Sunday, August 27, 2006

New Role of Imams in the United States

The Muslim American community is one of the fastest growing religious communities in North America composed of immigrants from Muslim counties with traditionally large families, African Americans with deep American roots, and a growing number of converts to Islam from all ethnic backgrounds. As such, the need for developing vibrant institutions that meet the individual and collective needs of a diverse Muslim American community is most essential today. This paper focuses on a specific institutional need within the Muslim American context—pastoral care. I will address the need, definition, characteristics, and methodology of pastoral care for Muslims living in the United States.

Muslim American institutions, namely the Mosques and Islamic Centers, are ill equipped to deal with the complexities that a diverse ethnic community brings with it. Religious leaders, who often have no background in seminary studies or even an understanding of the American Muslim experience, have been relegated for the most part to leading daily prayers, giving weekly lessons on Islamic teachings, and in some cases providing legal opinions on ethical and moral dilemmas facing congregation members. However, what is missing from this puzzle (along with a true fulfillment of the above stated roles) is the ability of Muslim religious leaders to cater to the psychological and spiritual needs of the congregation, which even an expert in Islamic law cannot fulfill without proper training and skills.

This missing piece in the puzzle is due to the fact that immigrants, who find entire concept of psychological and spiritual counseling alien to their understanding of congregation to this day control most Mosques. Traditionally, in the Muslim World, strong family ties serve as the support group for individual needs, which are usually addressed through a grandfather or grandmother-like figure serving as the family’s wise sage. However, within the Muslim American context this model is not practical, because those large family networks do not exist for the most part, the cultural gap between immigrant parents and their children is widening, and converts simply have no family to turn to for such religiously catered needs. As a result, many Muslim immigrants choose to assimilate into the culture leaving behind their religious roots. Most young second and third generation Muslims don’t associate themselves with the Mosque, which they feel, does not fulfill their individual needs. Converts are leaving Islam at alarming rates due to the lack of support they receive during this most difficult religious and cultural transition.

As such, there is a desperate need for Muslim religious leaders to gain essential skills in psychological and spiritual counseling, which will serve as the congregations support network in times of distress, despair and depression among other things. The Muslim pastor will also be able to provide a communal framework for common psychological and spiritual challenges, such as self-identity issues that invariably come with the status of being a religious minority, especially one that lives in an environment of fear and suspicion following the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. It is important to remember, however, that a Muslim pastor can do as much harm as he or she can do good if the proper attitudes and skills for counseling are not developed. As such, it is important to discuss the essential characteristics that make a good, effective Muslim pastor.

Firstly, a Muslim pastor must be sincere in his or her devotion to working for God’s sake and pleasure. If a Muslim pastor works for the pleasure of the congregation alone, then he or she will lack the courage to make tough choices and speak the difficult truth, which is often needed in the end result of religious counseling. Sincerity is also key to durability, because the job of a religious counselor is one of the most difficult in society, and without true sincerity of purpose it is difficult to survive the demands placed on the counselor.

A Muslim pastor must also have a strong desire to help others and embody the spirit of a Prophetic saying (hadith) that says, “No one of you becomes a true believer until he like for his brother (or sister) what he likes for himself (or herself).” The objective of the Muslim pastor must be to help, not to arrogantly moralize or instill feelings of negativity within the counsel seeker. Prophet Muhammad also said, “If anyone fulfills his brother’s needs, God will fulfill his need; if one relives a brother of his troubles, God will relieve his troubles on the Day of Resurrection.” This shows the beauty of serving others.

In order for a Muslim pastor to help the counsel seeker, he or she must posses the virtue of patience and control of anger. The Muslim pastor will be tested to the limit with counsel seekers often expressing theological misunderstandings about religion and admitting to some serious sins. However, once again, the role of a Muslim pastor is not to preach (at least at that moment) but to offer help and guidance, which is rarely ever achieved through angry moralizing. Prophet Muhammad embodied this spirit of showing kindness over anger when a desert Arab entered the Mosque and began urinating in the corner. The Prophet’s companions were furious and even got up to attack the man for dishonoring the place of worship, but Prophet Muhammad calmed his companions, told them to clean the area, and himself took the desert Arab by his side and counseled him on the purity of religion. So, in the same sense a Muslim pastor will see and hear things that may offend his or her beliefs or instincts of what is right and wrong, but these feelings must be contained in an effort to help the counsel seeker. This is why the Quran speaks of those who repress their anger as the object of God’s love for their beautiful works (31:34).

The essence of patience and anger management comes from the Muslim pastors ability to be humble before God and before the counsel seeker, knowing that had it not been for God’s favors he or she would be in the same position as the counsel seeker. This connection between humbleness and patience is beautifully stated in the Quran: “And the servants of the Merciful One are those who walk the earth humbly, and when the ignorant address them, they say, ‘Peace.’” (25:65). The Quran also quotes the wise sage, Luqman, as teaching his son the virtues of humility even while enjoining the right, and forbidding the wrong: “And don’t be contemptuous toward people, and don’t swagger around on earth: for God loves no pompous braggart. And moderate your stride, and lower your voice, for the most repulsive sound is surely the braying of an ass.” (31:18-19). The Quran also specifically advises Muslim leaders to “be kind and humble to the believers who follow you.” (26:215).

