Caring for Ahmad and Other Muslim Youth

To continue the conversation about youth at risk, and how imams and Muslim chaplains can respond, I asked my dear friend Sh. Jamaal Diwan to offer a reflection on the points raised in my article “What Happened to Ahmad: Responding to Muslim Youth at Risk.” The following is his insightful response:

Since I was asked to write about this topic from the perspective of a student of Shari’a, I would like to begin my comments with some reflections on the role of the imam in America and then work from there towards my thoughts on the relationship between chaplains and imams.

Generally, the imam is looked to as the leader of his community and the source of guidance for his congregation. In America this is no different and requires the presence of certain traits in the ideal imam. From these traits are things such as the following: having a strong training in and knowledge of the traditional Islamic sciences; understanding the people and culture that he is serving; speaking English fluently; knowing how to deal with people, empowering and motivating them; being aware of the major trends in society and cultivating the ability to address them from the perspective of Islam; having a spirit of humility, self-sacrifice, and servitude; and so on.

I recognize that it is very rare to find all of these traits in one imam, but it does represent an ideal that we as a community should strive towards. It is of note here that from the previous description, it is necessarily a part of the imam’s role in the community for him to engage in pastoral services at some level. However, that does not mean that this is what the imam is usually primarily trained in nor does it mean that it is the best place for the imam to spend large quantities of his time. In many of our communities we find that imams are busy in a never-ending flow of counseling sessions that wear them out spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. This has the devastating effect of taking them away from the crucial roles of religious instruction, guidance, and their own personal studies. We face many challenges and imams that do not have the chance to even review things that they learned in their studies, let alone increase their knowledge, will find themselves incapable of addressing these challenges and come up short in providing thought and guidance for the people.

At the same time, the mosque does tend to be a very communal space that people come to with all kinds of hopes and needs. Among these needs are mental health services. It should be acknowledged that imams are NOT usually trained directly in this field AND people have major needs relating to it. At the same time, I have been told, that many times when imams recommend members of their congregation to mental health professionals, they still want to talk to the imam. Perhaps what Ibrahim mentioned in his article is part of the solution. For communities that can afford to hire chaplains alongside imams, there is great potential for growth and professionalism in the services that are offered. The chaplain, by virtue of his or her combination of pastoral and religious studies, is someone whom people would feel comfortable approaching for help while still maintaining an Islamic perspective. This would allow imams to free themselves up for other work for which they are more suitably trained  and thus help to fulfill the needs of the community.

In such a scenario, both the imam and chaplain would benefit immensely from each other and grow as leaders in the community. The chaplain would be able to aid the community with the numerous mental health and other social needs in the community while being able to increase in their religious knowledge because of their relationship with the imam. At the same time, the imam would have the chance to focus on those aspects of religious leadership that are demanded from them while  having the opportunity to benefit from the pastoral and social service knowledge of the chaplain.

In conclusion, the needs of our growing communities are many. The ideal way for them to be fulfilled is not for us to expect all of our imams to be superheroes who are capable of excelling in many different capacities at the same time, nor for our imams to think they are superheroes capable of all of these tasks at once. Rather, we need to recognize the different roles that are necessary in the effort to fulfill the needs of our communities and then find the people who can do the job. This will require us to move from investing in buildings to investing in people.  What are buildings worth if they are not filled with the right people?

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Sh. Jamaal Diwan is a graduate from the College of Shari`ah at al-Azhar University in Cairo, and possesses a Master’s degree from the American University in Cairo in Arabic Studies with an emphasis in Islamic Studies. Prior to this, he obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Third World Studies with a minor in Psychology from the University of California, San Diego.

10 thoughts on “Caring for Ahmad and Other Muslim Youth

  1. muyassar al-Rifai

    Wonderful article and a great message to send to all Muslims inside and outside of the US.Just looking and reading articles like this, give me hope in Allah( swt) that this faith is being preserved by wonderful people like all of you. Jazaakum Allahu Kulla khayrin wa Afeyah, wa Adamakum lihifthi hathad-Deenis- Saweyy.Baarakal-Laahu feekum.Great article.This should be on a cover page of a National Geographic Magazine. Keep up the wonderful job.

  2. As-Salamu ‘Alaikum Jamaal,

    I appreciate your reply. I believe you hit on a crucial point concerning the two (imam and Muslim chaplain) working together, which I hope to address further in another post. We place a lot on the shoulders of not only our imams, but all of our religious leaders. In this sense we also make it more difficult for them to do a job well, for they are expected to complete an unimaginable list of community chores. We as a community should be more reasonable with our leaders, and that also entails realizing when we need to hire more people to get the job done. I like how you put it, “What are buildings worth if they are not filled with the right people?”

    I have seen millions of dollars dedicated to new Islamic centers with only one or two paid staff. Yet, were you to ask to work as an assistant to the imam in such a center, they would inform you there is not enough money for this expense.

  3. Pingback: “What happened to Ahmad?”: Responding to Muslim Youth at Risk |

  4. Mimuna

    Bismillah
    Assalamu Ailakum,
    An Imam and Chaplain working together side by side for the betterment of the community is certainly a great vision for the future of Western Muslims. This is certainly an enlightened idea that our communities need to catch up with. Even if we have extra fundraising dinners to come up with the annual salaries for chaplains in our mosques, we should really push to have such a dynamic team. This is going to be even harder North of the border where chaplaincy is a foreign concept. The chaplaincy program actually became a topic of discussion in our sisters’ circle this weekend and many of the sisters are interested in the program now. Just reading your reflections on the role of an Imam is reminder of the overwhelming obligations our Imams have and it’s certainly reminder to appreciate them more. Despite all the problems our communities are facing today, this is certainly a good start to long term solutions.
    May Allah reward you both, ameen.

    Wasalam,
    Mimuna

    1. Wa ‘Alaikum As-Salam Mimuna,

      May Allah reward you and your circle for discussing this issue. I really hope the position of Muslim chaplain makes its way North of the border. One way of addressing this is actually speaking to an institution you believe could greatly benefit from having a Muslim chaplain on hand, if even it is part-time. Maybe there is a hospital, or university, in your area that any one of you could approach. If the institution is open to the idea you can then ask the community to fund-raise for the person’s salary.

      Once a Canadian institution has their first, and others see benefit in it, insha’Allah it will spread. As for Islamic centers, I suggest the possibility of supporting an imam’s training in pastoral care. If, of course, a community could take on a full-time chaplain (and consider starting a social services foundation), I am sure they would find several keen applicants from the United States.

      Keep up the community work.

      Wasalam,
      Ibrahim

  5. Mimuna

    Assalamu Ailakum Ibrahim,
    Ameen to your dua, jazakAllah khair for the great suggestions. Insha’Allah we will look into some of your suggestions and keep you posted.
    Wasalam,
    Mimuna

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