holding a job in a community, ideally a menial one.

Of course, doing the work of the clergy in even a small community is like holding a dozen jobs at once: you are counselor, financial advisor, judge, teacher, priest, etc. But as long as one of our jobs is not the title of “coworker,” our capacities to take meaningful actions in these other roles will be limited.

The next step is to shun the rich. I don’t say this lightly. Our Prophet tells us to sit with the poor and avoid the rich, though respecting all alike. I am not suggesting that we treat the wealthier members of our community as outcasts. I am, however, urging every member of the clergy to cease at once the deferential treatment I see the wealthy receive in terms of our time and attention.

There are practical exigencies of maintaining a community of which, I promise, I am not ignorant. I understand completely that Islamic centers have utility bills. This does not mean that those who donate more are entitled to more of our time and access than others, or to more gracious (and at times, frankly, obsequious) treatment when they receive it.

We should treat every member of our faith community with dignity and respect because they are our brothers and sisters in faith and humanity; the moment we do so in greater measure because of their material benefit — even for the sake of the broader community — then we are engaging in a kind of hidden idolatry.

Whatever hardships might arise from taking steps like this, let us rely on God for us to make a way for us. Let us be one with our communities, rather than one over them. If Imam Ali has taught me anything, it is that true leadership is service, and that service is something greater than existing as merely a symbolic presence offering spiritual nourishment.

I have not had the time, nor will I likely find it, to proofread this, and I apologize for any errors. Moreover, I hope that any of my fellow clergy who read this will take my words and criticisms in the spirit of brotherly love. We can do better, but real improvement does not mean devoting a few more lectures to salient issues of poverty, exploitation, war, or racism; it means being among the people and fighting against poverty, exploitation, war, and racism. But, if our capacity among the faithful remains unchanged, I worry that one day every Muslim community will discover it is just as well-off installing in its mihrab a mannequin dressed in a turban and jubba, containing a built-in speaker to broadcast prerecorded lectures on etiquette, moral virtues, and dirges for mourning commemorations.

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