16 Mar Episode 3: Imam Muhammad Abuelezz, Imams as Counselors
Imams of mosques in North America spend the majority of their time counseling community members, but counseling in this context is generally undefined. Many imams do not have the opportunity for proper training in counselling, and are often left unsupervised and unsupported in this work, making them, and their congregants, vulnerable to ethical violations and spiritual harm.
About Imam Abuelezz
Muhammad Abuelezz is currently the Imam of Rose City Islamic Center in Windsor, ON, Canada. He has a master’s degree in Islamic studies from University of Georgia, US. His MA thesis was about Imams’ qualifications, tasks and challenges in America. He is now a PhD candidate in Human Relationships: Spiritual Care and Psychotherapy at Wilfrid Laurier University. The focus of his PhD dissertation is on the professional ethics of Imams in providing counselling and spiritual care for members of their communities.
The following transcript has been edited for fluency.
Ep. 3 Imam Muhammad Abuelezz
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Dr. Mattson: Hello, assalamu alaikum. Welcome to 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. 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. More information about us can be found on the Hurma Project website hurmaproject.com, where you may also leave us feedback through the contact form (click here to access the form).
In this episode of the Hurma Project Podcast, we speak with Mohammad Abuelezz, who is the Imam of the Rose City Masjid center in Windsor, Ontario. He graduated in 2001 with a BA from the School of Islamic Studies at Al-Azhar University, where he also did post-graduate work. After a number of years serving as an Imam in Egypt, he went to the University of Georgia, Athens campus, where he earned an MA in Islamic studies and served locally as an Imam.
He moved to Canada almost 10 years ago and is currently completing his PhD in Spiritual Care and Psychotherapy. In our conversation today you will hear how strongly he feels about his profession and its potential for good, and how troubled he is when other Imams misuse their positions. He tells us that the Imams of mosques spend the majority of their time counseling community members, but counseling in this context is generally undefined. And the boards of mosques often lack an appreciation for its important and its risks.
Many Imams do not have the opportunity for proper training and counseling and are often left unsupervised and unsupported in this work, making them and their congregants vulnerable to boundary violations and spiritual harm.
I began by asking about his research into the particular challenges faced by those who perform the dual roles of Imams and counselor.
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Imam Abuelezz: I was doing my supervised counseling with a sister, who is a psychotherapist, where I would take my cases to her and she would ask me.Which hat are you wearing? Are you dealing with people as an Imam or as a counselor? I haven’t noticed that when I was doing my work initially. She is the one who triggered that thinking and awareness, and I even started to do my PhD specifically about the dual relationships and boundaries that Imams face.
Sometimes as Imams, we might not recognize these multiple relationships. It doesn’t have to be dual, it can be two or even three; you could be a friend, a counselor, an Imam, a family relative and even having business. There is a lot of complexity there between the Imam, his profession, and his role as an Imam with all other relationships with his community. It’s what we call:
And if the Imam is not aware of all these sensitivities of his role, he could cause a lot of damage.
Dr. Mattson: Right. Thank you. Thank you so much. SubhanaAllah, there’s so much complexity there.
As you say the types of exploitation that unfortunately do occur occasionally on the part of Imams or sheikhs and those who are their congregants or their students, it can include many different types. It can be financial; it can be even a kind of emotional abuse. And of course there are also those occasions that have been disclosed where those religious leaders have exploited those seeking their help in a sexual manner.
If more Imams were certified as professional counselors, do you think that would prevent some of these abuses from happening? Or do you think that a kind of limited course of training is enough to make them aware of their boundaries or does something more needed to happen?
Imam Abuelezz: Imams, sometimes, are victims. Yes, sometimes they are predators, but sometimes they are also victims of their own institutions, of their mosque boards and administration, because they don’t give them enough time to study. They don’t support them taking courses, they don’t do that everywhere. They do not understand that Imams counsel on a regular basis to the community. They even sometimes don’t want the Imam to counsel, not because it’s not helping, but because they wanted him to do other stuff. They don’t see the importance and the necessity of counseling for the community.
