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As a board member and a president of a mosque in the U.S. for many years, I have some things to say on this topic.
The average salary of an imam in the U.S. is $30,000. The average salary of a garbage collector in the U.S. is $33,660. This should show you how much worth we give our religious leaders. I don’t know why some people in our community give less value to an imam of the community than a garbage man . Is this the type of honor and respect we want to hold for a religious leader in our community?
There are mosques that spend millions of dollars on its structure and its beauty but refuse to increase the imam’s salary for more than chump change. Most mosques can afford $60k imams but refuse to do so. Yes, there are some exceptional mosques that really cannot afford it, but I assure you that they are in the minority. A full time mosque with a jummuah prayer can generally afford an imam with a decent salary. Problem is many Muslims have this false notion that since these guys are working for Islam, they should expect their reward from Allah and not the worldly life. The irony is that most of these people would never accept such salaries for their own sons especially if they have families! There is no doubt that they should expect their reward from Allah but being given a decent salary so that you can take care of yourself and your family is a right of every single imam.
Seeking out cheap imams is one of the main reasons that mosques import imams from overseas. It’s purely cheap labor. The other reason they import is because to some of the board members, particularly the elderly immigrant class, it reminds them of their good old days of having an imam that understands their culture and language back home. This is why when such imams come over, they have a difficult time connecting with those who are not of their own country and culture especially the youth. Thus, this imported imam becomes the imam of the Desi uncles in the community, if that is where he is from, or the imam of the Arabs, if the import took place from an Arab country. The rest of the community suffers. Over time, the mosque comes to be recognized as a Desi mosque or an Arab mosque. I would argue that even those that cannot afford decent salary imams should lay off importing imams. They would do much better hiring up and coming imams raised in the U.S. or new graduates, also American raised, who are willing to work for less to gain experience and grow with the community. As the community grows, then so should the imam’s salary. And yes, there are cases where overseas imams have done very well and are loved by everyone in the community but this is not the case most of the time.
I remember in our own mosque when a particular board member and some elders from the community insisted that we get rid of our current American raised imam and replace him with another foreigner in the community “who is willing to work for less and do more”! Of course, the majority of us board members kicked that ridiculous idea to the side. We were fortunate to have many open minded board members but there are other communities who have closed minded board members who would take such a decision in a heart beat.
All of this is nothing but cultural baggage from Muslim countries that immigrants bring with them. One of the crises in the Muslim community is low salaries for imams. Many of them are suffering financially and this is why it is not uncommon to find imams who have other jobs as well, such as, tuition fee for Qur’an lessons, fee for doing a marriage service, etc. Numerous articles have been written on this issue criticizing masjid boards for holding cultural baggage and treating their imams like they do ‘back home.’ If you visit Muslim countries, especially Pakistan or India, you will see that imams are some of the poorest people.
Then we wonder why we have such poor performing imams who do more harm than good and are full of bakwas. It’s because most of the smart and intelligent religious leaders have some dignity and self respect and are not going to work for some chump change. I myself have witnessed in many mosques where the doctors, engineers, I.T. professionals, and businessmen of the community are far more knowledgeable than the imam of the mosque in religious issues but would never work as imams because they cannot afford to. Muslim Strategic Initiative also has some great articles on this topic.
 This is not to degrade garbage collectors who are also serving our communities but just trying to draw the point that leaders in our community deserve more.