Q: Many self-styled migrant imams today are making a comfortable living by performing certain questionable "ritual practices" (such as: "40-day work" for the deceased, milad/ta`zim functions, etc.). They also charge Muslim families a wide range of fees (some even exorbitant) for performing nikaahs, Qur'anic recitation, and du'ahs for the deceased, birth and wedding anniversaries, among others. How does the shari'ah view these self-appointed priests and their method of a livelihood?
A: Allah's Messenger (s.a.a.w) said: "... And he who is most learned in the book of Allah should be your imam." The imams then should know Allah's (s.w.t) verdicts in general. And an imam is classified for remunerative purposes into two categories:
Imam Ghair Raatib is one who has a regular outside job in addition to his unpaid duties as a voluntary imam. Since he has to be at the masjid or volunteers to be there for the five compulsory prayers, he leads each prayer. He may choose to relinquish his duties without notice, or the community may choose to say to him at any time that they wish 'person x' to lead prayers instead. The imam ghair raatib has no legal rights over the community except that which necessarily exist as being its leader during salat.
Imam Raatib is a learned person who has probably spent a large part of his learning and training specializing in the religious sciences. He, because of this specialization, is paid by the approved governing body to lead prayers, answer questions, and basically, is a 24-hour a day imam performing all liturgical services (marriages, janazas, counseling, etc.). Unless he contracts with the community that certain hours will be considered his free time, or unless 'x hours' are, by generally accepted custom, considered to be free time, he must be remunerated adequately, unless he gives up his salary of his own accord.
All ceremonies performed in the mosque -- and generally all are -- are covered by his stipend; that is, he cannot impose extra fees on the people for performing a nikaah, for example. If situations come up wherein the imam has to go out of the mosques, his expenses for travel can be covered. This can be done either by a travel allowance which the community pays (funds coming from membership fees), or from the person for whom the function is being performed, provided that a detailed breakdown of expenses is presented. In some cases, travel allowances are already included in the imam's salary. He cannot, however, during the course of a workday, go to another place to perform a service for compensation, for by doing so, he is shirking his primary duties.
During his off-time, he may give Islamic lessons, etc. in private, and be remunerated by the benefiting party, but this practice is not considered proper. Any practice that is not within Islam is not to be condoned by him, even if that 'something' is wajib; and if it bears any ugliness, an aide should be delegated. For example, the burial of one who has committed suicide is one duty that is delegated to an assistant imam. The earnings from non-Islamic practices come under the classification of "those who give away the Book of Allah for a price." Hence, those imams who practice questionable acts or perform bid'ah ceremonies for a price, they are among those who can expect severe punishment.
Whether the fees charged for such services are exorbitant or not is beside the point! The functions officiated are not right and the earnings are haram. In short, the imam's earnings are to come from the governing committee, or the approved religious body, depending on the circumstances. Any service that is halal, which entails journey or extra use of mosque facilities where the Muslim has to pay some money, should be paid for through a secretary appointed by the religious body, and a formal receipt is to be issued by this official. The imam should not generally involve himself with collecting money from the people.
Posted September 26, 1998. This question and answer was printed in the March 1994 issue of the Voice of Islam newsletter. (This newsletter is published by the Islamic Society of the Washington Area).