Article – Towards Fair Reward for Asatizah

This article was first published in Wasat no. 32, April/2020 which can be accessed here.

By Muhammad Haniff Hassan


This article seeks to argue for fair treatment for teachers of Islamic religious knowledge (asatizah) in the form of fair remuneration for their services in religious education and various initiatives aimed at championing goodness (da`wah) either through individual effort or institutions.

To date, there is a prevalent perception within the Muslim community in Singapore that asatizah should perform their religious duties towards the community with utmost sincerity i.e. to seek solely Allah’s pleasure as reward and thus by default, should not seek worldly rewards, in return. Therefore, the form of reward should be left to Allah as He is The Best Provider (Al-Razzaq). Ultimately, asatizah are therefore expected to accept these ordained rewards with contentment (rida) and gratitude (shukr).

Consequently, the above perception shapes a negative attitude towards asatizah who ask for a fee or salary which equals the market value and conventional practice. It is regarded as seeking worldly pleasures from noble religious duties and raises questions about the asatizah’s integrity and credibility.

At an institutional level, cases of graduate asatizah being paid salaries below that of humanities and social sciences’ graduates or not enjoying equal benefits from their employers remain aplenty.

There are many causes to the above issue. One of them is rooted in classical theological ruling found in Islamic tradition which is the focus of this article. This article seeks to uncover from the same tradition, an alternative viewpoint and contextual analysis that would challenge the long held popular perspective.

The popular perspective

There are many evidences (dalils) in Islam that command Muslims to spread knowledge.

The Qur’an says, “Behold, as for those who suppress aught of the evidence of the truth and of the guidance which We have bestowed from on high, after We have made it clear unto mankind through the divine writ – these it is whom God will reject, and whom all who can judge will reject.” (The Qur’an, 2:159)

The Prophet has said, “Whoever is asked about some knowledge that he knows, then he conceals it, he will be bridled with bridle of fire.” (Narrated by Al-Turmuzi, Ibn Majah and Abu Dawud)

“Convey from me even a verse of the Qur’an.” (Narrated by Al-Bukhari)

Thus, Muslim scholars agree that concealing beneficial knowledge is forbidden and sharing it is obligatory.

Islam also regards the effort to convey and teach beneficial knowledge as a sacred duty. The Qur’an says, “O Apostle! Announce all that has been bestowed from on high upon thee by thy Sustainer: for unless thou doest it fully, thou wilt not have delivered His message [at all]. And God will protect thee from men: behold, God does not guide people who refuse to acknowledge the truth.” (The Qur’an, 5:67)

Thus, teaching beneficial knowledge, especially those that concerns one’s religious obligations as an individual (fard `ayn), is conditioned by Allah’s guide to His Prophet in the Qur’an such as,

“And do not through giving seek thyself to gain.” (The Qur’an, 74:6)

“But if you turn away [from the message which I bear, remember that] I have asked no reward whatever of you: my reward rests with none but God, for I have been bidden to be among those who have surrendered themselves unto Him.” (The Qur’an, 10:72)

The Prophet (pbuh) has also said, “Whoever performs ibadah (religious devotion) for worldly gains, he may not be getting anything in the Afterlife.” (Narrated by Ahmad).

Based on the above points, many Muslim scholars in the past ruled that seeking rewards for performing da`wah duty and teaching fard `ayn knowledge is prohibited in principle. They argued that these are obligatory duties and, thus, they should be fulfilled without inclinations towards worldly rewards.

This above understanding has been entrenched in the mind of Muslim societies from which the following ideas are subsequently built upon;

  • teaching all forms of religious knowledge is a sacred religious duty similar to the responsibilities of a Prophet
  • it must be performed with full sincerity and free from worldly interest in order to preserve its sanctity
  • seeking monetary reward when undertaking da`wah initiatives is not in line with the sanctity of the duty and is thus considered an abominable conduct.

Such thinking continues to be held till today to the extent that da`wah services or religious classes by asatizah or religious institutions generates rejection and cynicism within society when they are accompanied by any form of fee or prices comparable to market rates. The practice is perceived as profiteering from what is primarily regarded as a religious obligation which should be performed with outmost sincerity for God’s pleasure and not worldly rewards.

