“Muslims need to start branching out into social services”

It’s no secret that Muslims in the West are effectively creating a new niche for themselves in the fabric of Western society. It’s also no secret that at the forefront of this societal shift is the often underrepresented and underserved Muslim youth. First, second and third generation Muslims in the West are a key demographic within the American Muslim narrative; having shed some of their parents’ more restrictive cultural traditions, this wave of Muslim youth is quickly working its way to the top of a myriad of professional industries (extending well beyond the traditional Muslim strongholds of medicine, engineering and law).
This wave of Muslim youth has also ushered in a new era of Muslim social activity, with mentoring programs, community service initiatives and mosque youth groups surfacing across the country.

These changes demand a concurrent change in community leadership; Imams are slowing tailoring their approach to empathize with and guide the youth. Traditional sermons about the Quran and sunnah are slowly being replaced with talks that advise the listeners on how to interact with the opposite sex, behave in an environmentally conscious manner, or play an active role in local politics.

At the forefront of the group of Muslim clergy who have recognized and responded to the need to apply the Quran and sunnah to the daily lives of Muslim American youth is Shaykh Suhaib Webb.

Shaykh Suhaib Webb is a contemporary American Muslim activist and speaker. After converting to Islam, Webb left his career as a DJ and enrolled at the University of Central Oklahoma where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Education. He also studied privately under a Senegalese Shaykh, learning enough about the faith and the Arabic language to become the Imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, as well as a teacher at Mercy School, an Islamic K-12 school in Oklahoma City. After completing his studies at Al-Azhar University’s College of Shari’ah in Cairo, Shaykh Suhaib returned to the United States where he currently resides in northern California with his family. He is in charge of the English Translation Department at Dar al-Ifta al-Masriyah and is currently training as a Mufti.

Shaykh Suhaib’s popular blog (http://www.suhaibwebb.com) is widely branded as a “virtual mosque,” with submissions from several notable Islamic scholars and authors on pertinent issues facing American Muslims youth. I had the distinct honor of speaking with Shaykh Suhaib Webb regarding his place in and his vision for the new American Muslim narrative.

You are considered the Imam of the Youth. Based on the cultural salad bowl you are operating in –from the immigrant to the indigenous communities, from the young to the old — how do you figure out the best way to communicate with them?

I think it’s important to listen and to try to get the pulse of the young people. One of the things that I try to do is create focus groups for the youth where they actually give me the content, where the students actually drive the conversation. And once you’ve listened to people, it’s important to mesh that with an orthodox understanding of Islam, so that the discussion is relevant but also pleasing to God. They say one of the qualities of the Prophet (peace be upon him) was that when people spoke to him, he looked at them and listened.

There is a book, What Americans Really Think, that talks about how we’re now in an age where religion is negotiated. It’s no longer like the medieval ages where religion could be forced on people – so it’s important to teach people by listening to them and engaging them. And this empowers you too, as an Imam or student of knowledge, because you have to always be on your game. You can’t just say, “This is what it is. This is right, and you have to listen to me.” You have to be humble enough to say, “We both can share in this learning process.” That’s why the end of Sura Al Asr is so beautiful – watawasaw bilhaqqi watawasaw bilsabri, which means all of you together share in working towards truth. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was an amin before he was a nabi – he knew his people before he became a prophet.

I’m deeply concerned about the high school students because they don’t have the immigrant drift. They’ve lived here for so long and they were born and raised here – they’re products of being born in America, raised in America, growing up on “Friends,” experiencing 9/11, liking Usher, playing video games, and going to the mosque on Sundays. Do we have educational materials that really speak to that generation in their language, or are we simply translating classical texts and expecting them to reverberate amongst them [the young people]? These practical issues have to be talked about in the public sphere – if not; the students will listen to someone else. If there isn’t something out there that appeals to the young people and speaks to them, and at the same time respects orthodoxy, we’re going to have big problems.

In discussions about marriage, you often say “do not make it hard” for your kids to marry. Do you see parents heeding your advice? Are parents and families able to understand the types of barriers, such as race and age, which they are putting before their children?

What’s interesting is that at a theoretical level, you find people are very supportive of the concept. And then you run into major cities in America, DC, New York, Chicago, where it’s like an elephant graveyard of 30-year-old Muslim sisters that are unmarried. So, no, I have not seen a change in that mindset.

With the converts, we have a different problem. Because many converts don’t necessarily have enough day-to-day knowledge of how to get married in Islam, they tend to make a lot of mistakes, and sometimes they get used and hurt by people who try to take advantage of them. So I think there needs to be some kind of institution that is set up to assist with these problems. An example for the converts could be something like wali.com, where we would have trustworthy people in the Muslim community who can act as walis for young female converts who want to get married. Because what I’m often seeing is that a lot of them are getting treated very badly by people who are exploiting their ignorance.

