Advice for Students of Knowledge Overseas: A Meeting with Dr. Ingrid Mattson
Most Western religious students studying overseas intend to return home to help their communities. However, after years of immersion in a foreign culture, students may find themselves out of touch with the Muslim community and the broader society. These students must know the issues of the day, what is expected of their role, and the condition of their community in order to be effective teachers. Dr. Ingrid Mattson tell us what realities students can expect to face, and how to prepare for them….
Last week, SG team members Faraz Khan, Salman Younas, and Abdullah Misra had the opportunity to sit with Dr. Ingrid Mattson while she was attending a conference on Islam and the Environment in Amman, Jordan.
The questions that the group sought her advice on included: what can students of the Islamic sciences who are overseas expect to encounter upon returning to the West? What should they know, and what can they do to prepare themselves for a life of teaching and service in the North American Muslim community?
Over the next two and a half hours, Dr. Mattson offered profound advice, with relevant examples and penetrating wisdom. Below are snippets and summaries of her advice:
Understand the Difference Between a Scholar and an Imam
A scholar and an imam are two different things. A scholar is primarily knowledge-based, and they spend most of their time in research, writing or teaching. An imam is a pastor, the shepherd of a flock. An imam’s job and responsibilities must be understood: he protects his congregation, guards against negative influences and discord, nurtures the attendees, and more.
The two roles often get confused for one another, though in the past the difference was very clear. In recent times, scholars have assumed the role of imams. A student of knowledge should clearly understand the difference between the two and decide which one they want to become.
An imam needs knowledge of the religion, but not to the level of a specialist. He should know who to turn to when a matter passes his level of expertise, whether in religious law, psychology or family counseling.
Communication is Key
An imam must know how to communicate with his audience- to remind them and inspire them effectively. The community’s souls are in his hands. They trust him. They put their families in his care. He must know their lives and what they face. He must show that he cares for them. He cannot have a sense of entitlement because of his position.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said to give good news. The imam cannot constantly be giving people bad news. Many imams cannot see the negative effect this has on people.
Certain people can master both Islamic scholarship AND effective communication. Dr. Mattson cited Dr. Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia, as an example. Those who are able to do so should master both skills because people will respond positively to what they say and teach.
Know Yourself and Your Goals
A student has to know who they are. What are you cut-out to do? Do not follow what are others pressuring you to do. Some people feel pressured to become academics, or scholars, or imams, and don’t feel cut out for the role; rather, they feel suited to take on another one of those roles. A student should choose the path that best suits them.
The role of the academic, the Islamic scholar, the imam and the Muslim chaplain are always being lumped together or confused, whereas the roles are ideally supposed to be distinct and separate.
An example is that in the past, the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus employed over 200 separate positions. This included the imam for prayer, the preacher, the Friday khateeb, the teachers who taught in traditional study circles, the dhikr-leaders, and other roles that were all distinct, each one specializing in their field according to their strengths and training.
The Place of the Scholar in our Society
So where is the place for scholars in our society? Since very few institutions exist that support scholars, they have to be prepared to carve out their own niches if they wish to stay in their field.
A professor of Islamic studies in a university is not an Islamic scholar. Many people have studied the Islamic sciences to become scholars, and then gone into academia due to their lack of knowing how to function as Islamic scholars and how to provide for their families. However, the demands of academia ensured that they were too busy to ever return to their original intention. This is not to detract from the concept of learned Muslims going into academia; however, one should know what it entails and the reality of the commitment it requires from the get-go.
Currently, there is a limited “market” for pure scholars of Islam in North America- those whose sole occupation is with knowledge and teaching-because there aren’t enough institutions that support them. Scholars have to start their own projects and nurture them slowly if they wish to remain in their fields. This takes patience and sacrifice. Dr. Mattson commended SeekersGuidance as an example of a successful project in Islamic scholarship.
Tapping the True Potential of Scholars
The current trend is that a scholar-cum-imam leads a congregation all week in prayer, and then on weekends, he teaches basic classes to the community. Their scholarly training is used only to a limited degree in this case.
However, the one-man-school model may not be fulfilling the broader needs that communities have today. There reaches a saturation point, in certain areas, of weekend school options for adults [while other areas have only lay-preachers to guide them].
