By Abdullahi Abubakar Lamido
Alhaji Halilu is a popular, wealthy businessman. Famous for his continuous investment in constructing mosques, people in his town, surrounding villages and neighbouring states came to know him as Alhaji Mai-Masallatai (roughly, the Mosques Builder). His main motivation is the authentic hadith that promises a house in paradise for anyone who builds a mosque for Allah.
Thus, whenever Mai-Masallatai is approached with a request for mosque construction, he gives an automatic positive response. Alhaji dedicated all his philanthropic budget to building mosques, with virtually zero allocation to any other act of charity. He never says no to a mosque request. Within some time, he had constructed mosques for almost all the communities within his town and neighbouring villages. His ultimate goal is to own wonderful castles in heaven, and, Alhamdulillah, he has got a guarantee for that in constructing mosques from an infallible mouth.
Now, three things happened. One, as there are not many communities lacking mosques, people started requesting him to repair the mosques he built for them last five, ten or seven years; to rebuild their mosque, repair it, or buy them new sound system, new carpet for the mosque, electricity generator, or “solar” and so on. Mai-Masallatai gradually transformed into Mai gyaran Masallatai, from building mosques to redecorating and making existing mosques “befitting” and ultramodern.
The second trend then followed. Since Mai-Masallatai is not the only aspirant for paradise, other wealthy persons joined the mosque construction endeavour. As a result, the number of mosques increases – two or more mosques in an unnecessarily close distance. A community that needs one mosque would request a second one for flimsy reasons; we have Sheikh XYZ, who should be an imam and has no mosque; why not get one for him so the society would benefit from his imamship! And any rich man who builds a new house would ensure that a mosque is embedded from the inception of the architectural design. So, each neighbourhood or street, and almost each “big” house, has a mosque attachment built by a person who wants paradise. Soon the third issue began to arise; imams scarcity.
It is noteworthy that Mai-Masallatai and all his emulators live and do business within a Muslim community that has thousands of orphans who live in hunger, disease, illness and squalor. They coexist with hundreds of widows who survive in shabbiness, battling the spiritual ills, psychological traumas and socio-economic vulnerabilities associated with poverty, ignorance and starvation. They reside in neighbourhoods bedevilled with noise, air and dirt population, with zero consciousness of environmental challenges; where people often urinate and defecate in the open, at public passages and places as crucial as mosques and marketplaces and stadia. They live in communities that use firewood as an energy source but with near-zero interest in planting trees.
Mai-Masallatai builds mosques for communities where well above 80% of the people cannot correctly recite the Fatiha and are mostly ignorant of the basics of purification, ablution and prayer. The worship places are beautiful, “befitting”, and “ultra-modern”. But the worshippers are ultra-ignorant, extra-hungry and super-poor. While the mosques are decorated, the mosque attendants are neglected.
The community severely lacks qualified imams and doesn’t have a plan to train religious scholars or imams. Nearly all are accidental scholars and imams. Most imams are less qualified, semi-qualified, or simply unqualified. Those with minimum requirements have no access to any “on the job training” and retraining. They have no grounding in jurisprudence nor appreciation of the complexities of their time and place. They might know a little of actually elementary Islamic texts, but not of their context. They continue to recycle their khutbas, reading for their congregation – often with a lot of mistakes – imported sermons presented for the 20th-century audience in Egypt or Morocco or Saudi Arabia or Algeria (depending upon the inclination of the imams), which are compiled in a collection of sermons or al-khutab al-minbariyya. The sermons are in Arabic, reread for an audience dominated by over 90% of people who do not understand Arabic except, perhaps, “Allahu Akbar”!
Dear reader, to what extent is your community better than Mai-Masallatai’s? Should building worship places take priority over building the worshippers? Should we continue to construct “befitting”, “ultramodern”, and “world-class” mosques for largely poor, ignorant and confused Muslim communities? Should we, while, of course, building mosques where they are truly needed, not also prioritize producing a Muslim population that is religiously educated, morally upright, intellectually sound, socio-economic dignified and religiously conscious. What better serves the essence of the mosque as an Islamic institution: a beautiful building or an educated congregation? Should building mosques be the only priority in a village where there is not even a single person learned in the Qur’an and the jurisprudence of purification, ablution, prayer, fasting, and other rituals?
More questions are begging for answers. For example, what will be more critical between saving people’s faith through addressing their basic needs of life, thereby shielding them from the onslaughts of evangelism and other anti-Islamic missions on the one hand, and mere building a mosque where there are no qualified imams and scholars to teach them creed and worship on the other? Should we continue to have “comfortable places” for ignorant and hungry worshippers rather than building conscious and educated worshippers?
Given the current religious and socio-economic realities of Muslims in Nigeria, what should be the focus and priority areas of intervention in terms of philanthropy? Please don’t mistake my position. No Muslims will disagree regarding the centrality of mosques as Islamic symbol numero uno. Where there is no mosque, it is a collective responsibility upon the Muslims to build one to the best of their ability. What, however, may need reflection is the question of when, where and why building a mosque should take primacy vis-à-vis other Muslim priorities and when not. Is it not imperative, for instance, for us to begin to remind ourselves that much as we can get a shortcut to paradise through building mosques, there are other philanthropic acts that not only guarantee paradise but even assure of a choice area and unmatchable edifice in Jannah?
Abdullahi Abubakar Lamido is the Chairman Zakah and Waqf Foundation Gombe, Nigeria. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.