Some individuals and institutions are perceived to have treated da`wah initiatives and the teachings of Islam dishonourably as they have equated religion to economic services or commodities that base their pricings on conventional market standards or the demand-and-supply principle. They are derogatorily “labelled” as “commercial `ulama”, “corporate ustaz” or “for-profit da`wah institution”.

Towards a fair reward for asatizah

A deeper reading of Islamic intellectual traditions, however, asserts that the above popular viewpoint is not the definitive ruling on this issue. The issue is a contention (khilafiyah) between Muslim scholars. There were scholars in the classical period that viewed the permissibility of seeking rewards from the teaching of religious knowledge and performing religious duties at the service of others. Among the evidence offered to support the view are the following hadiths;

“Some of the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh) passed by some people staying at a place where there was water, and one of those people had been stung by a scorpion. A man staying near the water, came and said to the Companions of the Prophet: “Is there anyone among you who can do ruqyah as near the water there is a person who has been stung by a scorpion?” So one of the Prophet’s Companions went to him and recited Surat al-Fatiha for a sheep as his fees. The patient got cured and the man brought the sheep to his Companions who disliked that (his act of attaining a reward for his service) and said: “You have taken wages for reciting Allah’s Book.” When they arrived at Medina, they said:  O Allah’s Messenger (pbuh)! (This person) has taken wages for reciting Allah’s Book.” Upon (hearing) that Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said: You are most entitled to take wages for doing a ruqyah with Allah’s Book.” (Narrated by Al-Bukhari)

“The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) sent us, thirty horsemen, on a military campaign. We camped near some people and asked them for hospitality but they refused. Then their leader was stung by a scorpion and they said: “Is there anyone among you who can recite Ruqyah (as cure) for a scorpion sting?” I said: “Yes, I can, but I will not recite Ruqyah for him until you give us some sheep.” They said: “We will give you thirty sheep.” So we accepted them, and I recited Al-Hamd (i.e. Al-Fatihah) over him seven times. Then he recovered, and I took the sheep. Then some doubts occurred within ourselves. Then we said: “Let us not hasten (to make a decision concerning the sheep) until we come to the Prophet (pbuh).” So when we came back, I told him what I had done. He said: “How did you know that it is a Ruqyah? Divide them up and give me a share as well.” (Narrated by Ibn Majah)

When commenting on the hadith narrated by Al-Bukhari, Ibn Hajr Al-`Asqalani, in his Fath Al-Bari book, cited Hasan Al-Basri’s opinion that accepting rewards for teaching the Qur’an is permissible (ja’iz) but asking for it is disliked (makruh). The same view is also held by Al-Sya`bi.

Al-Sabuni in his book Tafsir Ayat Al-Ahkam, when commenting on Al-Baqarah:159, highlights that a majority of later-period (muta’akhirin) scholars permit the acceptance of rewards for teaching religious knowledge and da`wah works.

Thus, asking for monetary reward when performing da`wah works and seeking livelihood through teaching religious knowledge or performing services for the sake of the religion cannot be regarded as absolutely forbidden.

To have a balanced standpoint on the issue however, would require one to not only view it through dalils that forbid seeking reward from teaching religion and doing da`wah but also through dalils that commands Muslims to perform infaq (donation) and sadaqah (charity) in the path of Allah (Fi Sabil Allah) which include scholars who dedicate their time for teaching religious knowledge, writing religious books and propagating Islam (da`wah). The scholars who lived in the classical times could afford to not seek rewards in performing their sacred religious duties because the society was generous and gracious towards them via zakah, sadaqah, waqf and various other forms of financial contribution. The flow of money to Bayt Al-Mal was abundant thus making the provision of sustenance for scholars’ livelihood possible. Take for example the story that scholars were handsomely rewarded with gold equivalent to the weight of books that they wrote or translated. Then, Muslims’ commitment to Islamic teachings was high and all encompassing. There was no differentiation between those who master religious and non-religious sciences. Islamic values such simplicity and asceticism (zuhd) were very much upheld. Live also was less complex compared to today. This was the context that must be factored in when analysing the first viewpoint (impermissibility of seeking reward).