People go to the Imams first, and when they need counseling, the first thing they think about is the Imams. I will go to the Imams [for everything] from having a problem with the husband or with the wife, to finding the house, to everything. However, Imams are not equipped to help in all counseling matters. He could give a religious fatwah. He could give a religious fatwah, but not very deep counseling that can help people to really be healed.
A lot of people have trauma, have grieving, and there is a lot of series and a lot application [i.e., specific protocols] for this stuff. And the Imam is not aware of that. So if you’re asking about what the Imam can do, as I said, it’s complex. Even if we tell the Imam to go study, he doesn’t have the money to go to study. I have been studying on my own from my money, from my pocket, paying from my family’s income to do this study.
Not every Imam is able to do that. So I think it’s very hard to ask him to do take a degree in counseling. I think having a program, a short or intensive course in dealing specifically with these problematic situations and relationships in his work would be more efficient and practical in the life of the Imam.
They don’t need to be a counselor to do the job, but they need to know when to refer people.
Mihad: So I find it really interesting what you were saying about competing expectations. It sounds as if there are expectations that Imams face from the board, there are expectations that you face from the congregants.
And I’m wondering if, in your experience, in working in various communities, do you feel that congregants necessarily expect you to serve as well as a counselor and to provide them counseling? Regardless of certification or qualifications, is this now part of the expected role of Imam?
Imam Abuelezz: In my previous Master’s study, the majority of the Imams said that their main task they are doing in the community is counseling. They are the defacto counselor and mental health care provider. Since they’re the Imam in the Muslim community, people have this expectation that the Imam is going to help me. Specifically, from my own experience, a lot of people who come to me, they come because of they believe I’m going to read a du’a, or do some stuff for them that will help them.
Some people bring their kids thinking I am going to brainwash their kids and they’re going to be angels and be good, after maybe doing rukya. A lot of Imams come by different motivations. They are motivated by different belief system – from every background they have.
So the people, yes, they expect you to help in the social, financial and spiritual problems in their life.
Mihad: And how do you manage those expectations? As a lawyer, a big part of my job, I find, is often managing a client’s expectations. So clients often expect you to be a lawyer, an accountant, a social worker, a career counselor. There’s a lot of different, as you said, there’s different hats that clients expectus to wear. So for you, as an Imam, how do you manage those expectations?
Imam Abuelezz: Okay. How I manage as a trained counselor or how Imams in general manage? In general, from my study, my results say that the Imam should know his limits in the matter of knowledge and in the matter of what he can do. Because if you don’t know your limits, you’re going to cause harm, you’re going to cross boundaries.
So you need to know when to refer, when to say I can do that, or, it is not within my capacity. I cannot help someone with addiction. I cannot help someone with a deep grieving problem. I cannot help someone with a trauma and a problem with severe depression – a lot of things. What can I do? So Imams need to know their limits, and where they can send their people, send their communities.
In pastoral care, especially those who are trained in pastoral care, in some places, pastors are not supposed to do long-term counseling; they do short term, where they only allow their pastor to give, I believe, like four or five or six maximum sessions of counseling. However, some people come and get stuck with the Imam for two years. For two years as an Imam, it happened to me. I had families that I have been helping for two years since they started the conflict between the wife and the husband.
So there is a lot of expectations and there is no well-defined job, too. The imam’s job is not really defined well, especially what to do and what not to do.
Mihad: Right. So let’s talk about that for a moment. Is your experience with other Imams and your own experience, that when you walk into that role, you are not treated as an employee normally would be treated, so you wouldn’t get a job description. Do you normally get a specific, detailed job description when you assume the role of Imam?
Imam Abuelezz: Through my own contract, you lead the prayer, you give the lectures, you give the khutab, teach the community, you give counseling, that’s it, in general. Counseling itself is a very essential role as an Imam, and it’s also expected to give religious counselling. I’m not talking about the professional or a specific type of counselling, but generally religious counseling, like shura, istishara, advice, and stuff like that between people. All of that is expected of you.
