06 Apr Episode 6: Imam Abdul-Malik Merchant, Pastoral Care Dynamics Between Men & Women
Imam Abdul-Malik digs deeper into some of the nuances of pastoral care, and explains the dynamics of transference and countertransference in a counseling relationship.
About Imam Abdul-Malik Merchant:
After studying traditional Islamic Studies for nearly a decade in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Malik Merchant returned to America with his wife and children to serve as an Imam in a large ethnically diverse community in the Boston area. While serving he completed his Masters of Theological Studies focusing on practical theology at Boston University’s School of Theology. In 2018 Abdul-Malik began serving as the Muslim Chaplain at Tufts University and in 2020 also at the Middleton Corrections Center. He hopes to use his diverse experience—serving in a community, higher education, corrections, and volunteering in hospitals—to in the pursuit of doctoral studies focusing on the spiritual education of Black American Muslims.
To learn more about Imam Abdul-Malik and his work:
You can follow Imam Abdul-Malik here:
The following transcript has been edited for fluency.
[SHOW MELODY FADES IN]
Dr. Mattson: Hello. Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to Episode 6 of the Hurma Project Podcast, a show where we seek to close the gap between our Islamic values and our Muslim community realities. I am Dr. Ingrid Mattson, founder of the Hurma Project, which I direct with my friend and partner Mihad Fahmy, a human rights lawyer and workplace investigator, and a lecturer at Huron University College, where I am also Chair of Islamic studies.
Hurma is an Islamic legal term signifying the divinely granted inviolability of the human person from abuse, assault and exploitation. In this podcast, we speak with experts from a variety of fields about how to prevent and respond to violations against all those who are present in Muslim spaces.
In this episode we speak with the Imam Abdul-Malik Merchant who has served as the Muslim Chaplain at Tufts university since 2018. Imam Abdul-Malik spent nearly a decade studying Islam in Mecca and graduated with a BA in Islamic Studies from Umm Al-Qura University before returning to America to serve as an Imam in a large, ethnically diverse community in the Boston area.
During that time, he also completed a Masters of Theological Studies with a focus on practical theology at Boston University. At the 2020 Hurma Project Research Conference, Imam Abdul-Malik presented a paper titled: ‘How Muslim Men Can Provide Safe and Compassionate Pastoral Care to Women.’ In our interview today, you will hear Imam Abdul-Malik declare his commitment to providing that safe and compassionate pastoral care to women and others in the Muslim community while also striving to be a good husband and father. He explains that monitoring his own inner state, upholding professional boundaries, consulting with peers and reporting to supervisors helps keep his professional and personal relationships, healthy. Imam Abdul-Malik also digs deeper into some of the nuances of pastoral care and explains the dynamics of transference and countertransference in a counseling relationship.
[SHOW MELODY FADES OUT]
Mihad: So Imam Abdul-Malik, I want to start by having you walk us through some definitions that may be really unfamiliar to those who are listening. So let’s start with pastoral care. I can tell you that that term really, as I think you would agree, generally is not used in our Muslim spaces. So can you start off by explaining what that means? And if it applies at all to what we do in our Muslim masajid and institutions.
Imam Merchant: Yeah. Alhamdulillah wasallam ‘ala rasulillah. So the term definitely started in a Judeo-Christian context, more specifically Christian, as far as I know. But Dr. Bilal Ansari from Williams College and others have a beautiful paper, sort of articulating how it can be applied in our context as well. So just more background, pastors, you know, are essentially a shepherd, someone who’s watching over a pastor or a flock of sheep. And the term is usually referred to as those who are in a religious context, specifically Christian context, who are in charge of the wellbeing of the congregants in their congregation. And so, while it has started in a Judeo-Christian context, it has been applied in other religious contexts and it definitely applies to our context is as Muslims as well. As the Prophetﷺ said:
كُلُّكُمْ رَاعٍ وَكُلُّكُمْ مَسْئُولٌ عَنْ رَعِيَّتِهِ
All of you are shepherds and all of you are responsible for your flock. And so even that metaphor is still used in an Islamic context. For my paper I intentionally chose to use spiritual care, just to alleviate any confusion or problems around that but I interchange them freely.
Mihad: But you do think that it’s something that applies to what you do, what other Imams do within Muslim circles?
Imam Merchant: Yeah, absolutely, because spiritual care also has its set of connotations and in an Islamic sense, whether it’s tazkiya, tasawwuf, spiritual relationship between a teacher and students. That has its baggage as well and pastoral care not only has an academic and intellectual heritage that one can take from, but it more accurately describes, in my humble opinion, what I’m doing, living with people I’m involved in to an interpersonal level, like we have a relationship to a certain extent, and then based on that, whether it’s sitting with them in a more counseling, pastoral counseling setting or it’s through that interaction, whether it’s – in now, I serve in a university and a jail – through our relationships, finely tuning and tweaking, whether it’s education or advice to better suit their needs. And so I personally use the term pastoral care.