Emulating Allah The Best Rewarder

However, the best example for the above could be seen in Allah’s interaction with the Prophet.

He commanded the Prophet to be sincere in performing his prophethood duties and not to ask or expect reward from his people. In return, He guarantees the Prophet’s livelihood and sustenance. In fact, one could argue that Allah provided the Prophet with more-than-adequate remuneration for his duties. Allah offered to transform hills around Mecca into gold for his livelihood, but the Prophet preferred simplicity and asceticism. This is reported in hadiths,

“My Lord presented to me, that He would make the valley of Makkah into gold for me. I said: No, O Lord! But being filled for a day and hungry for a day-or he said: Three days, or something like that – So when I am hungry, I would beseech You and remember You, and when I am full I would be grateful to You and praise You.” (Narrated by Al-Turmuzi)

“Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah (pbuh), said: “O `Aishah! If I wished, a mountain of gold would have walked with me. An angel came to me whose belt was like the Ka’bah. He said: “Verily, your Lord sends you greetings of peace and he says if you wish you may be a prophet servant or a prophet king. I looked to Gabriel and he indicated that I should humble myself. I said I will be a prophet servant.” After that, the Prophet never ate while reclining and he would say: “I eat as the servant eats, and I sit as the servant sits.” (Narrated by Abu Ya`la)

After migration to Madinah, the Prophet’s personal life was affected by many requests of religious guidance and advices from the people. Allah then made it obligatory for Muslims who wished to seek the Prophet’s audience for guidance and advice to give sadaqah to him as compensation for his time and effort via Al-Mujadilah:12. The obligation was later abrogated by Al-Mujadilah:13.

Despite the Prophet’s preference for simplicity and asceticism, Allah ta’ala assured his livelihood through other means. He decreed that one-fifth of war booty be allocated for the Prophet’s exclusive and discretionary disposal,

“And know that whatever booty you acquire [in war], one-fifth thereof belongs to God and the Apostle, and the near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer.  [This you must observe] if you believe in God and in what We bestowed from on high upon Our servant on the day when the true was distinguished from the false – the day when the two hosts met in battle. And God has the power to will anything.” (The Qur’an, 8:41)

It was narrated by Al-Bukhari and Muslim in hadith that the Prophet (pbuh) owned a land in Fadak and shares in Khaybar via this ruling after his death.

It must be noted that Allah’s generosity in reward is not exclusive to the Prophet. He rewards every person who performs any deed for the sake of His religion generously,

“Whoever shall come [before God] with a good deed will gain ten times the like thereof; but whoever shall come with an evil deed will be requited with no more than the like thereof; and none shall be wronged.’ (The Qur’an, 6:160)

“The parable of those who spend their possessions for the sake of God is that of a grain out of which grow seven ears, in every ear a hundred grains: for God grants manifold increase unto whom He wills; and God is infinite, all-knowing.” (The Qur’an, 2:261)

These descriptions are not mere illustrations of divine grace and compassion. Implied in them is a command for Muslim to do the same towards those who strive in the path of Allah and for the sake of His religion and to whom a Muslim has received kindness and good service which includes religious knowledge, advices and counsels.

Today the balance in calling to Islam without expecting rewards while having a society that is most supportive towards the cause and condition of the caller himself is lost due to the deficit in the Muslims’ understanding and practice of Islam. It is neither fair nor equitable for Muslim scholars and preachers to make sacrifices by not asking for remuneration for the performance of their scholarly and da`wah duties when the society itself is not willing to sacrifice their wealth in the path of Allah. Furthermore, the nature of live today is more complex as compared to the past. For example, scholars could find additional sustenance through agricultural and small business activities with little trouble in the classical times. There were not many bureaucratic and regulatory requirements to fulfill, unlike today.

