Imam & Community Education
The panelists in this seminar were Dr. Ermin Sinanović, Director of Research and Academic Programs at IIIT, Dr. Zahid Bukhari, former president of ICNA, Dr. Timur Yuskaev, Director of the Graduate Certificate Program in Imam and Muslim Community Leadership at the Hartford Seminary, and Joshua Salaam, Youth Director at the ADAMS Center in Sterling, VA, and a graduate of the certificate program.
Dr. Sinanović began the session by introducing IIIT and his fellow panelists. He stated that IIIT is a premier Muslim institution that has published more than 700 books in 22 languages in the last 35 years. He further explained that IIIT is committed to continuous professional development for imams as well as community leaders.
In contrast with the strictly religious role of imams in many Muslim countries, imams and community leaders are expected to perform multiple functions here in the United States, such as Islamic instruction, interfaith participation, and various types of counseling. In addition, they have to deal with a pluralistic community and cater to the needs of the young and old. Since finding all of these qualities in one person is so difficult, “it explains the high turnover we have at mosques,” Dr. Sinanović remarked.
However, many of the abilities required for an imam in a Western setting can be acquired and the Graduate Certificate in Imam and Muslim Community Leadership program, offered by IIIT and the Hartford Seminary collaboratively, aims to bridge this very gap. The Hartford Seminary is one of the oldest and most respective seminaries in the United States. IIIT has helped the Hartford Seminary hire Muslim instructors who “bring the Muslim component to the conversation and instill self-respect and confidence in their students.”
Dr. Zahid Bukhari acknowledged the huge variation among imams, including “imported imams” who have sound knowledge of Islam but are unable to relate to this culture, to the youth, essentially leading disconnected lives “in an icloud type atmosphere.” He recommended the need for periodic recertification in order to help the imams and community leaders effectively handle contemporary challenges. Dr. Bukhari expressed enthusiasm for ICNA’s partnership with IIIT in this important endeavor and hopes that it will be beneficial to the Muslim community and the larger American society.
Dr. Timur Yuskaev commented that many advertisements for imams include the phrase “and other responsibilities”; he said that can be anything! He cited the 2006 New York Times series in which Andrea Elliott, who won the Pulitzer Prize for it, followed the ordinary life of a Brooklyn imam for a few months – in the midst of it all, the imam collapsed. “If we don’t train the people, they will keep collapsing,” Dr. Yuskaev warned.
Dr. Yuskaev explained that the Hartford Seminary certification program enables imams and community leaders, both men and women, to acquire training in how to do interfaith work effectively and to become more professional. “We cannot train imams from scratch, but we can help them learn to do what they do better,” Dr. Yuskaev said, highlighting the fact that the coursework falls under “continuing education.”
Dr. Sinanović elaborated that individuals applying for the Graduate Certificate in Imam and Muslim Community Leadership program must have a Bachelor’s Degree; it is a 24 hour credit program consisting of eight courses, two of which are mandatory. The certification provides practical training for counseling in different settings such as hospitals and prisons.
Joshua Salaam focused on the pastoral care he learned at the Hartford Seminary through this program. He declared that the Muslim community is deficient in pastoral care and fails to address the basic emotional and human needs of its congregants. Instead of listening to the challenges people face and offering them empathetic and sympathetic advice, people in leadership positions forget the human factor.
Salaam gave examples from the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) life, showing how he was always cognizant of pastoral care. He also shared stories of individuals who have approached him about changing their faith to Christianity or committing suicide, and how his training during the certification program has enabled him to deal with such cases with pastoral care. Salaam concluded by saying that he came away from the program with “a little bit more knowledge, and a lot more wisdom.”
In concluding remarks, Dr. Sinanović reiterated that our imams are expected to be superhumans; he suggested that communities should consider hiring a team to handle the various demands instead of laying the burden on one person’s shoulders. The session was followed by Q&A, in which various people in the audience touched on important aspects of the discussion such as low salaries and lack of benefits that often come with an imam’s job and the need for imams to understand the concept of servant-leader: even as a leader, one is still in service to the community they are serving.
Contemporary Approaches to Understanding the Sunnah
Dr. Sinanović set the tone for this session by stressing the importance of sunnah as an essential source of Islamic knowledge while inviting the audience to think about how to understand the message of Islam in the 21st century through the Sunnah. He asked, “Do we accept hadith methodology uncritically and apply it fully or do we develop new methodologies in how we can authenticate the hadith and understand them?”
Dr. Sinanović also raised a point regarding chronology of hadith. He explained that although we are very clear about the sequence in which the Qur’an was revealed, this is not so with hadith. So, we have thousands of hadith but don’t know very clearly when exactly the Prophet (saw) said them, whether Islam was still in its initial stages or well-established at the time. Lastly, he raised question of looking at hadith as data points – do we give the same weight to individual v. aggregate?
Dr. Emad Hamdeh, Assistant Professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Embry Riddle University in Florida, spoke at length about one of the contemporary attempts to understanding the Sunnah that opposes the traditional approach: Shaikh Albani’s brand of Salafism. Dr. Hamdeh explained that Shaikh Albani was a product of an era in which scholars followed a very strict madhhab traditionalism and his own methodology was a reaction in response to this environment.
Shaikh Albani became very anti-madhhab and decided to teach himself rather than be taught by a scholar, as was the prevailing tradition. In doing so, he came to adopt a very uncompromising way of understanding Islam and Sunnah. Whereas traditional scholars viewed the hadith through the lens of context, layers of text, varying interpretations, and nuance, Shaikh Albani believed in the purity of the text.
Before introducing the next speaker, Dr. Sinanović pointed out that in the Sunnah v. Scholar debate, Shaikh Albani eventually became akin to a fifth madhhab because he himself is a scholar with followers.
Dr. Jonathan Brown, Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization and an Associate Professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington DC, gave the second talk of the seminar. Dr. Brown has also authored many books, Misquoting Muhammad being the most recent.
Dr. Brown began his talk by making a distinction between hadith (a piece of information) and Sunnah (general authoritative precedent). He then spoke about two approaches to the Sunnah:
• Sunnah as a fixed lens through which we understand Qur’an, so much so that the Sunnah becomes an infallible application of the book of God • Sunnah as a moving frontier of communal practice – flexible as per changing times and circumstances
Dr. Brown declared that the Qu’ran-only movement is unprecedented and it is impossible to read the Qur’an without hadith. The Sunnah provides an important source of where our religion comes from. In fact, definitions of Arabic words in dictionaries are derived from the usage of language at the Prophet’s time. Hence, those who attempt to read the Qur’an independent of the Sunnah inevitably utilize hadith-inspired definitions in dictionaries. Dr. Brown further clarified that the perception that Sunnah is rigid is untrue; rather, it is diverse and provides licenses that “can become tools for addressing contemporary issues.”
The lectures were followed by an engaging Q&A session. At the end, many members of the audience stayed around to ask more questions.
Overall, the IIIT panels at the 2015 ICNA Convention in Baltimore, MD, drew a robust crowd and proved to be a useful opportunity for IIIT to raise awareness of its important work as well as crucial issues relevant to the larger community. A book display at the back of the room allowed visitors to browse IIIT publications and the IIIT booth in the Bazaar enabled people to purchase IIIT books.
IIIT looks forward to continued partnership with ICNA in the future.
Photos on Flickr