I Drink Your Milkshake: A Note on Charging for Religious acts

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

What is Estate Planning?

Estate planning is the act of planning your estate, i.e. what happens to your property after you die and who cares for your loved ones. With an estate plan, you get to say who gets what, when they get it, and who should look after the ones you care for when you are gone.

Having a will is part of an estate plan, but it is not the only part. Don’t think about estate planning as just having a will or a trust in place. Instead, think of it as an overall strategy for fulfilling our duty as Muslims to care for our loved ones after death. You want to do two things with an estate plan: reduce or eliminate tax liability and reduce mismanagement of your estate after your death.

“No one that has anything that can be inherited should sleep for two nights without a will in his possession.” Prophet Muhammad (Bukhari)

Because of this obligation and because people know I specialize in financial issues for Muslims, one of the main questions I constantly get is “How do I get an Islamic Will?”

Continue reading…

Home Financing Seminar – October 29th

What We Will Cover In This Seminar:

  • Finance in the US.
  • Buying a Home.
  • Why you need a financial plan.
  • Major purchases, investments, and debt.
  • The home buying process.
  • Major mistakes to avoid.
  • Your #1 concern about home purchases.

About Your Presenter:

Joe Bradford is an American scholar of Islam, instructor, entrepreneur, and ethical investments advisor. One of the few experts that has studied Islamic finance traditionally and working in the banking/finance sector, he is uniquely qualified to bring you this seminar.

Solomon’s Horses: What are the legal and moral implications for creating Strong AI in Sharia?

A few days ago, Yonatan Zunger released “Artificial Intelligence, Talmud, and Sharia.” After reading this very interesting piece, I decided I’d attempt to add to the conversation specifically in the area of Sharia/Islamic thought.

Before we talk about the problem of creating Strong AI, let’s talk about how Islamic law categorizes rulings. While Yonatan  presents this as an issue of encouragement vs. prohibition, Islamic Law offers a few other choices. Laws falls under one of five categories: Obligatory, Encouraged, Unrestricted, Discouraged, and Forbidden. Creating strong AI may fall under any of these five.

Yonatan  is correct that statues (tamāthīl) appears in the Quran two times. One during the story of Abraham with his people, the other in during the building of Solomon’s temple. An interesting caveat to the story of Abraham is paring the term statues with the terms idols (aṣnām). “What are these statues (tamāthīl) to which you pay devotion?” and after their answer he replies “By God I will plot against these idols (aṣnām) of yours after you turn and leave.” Continue reading…

Explainer: May Muslims Refuse To Bury Terrorists?

May Muslims Refuse To Bury Terrorists? #SaintEtienneDuRouvray murder raises the question again.

Muslims refuse to bury terrorists

On July 26th two nineteen year olds pledging allegiance to ISIS brutally murdered 85 year old Fr. Jacques Hamel during Mass in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, located in northern France. Eyewitnesses say the two young men slit Fr. Hamel’s throat during Mass and while engaging the horrified onlookers in conversation. After one of the nuns attending the service escaped and alerted authorities, police cornered and subsequently killed the attackers as they tried to escape. This act, performed by ISIS pledgees in Europe, met broad condemnation from the international Muslim community as well as the Muslim community in the Normandy suburb of Rouen, where the murder occurred who have refused to bury them. Continue reading…

My Latest on Qz: ISIL took its terror campaign to the heart of Islam

ISIL bombs Medina

On Monday, July 4, a 26-year-old Saudi man killed himself and four others outside the sacred tomb of the Prophet Muhammed, the second holiest site for Muslims. The suspect, Naer Muslim Hamad, was intercepted while cutting through a vacant parking lot in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Cornered, he detonated an explosives belt, killing the four Saudi security officers and injuring five others. It is unknown if the assailant targeted the security installation guarding the mosque or the mosque and its attendees.

The attack came on the heels of a series of attacks across the Muslim world during the month of Ramadan, including a truck bomb in Baghdad that killed nearly 300 people and multiple attacks in Bangladesh. Whatever the intended effects of these attacks, be it recruitment, political delegitimization, or sheer terror, ISIL—widely believed to have orchestrated the attacks—may have miscalculated in Medina.

Muslims consider Medina sacred due to is historic significance and religious symbolism. During his lifetime, Muhammad outlined Medina’s sacred location, calling it a “sanctuary.” All those who commit crimes will be cursed, he noted, especially singling out those who would dare plot against the citizens of Medina with ruin “like salt in water.

Do You Owe Zakat on Your 401k?


You have a good job that provides a 401k, with a good amount of money in the account.

Do you owe zakat on your 401k?

You need a solid answer. There are thousands of dollars per year at stake, not to mention your duties as a Muslim.

The challenge of Islamic personal finance in the US

I’ve heard questions like this since I first accepted Islam, more than 20 years ago.

To understand Islamic personal finance, one must be a scholar of both Islamic law and modern finance. Very few people have this training. As a result, ordinary American Muslims struggle to find answers to basic financial questions.

I have now studied both Islamic law and modern finance for almost two decades. I have earned both ijaza and a graduate degree in fiqh, and I have worked professionally in banking and finance for 10 years. Continue reading…

Alternet.org Op-Ed: Ted Cruz Asked Me to Educate Him About Muslims


Here’s an op-ed I wrote recently on Senator Ted Cruz’ comments about patrolling Muslim neighborhoods and his waging war on religious liberty.

“There is a war on faith in America today, in our lifetime,” MSNBC quotes Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz as saying. “Did we ever imagine that in the land of the free and home of the brave, we would be witnessing our government persecute its citizens for their faith?”

On Tuesday I awoke to the horrible news of an attack in Brussels. My heart goes out to the victims of the attack, just as it did last week for the victims of attacks in Ankara and Istanbul. The coverage overshadowed everything else in the news, except one: politicizing tragedy. As news poured in, so did statements by politicians. Among this cacophony of condemnation was a particularly odd call to action from Texas state senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz.

Senator Cruz is a well-known figure here in Texas. He served as solicitor general in the state longer than any other. His stance as a U.S. senator against NSA wiretapping is admirable and I commend him for it.

A few months ago, friends of the Cruz family contacted me to meet with the campaign… Read More on Alternet.org’s GrayZone Project. 

Update: This piece was just picked up by Salon.com