From Membership to Discipleship: RETURNING TO DISCIPLE FORMING JAMAA’ATS
Imam Senad Agić
قُلْ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنِّي رَسُولُ اللّهِ إِلَيْكُمْ جَمِيعًا الَّذِي لَهُ مُلْكُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ لا إِلَهَ إِلاَّ هُوَ يُحْيِي وَيُمِيتُ فَآمِنُواْ بِاللّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ النَّبِيِّ الأُمِّيِّ الَّذِي يُؤْمِنُ بِاللّهِ وَكَلِمَاتِهِ وَاتَّبِعُوهُ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَهْتَدُونَ
Say: O people! surely I am the Messenger of Allah to you all, of Him Whose is the kingdom of the heavens and the earth there is no god but He; He brings to life and causes to die therefore believe in Allah and His messenger, the Ummi Prophet who believes in Allah and His words, and follow him so that you may walk in the right way. Qur’an 7:158
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ حَسْبُكَ اللّهُ وَمَنِ اتَّبَعَكَ مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ
O Prophet! Allah is Sufficient for thee and those who follow thee of the believers. Qur’an 8:64
The word(s) “follow” appears 204 time(s) in 182 verse(s) in Quran in Yusuf Ali translation.
The word(s) “islam” appears 39 time(s) in 38 verse(s) in Quran in Yusuf Ali translation.
This emphasis in many mosques has been inverted. Being a Muslim today does not necessarily entail being a follower – a student – a disciple or apprentice of Muhammad (S).
For most intelligent and sincere Muslims the turn to discipleship does not mean focusing primarily on eternal salvation being a selfish version of applying Islam but rather suggests a way of life here and now. The former version of Islam says to Prophet (S), in effect: “I’d like little of your Sunnah, but I don’t care to be your student. …In fact, won’t you just excuse me while I get on with my life, and I‘ll see you in heaven.”
Discipleship builds on the longstanding mainline emphasis on Muhammad (S) as teacher and example. The theme of discipleship builds on the now generation-long emphasis on faith as a set of practices. Practices are the behaviors that embody and sustain a way of life in a community shaped by a particular moral purpose. This emphasis on practices has helped people think about Islam not so much as a set of beliefs but as a way of life.
A focus on discipleship can move congregations beyond the mosque-as-club image. Symptoms of the ill image include the idea that the main point of the mosque is to provide for the comfort and satisfaction of its members, that imams are hired to provide religious services, that length of congregational membership is more important than faith or faithfulness, and that the history and lore of the particular jama’at override and supersede the importance of its mission.
Another way to name the tendency of mosques nowadays is to speak of a “membership culture.” In mosques with a membership culture; people come to think that mosque offers staff, services and programs for its members. Guests are welcome, but can stick around only if they pay their dues. A reliable indicator that a mosque is becoming a club is the default form that introductions take: Introductions will often begin with a person stating how long he has been a member (“I’m Hassan, and I’v been a member here since 1982”) rather than reflecting on his own life as a follower of Prophet Muhammad (S).
In the mosque as club, the question “Why are we here?” tends to be answered with “to meet the needs of our members” or “to be a caring community.” When the focus is on discipleship, a more likely answer is “to be and make disciples of Prophet Muhammad (S) – to prolong the mission of Allah in making followers.”
However, the moment when the imam says to himself, “This isn’t working” – “this” being “the institutional mosque” or “the program mosque,” support for the budget is down, people seem unwilling to serve on boards and committees, all sorts of other interests and commitments are eclipsing mosque attendance and participation.
“It was sometime in 1993,” writes an imam, “that I verbalized a thought that had been gradually forming in my mind for a number of years…. When I said it board members were taken aback. I was shocked…. The statement I made that fateful night was: virtually all the old answers about what it means to be and run mosque don’t work anymore.”
For some at least, a breakdown leads to a breakthrough. It leads to ways of running mosque in a new time. Often the breakthrough involves turning to the theme of discipleship.
It turns out that the mosques lack vitality via simplicity and are not working especially for the youngsters. The purpose is not clear.
A shift from programs to process would be welcomed by our children. “A simple mosque,” they insist, “is a congregation designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth.” It may be a process, as one jama’at frames it, of “connecting, growing, and serving”.
Our vision of leadership is one that offers mosque board work as an integral part of imam’s effort to inspire and deepen the faith of our members and ultimately renewing our mosque.
From shifting emphasis from program to process, one should urge:
“Don’t focus on growing a mosque with programs, focus on growing people with a process.”
The new focus on the old theme of being follower promises to be fruitful for congregations and a possible bridge between motivated imams and mainline liberals. For a long time we have listened to the stories of perfect examples of the concept of following realized by the great companions (sahaba), followers (taabi’een) and followers of the followers (tabi’u taabi’een).
Making followers is not only more faithful but a good deal more interesting.
“In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” (From The Great Law Of The Iroquois Confederacy)