But there isn’t even insurance specifically for the Imams if they get sued later regarding counseling. I don’t know, is that part of what Imams, masajid stop to think about? Do they have coverage for their own employee in case of a case in the court or anything like that? We don’t have that. So there is a lot of things missing and not only the job description, the job description is vague, it’s general.
Mihad: No, thank you for that. Those are a lot of pieces that you’ve identified that are missing. So let’s pick up on this idea of the way that the Imam carries out the role within the masjid or within the community center. What kind of supervision, in your experience, whether it be the Imams that you spoke to for the purposes of your paper or your peers that you interact with, is there a common supervisory role that’s provided? Some type of oversight when it comes to spiritual counseling, or therapeutic counseling, that Imams provide to congregants?
Imam Abuelezz: You are coming like the burning point. It’s something that really makes the Imam sad. In any profession, people are supervised by people from their own career. If you are a doctor, you are supervised by a senior doctor, if you are a lawyer, you are also by supervised by a higher committee of lawyers. If you are an engineer, you are supervised by a committee, or an engineer who is higher than you in the knowledge, or in the field who can supervise you.
Imams, unfortunately, don’t have that. Their profession is really humiliated. And the only time I feel like myself is when I meet with other Imams, like with the Canadian Council of Imams. Here in Windsor, we have a council of Imams. This is the only time when I go and attend the meetings that I feel I am with people that are my peers, people that I can get some wisdom (from). And I can talk about something similar in my own profession. That’s the only time.
And sometimes you are not supposed to go, you’re not supposed to leave the masjid. Even if you go to this meeting, you might face challenges within your career, within your job, in the masjid, if not from the board, it will be from the people. Where is the Imam? The Imam is not here in the masjid? So there are different expectations and issues, and there is no supervision.
Mihad: So it sounds as if there are, there are some bodies that you’ve identified, the Canadian Council of Imams is one of them that you may turn to for peer support.
Is that accurate that you would use as a peer support network?
Imam Abuelezz: Yes.
Mihad: What about accountability? That body does not hold its members accountable. Is that right?
Imam Abuelezz: Not, it is not. Exactly. In any body, they will be holding us accountable if they are the ones that appoint us or give us a certificate to work initially, or if they certify the Imams. But that’s not the case. So they are only a body of Imams who meet and have some conversations about the general affairs of the community, but they are not a regulating body.
Dr. Mattson: Imam Mohammad, you were educated at Al-Azharin Egypt, and you also served as an Imam there for some time. When we talk about oversight and accountability, although I’m sure it is not perfect, and it’s flawed in many ways, in Egypt are not the imams of masajid supervised, or responsible to someone who could, for example, remove them from their position if they violated the normal standards of being an Imam?
Imam Abuelezz: In fact, the Imams profession in Egypt – the structure – is very amazing. It is perfect. It’s been there since the Othmani period, from a long time ago, since Muhammad Ali … since the awqaf system. It has a very nice system.
Imams are supervised by senior Imams, and they come regularly to check on them, to sit and listen to the khutbas or their speeches. They are supposed to do that. I know this is not applied because of the corruption, but that is the system. The system there is that the Imams are being supervised by a senior, called “mufattish,” that mutattish is an Imam who was appointed to that position before, and then he was promoted after some years, and now he supervises other imams
So this system is there, but I haven’t seen that system in any other country, or at least not in America and Canada.I haven’t seen such a kind of system. [In Egypt] Imams have their own vacation. After Friday, they don’t come to the masjid; Saturday is off. It’s expected by the law, by the employer, that the Imam only works from asr till isha’ and, in the morning period and the dhuhr period there should be someone else leading.
But in Canada, they say you only work five minutes, 10 minutes. They do not understand that that Imams is stuck, mahbus for this masjid, from fajr until 11 o’clock – from five AM in the morning until eleven PM – especially in winter, which is part of big part of our time in Canada. I’m sorry, especially in summer, in winter it’s 7:30. So in general, the Imam serves from fajr till isha’ all day. He cannot go anywhere because he has to lead the prayer.
I wish this system is adopted and people will take part of it, that it can suit and fit here. But in Canada, every masjid has its own system.