Mihad: And is there a difference – you mentioned counseling in there in your answer – is there a difference between pastoral care and counseling in a therapeutic sense?
Imam Merchant: So yeah, there’s definitely a difference. One, both have their own individual sets of training, whether it’s clinical counseling – you’ve gone to school as a social worker, a psychiatrist, a mental health counselor, family therapy, et cetera. You have various specific academic training and you’ve gone through specific internships to ensure that you have the skillset to deal with mental health and emotional wellbeing from a clinical perspective. Whereas pastoral care is far more religiously oriented and hopefully one has training, but isn’t a condition. To do mental health counseling, there are rules and guidelines and bodies that credential and ensure that the person providing this has at least fulfilled a certain level of criteria before they can even engage in that. And you have to be licensed and have insurance, et cetera. Unfortunately, or fortunately – I would probably use the unfortunate side – we don’t have that in a pastoral setting.
Mihad: Right. And do you think that we need to be careful about what language we’re using when we’re describing what our Imams and chaplains do, because there is a lot of talk about religious leaders providing counseling. You know, there’s a great demand for counseling by congregants and families. So should we be steering away from that term?
Imam Merchant: I don’t have a problem personally with counseling. I think that it can be a counseling setting. But I think being very specific about the type of counseling that I –
Imam Merchant: – or the Imams or religious leadership are engaging in and clearly articulating no, this is not mental health counseling. Mental health counseling is very, very specific. It has its specific training and specific skillset. I am not doing that. While, my pastoral counseling – it may have or deal with the emotional wellbeing or the mental health of a person. But if someone is schizophrenic for example, or has clinical depression – clinically diagnosed anxiety or depression, et cetera, that’s not my wheelhouse. And I have, multiple times, referred people to specialists in those areas. And then we can still can continue our relationship on a pastoral religious level.
Mihad: Right. So the two are happening in concert with each other.
Imam Merchant: Absolutely. From my experience, they need to. Particularly for Muslims who . . . one young person told me that it was only because of Allah they’re still alive, they’re clinically depressed and they’re on medication for it. And it’s because of Islam, their love of God, and they’re awe of God, that’s what keeps them alive. So while they need their psychiatrist and their mental health team, and we even help them get into some partial residential treatment, it was the religious aspect of things, and making sense and meaning of things from a religious perspective, that was still very, very much needed. And so the two definitely should be in concert and working together.
Dr. Mattson: So what would – what would be the minimum amount of training or knowledge that someone who is simply providing pastoral care, what would they need to know about mental health in order to not create or cause harm?
Imam Merchant: I think that there should definitely be some first responders’ trainings, whether that’s provided by Muslim trainers or otherwise. And what most of that training does from my experience, orients a person to understand themselves like where their limitations are, where they would have countertransference, or where their own positionality would then impact the pastoral relationship with the counseling relationship and to be aware of those things. And so… whoever’s providing the pastoral care, knowing their limitations, knowing themselves, having some terminology and being aware of the potential markers of mental health challenges and issues, then that would allow them to be able to say, ‘well, oh, we’re beyond my expertise, now we’re going to refer you to someone else’ or ‘that’s something I just don’t know.’ And that was sort of the point of my paper, that there’s a sort of humility on the side of the person who’s providing the pastoral care so that they can do that without feeling like their ego has been abused or bruised for any reason.
Dr. Mattson: Now, you mentioned countertransference and the dynamic of transference and countertransference is not well-known among the general community. And I think that ignorance of that dynamic often leads to some really harmful situations and also allows others to interpret those situations in a way where they – they kind of let people off the hook. So can you slowly just explain in simple terms, what transference is and what countertransference is in a counseling relationship?
Imam Merchant: Yeah, I think it’s very, very important in not just even counseling, even from fatawa, from giving religious verdicts I think it’s very important. Transference is when the person receiving the care, the one on the receiving side of things due to whatever circumstances, has or is – based on my understanding – is impacted by what the person who’s providing the care is saying, and based on their relationship, then transfers their feelings, their emotions, or whatever that’s going on, whether it’s good or bad, on to the person providing the care. So an example of that is if someone – a young man has some challenges in their past with their parents, particularly their father, the religious figure providing the care is also.. identifies as a male and because of that, they then are triggered or have a challenge because of that, and that impacts and affects the relationship. Likewise, if it was the other way around the person providing the care is a female religious figure – pastoral care – and the young man has problems with their mother, or they would like to get married. And the one providing the care has to be aware of that because that can then change how the person receiving care engages in the relationship. And so the person providing care now has to be sensitive of the receiver’s transference so they can make sure that they’re adjudicating that if you will, to the best way possible.