One of the most important aspects of humbleness is the ability to communicate with the layman, which all too often religious leaders in the Muslim community ignore, because of time constraints or more serious flaws, such as arrogance. It is essential for the Muslim pastor to be a peoples person, to know the congregation members well, and to be conscious of their internal states in order to offer proactive counseling. Despite the aura of Prophet Muhammad and the heavy responsibilities on his shoulders as statesman and spiritual healer, there are numerous stories that show he was deeply in-tune with not only his community’s affairs, but also the lives of individuals within his community. For instance, once the Prophet walked over to Muadh ibn Jabal, a young companion, placed his arms over his shoulders and counseled him, “Do not become angry, do not become angry, do not become angry.” This shows that the Prophet was deeply aware of the internal states of his surrounding community and was there to offer proactive counseling even when an individual did not seek it.

Lastly, a Muslim pastor must have the ability to keep his counseling confidential, especially in a relatively small community in which rumors spread like fire on wood. The Quran strongly discourages speaking ill of others behind their backs (49:12) and Prophet Muhammad said “God will cover up on the Day of Judgement the faults of the one who covers up the faults of others in this world.” In other words, if someone has a big mouth and cannot practice confidentiality, then pastoral care simply is not for them.

Now, that I have explained some of the core characteristics of a Muslim pastor, it is important to explain some of the core methodologies of pastoral care, with an emphasis on the Muslim American context.

The first most important methodology of pastoral care, regardless of specific religious settings, is the process of listening. Simply put, a pastor cannot help a counsel seeker if they don’t know what the problem is, and a pastor cannot know the problem unless they listen to what the counsel seeker is saying and truly make an effort to understand where the counsel seeker is coming from. All too often in the Muslim American community, religious leaders feel that they have a ready made theological or legal answer to every question or dilemma that is presented to them. This false sense of over self-confidence creates psychological barriers between the religious leader and the counsel seeker. I have literally talked to religious leaders in the Muslim community with personal concerns with them looking off into the distance and even interrupting my thoughts or concerns to greet someone they haven’t seen in a long time.

As Kathleen Miller and William Jackson discuss in chapters four and five of their book, “Practical Psychology for Pastors,” listening is much more than hearing what the counsel seeker is saying. Rather it is a process of helping the counsel seeker to talk about their own feelings and internal state in order to arrive at some sort of comfort.

So, it is essential for the Muslim pastor to rid himself or herself of this idea that they have all the answers and that they’re just waiting for the counsel seeker to stop talking so that they can bestow their wisdom. In reality, a Muslim pastor, like any other pastor, must be able to actively listen to what is being said before they can even think of bestowing their wisdom on the counsel seeker. In fact, in Prophet Muhammad’s teachings the sign of a virtuous Muslim is in the one who speaks little, not the one who speaks the most or the loudest.

In the process of actively listening, a Muslim pastor must also openly show a shared concern or interest in what the counsel seeker is saying. In other words, a Muslim pastor should not distance himself or herself from the conversation to such an extent that they seem not to care about the feelings and experiences of the counsel seeker. According to Ibn Masud, an orphaned child who grew up in the house of Prophet Muhammad, whenever the Prophet would talk to him he would place his knee next to Ibn Masud’s knee and place his hand on Ibn Masud’s hand to show deep respect and affection. Interestingly, the Quran, in one place, criticizes Prophet Muhammad for turning his head away from a blind counsel seeker while he was preoccupied with an elderly tribesman (80:1-16). So, this shows the great importance of giving your full attention and respect to the counsel seeker. Now, this maybe more complicated when the Muslim pastor and counsel seeker are of opposite gender, because of the strong emphasis on modesty laws and respectful gender interaction in the Islamic tradition. For this reason both Muslim men and women should be trained in pastoral care, which makes this different from a religious leader who--according orthodox interpretations—must be a male. However, it is also important to remember that Prophet Muhammad offered counseling and consoled women during times of hardship and tragedy. As such, a Muslim pastor must never allow the laws of gender interaction to override the laws of compassion and mercy that one is obligated to show towards others, particularly in times of distress.

The Muslim pastor must have deep knowledge in three key areas of Islamic science: Islamic theology (‘Aqida), Islamic law (Shariah), and Spirituality (Tasawuf). In the end, once the process of listening has been completed, it is often imperative for the Muslim pastor to give some guidance, especially when the counsel seeker has failed to come to a point of self-realization. Even when a counsel seeker has come to a point of self-realization, it is then the job of the Muslim pastor to help him or her move to the next step. For this next step to occur, the Muslim pastor has to know whether that step can be framed within a theological understanding, a legal understanding, a spiritual understanding or perhaps a combination of all three—which is more likely the case. A Muslim pastor must always, and this is where he or she is different from an expert on Islamic law, be in tune with the spiritual science of Islam that seeks to heal and purify the heart—the organ of perception in the science of Islamic spirituality. Prophet Muhammad said about the heart, “Verily, there is one flesh in the body if corrupt the whole body is corrupt, and if pure the whole body is pure. Verily, this flesh is the heart.” As such, purification and healing of the heart must be at the core of a Muslim pastor’s work.

In conclusion, Mosques throughout North America need to develop this institution of pastoral care within the worship setting. Some Muslims maybe uncomfortable with the term “pastoral care” for its Christian connotations (though that need not be the case), and in such a situation the term “Muslim caregiver” maybe more appropriate to use. But, the function should be one—spiritual and psychological counseling and healing within a religious setting. Even today, after all the studies done on Muslim Americans, Mosques continue to look for two qualifications in their religious leader (Imam): Memorization of Quran (to lead the prayer) and deep knowledge of Islamic law (to offer religious legal opinions). It is essential that Muslims now understand the paradigm shift that has taken place within the Muslim American setting, and respond to those needs, rather than blindly following the traditions of Mosque settings found in the Muslim World.

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