Dr. Mattson: It seems that, from what you’re saying, that having a good system of oversight and supervision and regulation protects both the Imam and his family financially, and it protects their time, allows them to have time together. And at the same time, it’s protection for the congregation and the community, because if the Imam does something that’s wrong, whether saying things in his khutbah or in his relationship with the community, there is someone who regularly inspects that environment and can hold that Imam accountable for his actions or for his words.
Imam Abuelezz: That’s true. Exactly. There should be such type of supervision that is consistent and continuous. That is always there. If there is no such type of accountability, then you can make mistakes. That is normal if you know that there is no one to supervise you, you will get to do whatever you want.
Dr. Mattson: Can you distinguish between the religious leader, who is predatory – a predatory religious leader who’s looking for opportunities to exploit or abuse others – from the far more common, ordinary religious leader who simply hasn’t had enough training or supervision, and because of that, they’re causing harm.
Imam Abuelezz: Okay. Those who are predators, they don’t confess their mistakes. They know they’re wrong, but they never want to acknowledge they are wrong, and they continue doing this. They move from a community to another community and do the same again. Again and again and again. And these people should be tracked and be known. The problem is not just with them, again, it is in the supervising bodies, which is the masajid boards.
All of them come from
الله غفور رحيم
Allah will forgive, cover up, it’s okay. People say, sheikh, haram, don’t do, don’t say that about this Imam, don’t do that. And they cover up their mistakes. There are people – sometime it is because he is Egyptian, or he is from this community and the board is part of his community – they will cover his mistakes. Sometimes they are complicit. The boards,or the people in power and in charge,they are complicit in this problem of the Imam’s abuse. Maybe they will let the Imam go, and they will not write a report.
They will not say anything. And he will go to another community and cause harm again. And if the new community calls the previous employer to ask – which it doesn’t happen all the time – some people don’t ask. It is recently where I have seen in the employing process, now they write nominees [references], two or three nominees about what they’ve been working before.
So if it happened that they asked the previous employer, the employer might not even say anything about his abuse – previous abuse. So these predators and these Imams, unfortunately, they use this position to make more money, more than what they are earning – than their own salary. They go out, they do whatever they want to get more money. They benefit from the community somehow or another, sometimes they abuse their power, especially with women. I have been around some of these cases. One Imam [who had] not only one case of marriage, but one, and two, and three. And he was reprimanded; it was said that you are wrong, and that shouldn’t happen, and that person never, never, never acknowledged it. And he will always look at himself as a victim. And people who are around him – the people around that Imam – would say, he is a victim of you guys and those people who are attacking him, and he’s a good guy.
Dr. Mattson: So how does it make you feel as an Imam, as a religious leader, as someone who has dedicated your life to da’wa and to serving Allah (SWT), and serving the community, how does it make you feel when you see these situations happen? Predatory Imams, having their actions covered up or moving from community to community. How do you feel in your role as an Imam in that environment?
Imam Abuelezz: I feel angry. Unfortunately, I get very emotional. I could even speak about that in public and I wouldn’t care. I wouldn’t name someone on the minbar, but I would speak about the ethics and the professional ethics and the crossing of these boundaries and how we as Imams should not do that. I would speak about some of this issue on my minbar or my khutbah. I wouldn’t be silent.
I tried some times to connect with other Imams or other people to raise the point, to raise this issue, and say this is injustice. These women, or these people, or that case, they are vulnerable. They came to us as, as sisters, they trusted us and we abused them with ill intention, there is abuse here. Unfortunately, people in administrative roles or in charge, they say, Oh, these women, they consented, they accepted that, they were okay with that.
And they don’t understand that these women were exploited. There was exploitation of their emotional affairs. They came having a problem with their husbands, they were divorced, they were broken, and you preyed on that, you used that. You should not use that. You should have protected them. You should have healed their brokenness, not use it for your own gain.
Dr. Mattson: I want to turn back to the idea of dual relationships in the Muslim community, but look at it through a gendered lens. You haven’t mentioned this in your paper, but I would like today to have your thoughts on this.
