February 5, 2017
I Drink Your Milkshake: A Note on Charging for Religious acts

Personal Finance


5 min read

In this Article:
– Categorizing Acts related to Religious Practice
– Demanding a Wage vs. Receiving Compensation
– Where are modern “Islamic Institutes” positioned in this debate?
– I Drink Your Milkshake

In a previous article, I cover the question “Is it OK for an Imam to have a salary?” Here I’d like to follow up on something broader: remuneration for acts connected to religion. When can you charge for religious acts? Is it ever appropriate to take money for an act that is connected to religion in some way? To start, this article is not all inclusive of the proofs and arguments for and against such positions.

Categorizing Acts related to Religious Practice

First, let’s understand what category of acts we’re dealing with here. When discussing remunerated acts, things people do for money, jurists divided them into three broad categories:

  1. Acts unrelated to religious performance, like sewing, construction, etc.
  2. Acts purely related to religious performance, like praying or fasting.
  3. Acts that are connected to both the devotional and the mundane; this is where some discussion is needed.

About the first point above there is consensus that any act that is permissible in and of itself is permissible to be paid for performing; this point doesn’t need much emphasis. There is also agreement among scholars that it is impermissible for to pay someone for praying or fasting.

Where the difficulty lies is in determining how to deal with acts that fall under category three. Jurists made a few distinctions when discussing this category. Some related to the act performed and others about how to characterize the amount paid. These distinctions are connected to several texts, I’ll mention on two here for brevity.

About the Adhan, the Prophet said, “Take a Mua’adhin who does not demand a wage for his Adhan.” [اتَّخِذْ مُؤَذِّنًا لَا يَأْخُذُ عَلَى أَذَانِهِ أَجْرًا] This was narrated by al-Tirmidhi, al-Nasai, and Ahmed. In another hadith he said, “The best wage that one receives is for teaching the Quran.” [إن أحق ما أخذتم عليه أجرا كتاب الله] This was narrated by al-Bukhari in his Sahih.

How were these two apparently contradicting texts reconciled? Here jurists made a distinction between those acts that were done as a function of public good, such as calling the adhan or giving a fatwa, and those acts connected to the performance of a personal good, like teaching someone how to read the Quran, performing Ruqyah, or teaching them the Islamic disciplines.

Demanding a Wage vs. Receiving Compensation

The operational terms here from the two hadith are “demands a wage” versus a “wage one receives.” Islamic law does not allow the sale of things which have no discernible utility to the counterparty. Demanding a wage means that the Adhan, an act of religious devotion, is being bargained for, making it the point of consideration in a contract. Since it is impermissible to sell things that do not have value, this contract is invalid. Allowing such a contract is tantamount to the commercialization of religion, something that is a “public good” and not for individual sale. Receiving a wage, on the other hand, indicates that there was a publicly determined value to remunerate the person who performs the act in lieu of their time.

The second distinction made is dependent of the beneficiary of the act. In the case of the adhan it is the public that benefits from hearing it. In the case of teaching the Quran it is the individual. Additionally, teaching the Quran was not a purely devotional act; learning to read the Quran was preparatory instruction for literacy in general. It goes without saying that there are several positions among medieval scholars on the extent to which this can be analogized, but because of the shared nature of empowering someone through literacy many scholars allowed not only taking payment for teaching the Quran, but also for teaching other religious disciplines.

Where are modern “Islamic Institutes” positioned in this debate?

While it certainly is optimal to disburse an allowance (or honorarium) to teachers of the Quran and Islamic disciplines instead of them demanding a wage, it is important to remember that the idea of religious instruction being a regulated public good means also that government or quasi-governmental organizations are regulating religion, which has its own inherent hazards.

The other solution would be the formation of endowments to facilitate these allowances for its teachers. While this may seem like a nobrainer to some, there are still a number of negatives associated with this approach; control by donors, endless fundraisers to make up for shortfalls (real or contrived), and the creation of other endowments that enter into competition with preexisting ones create the same market conditions that exist when individuals are involved. The laws of supply and demand will take hold, and in the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm “Life, uh, finds a way.”

While taking a wage for teaching religious knowledge might be acceptable at times, it can also impugn the character of the one doing based on how they allow access to that information. For example, scholars of Hadith would disparage narrators and question their moral probity if they charged for the narration of Hadith. However if a person charged for making copies of their Hadith texts, while still allowing all those that wished to attend their Hadith recitals to attend, they were not impugned. In fact, many of the scholars of the past were scribes and copyists, working in the cottage industry that popped up to service Hadith culture.

In my estimate, there is a difference between charging for teaching information with quantifiable educational outcomes (and the replay of that information that carries actual costs) and the infotainment style courses and classes that are more than common in the Muslim community today. Many of them I see as no different than evangelical style tent revivals. These “classes” are more akin to hiring a person for the display of personal piety than they are for actual learning. When coupled with excluding people from the prayer areas of Mosques in which these “courses” are held unless an entrance fee is paid makes this type of exhibition especially abhorrent. The dubious qualifications of many teaching these courses is another topic entirely.

I Drink Your Milkshake

Popularized in the film “There will be Blood” this phrase was first said during a 1924 congressional hearing over the Teapot Dome scandal. In this scandal, Sen. Albert Fall used this phrase to explain oil drainage. “Sir,” Fall is reported to have said “if you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and my straw reaches across the room, I’ll end up drinking your milkshake,’ Sen. Fall was convicted of accepting bribes for oil-drilling rights to public lands in Wyoming and California. The point? As long as we allow people to over-extend themselves without ethical oversight, we’ll continue to see over-reach in the name of religion.

So where do we go from here? Well for starters, perhaps not using religion as a form of entertainment is a good place to begin. Secondly, supporting institutions that uphold pedagogical and operational standards for religious instruction. Third, employing qualified individuals that – while they may bore us – are teaching communities actionable information pertinent to their religious practice. And last, it is important that we wean ourselves from the teat of edutainment, that charisma infused spiritual opiate that provides us that high we all fiend for, but send us crashing and into spiritual rehab when our dealer cheats us or we realize how bad our addiction is. Without addressing these key issues, we will continue to see these highs and lows.

republished: 2/5/2019


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