by Celene Ibrahim
Editors’ Note: This is the second in a series of essays on Community Engaged Learning and Islamic Studies.
More than a dozen new seminaries and programs for aspiring Muslim religious leaders now dot the North American theological school landscape, and faculty at these institutions are configuring modalities of Islamic spiritual formation into western-styled education. As seminary faculty, we are tasked with fostering learning environments wherein students develop integrity, spiritual acumen, moral courage, and the emotional skills to attend to their own inner world and the inner world of others—all while transmitting fluency in as much religious knowledge as possible.
Technological, demographic, and socio-cultural shifts mean that theological education—even beyond Muslim contexts—is undergoing significant transformations. Theological educators across traditions are grappling with how to design curricula to foster applied reasoning, to hone interpersonal skills, and to inculcate wisdom. As with other applied careers, amidst all of this change, training for religious leadership still requires practical experience.
As the first Muslim to complete a track in ministry studies at Harvard Divinity School, then as a Muslim Chaplain at a major research university and at a secondary school, and now as a faculty member offering courses in the new Masters of Islamic Religious Leadership track at the Boston Islamic Seminary, I have long been invested in how aspiring Muslim religious professionals are trained for context-informed leadership.
An opportunity to explore community-based learning paradigms arose in 2020 in the form of a Wabash Center working group for Islamic studies faculty, led by Homayra Ziad, Hussein Rashad, and Shawntay Stocks. In consultation with members of the working group, I envisioned an opportunity for established and emerging Muslim professionals to hone their leadership praxis through a seminary course that was informed by community-based learning principles. I pitched the course concept to administrators at the Boston Islamic Seminary—an institution I have been involved with in various capacities since before its official inception—and the course ran in the summer term of 2021.
Designing a course in Muslim religious leadership
As a special offering in the Seminary’s continuing education track, the course set out to welcome individuals who were considering, currently training for, or already pursuing a vocation in Muslim religious leadership, broadly defined. The entry requirement for the course was a letter of intent wherein each participant articulated their current site-based commitment/s, the skills and capacities they were most looking to develop, and the communal dynamics that they were most keen on exploring.
The first iteration of the course ran bi-monthly for six sessions, all online, and had fifteen participants from a host of professional backgrounds. Course participants included those currently holding roles as chaplains, as administrators within community-based advocacy and service organizations, in academic teaching, in human services careers, and in caregiving roles. A few individuals who were new to exploring communal leadership joined the cohort, as did a few participants who hoped to join a seminary program in the future. Those with practical experience in communal leadership can also benefit from collegial spaces to explore and hone dimensions of praxis; hence, even as I led the course, I regarded myself as a co-learner.
In our shared space, I sought to forge a unique modality, something that occupied a space between an academic classroom and a Muslim study circle (ḥalaqa). As a convert to Islam, educated in the academic discipline of Islamic studies within secular-leaning U.S. institutions, I regularly translate between Islamically grounded modalities for transmitting knowledge and those of secular academia. (I write about this dynamic in the Introduction to my first monograph Women and Gender in the Qur’an.)
In the spirit of the Qur’anic command to “hold fast to the rope of God, all together, and be not divided” (Āl ʿImrān 3:103), I am committed to draw together Muslims from across intra-Muslim groups, places of origin, and life backgrounds to engage in processes of co-formation. Happily, the course participants came from diverse Muslim demographic backgrounds; in order to serve diverse communities, Muslims of a wide array of backgrounds must be in co-formation with each other.
Building a space
In order to build a space conducive to transformative personal growth and trust, I posted touchstones for conversation drawn from the Center for Courage and Renewal, a center inspired by the life and work of author and educator Parker Palmer. I also posted the following aspirational statement on the course website:
We are creating a learning community, and we all contribute to the quality of our collective experience. The more present, more engaged, and more generous we all are with one another, the better our collective learning experience can be. This course is designed to be a site of learning and becoming, and we are creating a space of trust. We may make errors in the process of learning, and we may experience some discomfort in the process of learning. We are encouraged to stay present and open to the places of beneficial growth in ourselves and in our relationships with others in our cohort.