In your paper, you have recorded the responses of the Imams that you interviewed. You asked them if they avoid socializing with people in the congregation, and one of them said that he does not avoid that kind of social socializing and says that its culturally expected that he socializes with members of the community. So he goes out for coffee with them, or other things.
Two of the Imams in your study say they do avoid that kind of socializing with congregants. But my question is this: even if an Imam does not socialize with community members outside of the masajid, the reality is that inner misogyny, the worshipers are separated by gender. There’s a men’s prayer area and a woman’s prayer area. And the men are in the same space as the Imam. Before and after prayer, they can greet him, they can hug him, they can approach them with questions. If there’s some celebration in the masjid such as, a, wedding, the Imam eats with the men. So later, if for example, a married couple comes to the Imam for counseling, chances are the Imam will know the man in the couple better than the woman. And there may be other scenarios like this. So is it possible that there is a kind of endemic or inherent gendered conflict of interest in our masajid?
Imam Abuelezz: Hmm, this is a very good question. It’s not only from a gender perspective, but also from social perspective.
So if I know this person, this brother, I know him and he’s a friend of mine. At least I know him and I talked to him and he has this relationship with me. And also he’s a man. So there are two things here, not just being a man, but also knowing him ahead of time before the wife.
Dr. Mattson: One possible solution to the Imams not knowing the women and only spending time with the men before after prayer is to follow the sunnah of the Prophet Mohammed ﷺ to come to the women to greet them, or to give them lessons for women, because in that situation, then the Imam would get to know the women of the community, would get to know their names, their situations and their personalities.
Of course, that also means that if the Imam is going to do that, he needs to be very mindful of his limits of his charisma, of the possibility that some of those women who maybe they really need someone in their life who will listen to them. And if the Imam’s there as a listening ear, they might start to fall into this problem of transference or becoming infatuated.
So it seems that the Imam’s relationship with the women of the community is another kind of fine balance. Can you talk a little bit about this from your own training and your experience?
Imam Abuelezz: Yes. From my own experience, this is my model. I serve both and I approach both. I see the woman has a right in the masjid like the man, equally.
And I used to approach women if they need special talks. Sometimes some sister would invite me for a special fiqh lesson for them, or a dars for them. That should be the model for the Imam, that he knows he is not just serving men in the masjid. He is also serving sisters and the women in the community and that they also have spiritual needs and religious needs like anyone else.
But from my experience – and I don’t mind you saying this later – there is a problem. The barrier is not only set by men, the barrier and this type of segregation is also set by women themselves. The women themselves will look at the Imam who is approaching them, who is trying to talk to them, they will look with suspicion. Sometimes, because in their mind, there is a separation. There should be a barrier, women should be behind the wall or behind the curtain.
In our masjid in Kitchener, when we removed the curtain, we removed the wall. Some women here were against that. And they were not happy with that. If there is a sister who wants to pray in the section where there is no wall, other sisters will bully her; there’s like a fight between themselves for trying to include them and make them a part of the congregation.
It is hard. If we go to back to expectations, so it is not only from a gender perspective from only the men, but also the women themselves, sometime they are segregating themselves.
Dr. Mattson: Perhaps the women feel that this… they’ve learned that this is some kind of form of piety, that it’s more pious to live this way.
Imam Abuelezz: Yes. I agree with that. Yes. This is what they’re taught.
Dr. Mattson: And can you say why that’s not the case?
Imam Abuelezz: Why is that not the case? Because we have Sayyidah ‘A’isha who was a khatib, who was leading an army! We have that example, but we also have the case of the women in the masjid of Rasulillah ﷺ – they had no wall. They had no barrier, no curtain, they used to even enter from one door. But later Sayyidinah Umar suggested to have separate doors, so they will feel more private. But at the end, Rasulullah died and there was no wall, there was no segregation in the masjid, it was one only community praying.