The caliber of some of these scholars is too high to be teaching introductory courses in Islamic subjects over and over again; teachers should be trained specially for that purpose. The scholars’ time needs to be freed-up so they can use their studies to tackle the larger issues that require their expertise.
Till this day, why hasn’t our community started a Muslim teacher’s college? Why can’t we as a community even design a Sunday School curriculum on how to teach basic Islamic studies that we can all agree on? Islamic learning institutions need not be large to have an impact- our standards right now are so low, a few well-trained teachers would be enough to make a difference in each community.
Why did Dr. Mattson choose to develop a chaplaincy program and not an imam program? Because a good imam is in need of a good masjid board-of-directors in order to properly function, and so training good imams doesn’t necessarily mean communities will progress, until the way that the boards work with imams changes also.
Chaplains, on the other hand, are respected as professionals and do not have these same administrative obstacles. They are sorely needed in our times. They are good examples of how to benefit others and work with religion professionally in society. It is hoped that their professionalism will be a good example for imams and masjid boards alike.
The Challenges of Being an Imam
In general, religious leaders have great challenges in the West. Many people have the attitude of not according any authority to their religious leaders, so the imam finds great hindrances in leading the community. People are generally harder to satisfy in our times. A religious leader has to grapple with the reality of trying to lead fiercely independent-minded people, each with their own opinions, and balance his authority with wisdom while preserving his values and maintaining control of the situation.
Imams are often at the mercy of masjid boards who do not give them job security, or proper benefits, and do not show them respect as professionals. On the other extreme is when a religious leader has a personality cult around him that allows him to have complete control. Dr. Mattson was pointing towards the balance, which is rooted in mutual respect.
A Scholar Should Not Encourage a Sense of Entitlement or Superiority
Muslims don’t know their own history. We don’t know about how our societies began, developed and changed. We may know, at most, about very early Islamic history which shows Muslims in control of vast lands, and living according to Islamic laws, values and rule. This lack of perspective has led to Muslims arriving in Western society and immediately becoming critical of everything they see.
Whenever something does not conform to their long-held values, they criticize it and try to correct others. They feel a sense of entitlement in a land in which they are a relatively new and small community. They do not look at their own faults as a community let alone try to fix their problems, but go on pointing out the faults they see in a society that has not yet heard the message.
Dr. Mattson has indicating that this is a mentality that students will come across, which will make communities resistant to change and self-criticism at times, and a religious leader should not encourage this attitude.
Love and Respect: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Muslims love each other. When two Muslims meet, you can see the genuine love that they have for the other person, even if the two Muslims are complete strangers. However, Muslims don’t have [enough] respect for one another.
Other religious groups may not show love for one another the way Muslims do, but they do respect one another. For example, in a church, you will never hear someone interrupt a sermon to argue with the preacher, but this happens in masjids to the Friday khatibs. This shows a complete lack of respect for one another.
Muslims need to have both qualities as a community in order to thrive: love and respect. Religious leaders must raise communities with this awareness.
The Most Important Qualities in an Imam
When a community chooses an imam, it should do so on the same criteria that a woman should choose a husband: character is given first priority, and then deen (outward religious practice). Character comes first since a person’s personality usually stays consistent and directly affects the community, whereas religiosity can increase or decrease, and is mostly a personal matter.
The Need for Muslim “Youth Ministers”
Our communities need imams, chaplains and “youth ministers”. The three are distinct in their roles. It is said that every 12 years, a new generation is formed. Religious leaders must be responsive and understand the times they live in and the people in their communities.
Different people may be suited to different roles and appeal to different crowds; thus, youth should be trained by scholars and imams to reach out to youth in the masjids and community centers.
The Importance of Apologetics and Ethics
Religious leaders must combine various fields of knowledge: the Islamic sciences are essential, but the study of apologetics is also very important today. One must know about the burning issues of our time, the current paradigms and controversies, and how a Muslim can intelligently respond to criticisms of the faith and opposing ideologies such as atheism.
Also, theology is not ‘aqeedah – theology develops in response to the burning issues of the age. Initially, the Muslims didn’t deal with certain aspects of theology only because those issues would be raised in later times- such as when the Khawarij came, the question of the day became, “who is a Muslim?”. Later came the question of whether the Qur’an was Allah’s Eternal Speech or His creation [as the Mutazilites erroneously claimed].