To help create a space for robust and authentic exchange, we applied the “Chatham House Rule” to our sessions, in short, that “participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed,” unless explicit consent from that person is obtained.
Given that participants could discuss specific dynamics of their workplace cultures, creating a space of confidence and trust was extremely important. The course met over a recorded zoom session; however, I often paused the recording to make space for people to share insights or questions without feeling like their sharing was captured and stored in perpetuity. My turning off the recording during sensitive conversations meant that precious gems of insight are not captured on the official class recording, but that is a necessary trade-off to embolden sincere engagement. Participants were clearly—and for good reason—more comfortable delving deeper into dynamics of their working environment and their own growth edges when the recording was not engaged. This is an example of the tradeoffs that community-based learning may require.
Learning outcomes for the course included developing personal voice and enhancing strategies for interpersonal communication through skills such as engaged listening, consensus building, and conflict resolution strategies. We explored our networks of support and circles of accountability by thinking carefully about the ways in which we were embedded in particular communities. We explored paradigms for thinking about social impact, purpose, success, productivity, self-care, community, and social transformation.
Course readings drew together an array of sources—Islamic, secular, and interreligious—helpful in honing skills and dispositions for communal leadership. Readings, discussions, and reflection assignments provided structured opportunities to explore how values, goals, relationships, communal engagements, and spiritual practices impact a sense of life purpose. Participants had conversations about their leadership style with stakeholders from their organization and individually with me as the course facilitator.
Reflecting on our places
Even as we thought of our embedded communal contexts as a main site for our exploration and development, we also had several texts to guide our reflective processes. We turned to the book Muhammad: 11 Leadership Qualities that Changed the World by Nabeel Al-Azami (Claritas Books, 2019) as a core text. The book includes chapters on the applied ethics of integrity, courage, justice, compassion, servant leadership, spiritual intelligence, and more. Chapters include short profiles of historic and contemporary Muslim leaders from a host of professional fields. We also read selections from Rafik Issa Beekun and Jamal A Badawi’s Leadership: An Islamic Perspective (Amana Publications, 1999), appreciating this early attempt to integrate western management discourses with Islamic sacred sources. As I had hoped, it opened up conversations on generational divides, gender, and cultural dynamics within Muslim institutions.
I also drew upon several of the practical reflection exercises in Project Lina: Bringing Our Whole Selves to Islam (Daybreak Press, 2020) by Tamara Gray and Najiyah Diana Maxfield, a volume written for a convert audience but that speaks poignently and directly to issues of self-cultivation and spiritual growth for Muslims living in western societies. The book is an essential tool for religious professionals working with new Muslims or interfaith families.
I also incorporated select hadith, Arabic proverbs, and excerpts from well-known early Muslim texts on personal and spiritual development, including selections from A Treasury of Virtues: Sayings, Sermons and Teachings of ʿAlī by al-Quḍāʿī, al-Qāḍī (d. 454 AH /1062 CE) with annotation by Tahera Qutbuddin; the Waṣiyyah of Abū ʿAbd al-Raḥman al-Sulamī (d. AH 412 /1021 CE), with annotation by Musa Furber; and Maṣāliḥ al-abdān wa-l-anfus by Abū Zayd al-Balkhī (d. AH 322 /934 CE), translated by Malik Badri.
Works by contemporary authors also supplemented the excerpts from classical texts. For instance, in Towards Sacred Activism, Dawud Walid, the Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, offers a helpful section entitled “Spiritual Self-Care for Sacred Activism” that helped our group open conversations around contemporary activism, political alliances, and the tensions inherent in coalition-building. I recommended Hamza Yusuf’s commentary on the didactic poem Maṭharat al-Qulūb of the modern Mauritanian scholar Muḥammad Mawlūd Ibn Aḥmad Fāl al-Yaʿqūbī (d. AH 1323/1905 CE) entitled Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms, and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart. These texts helped us examine aspects of our moral development and our motivations for pursuing communal leadership. On the syllabus too were interactive assignments, such an online survey designed by The Productive Muslim Company to help individuals assess where to enhance the allocation of their time as well as a framework produced by the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research to help individuals capitalize on their “spiritual personality.”