Women would stand up and speak, and ask [questions] at the time of a congregation prayer, that was very common. There’s a very famous story about a woman who was right and Umar was wrong. Even this is after Rasulillah – at the time of Umar. When Umar was talking about the mahr and dowry. She said, no, Allah doesn’t limit the dowry. Even if you give the amount of a qintar, which is like a big amount of mahr, dowry. So that was the situation. Women had very active roles at the time of Rasulillah, in the first generation
It is later, when unfortunately, that this role deteriorated and woman became, I would say, behind bars, behind walls, behind curtains, under the ground, in the basement, everywhere. I feel like sometime in the masjid, I am the one who should look into that. From the managers, or administration or men, they don’t see that. Always when we have to pray Eid, [so they say] Oh, there’s no space for Eid, so women should be in the basement, should be behind the wall, women should be in the hallway. And men take all the masjid on the day of Eid, for example. Eid is coming, and then you will see that women are being looked down upon their presence in the masjid. And that shouldn’t be the case, it shouldn’t be the case. So, why is it not like that? Because our deen, our Islam, our religion, doesn’t put this segregated role and make the role of woman inactive, inactive – mu`attil; yu`attal dawr al-mara’ fi’l-masjid.
Mihad: You were speaking about communicating with women in the masjid. And some of the receptiveness or non-receptiveness from women, depending on their level of comfort. And I’m wondering whether you have experienced women communicating with you – or perhaps young, younger women – may be communicating with you through text messaging.
I know that that’s obviously, now, often very few people now are picking up the phone and talking or speaking to each other in person. Is that something that you think jeopardizes maintaining boundaries?How do you feel about communicating with congregants through text messaging?
Imam Abuelezz: (Sighs) It is a slippery slope. It is hard, and you could be emotionally attached to someone if this goes out of the boundaries of just asking a question or a fatwah or stuff like that. I think maybe emails are much better, but that doesn’t happen. I’m being approached all the time by people on my phone.
My phone is with everyone in the community. Anyone can call me, anyone can text me; why would we limit women? So again, I think it is not about the tool, it is not about the wasila, it is about how we use it. I don’t think it is aboutthe communication, but how we use the communication.
You should be aware of your own boundaries all the time, because you can have the sister, or woman in your office in front of you. You can give counseling face-to-face, it’s not all the texting all the time. What could be more harmful could be if you are alone with a woman or you’re alone with someone and you go out of your boundaries. So I think it is not about texting or emailing or communicating. Social media became part of the life of the people – Facebook, online.
For example, on Facebook, sometimes when I ‘like’ something, I have to think about if I should ‘like’ or press a heart. So if it’s a sister, I am not going to ‘heart’ a post, because I don’t want to be misunderstood. I have sisters with me on my Facebook page and we communicate, we talk, and we have a conversation online sometimes, but in a respected manner, and within the boundaries.
Mihad: So, it’s an awareness is what you’re saying. It’s an awareness. It’s not the mode of communication. So when you have an Imam, perhaps those that are first coming into the role of Imam, if they were to come to you, and tell you that they are being asked to counsel, but they really don’t have the tools, you know, they haven’t gone through formal training and perhaps they’ve gone through formal Islamic studies education, but no counseling, training or certification. What do you think is the… what’s the bare minimum? What would you advise them to do to just have the bare minimum tools to be able to carry out the role counselor?
Imam Abuelezz: I would say, don’t do counseling. You don’t have, you don’t have to do counseling. Imam doesn’t have to do counseling. There are other people who are there who can do counseling better than us. We don’t have to do counseling. It could be excluded, and say Imam doesn’t provide it. But if you have a fatwah question, if you have a religious question, what is halal, what is haram? Yes. Imam should do that. But counseling as counseling where you have people with marital problems, and they tell me your secrets, and your problems and you need my advice…they don’t have to counsel if he is not well equipped with how to deal with these issues, or at least, until he received the training for that.
Mihad: And how does he set that limit right from the start? Do you think it would be well-received if he made it known that he will not be providing any of that kind of support to the community members?
Imam Abuelezz: So what happens is that some Imams have told me during my interview, that in the beginning: we were making mistakes and we were causing damage until we became experienced. But that’s after years.