Similarly today, we can no longer brush off feminist critiques of patriarchal religions. We must recognize that feminist critiques happened in our own religious history- such as when a woman asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) why Allah Most High only addressed men in the Qur’an; Allah Most High revealed a verse which then addressed both men and women.
Ethics is the field of knowledge that is perhaps most relevant to our time and context. Our context today isn’t demanding as much from our understanding of the details of Islamic criminal law, for example, or other points of Islamic law. Rather, an understanding of ethics is very important right now, and students should be versed in its discussions [from the perspectives of varying traditions].
Make Your Message Relevant and Be Realistic
A religious leader needs to understand what is important to people. People in our communities often feel split between religion and work, and the result is that they are often drawn away from religion. Remember that one’s career defines a person much more now than it did in the past- on average people spend 60 hours a week at work. Make your message relevant to those people, understanding the role of careers in their lives and the challenges it poses.
We must accept that people will not get everything 100% right in their religious lives. The people will never fully perform everything expected of them- so don’t ask them to do the impossible. A religious leader must keep this in mind and focus on what they can do, by emphasizing ethics: good behavior (not cheating, not lying, etc) and respect. This is the area where they are most likely to see positive changes in people, rather than forcing people to choose between the Sacred Law or their careers.
Be realistic in what you expect from people; look at them with an eye of mercy and generosity. Alhumdulillah, they are Muslims after all and that is more important than anything else. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said there will come a time when Muslims will only have 10% of the religion’s teachings left, but it will be enough to enter them into Paradise. They should not be made to feel pessimistic about their shortcomings, but rather encouraged by the mercy in that statement.
One has to realize people are not inherently “bad”. The bad lifestyle choices they make have powerful negative influences driving them. Knowing this, people cannot simply be told to change and fix themselves. An imam must be compassionate, [gradual] and wise in this regard.
Instilling a Sense of Collective Responsibility
An imam must also understand the reality of collective responsibility. The Qur’an speaks about it when referring to previous nations, so it is an Islamic concept. For example, when a child is abused, they grow up and affect others negatively in turn. This could have been prevented had mechanisms been set up to protect children in our community. Where were we when that child was small and needed us? Thus, an imam must have a sense of communal obligation and communicate this to his congregation.
An imam should also be versed in the arts of ministry. This is primarily preaching and guiding, but also counseling (for family, depression, addiction, marriage, violence, children, etc.) They cannot be an expert is every field, but they should know enough to know when there’s a problem and make a referral to an expert.
Interfaith Relations: A Modern Imperative
Interfaith relations are a must in our times. Muslims are only 2% of American society; in Canada, perhaps 5%. That is a reality we have to face. We must understand other religions in order to be good neighbors. Many times, Muslims say false things about other faiths- those are lies, and technically it could be called bearing false witness when Muslims are supposed to be truthful.
Also, Muslims cannot be the primary messengers of Islam in the West- our numbers are too low [to be able to effectively combat stereotypes and wrong impressions by ourselves]. Most people in the US still don’t even personally know a Muslim. Thus, we need advocates and allies who will speak to others about us. Other religious groups have more credibility in Western society than we do and they are willing to work together with us.
After 9/11, because of good relations with ISNA, a Christian umbrella group representing 40 million Protestants in the US officially passed a policy for its church members that Christians should not hate Muslims for what had happened. They themselves then printed a book clarifying misconceptions on Islam and distributed copies to their members, so that they could empathize with Muslims as another faith group who believed in God. This is the fruit of good interfaith relations.
Similarly, partnerships between mosques and synagogues have yielded positive results. When any negative press is directed unfairly at Muslims by the media, it is those interfaith allies who will call you first to ask if they can offer any help. Then, they will even give sermons in their places of worship, to the effect that good people need to stand against the voices that seek to demonize all Muslims. This is why interfaith work has become a modern imperative for Muslims.
Know Your Context Well
The most important thing is to know your context – your society, its ideas, the people and their culture, reality and conditions.