Countertransference is the polar opposite. When the person providing care, their experience then impacts how they can provide care to someone else. So whether it’s – I have lived overseas for 10 years, someone asked me about living in said country, and I say, ‘no, no, they’re the absolute best people in the world,’ when really for the person who’s receiving the care, they have reasons why going there wouldn’t be good for them. Or someone has suffered a particular type of trauma on the hands of anyone and the person providing the care then fulfills – because of their own experience – takes on more than they should, tries to do more than they should. So just to lower the water on to give a very tangible example, I was raised by a single mom. And my mom is one of my best friends, one of my closest confidants, she is absolutely amazing, God bless her. I’ve had in the past where a young sister came and was interested in marrying someone who was younger than her who was from a different ethnic background and she was having problems getting married and that was very much interested in marrying this younger, lesser accomplished – from a worldly perspective – young man. And so I then referred her to my senior Imam who I worked under because I was worried that my bias or my biases would impact the advice that I gave her because I’ve seen my mom being a single highly accomplished woman. And so I didn’t want my experience to then influence how I gave her advice. And she also happened to be a person of color as well. And so that’s where a countertransference – an example of countertransference – and someone trying to be aware of it to best serve the needs of the receiver of this pastoral care.
Dr. Mattson: Wow, subhanallah. So what really requires a lot of self-knowledge and self-knowledge that must be gained through some kind of process, if not just years of life.
Imam Merchant: Absolutely. I mean, it’s going to require self-knowledge and the humility to admit to who you are, what you’re experiencing, what you’re feeling. They aren’t clear identifiers, it’s not going to say ‘I’m happy now, and just because I’m smiling, that means necessarily I’m happy.’ And it’s the gambit of emotions, attraction, dislikes, world experiences, personal past trauma, all of that can then come into it. And so I mentioned earlier, like even giving fatawa, for example, I lived – I grew up in a very conservative household, and so if someone asked me a question that perhaps I know their background is conservative and it’s then going to impact their entire family because of my trauma, I go extremely on the opposite side on a very liberal side, for example, just to use the binary. When that actually wouldn’t be good for them. They’re living in a household – that wouldn’t help their situation, but that’s because now I’m speaking from my own experiences and sensitivities, et cetera.
Mihad: To what extent do you think that’s inevitable?
Imam Merchant: Well, I think it’s inevitable. It’s a part of any interpersonal relationship or any relationship at all. I believe spiritually it’s part of what we have to do because Allah (SWT) said about the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ:
وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَاكَ إِلا رَحْمَةً لِلْعَالَمِينَ
‘We have not sent you except as a mercy to all of mankind.’ And if the Prophet Mohammad ﷺ is our exemplar and that’s who we’re trying to model ourselves after, then to be merciful, necessitates that we – to truly be merciful – necessitates that there’s some sort of love there. And also there’s other traditional and scriptural proofs that I digress from, but, you know, I believe the empathy would have to be there as well. And so by understanding that the person receiving the care is someone who I have to love, I have to be merciful to, I have to care about their wellbeing, then that requires that I’m aware of myself. But this countertransference and transference is, I would argue, is not only in the clinical setting, it’s in any interpersonal setting and it’s going to impact on multiple levels. And so the hope is that we can do this work and knowing ourselves so that we can care for others, but also that we can earn Allah’s pleasure.
There’s a statement – could be a hadith– [from] Imam Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, who said that :
من عرف نفسه عرف ربه و من عرف نفسه عرف ربه
‘Whoever knows themselves, knows their God. Whoever knows their God knows themselves.’ And by knowing our own weaknesses and our own shortcomings, whether it’s those being served or those serving that would help us work through them and work with them to become better and stronger people.
Dr. Mattson: So where does self-knowledge need to be wedded to limits that are set by the profession? So we may be able to attain a certain amount of awareness – self-awareness – and control over our actions to a certain extent, but we also know that it’s very easy to be, to be deluded about who we really are. And it’s a process, it’s a process of learning. And in the meantime, when you have someone who’s providing pastoral care counseling to a vulnerable person, they can’t wait for the person who is providing that care to them, to learn some hard lessons. So how do we wed supporting people gaining self-knowledge through their own spiritual practices, but also training with regulating that relationship?
Imam Merchant: I would argue that there’s multiple things that could help be put in place from a personal level, interpersonal and institutional level. Personally, the person providing the care should put some of their own boundaries, their own checks and balances in, so that they’re able to know themselves, but also have things in place to check them. And there should be a hierarchy and a prioritization of those boundaries that they’re setting. There needs to be a constant re-evaluation of intention, a constant reevaluation of why it is they’re engaging in things. So for example, when I left my previous job, a very real thought of mine, ‘Well, what’s going to happen to all those people that I served, who’s going to serve them? Are they going to be without?’ And I had to do some serious, hard work, and I’m still working through this to understand that. No, it wasn’t me who’s helping them in the existential sense. In the metaphorical sense, I was only a conduit, I was a tool, and Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala is the One who was helping them and just like he put me in their lives, He could put someone else, or he could remove it from them without anyone even being there. So really engaging with their own theology and spirituality and checking themselves and just being aware of that and constantly reevaluating that.