So why would they do that? No one practices counseling without previous supervised counseling. You don’t practice law without being an already certified lawyer. Why do we practice counseling without having the qualifications for that? I would say if they’re new immigrants who have no training in that, or they are coming from overseas, I would say it is much better they know their limit and they say I only give a religious fatwah. Many of the Imams that I interviewed, they say that, they only stick to that, I only stick to the religious side of the matter. If they go out of that, I refer them.
Mihad: And as a community, how can we support Imams in sort of staying within their lane? How can we support that decision to just provide religious guidance as opposed to counseling, whether it be as community members or boards or those involved in community work?
Imam Abuelezz: I’m saying that as a temporary solution, until Imams receive some sort of training. Now, I’m doing my dissertation, the PhD is a follow-up of this pilot study because this paper was the pilot study – that was the first paper. So now the PhD is on the same topic, but I’m doing it with the Imams who had not received a professional training, who don’t have any degrees.
Some of them had received some workshops and courses, and I found them answering the questions with much awareness and much better understanding then the other ones who had no type of workshops or courses or training.
So I think the minimum training can help a lot. You don’t have to study psychotherapy or counseling to be a counselor, but you need minimum training. Dr. Ingrid herself used togive some training for Imams, I attended one of her workshops with the Canadian Council of Imams. So these courses and this workshop was so helpful and so important and can help Imams on the road.
So how can we help the Imams? By giving them the training; financially, founding some scholarships for the Imams to take some courses. There’s nothing like that. Masajid barely pay the salary. And if you ask them for the Imam to take a course, and pay six hundred dollars for a course, or pay $1,000 for another course, they would say, no, we don’t have the money for that.
Dr. Mattson: So it seems that. Very often, inevitably the fatwah leads to a situation where you might have to give counseling or at least be able to refer it out. So it does seem that it really is a necessary part of the job to have that at least basic training and awareness of counseling.
Imam Abuelezz: I would say 90% of the Imam’s job is serving community. Being with them, being there for them, supporting them, helping them, healing. Imams can do a lot, can save people’s life, can save peoples future, can make people successful in their relationships, in theirparenting. Imams teach parenting. Teach marital life. Talk about everything that people are facing in their lives. So they need training for that. Parenting itself… there are counselors that only do parenting. People come to you with their kids who are rebellious, who are not listening, and you are supposed to, from parent’s perspective, you are just supposed to make the kids submissive and accept and listen, obey, which is wrong. But which is in reality, sometimes I find parents are in the wrong side and the right is with the children.
One time, I had a parent who is asking me, tell my son to listen to me, he should obey me. This is birr al walidayn. So I asked the son what is happening. He said, my father wants me to forge the papers, to do illegal stuff, to bring my uncle back from home, from overseas to Canada. And he wants me to do some papers and some stuff that is illegal in Canada to do!
And the father thought that his son is not listening to him and he is wrong and he should obey his dad. So you have to understand the context, you have to listen to both sides. You have to be aware of the lawhere and you have to have all that and help. For sure, I supported that son. I supported the son, the young man. I said, you are right, you shouldn’t do what your father is asking you to do. This can ruin your life altogether in the future. And this is not Islamic to cheat or to lie.
Sometimes the parents don’t like that from the Imam because they think that the Imam is just like their tool. With the husbands, sometimes the Imam is a tool to make the wife submissive. And then when you hear the story, you support the woman, people say you are not a good Imam, or you are a feminist, you are supporting women, all these labels in the community, you will see. But I think this doesn’t matter, let them believe what they believe because you have to do what is right.
Mihad: I have one last question. Hopefully we can end on a little bit of a lighter note. So there’s a greater awareness, I think, these days, whether it be on social media orthrough other sources of media, or interactions with people, of the importance of self-care, whatever roles that we play, whether it be personal or professional, there’s a lot of talk about prioritizing taking care of ourselves so that we can take care of others andcarry out our various roles.
Is this something, even if we don’t call it self-care, is that concept recognized by yourself and your peers by the Imam community? Do they understand the need to take time for themselves and their families?
Imam Abuelezz: I think this is a very important point and sometimes it’s not just unrecognized by the Imam, it is sometimes also unrecognized by the community, by the board of directors, that the Imam needs time out. That the Imam needs a holiday. That the Imam needs a weekend. That the Imam needs to take care of himself and his family and detach, take the plug out, detach yourself from yourprofession.
