What is an Imam Worth?

by on July 8, 2012  •  In Imams

The Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto recently launched a campaign to raise money to bring a full-time paid chaplain to support Muslim students at the University.  First widely reported in a Toronto Star story, this has generated a lot of interest, comment, and even excitement.  The stated goal is to raise $70,000 000 to cover the immediate salary, administrative and program costs of the chaplaincy.  It’s not quite clear what the Chaplain’s actual salary will be.

Part-time Muslim chaplains serve at various institutions, including universities, hospitals, correctional facilities, law enforcement agencies and the military.  Most of these Chaplains are Imams with varying degrees of expertise and qualifications who hold one or more other jobs.

The interesting question this campaign raises, which is not widely discussed enough, is what in fact is a Chaplain or an Imam worth?

In my own legal practice I have had the opportunity to act for Imams in in their individual and collective capacities as well as for institutions that hire them.  Most of the employment contracts relating to Imams that have been brought to me for review were not drafted by a lawyer.  Often, neither side will have taken the contract to a lawyer for review or advice before they have been signed, sealed and delivered.  Fortunately, when disagreements arise, settlement terms can usually be reached quietly.  Occasionally, where a congregation becomes split with members taking opposites sides for or against a particular Imam, matters can erupt into full-blown litigation.  While reasons for litigation involving Imams usually relate to other issues of management and control of an institution, sometimes it does come down to how an Imam carries out his duties and makes his living.

From my own observations, I have seen salaries of Imams who are generally employed full-time with one particular institution range between $25,000 and $75,000.  However salaries at the upper end of this range are very, very rare; the most common salaries are between $30,000 and $40,000. 

While to my knowledge, no systematic studies have been done regarding Imams, there have some surveys, mostly in United States, of what clergy earn.  Reports have been published in The Forward, Slate.com, The Huffington Post, The Christian Post, and a publication by Carleton University’s School of Journalism.

The chart in The Forward article showed a stunning contrast and I reproduce it here.

While the fine print in the chart above does indicate some of the information may be quite out-dated for the Christian clergy, most surveys do indicate that most Rabbis in the U.S. earn over $100,000.  Protestant clergy in the U.S. appear to reach such high levels only with Megachurches, while Catholic Priests are often much lower  (Carleton U’s journalism school’s report cited a 2007 Canadian report in Canada indicating they make about $45,000).   The Slate.com article cites a $30,000 figure for Imams.  Other articles also use examples ranging from $31,000 to $34,000.

While other clergy often get housing and pensions as additional benefits, it is vary rare for Imams in Canada to receive the same.

The variation of average earnings of clergy between different faith groups could probably be explained somewhat from their respective training and governance structures, histories in North America, as well as community needs and capacities.

The standard expected range of duties for Imams include leading prayers, giving Friday sermons, some teaching, officiating at weddings and other ceremonies, and various types of counselling.  Surprisingly, sometimes even more mundane tasks are included, such as cleaning and maintaining the mosque.  Other times, Imams upon their own initiative or by expectation also lead fundraising efforts.  In almost all situations the duties of an Imam will increase from what they may have bargained for.

While a younger Imam may have the patience and availability to work long hours for meager compensation, more senior Imams with family obligations find themselves constrained by time and finances.  Even though Imams, like other clergy, are entitled to certain unique allowances and tax deductions, very few Islamic institutions have the capacity to fairly compensate a qualified Imam with good multi-lingual skills and well-rounded education and experiences that would suit the needs of a diverse congregation as well as interact effectively with the broader Canadian Society.

Some Imams are the leaders in their institutions and command great respect and loyal following among their congregation and deference by the Board of Directors.  Other Imams are consigned to the bottom rung of their institution and retained only to provide a veneer of religious credibility to management who have their own collective or individual interests.

Poorly-paid Imams with greater needs or ambitions often must supplement their income, through additional teaching, counselling, outside officiations, or leading groups on Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages to Mecca.  Some Imams are blessed with good business sense and engage in successful profitable ventures on the side or before becoming full-time imams. Others are simply blessed and extra income comes to them from fortuitous associations.  These Imams can simultaneously bring a smile to my face, as well as make me shake my head, when I see their legal issues.

Some Imams received their religious education in very traditional settings, often overseas, but increasingly also at institutions in North America.  Some Imams are entirely self-taught with very little if any formal training at all.

Since Sunni Muslims have no central religious authority in Canada, various Imams have felt the need to organize themselves both as a defensive measure to prevent their exploitation, but also as an attempt at self-regulation and to gain broader recognition and authority, including in the field of Halal certification.  The two best known organizations of Imams in the Greater Toronto Area are the Canadian Council of Imams  and the Canadian Council of Muslim Theologians .

Once the funds are raised for the Chaplaincy Program at U of T and they are actually ready to hire someone, it will be interesting to see what qualifications they will require for the job .  Would most of the Imams in Canada be able to meet the expected wish list of requirements?

Interestingly enough, Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto Canadian offers a Canadian Certificate in Muslim Studies, partially aimed at Imams to help them meet the needs of the Muslim community as well as the expectations of a larger society.

The courses are part of Emmanuel College’s continuing education program and do not require prerequisites, prior degrees or other preparation.  Apparently 8 courses are required for the Certificate and there appear to be a wide range of potential courses and instructors.

The Canadian Dawn Foundation entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Emmanuel College to support this program and in order to make it more widely accessible they are providing funding to subsidize the fees.

Emmanuel College says they will be exploring development of a Master of Pastoral Studies track to educate Muslim chaplains for working in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and elsewhere where there is a need for Muslim spiritual care workers.

It would be ironic if the University of Toronto were to be the only place that could providing the necessary “finishing school” for the education of Canadian Imams as well as provide the only place where they could get a job with compensation actually commensurate with their abilities and importance.  I’m sure U of T will have lawyers available when the times comes to draft the employment contract.  As for the Imams who intend to apply, when the time comes for the successful applicant to review their contract, I’m sure I could recommend them to at least one lawyer to help them out even out the legal “praying” field :-)

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Irfan is a Business and Charities lawyer as well as a Trademark Agent. He is a principal in the firm of Kutty, Syed & Mohamed based in Toronto (Scarborough), Ontario, Canada. His clients range from individual entrepreneurs, family businesses and private companies to not-for-profit organizations, charitable institutions and public companies.

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