Listening assignments included a selection from the lecture series produced by Cambridge Muslim College entitled Paradigms of Leadership, which comprises dozens of hours of rich reflection by Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter) on figures in Muslim history and the ways in which they navigated conflicts and pursued self and communal development. A selection on Hajar invited us to think about struggle and trust. Another assignment was the “The Body Center” (June 7, 2021) episode of the Muslim Enneagram Podcast in which Rehenuma Asmi and Najiba Akbar consider how transformative anger can support spiritual growth. We further reflected in small groups on themes such as integrity, moral courage, and fear, and the ways in which such values and emotions impacted our working relationships in our respective communities.
Regular reflection prompts probed different aspects of leadership, service, and spiritual development, allowing participants to examine the experiences they have had—the struggles and the successes—in their respective sites of communal engagement. Reflection assignments for the course included secular explorations of concepts related to leadership as well as basic resources from the field of psychology. Participants considered an article by Deborah Ancona, Thomas W. Malone, Wanda J. Orlikowski, and Peter M. Senge, “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader,” (Harvard Business Review, 2007) that describes the capabilities of leaders under the categories of “sensemaking,” “relating,” “visioning,” and “inventing.” Per the article’s thesis, participants contemplated where they were pleasantly “incomplete” in order to name and discuss both their perceived strengths and limitations. We explored the “Healthy Mind Platter” developed by psychiatrist and psychotherapist Dr. Dan Siegel and discussed self-care and work–life balance. We used Robert Plutchik’s model for emotions, as presented by the Emotional Intelligence Network, to identify emotional patterns in ourselves as we engaged in our respective communities. We explored cognitive neuroscience-based and other strategies for self-motivation and productivity, including those described in “The Science of Productivity” (ASAP Science, December 12, 2012). In order to explore our motivations for service, we discussed the flourishing quiz by The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University and compared this framework with our various understandings of Islamic values and the concept of flourishing from our own life experiences.
For the reflective journaling aspect of the course, I emphasized that reflection prompts were geared for self-exploration and that I would serve as a coach in the process of self-exploration. At various junctures in the course, I connected with participants one-to-one by phone to further support their self-inquiry. Connecting with me one-to-one was entirely optional, but I had rich further conversations with those who took me up on the offer. I also noted that it could be helpful to have a reflection partner from the course or from one’s life beyond to discuss different areas for personal growth that might arise from our course explorations. One of the course reflection assignments also encouraged individuals to seek growth-related feedback from those in their professional networks. The prompt read:
Consider individuals from different spheres of your personal or professional life who might be in a position to offer constructive feedback on your leadership style. Aim to have a conversation with a few of these individuals. Seek to understand what qualities they see in you as your strengths and what qualities they see as your growth edges. Remember to have a disposition of openness and sincere listening when you are seeking this feedback. Take notes of the feedback that you are receiving. How much do you agree with what you heard? Where did you find in yourself places of resistance?
Another reflection assignment guided participants to express how their formative experiences shaped their current communal aspirations, an exercise aimed at honing a sense of purpose and personal voice. The prompt read:
Compose a few paragraphs of a “spiritual autobiography” connecting formative influences (in family or religious communities, for instance) with the work or service in which you are presently engaged. Consider your spiritual development at various junctures and the formative influences upon you. Who has been most impactful in “leading” you? Who are you currently leading?
I encouraged participants to consider the efficacy of the public narrative framework developed by the contemporary sociologist Marshall Ganz and to read State of Formation for examples of how to shape their public voice. I encouraged them to consider turning their reflections into forward-facing pieces that could help convey their organizational mission or their sense of professional purpose. Given more time, this public voice dimension is one area of the course to expand further.
Other reflection prompts included the following, all composed in the first-person to aid in the efficacy of the reflection:
- What personality traits do I have that inhibit or aid me in my communal leadership? Which personality from among the sixteen on the Myers Briggs personality types or the nine on the Enneagram most resembles me? What implications does this disposition have for my spiritual practice and my leadership styles? How can I use information on my personality types to chart a plan for growth? What personalities do other people in my life have? How does this impact my relationships or my roles? Considering different personalities and leadership styles of companions of the blessed Prophet Muhammad; who do I most resemble? What lessons can I learn from contemplating this person’s life?