Think Like a Citizen, Not Just as a Scholar
Sometimes, a scholar has to answer as an American, and not as a mufti. An example that highlights this is when a jail warden asked a scholar if Muslim men needed to keep beards. The scholar offered the legal ruling, and mentioned the differences on whether it was obligatory or not. Hearing that it was not obligatory according to some views, the jail warden prevented Muslim inmates from keeping beards.
The scholar should have answered in the context of the right to practice one’s religion rather than a technical legal ruling. The same goes for people asking about the niqab – while there is a difference of opinion and many may say it isn’t obligatory, a scholar’s answer could cause a Muslim to lose their freedom to practice the opinion they believe in. The scholar must be acutely aware of how his words will be taken and what is best to say in any given context.
Know How to Adjust Your Tone
When you look at the works of a scholar of the past, such as Imam Nawawi (RA), you see the times when he was to-the-point and unwavering (such as in his legal texts) and at other times, you see his softer and warmer side (such as in his texts on dhikr, or his exhortations and supplications).
A scholar must know how to be each one of these, at the appropriate time and situation. Many scholars are either one or the other in all contexts, and therefore cannot distinguish which approach is appropriate in which context, which is not the way the great scholars of the past were.
The Difference Between Knowledge and Authority
There is a difference between knowledge and authority. Having one doesn’t mean you are automatically entitled to the other. The Sahaba disagreed with some of Omar’s (RA) rulings, yet they obeyed him because he was their leader and he was speaking from a perspective of knowledge as well. There was no vigilante or mutinous attitude amongst the Sahaba; they never abandoned their leadership.
The community needs to learn to follow their leaders and support them on good initiatives, even if they disagree sometimes. Disagreement in itself is not wrong. People of knowledge should also cooperate with the leaders of their community in valid differences, even though they are convinced of their own opinions. Scholars cannot think that their knowledge entitles them to authority over people when the community has already chosen its leaders.
How Do You Promote Respect for the Scholars?
Respect is a two-way street. Scholars/imams must respect their congregation and take them seriously in order to be respected by them. They must be professional in their roles. They must give people attention, and show care and concern. They should also prepare beforehand for their engagements. Nothing is worse than hearing a khutba that obviously hasn’t had the preparation time put into it – it shows the khatib doesn’t care about his responsibilities and his congregation.
Integrity is key. Do what you say and practice what you preach. How people perceive the imam/scholar is important. Does an imam do things to make himself seem at a higher status than his congregation? Does he enjoy benefits that his followers cannot also enjoy? If he does, people will notice and they will talk about it. This diminishes his respect in their eyes. Omar (RA) would not allow his son to enjoy fruit while the Muslims were experiencing a drought, only because the masses couldn’t afford the luxury of fruits at that time.
Does the imam/scholar maintain the etiquette between himself and his female students, or does he take advantage of his position and violate the teacher-student/ counselor-patient relationship? Things can be technically valid in Sacred Law, such as divorcing one’s wife to marry a younger student from his weekend study circle, but this is not ethical or moral. What does it tell the congregation? Unethical behavior diminishes respect for scholars, so they should avoid it at all costs.
Professionalism is the most important factor in earning the respect of the community. An imam who is on time and upright, fulfills his duties faithfully, shows concern, and works hard will be respected.
The Importance of Returning Home and Serving Where You Are Most Needed
A scholar is usually most effective in his home country. Some students wish never to return to their societies after studying abroad, despite the fact that their home communities sorely need their help and guidance.
Students of knowledge who do not return to their home countries often cannot benefit the societies in which they studied, because they are outsiders to the culture and do not have enough credibility. There are a few exceptions to this rule, of course. Thus, students should return home after their studies to serve their communities because there are many people in need of guidance and inspiration.
Also, many policies which affect the Muslim world originate from the West. Hence, when a student goes back after studies and works to correct misconceptions about Islam, this in turn educates the society at large, and since public opinion does have an effect on foreign policy, when people see Muslims as good citizens, this could very well have a positive impact on the rest of the Muslim world.
This is only the gist of what we learned from Dr. Mattson. Her advice was colored with stories and examples that provoked in us a great concern. We are very grateful that she took the time out to speak with us. May Allah Most High preserve her and continue to use her for the good of the community. May all the Western students of knowledge read this and benefit from it, insha Allah.
Abdullah Misra is teaching Meccan Dawn: The Life of the Beloved Prophet Muhammad