Part 1: What Makes the Man | Part 2: The Pedestal & the Pulpit
By Umm Fudayl
In our years of studying Islam abroad, my husband and I came across many interesting people, and in particular had the blessing of meeting many different young Muslims who came from the West with the desire to study. Of course, each person has their own unique personality and soul, but I found that the student community had a few archetypal characters.
There was the Muslim ex-pat wanderer, who grew up in the U.S. or the U.K., and traveled all over the Muslim world and tasted a bit of the culture from everywhere. They moved in and out of the circle of students of deen, making friends from the local population as well. They spoke many languages, knew more colloquial Arabic than classical, had visited all the tourist destinations and knew the best places to eat, drink tea, and shop.
There was the student who was only there for a year or two, taking time off of work or university to study Arabic or Quran. They were eager and optimistic, wanting to make the best use of their time, and to soak up the experience to sustain themselves spiritually after they returned to the daily grind.
There was the mureed, the dedicated student who traveled to be in the company of his or her shaikh of a Sufi order. The sun rose and set with their teacher, and they and their fellow mureeds had a secret fellowship of sorts. Their gatherings were clandestine and their group was deeply insular with stringent rules. I remember once when I was given the opportunity to visit such a shaikh in his home for the first time, and one of his students, reminding me of some of the general etiquette of his gatherings, advised, “The shaikh doesn’t ask us to, but we always wear (a certain color) on these visits.” I could only think of a scene from a high school movie about the popular girls, telling the newly initiated into their group, “On Wednesdays, we wear pink.” I found that their intense fixation on their teacher, and undying loyalty to this close-knit group, often relaxed as time progressed, though I did greatly admire their devotion and discipline.
There was the muhajir, who decided to leave the U.S. or the U.K., with all the difficulties they posed for the believer, to settle permanently with their families in a Muslim land. Even as they planned never to return to the West they felt the most affinity to us Western students, who shared their language, cultural norms and their same serious take on religion.
Then, there were the rest of us. Growing up, many of us loved studying and working for Islam, attending and organizing classes, seminars, halaqas and intensives, and now sought to dedicate ourselves more fully to this path. We were following the vague footsteps of scholars and duaat who had deeply inspired us, but whom we had rarely met; we were seeking Sh. Mokhtar’s spirituality, Sh. Hamza’s erudition, Imam Zaid’s vision, Dr. Jackson’s enlightenment, and Sh. Yasir Qadhi’s acumen, but, in most cases, without their actual guidance or direct help. This is perhaps one of the secrets of many of the young shaikhs, imams, and duaat you see in the forefront in the West today: they went abroad with little idea about what they were doing, with little in the way of guidance, and often had to figure things out on their own. Some were successful, while others lost their way.
The Struggle as Students
Abroad, students faced the challenge of flawed Islamic institutions, and shaikhs and teachers who did not have full insight into the needs of Western Muslims, and practically speaking were also very busy. For these and other reasons, students from the West often had to compose a medley of resources, learning from an array of teachers and programs to gain the requisite knowledge needed to be of benefit to their communities. The danger of what amounted to, in many ways, constructing their own course of study, is obvious. Some left, with qualifications or ijazaat in hand, only to further their already established opinions or ideas. Some focused heavily on one area of study, leaving other important areas, or actual spiritual practice, neglected. Some never actually made it into the turaath (scholarly tradition) and only expanded their learning to include popular Arabic teachers and duaat along with the Western ones. Some entirely immersed themselves in the rhetoric of their particular set of teachers, championing Ibn Taymiyya or Ibn ‘Arabi, and the dangers of bid’ah or the legitimacy of mawlid (depending on which camp they settled in,) forgetting the more basic critical needs of their community back home. Others left disillusioned and burned by negative experiences with teachers, or with doubts as they came across opinions or texts in their studies that troubled them that they did not yet have the means to answer.
I remember two sharp, but quite accurate comments from teachers over the years about Western students of Islamic knowledge: one is that we are impatient. We are often unwilling to follow through with an entire program of learning, especially when it is at a slow pace or done inefficiently, and we often do not give enough time to our learning, and assume that after a basic course of study we are ready to take on the garb of scholarship. The other, which is cutting, but may hit an uncomfortable truth, is that we carry a lot of emotional and spiritual baggage, preconceived ideas, reservations and blocks to humbling ourselves to learning and to practice, that perhaps others who grew up in environments less hostile to faith do not have.
