by Salina Khan (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 48, No. 1, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1440)
With more Muslim scholars in America doubling as tour guides to holy and exotic destinations, serious questions arise about the possible conflict of interest attached to this lucrative side business.
While originally leading Hajj groups every so often, some masjid imams are now jet-setting year-round as they accompany groups to Arabia for ‘Umrah as well as to al-Quds, Islamic Spain, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, Samarkand and Tashkent, and even “Islamic” China. Soon they may even break Ibn Batutah’s record for miles traveled!
These business-savvy imams are tapping into a fast-growing $180 billion global Muslim travel market that is expected to top $300 billion in the next decade. Halal tourism not only includes pilgrimages to holy lands and sites but also excursions to countries rich in Muslim history and architecture.
No doubt, traveling is an essential part of a Muslim’s worship and involves performing pilgrimage, seeking knowledge, learning lessons and reminders from past civilizations, defending the din, and inviting people to Islam. Allah (swt) orders people in the Qur’an to “go all over the earth” and relates many stories of prophets and their travels, including one about Prophet Musa’s enlightenment on a trip with al-Khidr.
But the problem with Muslim scholars working as tour guides for compensation, whether in the form of shared profit, remuneration, or free travel, accommodations, and perks, is that it poses as a conflict of interest at many levels. Simply put, Muslim scholars’ personal interests in profiting from these trips can cause them to compromise their foremost duty of al-amr bi al-ma‘ruf and al-nahy ‘an al-munkar.
Some of the potential risks include the following:
• Scholars become obliged to the rich – these trips can be expensive! Our family looked into going on ziyarah with Caravan72 in December 2019 but at $5,000+ per person, that trip would bust the budget of our family of five. Scholars keen on attracting the affluent may compromise their words and actions so as not to alienate their upper class clientele.
• Scholars avoid censuring oppressive regimes – trips require government approval of visas and other paperwork of host countries. This necessity could get in the way of scholars’ criticizing or boycotting the oppressive regimes of countries they visit. American Muslim scholar Muhammad al-‘Asi, who has been denouncing the Saudi monarchy from the pulpit for the past 40 years, for example, is banned by the Saudi regime from entering Arabia to perform Hajj, a religious obligation. Fears of a similar fate could prevent scholars-cum-tour guides from criticizing the Saudi regime and others.
• Scholars lose priorities – American Muslim scholar Yasir Qadhi, who has 900,000 followers on Facebook, is the dean of the newly established Islamic Seminary of America, imam of the Memphis Islamic Center, dean at al-Maghrib Institute, and professor at Rhodes College. But his Facebook page looks more like a travel agency brochure than an academic source of Islamic knowledge! Almost half (7 out of 15) of the posts on his page so far this year (as of the writing of this article) promote overseas tours. That’s because he leads multiple “sacred journeys” every year in conjunction with a popular travel agency. Planning and executing these trips takes precious time (“I am already preparing the lectures that I plan to give about the history of this region, its civilizations, and the famous scholars it has produced — such as Imam al-Bukhari, Muslim, al-Tirmidhi, and others,” Qadhi wrote on Facebook January 22 regarding his planned trip to Uzbekistan in June), and could interfere with primary responsibilities to organize, protect, and strengthen Muslim communities in America.
With the world suffering from war, hunger, and moral decay, scholars must set priorities toward ending oppression and establishing social justice. Is going on these trips the best use of our money and time right now? Would these scholars be encouraging wanderlust (“Learn fascinating, uplifting, and amazing facts about our past that will bring the history and heritage of Muslim Spain to life!”) if it wasn’t profitable for them? Islamic organizations need to put in place conflict of interest policies to ensure that decisions are being made in the best interest of Islam, Muslims, and humanity, and not the personal benefit of the leadership.
One imam on the West Coast got fired in December for allegedly neglecting his duties while hyper-focusing on overseas trips. This should be a warning sign for others traveling down this path.