You cannot be seven days, 24 hours, all the time involvedin the masjid. And that is what happens with a lot of Imams. Unfortunately, seven days. Seven days, you are supposed to pray fajr; seven days; you are supposed to pray isha’; seven days you are supposed to be in the masjid. If you miss one prayer, you are being judged sometimes. And Imams try to reach to be like that, like the imam who is all the time there, all the time for the people. Anyone can call at any time and he is always there. That is really, I’m sorry to say, madness. It is insanity.
I found myself, I really step out and cross boundaries when I am burned out and I am not feeling good, I feel myself that I cannot control myself. I found myself sometimes in some situation asking myself, Why I’ve done what I have done? Why was I not patient with this man? Why I answered him and I was harsh? Why did I get angry and I blew up? I found when I was like that I was sleeping less; I was not having enough time to myself. SoI was like a balloon. If someone just pokes it, it explodes. So Imams need time out. Community should know that, that the Imams need some self-care.
Alhamdulillah, personally I started to do that recently, I used to go camping. I will go out. I will take my kids, weekly, especially in the weekend during the summer especially. I will try to rejuvenate myself, like, what do you say? Go again and refresh myself.
Mihad and Dr. Mattson: Recharge
Imam Abuelezz: Recharge. Recharge myself. I go out, I go away from the masjid for a day or two or the weekend, I come Monday, I am new, okay, Alhamdulillah, I’m here! I feel like I can give, I can listen to people more.
But from my experience, or from what I see, it’s not happening. And this expectation, and sometimes people look at the Imam that he should be here all the time. And unfortunately, some Imams I see them, and wallahi, I say, may Allah be with you, may Allah help you. You shouldn’t burn yourself like that.
Mihad: I think that relationship that you just teased out between burning out – that burnout, that many Imams experience – and then the risk of harm to their relationships and community and community members is really important.
It’s not a selfish act to take the time to recharge. So thank you for clarifying that. We hope that you continue to recharge and take time for yourself and your family, especially in the warm weather as you said. The winter is very long.
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It is certainly encouraging to learn that religious leaders like Imam Mohammad Abuelezz are engaging in research and peer led conversations regarding healthy boundaries and accountability. As Imam Abuelezz pointed out religious leaders like himself need to be acutely aware of their own authority, as well as the multiple hats that they wear. Religious teacher and guide friend relative, mentor and others.
Imams risk causing harm if they don’t recognize how and where the boundaries between these multiple relationships can become blurred and how their own authority as Imam is perceived by those around them. But the responsibility for educating religious leaders about healthy boundaries and dual relationships cannot rest solely with the Imams themselves.
Rather in the absence of a self-regulating professional body, the institutions and organizations that employee Imams need to step up and ensure that training on ethics,boundaries and the power dynamics inherent in the Imam congregant-relationship is provided.
Mosque boards would also do well to revisit the expectations placed on Imams and the ways in which they are being supervised and evaluated. For example, are we expecting moms to engage in counseling without the proper certification? Do those evaluating and overseeing an Imam’s performance fully understands what is involved in the role, outside of leading the five daily prayers? And are we building in space and room for self-care for the very leaders who are tasked with caring for our own spiritual needs?
Finally, Imam Abuelezz provides valuable advice to his peers who are often pressured to provide services that are beyond their scope. He cautions them to know their limits. And stay within them. This involves becoming familiar with community resources and referring individuals and families to them when necessary.
In our next episode, we dive deeper into the topic of healthy boundaries and dual relationships with licensed professional counselor, sister Salma Abugideiri. We will examine what these concepts mean within the context of faith communities, and ask whether all dual relationships are necessarily harmful. 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. If you found this episode to be beneficial and would like to help us reach a broader audience, there are a few simple things that you can do. Subscribe to the podcast, leave us a rating or review and tell someone in your life about the Hurma project podcast and the work of the Hurma project.
We look forward to continuing our conversation with each of you until then, assalamu alaikum.
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