Those who successfully completed a course of study almost always did so with the help of two means, with Allah as a Guide and Protector: they had a teacher, murabbi, or shaikh, from their back-home community or that they had found there, with whom they had a direct and personal relationship at some level, and a friendship of other students, who kept them grounded and in check as they progressed in their studies. The most successful students served as big brothers and sisters, taking newer students under their wing and helping them benefit from their own mistakes and experiences.
Several years later, many of these students have returned home to the West, and are now fulfilling different roles in our community; they are imams, chaplains and resident scholars, are working for and building new Islamic institutions or seminaries, or are on the academic route to becoming professors.
Some find themselves launched into the spotlight. This is especially true if they are a ‘triple threat’ — they have beautiful Quran recitation, are generally good-looking, and are charismatic and dynamic speakers with no accent. After years of being immersed in the books in a relatively humble existence, these students are followed on Facebook, set in front of the camera, and put on stage. They are expected to speak intelligently on pressing issues, inspire hope and give a strategic vision for the future of the community. Many meet the task, and are able to bring about a lot of benefit by sharing what Allah has blessed them with of knowledge — but now also face the spiritual challenges of being put on the pedestal of fame and popularity. These are heavy challenges, with heavy consequences. Many marriages have not survived the intense pressures that come with being a high-profile imam or daee. Many popular young imams, while blessed with knowledge, passion, and vision, need the balance of wisdom that comes with experience, sound advice, and time.
For those in dawah, popularity can be a means of fulfilling one’s goals. It means one has leverage in the community, and can also draw up the support needed to establish an important institution or make a project take flight. At the same time, it means that one and one’s family are under intense scrutiny, that one is pressured to appease various segments of the community with one’s views, and also, what may be the most lethal, one receives constant praise, adoration and admiration, which inflates the ego and fills the heart with arrogance and pride. The behavior of some high profile duaat behind the scenes, such as asking for thousands of dollars for a simple lecture or to lead prayers, or wanting center stage at Islamic events, reflects the result of internalizing fame. Ibn Rajab called this desire for worldly matters, such as wealth or to win over people’s hearts, not only ill-suited for a scholar, but ugly.
On the other end of the spectrum are those students who didn’t make it into, or turned away from, this high-profile stratosphere. These are your local imam, resident scholar, Quran teacher, or chaplain. Instead of celebrity-like adoration, they often face the opposite, with little financial compensation, little appreciation and much criticism. Many masjids are run, unfortunately, through layers of political maneuvering and paralyzing inefficiency. Instead of letting imams take the helm, sincere to their knowledge, with a long term vision and plan for the community’s well-being, they have little job-security and are often treated with contempt. The stories are plentiful. I know an imam who spent years steadfastly guiding his growing community from a small musalla to an expansive mega-masjid, only to be fired a few years before the age of retirement. After years of sacrifice, this left him, in some of the most vulnerable years of his life, scrambling for a job to meet the needs of his family. I know another imam who was invited for a weekend program at a multi-million dollar masjid as an imam candidate, with the agreement that they would compensate his travel expenses. At the end of the weekend he was approached by a member of the administration in a public setting, who asked him loudly if he wanted the money for his visit, then opened his wallet and handed him some second-hand gift cards. Suffice it to say, he later declined their offer for the position.
As students of Islamic knowledge return home to the West, they find themselves having to draw a fine balance between the pedestal and the pulpit; between seeking popularity, with all its spiritual risks, as a means of forwarding their own efforts in dawah, and serving the community in a more traditional capacity, with all the frustrations and indignities those positions commonly hold. I ask that Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) change our communities and help us move beyond a fixation on personalities to supporting meaningful community-building and Islamic education. May He help all of us who claim a position in the field of dawah serve Him and His deen in the best and most beautiful of ways, firmly committed to purification of the self, remembering our purpose, blessing us with people of knowledge to guide our steps, and sincere brothers and sisters to advise us, all under His constant protection, guidance and favor. Ameen.
By Guest Author , 19 Apr 2017