Also on a personal level, figuring out what type of leadership model, what type of serving – or what type of leadership model they want to engage in. Is it a servant leadership model or an authoritative leadership model? Are we looking to the positions that we sort of control and we’re looking for that control, we’re looking for our position in preserving those positions, or are we trying to just be a conduit, an aid, a servant to the people? And those two will then dictate how we engage with the people that we’re serving.
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, ‘sayyid qawmi khadimuhu,’ – ‘the master of the people is their servant.’ And so when I say servant leadership here, which is also highly popularized and perhaps even started in a Christian context – and I’m not looking down to that I actually think that’s a good thing that we’re dealing with people trying to be a tool, a conduit, a means of helping. And it’s not about me and reasserting my position. And then also on the personal level, understanding and embracing the fact that Carl Jung and others have mentioned that this is a symbiotic relationship, that both the one receiving care, as well as the one providing the care are being impacted in one way or other from this relationship.
And the more that the people providing the care can be open to that, I would argue, would help for not only better care for the people whom they’re serving, but also for their own spiritual development, enlightenment, and just general knowledge of self. So – an example would be, if I’m serving someone, or, I do serve in a prison setting, for example, in a jail setting, more specifically, am I open to the fact that perhaps something that this person is going to say could be beneficial to me, whether it’s their own reflection, their own thought processes. Can I be open to the fact that through my service of them, I’m able to earn Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala’s pleasure. And if that’s what I’m aware of, then that will dictate how I engage with said person and what I do – the morals and ethics that I carry out. And that’s the hope that we can sort of be aware of these things so that we can serve in that fashion.
And lastly, on a personal level, I think – just being, not only empathic, but trauma informed. Understanding what trauma is, how it works, how it impacts, the residual effects of it, what generational trauma is, what micro or smaller traumas are – all of these things – so that we can – as a definition of being trauma informed is – ‘realize the signs and symptoms, recognize the widespread impact, and understanding and potential pathways to recovery, respond by fully integrating all of that knowledge to resist re-traumatization.’ And so, I think on a personal level that is incredibly important. So that the people providing the care themselves start off with that. And I will be remiss to – well, I mentioned at the beginning checks and balances – but having people that they’re checking in with. I have multiple layers of teachers that I’m trying to say ‘Did I do it right? How did I serve here in this?’ Even giving, taking from sort of a social work context, clinical pastoral education, CPE does this as well. This is a de-identified evaluation or retelling of what I experienced and what happened in this clinical setting – was this the best? Does it need to be improved? This is what I said. This is how they responded. This is what my body language was … all of that to better my care, my knowledge of self, how I serve and my knowledge of whether it’s spiritual, emotional things, realms that I’m serving in.
Mihad: So Imam Abdul-Malik in your paper, you also talk about situations where the Imam or the chaplain may come to feel uncomfortable with the dynamic that’s developing and may be afraid of crossing a boundary, it could be sexual or otherwise. And you say that in that kind of situation, he needs to extract himself from the pastoral relationship. Where does that leave the person who was receiving the care? You alluded to this when you talked about yourself, your worries in leaving your past place of employment. So if there is that concern and the chaplain or the Imam recuses themselves, or extracts themselves from that relationship, what happens to the person who may be vulnerable and has disclosed a fair bit about her/his personal life?
Imam Merchant: Well, so a couple of things. I think whenever you’re in a pastoral setting and you’re disclosing information that has to be confidential and that can’t go anywhere, obviously. Also I think that staying in that pastoral relationship where the one providing the care, the religious figure or religious person serving leader, if you will, has problems whether it’s sexual or otherwise, and they stay in, then there’s more potential harm that could be done to the person receiving care.
And personally, I would argue that they should refer to someone else, because the harms, whether it be spiritually or personally, that potentially could come from someone who … let’s just be frank, if “Imam Adam” feels attracted to “sister Khadijah” sexually, then they should recuse themselves because then countertransference comes into place. Are they giving advice because they’re trying to get married to her or are they enjoying meeting with her because she’s attractive to Imam Adam. And there’s a lot of boundaries then that become blurry. Or the inverse, if Imam Adam senses that sister Khadijah is attracted to him and she’s sending hints and doing things that aren’t what he’s comfortable with or what he thinks should be how it’s conducted, perhaps Imam Adam then refers her to another Imam, or if he feels that, you know, addressing that may be problematic for the pastoral relationship. And so I think there could be far more harms that could potentially come if that relationship is sustained then there would be then to refer sister Khadijah to another responsible qualified Imam.
Mihad: So, I mean, there’s going to be situations where that person, that second Imam, is not accessible to sister Khadijah. What can we do to – do you think that there is anything to do to not reach that situation of the Imam Adam having to recuse himself?