The phenomenon of the 30-year-old unmarried Muslim woman is also something that we really need to be concerned about. People are really lonely in our community. I do see the shift in the younger generation of parents though, which goes back to the social construct drift – we’ve moved away from certain social constructs and have adopted different ones. So, I think, insha’Allah, that’s where the change will stem from.

Reality television is big these days. What do you think we’d see if a reality show were to be made about a typical American Muslim household?

What happens is that you have different types of cultural phenomena in our community that might be represented, but other cultural phenomena [are ignored]. For example, sometimes the great history of African Americans that we have in our community is sometimes ignored. So, it definitely depends on the type of Muslim and his/her culture.

If it were a convert family, there would be a struggle to attain identity. Muslim converts tend to gravitate towards overseas – they have the opposite problem of the immigrant drift. They come into a community where there is no homegrown Muslim expression, and they begin to drift towards different cultures to try to attain a sense of self worth and value. And that’s something that would definitely have to be portrayed in that reality show. I think it’s a very profound struggle that needs to be talked about because it’s essentially a psychological struggle.

Converts also generally have a hard time getting married in the community. Everyone says Mabrook and AllahuAkbar, but if you turn around and say “can I marry your daughter?” the response is very different, and that’s a huge dichotomy.

Also, regarding the interaction of communities – how many converts do you see on the boards of mosques or major national organizations, or even dawah departments? Shouldn’t the people born and raised here, who speak the language of the people, who understand the rhetoric of society, have an important say in how Islam is presented to the people? I’m very concerned about the indigenous immigrant discourse that we’re hearing. I think it’s very debilitating. When I became Muslim, everyone in my camp was from Karachi (Pakistan). And despite how strange it was for me, at first, over time I realized how incredible it was for me to be able to experience a multicultural, pluralistic environment. You really mature, you really learn not to be so sensitive, and to see the good in other people. I’m concerned the current indigenous immigrant message is really just masking a desire for power, when what we really need to be concerned about is us as a community. But American converts, we tend to have this problem where we sometimes get upset and blame things on an undefined indigenous immigrant community.

Some of the pieces on your blog, suhaibwebb.com, suggest that the Muslim community look into a new form of Islamic courting – an alternative to arranged marriages, but less “risque” than the conventional dating scene in the West. Is this something you think can apply to the entire Muslim community, or is this more for converts?

We need to facilitate marriage. Marriage is one of the easiest things in the books of fiqh, but one of the hardest things in the books of our community. There has to be a way to facilitate young Muslims getting to know each other and marrying. What we’ve thought about doing here is to organize social gatherings at restaurants, where people can just sit and talk. There will be some type of chaperone who will be present, who won’t be sitting between the two individuals, but will be there and will be able to help. But the point is basically just to create an environment where you feel comfortable enough to just talk and there isn’t someone looking over you.

There also has to be a way in which respected leaders can step in and speak to people’s parents and intercede on behalf of the youth. We need to find a way to facilitate, while taking into consideration the culture that we live in and the realities that we deal with. I know some sisters who are very educated, and are concerned that brothers won’t want to marry them – so do we need to speak to brothers and tell them that an educated woman would be a great blessing? So, to sum up, we’ve got to work towards facilitating the marriage, mentoring the parents, and then, after the marriage, I think there have to be people in the community that can mentor the new couple. Because the first year is no joke – you’re welding two personalities together, and it’s difficult, and the couple needs a crutch to help them get through.

All this might be out of my reach – I don’t do marriage counseling as an Imam, nor do I believe imams should be doing counseling unless they have specific education and training. I can provide religious answers and encouragement, but a lot of these problems stem from deep psychological issues that need to be sorted out appropriately. Ideally, what I would envision is a network where Imams and other professionals have a referral system to deal with each specific case and issue in the correct and most efficient manner. The Imam is not superman; he’s not a one-stop shop. One of the biggest problems with our community and marriage is that we’re not turning over issues to the people who are actually qualified to deal with them.

Is the mosque space a suitable medium for cultivating healthy gender relations?

I think we need to be honest and say that the mosque in Islam has ahqam, certain rulings and principles that govern it. The mosque needs to stay a mosque. It needs to be a place for worship, where people can sit, meditate, and think about their relationship with God, without having to worry about other activities going on in the masjid. I do think, however, that we’re going to have to move toward a community center model. There are those people who are just really religious, and those who are not so religious and are just involved in social events – and that’s just a reality. They’re religious, but religious in a different way, and we have to appeal to different aspects of our community. The ideal community center model has a means of generating funds that can sustain the center without having to constantly ask for donations. It can as a social center, a gym, a place where people feel comfortable, and may even have a small mosque somewhere on the facility – I think that’s all crucial. We’ve got to have a social center in our community where people can socialize without being made to feel their Islam isn’t sufficient. So I think the mosque needs to stay a mosque – but Muslims need to start branching out and move beyond mosques and Sunday school into social services. Our community is getting old – we’ve got the baby boomers. We’re about to have a huge population of elder Muslims – are we prepared to even help them? Do we have elderly care managed by Muslims? These are the kinds of things we need to tackle.