The change in Muslims’ attitudes today can be seen in their priorities with regards to their religious commitments. This can be seen in the issue of pilgrimage (haj and `umrah), as an example. Muslims today would rather spend thousand dollars to perform non-obligatory pilgrimage in the form of `umrah and another haj, than for the purpose of seeking religious knowledge and sponsoring da`wah works. Many Muslims have accepted this despite the fact that the service is done on commercial basis and by commercial entities through which they incur a high cost of expenditure. If such norms is not an issue, why can’t society then accept the necessity of paying a fair price and fee for the service of asatizah in the area of religious education and da`wah, by improving the salary of asatizah in madrasahs and mosques. It is explicitly clear in Islam that seeking knowledge is more important that performing `umrah and, thus, supporting asatizah who dedicate their time and effort for Islamic education and da`wah should be given more priority than travel agencies servicing pilgrims.

 “Commercialising” da`wah

Operating da`wah work via commercial platform must not be prejudiced as an attempt at profiteering from religious duties.

Firstly, Islam in principle does not forbid the performance of da`wah works via commercial entities or in commercial manner. Secondly, any profit making endeavours by commercial entities must always be accompanied with efforts to reduce operating cost in order to be competitive and profitable and this should be seen as a positive aspect. It motivates individual and institution towards efficiency in da`wah operation and put great emphasis on understanding da`wah market and clients. All these, if taken seriously, could catalyze great improvement and changes in the field of Islamic education, da`wah program and religious institutions because the society would demand the service and product that equals the value of the money they spent.

One should also differentiate between commercial activities by private entities and da`wah works operated in a commercial manner by religious organisations or institutions. The profit of the former goes to individual, whereas the profit of the latter belongs to the organisations, which functions primarily for the good of the Muslim community. In Singapore’s context also, the profit that goes to organisations generally is not easily manipulated for the interest of individuals due to existing checks and balances from members of the organisation and regulators.

The latter could also contribute to positive development of da`wah via the upliftment of asatizah’s living standard and performance.

Society must not be too quick to negatively label a high fee da`wah service as profiteering. It may not be appropriate for an ustaz to ask for SGD500 as remuneration for a one-hour session of lecture after the Fajr prayer covering ordinary topics such as virtues of fasting in Islam. However, it could be a fair price for a paper presentation on a specialised and complex topic such as Islamic investment and finance. Thus, the high fee itself should not be a yardstick in making negative judgements. The right yardstick is whether the service is compatible with the nature of the service, whether it has been delivered effectively against normal service standards and whether it truly serves the da`wah needs of the time.

Closing remarks

Muslim scholars of the later classical period had long changed their position from favouring the view that discourages monetary gain from teaching of religious knowledge and delivering da`wah services to an opposite stance.

From Allah’s interaction with the Prophet illustrated in this article, one could also conclude that accepting fair remuneration and compensation for delivering da`wah duties does not fundamentally contradict with being sincere i.e. seeing Allah’s sole pleasure in religious endeavours. A Muslim may refuse worldly gain, like the Prophet, but he cannot also be denied the right to accept or ask for it, especially when the amount is fair and commensurated with the task and the established norm.

Admittedly, society’s attitude and understanding on the issue have improved today. However, there is still room for improvement at both individual and institutional level. For example, fees for religious programs, courses and services continue to be kept low compared to its conventional peers, otherwise they may not be able to attract individual participants.

At institutional level, many graduate asatizah’s remuneration at private religious institutions such as mosques, non-governmental da`wah organisations and madrasah is below the salary given to local humanities and social sciences graduates. Some of them do not enjoy standard employee benefits such as hospitalisation, outpatient and accident insurance coverage. Thirteenth month bonus payout is a luxury. Annual performance bonus is very uncommon because proper staff appraisal system is not in place.

It is hoped that the situations can be improved in the future through the total elimination of the above practices from private religious institutions.

It is only appropriate that the Committee of Future Asatizah (COFA) under the auspices of Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) that was set up to look into the role of asatizah in the future should also look into and address the issue discussed and highlighted above and COFA has rightly made such suggestion in its report,

“COFA recommends the introduction of common salary guidelines and the improvement of compensation and benefits for asatizah in key religious institutions including madrasahs and mosques, in tandem with efforts and opportunities for upskilling.”

Not only the addressing of this issue has been long overdue, but also because many asatizah who have been under such conditions are employed by mosques that are MUIS’ direct responsibility under Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA). Justice and fairness dictate that concern towards asatizah’s welfare and reward must be given equal importance along with the concern for their role and effectiveness in addressing community’s religious challenges in the future.