Imam Merchant: Again, the problem could be from either side of the relationship, and I don’t know what would happen if this was in a little town in the middle of nowhere, and this is the only Imam in this situation. Does Imam Adam have his own thing – checks and balances in place where he can keep himself under control, and he’s very aware of himself, and he’s making sure he’s not giving countertransference, and he’s trying to serve the needs and get in and out as quick as possible. Likewise, is he able to stop if the situation was inversed, sister Khadijah from – he is able to articulate, said actions are not acceptable, Please don’t do that, et cetera. Well that may be the case. Maybe recusing himself may be the only option that Imam Adam has, and that way that would fall under, wa Allahu a’lam, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says:
قُوا أَنفُسَكُمْ وَأَهْلِيكُمْ نَارًا
‘Save yourself and your family from the fire.’ And Imam Adam is concerned that either he’s going to do something wrong or sister Khadijah is going to do something wrong. And so he’s like, I need to just recuse myself altogether for my own spiritual and personal wellbeing.
Dr. Mattson: And this really gets back, doesn’t it, to your earlier comments about humility, realizing that you can’t always help. You cannot always help. You may not have the training. You may not, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually be able to help in that situation and a core Islamic ethical principle is that it’s better to avoid a harm than to do a good. So we need both that humility and also a sound understanding of how harms and benefits are assessed in Islamic ethics.
Imam Merchant: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it’s never an easy thing. For whatever reason you’re unable to serve someone. As someone who does this for a living, it’s painful when you don’t have the capacity, whether it’s time-wise, whether it’s expertise-wise to say, Listen, I just can’t help you. Because inshaAllah, the people who are doing this, love the people they’re serving, they love humanity, and they’re doing this out of the goodness of their own heart, hopefully. If they’re not, then that’s a different situation and very problematic. And so when you can’t, of course it hurts. But there has to be protocols and Islamic ethical values that are put in place so that if said situation happens, I already know what I’m going to do, how I’m going to conduct myself, what the protocol will be if said thing happened. And just understand that Allah is the one who changes the hearts, Allah is the one who rectifies situations. But what’s more important is the wellbeing of all those being served.
Dr. Mattson: Right, subhanAllah. Can I just follow up on the scenario where – say in a counseling relationship – some feelings of attraction develop perhaps a mutual attraction? Now there are some who would say, some in the Muslim community who would say, that there are no constraints on the relationship between a man and a woman other than those established generally by fiqh. So for example, if a sheikh, a scholar, a teacher proposes marriage to a woman their counseling, or they’re teaching, it’s one of their students, they would say, well, from an Islamic perspective, why is this wrong? It’s a win-win, they both benefit from being able to move into a marriage.
Imam Merchant: So there’s multiple levels. I mean, there’s – is sister X in this situation able to advocate for herself? Is she able to make a sound decision? Or is she just attracted to said Iman because he has filled said role for her? Likewise, there’s a power dynamic there that yes, will always be there, but may… ensuring the wellbeing of all the parties involved that neither side – the person serving or those being served – are taking advantage of a situation, or using a situation for their own – using a situation not based on fully being able to determine what’s best for them. And that’s what Dr. Rania’s paper that she presented was on at the conference. The boundaries of fiqh are there to set very basic boundaries. If we were to limit everything to the boundaries of fiqh, then we would have problems. For example, in a marriage, there are very basic rights of the husband and the wife in Islamic marriage. If that’s all we have, there would not be very much affection or very much harmony in the marriage. And so to say that that’s all we need is a bit naive and reductionary. Well, likewise to say that there has to be a specific protocol when we don’t know every situation. Now, this is where I would argue that institutions – those who are hopefully housing those serving – have protocols in place to ensure – And we could take from mental health practices or social work practices to ensure the wellbeing. Can we institute that this will not happen unless the counseling leadership has stopped for a certain amount of time? One could then argue, well, she’s a part of the community. She listened to his khutbas all day, every day to all of his classes. So just because the counseling relationship has stopped, does that mean that she’s still not able to be infatuated with him or he’s seeing her all the time and is not able to still be very, very much attracted to her. And so then we could argue that – he leaves the community.
I don’t have an answer, I don’t know. And I think every situation is going to be different. Could we stipulate that there’s mandatory premarital counseling, that there has to be six months – a year, if you will – maybe have mandatory premarital counseling with a reputable pre-marital counselor to ensure that everyone involved is very, very much aware of what they’re doing and is within their rights and is well taken care of – I think that something that needs to be explored.
Dr. Mattson: And some organizations have – some Muslim organizations – already have very clear protocols for these things and say, they’re just simply, it’s not permitted for teacher or an Imam or a sheikh to be involved or to develop this kind of relationship – an intimate or a personal relationship with the person. And if they’re really insistent, then he has to make a choice between, for example, his position and that marriage, you know. It’s like the King of England stepping down for the woman he loves or something like that. You know, if it’s that important, then they’re free to make that choice. They’re free to leave that community and go somewhere else. But certainly every community has a right to establish their own protocols based on their needs. I mean, they’re paying for an Imam or a teacher to provide spiritual services to teach, not to look for a spouse, for example.