At the 10th Annual MPAC Convention, the panelists, including Asma Uddin, spoke about the over-sexualization of Muslim gender issues, and how this over-sexualization perverts the gender discourse leading to gender inequality. How do you think we can overcome this phenomenon?

One thing is to go back to the example of the Prophet (peace be upon him) – his community was a very human community. Women would come to him and ask questions, and the religious outlook towards men and women was not sexualized by the Prophet (peace be upon him). What we’ve done is reinforce medieval religious constructs, which impart this strange, sexual way of looking at each other. I think we have to be very careful about who speaks to our youth about sensitive sexual topics, and we have to reinforce the idea of being the servants of God and human beings before being sex objects. Desexualizing women, in particular, is also very important.

To the point that sex is something natural and discussed in the Quran, the Prophet (peace be upon him) was very open and frank with his sahaaba about it, and there are authentic hadith about this. You also have great scholars that wrote volumes about the same [topic], including Imam Ghazali and Ibn Abbas. Some of their volumes are very explicit, but in a very mature way. They acknowledge that sex is a reality that we have, but it is not what overrides our relationships with one another. When we look at women as only a potential fitna, or a potential iman destroyer, it becomes very problematic, and we often send the wrong message to Muslim women.

Also, our centers have to be family friendly – tearing down the partition isn’t going to make the masjid triple-X. And if it does, we have serious psychological issues.

Altmuslimah.com is a relatively new player in the online community, and in the underserved realm of gender discourse among Muslims. What would you like to see us do? How do you think we can leverage community resources to broaden the scope and reach of our message?

I think that Altmuslimah represents a frustrated voice that needs to be heard. But I think we need to be careful that when we exhibit our frustrations, we direct those frustrations to actual tangible things – and this is something I think Altmuslimah has done very well so far. People tend to have romanticized criticisms, but I like the idea of having actual articles that deal with real frustrations that are physical, and are visible.

The second thing is to be patient with us – the Imams and the students of knowledge. Because just as that frustrated voice wants understanding and empathy, I think a lot of times religious leaders want understanding and empathy, as well. And that’s also something that Altmuslimah has been able to manage well. We need to continue to move towards a model where people who might lean towards progressive Islam or people who might cling to more orthodox practices function in an ethical fashion.

The third thing is to continue to engage the community, as you’ve done. Listening to what the people say is very important right now, we need to be great listeners. We can’t address policy issues in the community without knowing the community.

I think the quality of writing that you guys have is terrific, and eventually as you deal with news organizations who want to quote you, well written pieces make the site more credible and legitimate. It’s good also for the “islamophobes” – I think sometimes we don’t necessarily need to go head on with them; we just need to project the other side of the issue and not get so caught up in bickering.

And I think Asma should speak [publicly] more [often]!
Mehak Jamil graduated from NYU Stern with a BS in Finance and International Business. After working in finance for several years, she recently made the switch to law, and is now pursuing a JD at Fordham University in New York. Mehak is an avid reader and writer, who looks forward to graduating law school so she can finally have time to work on a novel. She is also a huge fan of chai, Abida Parveen, and shawls.

4 Comments

  • Arwa A says:

    “an elephant graveyard of 30-year-old Muslim sisters that are unmarried”

    … Was that really the best way to put it…??

    Harsh, man.

    [also, I hate the login system at altmuslimah]

  • living3d says:

    yeah, definitely a poor choice of analogies.  But I’m giving the guy a break because this was, as far as I’m aware, an oral, not written interview.

  • Arwa A says:

    No, I agree and the rest of the article is really interesting.
    I just couldn’t help feeling that br. Webb felt that for Muslim women of a certain age, not being married was something truly awful in a way that it doesn’t appear to be for men…

  • mjamil says:

    salaam all! just wanted to comment re: the elephant graveyard analogy. from what i understand based on the context of my conversation with Shaykh Suhaib, he was referring only to those Muslim women who are actively looking and wanting to get married (but are unable to do so for any number of social reasons), instead of casting a net over all single Muslim women, irrespective of their situation. i also think his comment was more intended to shed light on problems within our community and external factors that affect single Muslims, rather than singling out the women themselves or suggesting any sort of inadequacy within them.

    just my two cents, but iA it is helpful.

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