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?
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.