The new breed of Hollywood imams

Developing Just Leadership

Salina Khan

Sha'ban 11, 1433 2012-07-01

News & Analysis

by Salina Khan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 5, Sha'ban, 1433)

I must be a bigger fuddy-duddy than I thought because I’m finding the rich-and-famous lifestyles of many religious scholars quite scandalous.

Moving into upscale neighbourhoods, driving fancy cars and jet-setting first class, a growing number of “scholars” preaching in American masjids are definitely living it up as they fulfill a strong demand for spiritual leaders for a burgeoning Muslim population.

I did not realize how widespread the posh living was until I joined Facebook — where many of them post photos, status updates as well as personal notes — and got a glimpse of their celebrity-like personas and ritzy ways. Some examples:

• Hot Wheels – “Sh. [Sheikh or scholar] picks me and some brothers up in a Rolls Royce!!!” one scholar boasts in his photo caption.

• Swanky Hotels – Another scholar invites friends to his next speaking gig: The Fairmont San Jose Luxury Hotel.

• Gourmet meals – This note accompanies a close-up picture of one scholar’s dinner plate: “Crab, shrimp, green peas, mushroom and vegetarian stir-fry sauce. Bismillah (In the name of God) & al-Humdulillah (All praise is due to God)!” he writes.

• Bold and Beautiful – “Tall, dark and handsome father of three and voted coolest imam (religious leader)” is how one scholar is described in the About section of his Facebook page.

• Outrageous fees – Some are demanding up to $20,000 per lecture!

How did this happen? While these scholars by no means represent the religious leadership across America, they are significant in that they head masjids in big cities and hold posts in major institutions. They have a huge following and influence on Muslims not only locally but also via the internet.

Religious scholars are supposed to draw our attention toward the divine and away from the pursuit of materialism, consumerism and opulent consumption and other worldly attachments that distract us from Allah (swt). They must do so by emulating the lifestyle of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), who led a simple and humble life dedicated to fighting oppression and establishing Allah’s (swt) system of social justice on earth.

But how can these scholars do that when they are neck-deep in chasing the “American Dream,” unable to detach themselves from the materialistic allurements of this world?

“Anyone whose heart is overpowered by the love of this world is ruined,” says scholar Seyyed Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. “But when love of this world overpowers the hearts of us, the students of theology, we not only ruin ourselves but we also ruin others.”

That is because they lead us away from Allah (swt). Scholars blinded by such materialism cannot make the pure connection to Allah (swt) needed to understand, interpret and apply His teachings correctly, and that is why we should not follow them (regardless of how charismatic their personalities or entertaining their speeches).

Allah (swt) said to Prophet David (a), “Do not make a world-loving scholar a medium between Myself and you because he would take you away from My path. These people are robbers on the path of those who love Me.”

Once accustomed to a lavish lifestyle, these scholars often end up compromising their God-given responsibility to speak the truth — weary of jeopardizing their popularity and material support — and give a blind eye to the injustices around them. Imam Husayn, the son of Fatimah (one of the four perfect women of all times), condemned such scholars, who have been present in every era, “O scholars, who are celebrated and enjoy good repute on account of your learning! You have taken lightly your duty as leaders. You have neglected the rights of the oppressed and the lowly, but have assiduously pursued what you regard as your personal rights.”

To lift ourselves and the world out of oppression and injustice, Muslims must recognize and turn to the true scholars (those with correct knowledge, piety and insight) for guidance and leadership on attaining success in this world and the Hereafter. “Let us redefine the terms,” says scholar Abbas Ayleya. “Let us not even call the person who does not practice his knowledge an ‘alim (religious scholar).”

I tried to get such a debate going after reading a series of congratulatory comments under the so-called scholar’s Rolls Royce picture. “Isn’t it an oxymoron for a sheikh to be driving a Rolls Royce?” I asked.

“Nop3,” came the swift response. I am still confused. Was that a typo — or is the “3” the new “e”?

Sister Salina Khan runs her own blog:

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