Imam Merchant: Absolutely. And I think every institution is well within their rights to set whatever protocols and stipulations they want to, to ensure the protection of the people. Cause I mean, what we’re talking about at the end of the day is the community, whoever -whatever community is being served – feels safe with people – male or female, or otherwise – going to their religious leadership and not having to worry about these things. Once you do, once the community has to worry about these things and that impacts their ability to have care and otherwise. For example, when I first moved to Boston and became the Imam, no one knew me, not from the Black community, not from other communities. People didn’t know – Yeah. I’m saying I’m more than welcome to talk to you, this is my role, et cetera. But how do we know that what we’re saying is going to stay non-confident-or it’s going to stay confidential? How do we know that the Imam Abdul-Malik has training in this area? And so it took time to establish that confidence. If that level of confidence is broken because of a personal relationship, then that impacts the entire community, not just this one relationship. And so I definitely think it’s something that should be thought about and institutions should put into place to ensure the wellbeing of the community.
Dr. Mattson: Right.
Mihad: So you talked a lot about the various nuances that exist in these kinds of situations, and the fact that institutions certainly have the right to establish their own guidelines that will work for their community and level of comfort. But do you think that there are any bold red lines that the Imam or the religious leader cannot cross?
Imam Merchant: For sure. Anything that’s not transparent from beginning to end should -anything behind closed doors, hidden, by any definition of ‘hidden’, should be off limits, without any questions. Any abuse of a circumstance of a circumstance, whether it’s abuse of power or blackmail that becomes the issue. Can we clearly know that that wasn’t there? It’s very easy for someone to cater a pastoral relationship in- set things up – if we’re going to use a sports metaphor: to give themselves the “alley oop” to get married or to…. Like – if I’m serving in a pastoral relationship and someone has gone through a bad breakup, for example, and God forbid, I now know everything that was wrong in her previous relationship, it’s very easy for me to curtail what I’m going to say to then ensure that she thinks I’m going to fulfill the role that she wants. And that is where the problem lies. So a red line would definitely have to be transparency. A red line would have to be . . . I don’t know, honestly… alhamdulillah I’m not in a position where I’m in charge of institution or anything. For me, the red line is … alhamdulillah, I’m married, I started off this work married, and so the red line – and I am not interested in polygyny in any shape, form or fashion – and so there’s a hard red line already clearly articulated by me, by my family as to where my red lines are.
Dr. Mattson: Imam Abdul-Malik you place a great deal of emphasis on servant leadership in the pastoral caregiver. I see that Muslim parents or those working in da’wa are often very grateful when they find an extremely charismatic, dynamic preacher or teacher or sheikh because they believe that this charisma helps them communicate well with youth and converts. Many of these, mostly men, are very popular on social media as well, and seem to have no institutional supervision. So can you tell me… just speak through this kind of balance or tension between … we want the kind of person who’s exercising that servant leadership, on the other hand, the community is almost looking for Muslim stars somehow, who are going to attract their attention, you know, away from the mainstream commercial culture. What do you, what do you think about charisma and servant leadership?
Imam Merchant: Servant leadership, I think is – goes back to everyone’s individual intention of the people whom we’re actually serving. And so I know people very well, been over their houses, who others would perceive to be celebrity sheikhs, if you will. And they feel that they’re serving a very particular role and they are serving in these roles. I think on the side of the community, we have to articulate what and how we want our leaders to be and how we’re going to interact and engage with said leaders. If someone is traveling, giving lectures and doing fundraisers, that’s beautiful and that’s needed in our community. Perhaps, now we’ve got access to someone who we didn’t have before. Do I then want to go for pastoral care to that person, to that religious leader? No, because then there’s no way of sustaining a pastoral relationship. How do we then follow up? Does that person have time? And I would hope that – and I’ve heard from people who do serve in these, more travel oriented, which we’ve now been celebrity scholars, who are also stuck in a very interesting place where, you know, they are trying to serve. And because they’re in the middle of nowhere, the community doesn’t have any Imam, but at the same time they understand they’re only going to be there for the weekend. So I think again, I think it’s really on us as a community to understand what we need from our religious leadership and go to those who we feel can serve that need, and we need to understand what it is that we’re going to do?
Dr. Mattson: Well, I would think that one of the benefits of our lockdown, our experience of lockdown, is we know that we don’t necessarily need to be in the same location as someone in order to be able to receive some service from them. I mean, people are doing remote counseling in all sorts of fields and you know perhaps that’s something we could set up. Just my final question. The focus of your presentation at the Hurma Project Research Conference in 2020 was on Muslim men offering pastoral care to women in the community. Do you think it’s important to have Muslim women as pastoral care providers in the community as well?