- How do I handle loss and grief? How do I deal with failure? How do I deal with conflict? What strategies do I have to have to cope with stress related to work, family relations, or any other stressors? How can I become more resilient when faced with change or challenge? In what contexts am I at my best or worst? What can I learn from how the blessed Prophet Muhammad navigated conflict or difficult personalities and circumstances?
- How do my identities (gender, ethnicity, etc.) impact my communal contributions? Are any cultural dynamics or personal emotional patterns impeding my ability to develop spiritually, professionally, or in service to my communities? Where is anger or fear curtailing my ability to be an effective leader? How healthy is my emotional life in the various settings in which I spend a good deal of time? What are the highs and lows? What are my emotional triggers? Are there particular individuals who can be emotionally triggering in some way (positive or negative)? Are there tasks, activities, or situations that impact my emotional state of being in predictable ways? (Consider using these worksheets on boundary setting and emotional processing designed by clinical therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab.) Which of the most beautiful names of God are calling for attention at this juncture of my spiritual formation?
- In my own life, where do I spend effort that is either adding or detracting from my ability to benefit myself or others? What routines do I want to change or solidify? What are things that I could do or not do to add more benefit? Where in my communal work and life generally do I feel unsuccessful or successful with regard to making use of time? What examples from the life of the blessed Prophet provide me with insight into how I should allocate my time?
- Consider drawing out a diagram that maps out your circles of accountability and influence: Who are my communities? Who do I serve? What kind/s of leadership do my communities ask of me? What am I hoping to bring to my communities going forward? Who and where are my support systems? What further nourishment and support do I need? What support am I grateful for? What does effective leadership look like for me with respect to Islamic values and virtues?
With each of the reflections, I attempted to tie the personal reflections to an aspect of Islamic pious formation.
In order to foster awareness of and respect for other spiritual traditions—exposure I consider to be a vital aspect of leadership development for religious professionals—I also included in the course materials wisdom sayings from spiritual traditions beyond Islam. In providing even such small windows onto other traditions, I encouraged participants to understand their striving as Muslims professionals as part of a long human enterprise of cultivating wisdom and inculcating spiritual discipline. Gaining exposure to diverse human wisdom traditions also has practical utility in a host of professional contexts. (On this subject, see my essay in the forthcoming Georgetown Companion to Interreligious Studies, edited by Lucinda Mosher.)
Self-reflection as a teacher
As I led the course and held space for conversations between participants, I was also contemplating my own leadership styles and strengths. I, too, dug deeper into my own areas for improvement as a chaplain and educator: How can I best maintain humility without demeaning my areas of relative expertise? In what aspects of my own life could I better imbibe Islamic values in order to live into my own expectations for myself as a spiritual leader?
This experientially based, community-engaged course highlighted the importance of cohort-based networks to support seasoned and emerging Muslim professionals as we go about our demanding and often entrepreneurial work. Theological education is necessarily iterative, and I am channeling the best practices of this cohort-based spiritual leadership development course into my current courses. Were I to run this course again, it might be even more impactful if we met once monthly over the course of six months to provide a longer trajectory for structured mentorship and to allow for even more self-reflection and reading between meetings.
Throughout the course design and evaluation process, I have been inspired by my Wabash colleagues who are also venturing into spaces for experiential learning in Islamic Studies. We are providing engaging new opportunities for students, even as we, ourselves, remain perpetual learners.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Dr. Celene Ibrahim is the author of Women and Gender in the Qur’an (Oxford University Press, 2020) and Islam and Monotheism (Cambridge University Press, 2022). She is the editor of One Nation, Indivisible: Seeking Liberty and Justice from the Pulpit to the Streets (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2019) and has published dozens of academic articles.
Ibrahim earned a doctorate in Arabic and Islamic Civilizations and a master’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University, a Masters of Divinity from Harvard University, and a bachelor’s degree with the highest honors from Princeton University. She is a graduate of the United World College global education movement.
Ibrahim offers lectures, workshops, and seminars around the world as a trusted voice on Islamic intellectual history, women’s studies, religion and ethics, comparative religion, religion and civic engagement, and spiritual care. She currently serves on the faculty of Groton School in the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy.