Yawar Baig touches on the problem with the ‘Dawah Business’, as he refers to it. This is the issue of relatively young Muslim organisations in the West incorporating aspects from the Evangelical Christian and Corporate Business model in dictating their methodology as an organisation. He speaks particularly about how corporate culture is focused on businesses creating a brand for the principle purpose of making money, and killing any competition on the path to achieving the goal of monopoly in their line of business. He makes a very compelling point about how a model concerned solely with making profit in a cut-throat manner, cannot be compatible within the work of calling people towards God and leading a life of spirituality. He is critical of the façade many of these Muslim organisations put forth on social media, and he is particularly scathing on the razzmatazz surrounding their Islamic Conferences, the Islamic version of the ‘Mega Church’. He asserts that such events are not really about calling people towards God, but more about organisations making money through selling tickets, advertising space and market stalls. These aren’t just wild accusations; Baig said he has been at post conference meetings of these organisations, where the first question asked was how much money they made. He argues that if they truly were interested in the spiritual welfare of attendees, they would find a way to measure it and this would be the central focus of such post-conference meetings.
Baig isn’t of course the only one to have raised concerns about the ‘corporate dawah culture’ that exists in the Western world. Zainab Ansari in a number of articles has been highly critical of the problems caused by the ‘Celebrity Sheikh’ status; a symptom of this culture. Furthermore, in his article on the popular American Blogsite ‘MuslimMatters’, Mobeen Vaid expands on Ansari’s sentiments. He raises concerns that how this culture is leading to a generation of youth who turn towards Islamic events as a means of seeking entertainment and passing time. This comes as no surprise; a model which reeks of superficiality will only infuse superficiality amongst its consumers.
I’m glad that I’m not alone in feeling this way about ‘Corporate Dawah Culture’. I have raised my concerns privately with many Muslim activists in Britain, only to be told that I need to ‘get with the times’, and that if organisations don’t make money then they cannot be self-sustainable. I actually agree with both of these points; it is important that the way we put forward the message is relevant to the time and situation people find themselves in. I also agree that any organisation must be in a position where it can have the funds to run in an efficient manner. The problem of course arises when people within organisations become so obsessed with maintaining sustainability that they forget about their overall objectives. Is the corporate model really the only way an organisation can be sustainable?
For those of us looking to fill that spiritual void in our lives, the reality is that it is unlikely to be fulfilled at a glitzy Islamic conference. I remember attending a small gathering at Bayshore mosque in New York just over 10 years ago. It was near the time of Ramadan and my uncle told me that his teacher was going to be giving a short tafsir of the opening few pages of the Quran. Up to the minbar stepped up a young man who everyone referred to as Br Nouman. There were about 20 people in attendance, and we sat around him in a circle. We sat there for over an hour, as he went through the verses of Surah Fatihah and the opening verses of Surah Baqarah, giving us nuggets of spirituality as he explained each word of each verse, and why Allah chose those particular words to articulate his message to mankind. It was perhaps one of the most enlightening religious experiences that I have ever had, and in many ways it was a catalyst for me on my personal spiritual journey. My uncle then introduced me to Br Nouman, and we sat down and briefly discussed some points from his class in a little more detail. He then went on to ask me about the environment for Muslims living in Britain. It was an example of a truly educational encounter between a student and his teacher.
For those of you who haven’t figured out the individual I met, it was Nouman Ali Khan, in the days before he became a phenomenon. Fast forward 10 years, and the next time I found myself in his company was in London; except it was different. He had been invited to give a lecture at a massive conference venue in the capital, with bright lights and gyrating cameras circling around him. People were pushing and shoving just so that they could get the best seat in the house. He came, gave his lecture, and left. If you were to ask me today what he spoke about on that day, I wouldn’t remember. I didn’t even get to spend any time with him afterwards, to sit and discuss some of the finer points he raised in his lecture, as he was mobbed by people in the marketplace at the conference wanting to get their autographs and selfies to prove that they had seen the man in flesh.
My point here isn’t to criticise those like Br Nouman who speak at these venues; ultimately, they are invited by event organisers to give a lecture and merely accept. My critique goes firstly to event organisers and those who run these corporate style Islamic organisations; a re-think in approach is clearly needed. If those in organisations still believe that glamorous conferences, bite-sized YouTube clips covered in their branding, and cheesy social media posts are the answer to infusing spirituality amongst the masses, then all the evidence suggests they are being naïve. If on the other hand they admit that all these are tools to raise money so that they can continue to exist, then we find ourselves in a worrying situation where the rules of corporate culture have distracted them from their overall objectives.
Above all though, there is a lesson in all this for those of us looking to learn about God and His Messenger. To acquire any form of knowledge, it requires effort on the part of the individual looking for it. Zainab Ansari is right when she says that most of the true scholars of Islam shun the limelight, and opt to spend time teaching their dedicated students because the reality is that these small group sessions are far more beneficial than massive impersonal conferences. This is the reason why I probably benefitted more from Khan’s small class in New York than I ever would at one of his conference lectures. It is thus up to us to identify the scholars amongst us, and for us to seek them if we truly are serious about learning about God, and what He wants from us as His worshippers.