Imam Merchant: Absolutely. So to quickly follow up to your last question. I definitely think that the lockdown has shown us that we can provide in different settings. I want to make sure that people who are listening to this, don’t think that, Oh, well, because said so-and-so, who’s traveling can still provide service then it’s okay for me to provide service. I think that the very clear expectations that are set from the beginning, that this is not just a one and done setting that I’m now open to provide this care for you on an extended level. I have people whom are not from my general location, who reach out to me, but I’ve clearly articulated whatever you need I’m here for you as best as I can, based on my circumstance. And so that expectation should be very, very clear. And then, obviously physical location doesn’t have a problem.
As far as your second question, do we need women? Absolutely – there shouldn’t- unfortunately, shouldn’t need to be a question. Islam articulates – the traditional approach clearly articulated – very minute roles that women cannot play: leading a congregational prayer that is mixed, giving a… so following after – the khutbah. There have been countless times people have taken shahadah in my office, they’ve had a very rough situation where as soon as the meeting’s over they’re crying, and I have to ask or I had to ask the sister who was working as the secretary to give the sister a hug, because obviously I can’t do that. Imagine you’re in a setting where – that’s ok, that’s possible, or even an embraced. Touch is a very powerful thing. I’m in a setting where I can’t pat someone’s leg and say, it’s going to be okay, or Allah bless you. I can’t do those things. And so if there is someone there – and also I’m a married, trying to be observant man and so I have limits in the hours, how much time we’re going to spend with you, when I can meet with you, where I can meet with you, et cetera. The nature of our relationship is also going to be different.
If it’s a woman serving another woman, then those boundaries can be very, very different. I have a lot of young men who WhatsApp me all the time. We have long conversations on WhatsApp, voice messages, texts, et cetera. I don’t do that with women. And so if there are women who can provide that care in a far more interpersonal, relational level, Then that’s even better.
Mihad: Imam Abdul-Malik, can I just ask you, how do you make that – like, how do you restrict that communication? Do you make that explicit to the students on campus in terms of messaging?
Imam Merchant: One, just through the nature of my disposition, having too many means of contact really just confuses me. I’ve got to check texts, WhatsApp, email, all these things. So if students want to get in contact with me, they have to email me. And I have a clearly articulated automatic response that I check my emails predominantly on Wednesdays and Thursdays, the days that I’m at Tufts. And so that’s already articulated. The only students that have my personal number are the MSA co-presidents. And we have a group chat with both of those sisters together. So us three are in a group chat and it’s only…it’s not pastoral, it’s ‘Hey, the MSA wants to do this or that.’ Then our meetings are set up in a meeting. If you – if you want to talk to me, it’s not … well, pre COVID, I was in my office on Wednesdays and Fridays and yes, you could come, but the most common way was that we set up meetings before. So that one, I can prepare the space and myself, but also, so these things are documented and record is kept. It’s not just me meeting up with people randomly, even if we are meeting at another place on campus.
And so I think setting clear expectations, clear boundaries. I’ve used things like Calendly, which will allow you to pick how long your meeting’s going to be, but, you know, from the beginning that we have an hour long meeting. And that person who I’m meeting with knows how long their meeting is. From the time before I did that until the time after it, just by having an end time on it makes the person receiving the care far more aware of what’s going on, opposed to things drawing out over an hour and a half, two hours. We’re not hanging out. Just want to say, obviously there’s certain circumstances when those have to be bent. Someone took a half an hour to open up, now they’re another half an hour in, we’re coming to the end of our meeting and they’re wide open. I can’t – they can’t leave like that. And I’ve had situations where, you know, family trauma with multiple people involved, multiple sub-meetings in the meeting, it went almost three hours one time, with again, multiple meetings and group individual back together group again, when I had to cancel all my meetings for that day. But the general practice should be, the times are set and kept.
Mihad: Okay. Why is it – and you alluded to it a little bit, I think at the start of our conversation – that sometimes you may share with somebody, and I don’t know if it’s somebody in a supervisory position or a peer, how a particular counseling session went to get some type of insight from an outside party. So can you just talk a little bit about why in your view it’s so important that that support comes from peers from within the community of Imams and chaplains?
Imam Merchant: I don’t think – so peer support, I think is very, very important – but I also think that having external support from amongst collegial peers, if you will, is also very important. I think it’s important because, one, this is something that’s mandatory in other clinical settings, whether it be CPE – clinical pastoral education – whether it’s social workers, physicians… So there needs to be support, one for the type of care that has been given, but also for the mental health and wellbeing of the people providing care. Self-care is the first and most important, perhaps even most important step to providing care to others because “Hurt people, hurt people,” as the classic saying goes. I think there’s multiple levels. One there’s a self-care perspective. That three hour meeting I had, I had to cancel all my other meetings – it bled over hours, but afterwards I had to leave the masjid and call a peer and a friend and a colleague who is a social worker, decompress this three-hour meeting that had intimate partner violence, family violence, abuse, et cetera, et cetera. I needed to unload that. But I have to do that not only for my own mental health but because I don’t want to bring that home to my family.
