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Investing in Majalis and Biryani instead of People

Most Shia Centers across the West are in decline, here is a possible reason why

By Rayhan Al-Safawi

A common feature in all Shia centers are the following: clerics (aka shaykhs, moulanas), majalis and biryani. If you’re Arab and Iranian, you’re probably going to get Gheymeh/Qimah which is rice smothered with a tomato and a yellow split pea stew. For South Asians, it’s either the Biryani or the Tomato-Yogurt-Curry chicken with rice.

If Shia centers have something on the Sunni ones, it’s the food. Most Sunni centers have offered free food during Ramadan in my experience. Shia Masjids, however, offer food at least twice a week in addition to almost every religious holiday.

The next thing are Majalis. They are pretty standard across Shia centers. Without Majalis, there are no public Shia centers. The Majalis usually go through their typical rituals. We start with Duas, then begin prayers (which last in average of 30 min) and end with a speech (usually 30-45 min). During summers, most Shia centers will also have some kind of a camp for their youth.

Some will go the extra mile and have an official, full time school, but what you see above is pretty much it when it comes to Shia centers and social/religious services.

For any institution to produce good quality work, grow and sustain itself in the generations to come, it needs to invest in people. The Shia population in the West is an educated one. In our community, we have talented people who have the potential to turn Shia Islam into a cultural force to be reckoned with. We have people who have talent in film and cinematography, the humanities and social sciences in the academic realm, web specialists and experts in other fields that would prove valuable for the cause of Imam al-Husayn (as).

Yet such people are undervalued. They are either used to perform menial tasks, or asked to contribute as volunteers. Since they are volunteers, they usually work full-time jobs elsewhere and can rarely, if ever, contribute meaningfully. Yet the insistence that they work as volunteers is symptomatic of the community’s (and yes, its leadership as well) stinginess and penny-pinching. Speakers will be paid thousands upon thousands of dollars across the year, lavish meals will be spread out, but the things, or rather, the people who matter who can truly make a difference are left out.

People of talent either work full-time in the secular world, or are forced to work in non-related jobs outside their fields to make a living. Our centers take advantage of their talents but without giving them the benefit of a secure job that would enable them to complete their work and thrive in the various talents that God gave them. Now obviously you can’t go around hiring an army of people, but doing so with a handful of highly talented people is not that costly when you compare it to the kinds of other expenses Shia centers have.

Imagine a world where the community produced top quality documentaries and promotional videos instead of cheap satellite channels. Imagine Shia centers had serious academics publishing for them, instead of half-intelligible, culturally irrelevant and grammatically offensive translations? Imagine a world where centers co-opted graduate students and PhDs from humanities and social science programs – and hired them on a full time basis – to lead its English programs instead of foreign clerics who barely know English and cannot relate to second generation American Muslims? If these people do not have the adequate training in Islam, then the center should offer programs to train them appropriately under the guidance of its clerics so that over the years, the desired outcome can be realized.

But no, the community thinks that this is a waste of money so it says it has no money. The shaykhs and “moulanas” don’t have the energy and will power to train individuals who can take up the mantle of the community’s future. Without these talented people, our community is doomed to becoming socially irrelevant as it will not be able to produce the things that matter for the community’s future.

This is a point the Prophet Muhammad (s) understood all too well. Notice that the Prophet (s) never left any institutions behind. What he left were people whom he spent decades training, including the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt (as) and his companions like Abu Dhar and Salman who set the course of Shi’ism for the next 1400 years.

As long as we see investing in Biryani as more important than investing in people, our community’s future remain very gloomy.

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