So self-care, that’s one level, other levels to ensure that the best care I can potentially give is being given. And maybe my experience has me ignorant of certain things. I have blind sides that I just can’t see certain things, lack of experience. And so, or even also religious nuance to positions that I just don’t know that I need to follow up on so that I can then give better. So someone asks a fiqh question and I say, well, no, you really can’t do that. But then I go follow up and a sheikh tells me, well, actually there’s room for that. And then, so now I can open something up for someone or inversely restrict something by having support from others.
But then also I would argue that we definitely need collegial support, pastoral care and wellbeing is bio-social cycle, a biological sociological, psychological, and spiritual. And so while I may be fulfilling or trying to fulfill the spiritual aspect and maybe dabbling in the emotional aspect, I know nothing about the biological and I may not be very experienced in the clinical psychological aspect. And so if I have a case that is beyond my expertise, I need to have the humility so that I can now consult other people who do have expertise to provide the best care for the person I’m sitting with.
And so maybe that’s after the setting, you know, I replay or tell how this experience went to someone else. So that I can learn more about things. Also it could be that I say, ‘Listen, let me get back to you. I really don’t know anything about this.’ And then also, I mean, just not to prick the bear or anything, there are just things I don’t know about. I’m a heterosexual man that grew up in a Muslim community. If someone is gay and comes to me or transgender or which on a university setting is very common, I need to make sure that how I’m talking to someone is even respectful. If someone is using gender pronouns that are not stereotypical – excuse me if I’m not using the proper language. This is very, very real. I have a colleague who is gender non binary. And so I had to ask my colleague, is it okay for me to refer to you as “dude”? Because I don’t want to be offensive. And they responded yes, I’m okay with “dude,” but don’t say, “man,” for example.
That has nothing to do with my theological jurisprudence. I want to be respectful of said person and refer to them in a way that they find respectful. And so I’m serving a gay student, for example, not only do I need to know the jurisprudence and theological limitations, but I want to make sure that I’m providing the absolute best care for their wellbeing for them. Because the ultimate goal is that, at the end of our meeting, or the end of our pastoral relationship, they’re able to connect with Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala on a deeper level. And so I’m going to consult multiple communities and multiple expertise to ensure that I can do that.
Dr. Mattson: Right. subhanaAllah. Well, that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? I mean, certainly for us, for the Hurma Project, we talk about hurma, because this is, you know, this is our goal to allow people to realize that they are – they have a sacred inviolability that no one can take away and that they have a right to be respected. And among all of the things that we would like people to do, or that we know would be better for them to do, at the end, it is about opening up those paths to connection with Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. And we’re all in a different space, and we all have different backgrounds and experiences that we need to process through in order to improve that relationship with Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. So it’s really very interesting and helpful to hear about how you approach this topic in order to try to facilitate that connection no matter who the person is, may Allah bless you, Allah yubarik fikum, thank you so much Imam Abdul-Malik for joining us today, it’s been really enlightening.
Imam Merchant: Khayr, lutf al-`afiyya; goodness, ease and well-being.
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Mihad: We would like to thank Imam Abdul-Malik Merchant for sharing some of the ways he has put the principles of healthy boundaries into practice in his experience, religious leaders like himself need to develop an understanding of the dynamics inherent in any counseling relationship. For example, a person receiving care may transfer their own feelings and past experiences onto the person providing the care. This is referred to as “transference.” “Countertransference” describes the opposite, meaning that the experiences and biases of the person providing the care can also impact how and what guidance they provide.
We also spoke about the importance of having both peer and external supports for Imams. Not only to decompress and offload for their own mental health, but also to ensure that the best care is in fact being provided. Like all of us, Imams have blind spots and a limited breadth and set of experiences. Accordingly, consultation with external experts, both religious and otherwise can fill in these gaps and allow them to provide a more holistic response to those who are turning to them for support and guidance. For Imam Abdul-Malik, this means being aware of his own limitations and becoming familiar with outside community supports and referrals. Putting the theory of healthy boundaries into practice requires an ongoing process of self-discovery and knowledge, a reevaluation of one’s intention and a great deal of humility. This can be summed up by the Islamic tradition that states: Whoever knows themselves, knows their God and whoever knows God knows themselves.
Thank you for listening to this episode and learning along with us, if you would like to help us reach a broader audience. There were a few very simple things that you can do. Subscribe to the podcast on your favorite podcast platform, leave us a rating or review and tell someone in your life about the Hurma Project Podcast. We would like to thank our funders Pillars Fund and the Waraich Family Foundation for supporting the work of the Hurma Project. This episode was produced by Kyle Fulton, with additional assistance provided by Maram Albakri. We look forward to continuing our conversation with each of you. Until then, assalamu alaykum.
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