22 Feb Season 2. Episode 1: Tamara Gray & Zaynab Ansari: Teacher-Student Relationships, Part One
Shaykha Dr. Tamara Gray, Founder and Director of Rabata, and Ustadha Zaynab Ansari, Scholar-in-Residence at Tayseer Seminary, discuss the hallmarks of healthy teacher-student and mureed-shaykh relationships.
Anse Dr. Tamara Gray
Anse Dr. Tamara Gray is the founder of Rabata, an organization dedicated to promoting positive cultural change through creative educational experiences. She holds a doctorate in leadership from the University of St. Thomas, a master’s degree in Curriculum Theory and Instruction from Temple University, and spent twenty years studying traditional and classical Islamic sciences, Quran, and Arabic in Damascus, Syria. Read more about Anse Dr. Tamara Gray by clicking here.
Ustadha Zaynab Ansari
Zaynab Ansari has served as a member of the full-time faculty of Tayseer Seminary since its inception in 2014 when she joined the Muslim Community of Knoxville in the pioneering role of women’s scholar-in-residence, one of the first women to serve in such a capacity in an Islamic institution in North America. With over 20 years of experience as a public speaker, facilitator of interfaith dialogue, youth mentor, and an instructor of the Islamic Sciences, Ustadha Zaynab is committed to reviving the Prophetic model of community and training the next generation of Muslim leaders, workers, and activists.
Read more about Ustadha Zaynab Answer by clicking here.
Teacher-student relationships, part 1
The following transcript has been edited for fluency.
[SHOW MELODY FADES IN]
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Hello, Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to Season Two of the Hurma Project Podcast, a program in which 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 lecture 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.
We opened this new season of the Hurma Project Podcast with an extended conversation with two highly respected scholars and teachers of Islam, Shaykha Dr. Tamara Gray, and Ustadha Zaynab Ansari. Shaykha Tamara holds a doctorate in leadership from the University of St. Thomas, a Master’s from Temple University and is founder, Executive Director and Chief Spirituality Officer of Rabata, remarkable organization, which Shaykha Tamra founded upon returning to the United States after two decades in Syria, where she studied and taught traditional and classical Islamic Sciences, Qur’an and Arabic. Through its many programs, including the Ribaat Online Academic Institute, its local chapters, retreats and halaqahs, Rabata has a global impact amplifying the female voice in scholarship, education, and publishing.
Ustadha Zaynab Ansari spent her formative years in Syria, studying the Qur’an, Islamic law, theology and spirituality with many scholars, male and female, including Shaykha Tamara, with whom she continues to collaborate as part-time faculty of the Ribaat Program. Since 2014 Ustadha Zaynab’s full-time position has been as a core faculty member at Tayseer Seminary in Knoxville, Tennessee. She was a founding Scholar-in-Residence of the coeducational seminary, and one of the first women to hold such a position at an Islamic institution in North America. Prior to settling a Knoxville, Ustadha Zaynab was based in Atlanta, where she earned degrees in World History and Middle Eastern Studies from Georgia State University. In this first, of a two-part conversation with Shaykha Tamara and Ustadha Zaynab, we asked them about the etiquette of the teacher-student relationship in general, and about the deeper relationship between murshida, or spiritual guide, and mureed, the spiritual seeker. Mihad and I really enjoyed this conversation and we hope that you do so as well.
[SHOW MELODY FADES OUT]
Shaykha Tamara, can you just describe to us a what a healthy relationship between students and scholars or teachers looks like in general.
Dr. Tamara Gray: Yeah. I think first of all, thank you for this particular phrasing of this question, because I think it’s something really important to unpack. And I think I’d like to define students and scholars and teachers for a moment, because we have teachers and students in a classroom, and then we have this sort of traditional history of a Shaykhor a mureed and a murshid, those who are hoping for some deeper guidance, and there’s more of a mentoring process there, I think, if we want to use words we are more familiar with. as I’m going to answer your question with both of those in mind, because since my background is in education, I really think about both of these relationships. And I think of them as being very very much intertwined. So I think a healthy relationship between a teacher and a student in a classroom setting – and here I’m speaking about adults for the most part – so a classroom setting could be a halaqah, it could be a jalsah – a place where a teacher is teaching a subject and students are listening to that subject. I think that a healthy relationship is one of respect on both sides. And I think it’s unusual to hear that, but I don’t think it’s unusual to hear it coming from the students of the teacher. I think we hear that a lot and there might be a lot of different ways of defining that, but I also think it’s critical that the teacher has respect for the students. And I think as long as there is that mutual respect, a healthy relationship will by default, of course, with the effort that respect insists on a certain amount of effort on both sides, but I really believe a healthy relationship would result. And since I separated the two types of relationships, the murshid and the mureed as well, or this idea of a deeper… so a relationship that isn’t necessarily in a classroom, but rather a relationship of teaching and learning and guiding, I think the same rule applies, even if it looks different. So again, there has to be respect, certainly from the student to the teacher and also from the teacher to the student. And here, I’m going to add one more thing. Actually we could add them to both, but I think it’s really important to mention it here in this relationship especially, and that would be seeing obedience.
There’s a lot of discussion in the world of relationship between teacher-student, Shaykh and student, murshid and mureed, around the idea of obedience. And I think it’s very dangerous to talk about that when… if we add the adjective blind obedience. I think that’s dangerous, but it’s seeing obedience, which is intertwined with respect an important part of that growth. And maybe “obedience” isn’t even the right word here because we don’t really know how to use the word. The way we think about obedience is sometimes more when we’re thinking about dog training school or something like this, and so maybe it’s not really a great word, but sometimes I think about the word ta’a in English as loyalty. So a loyalty to thinking, to being loyal to the thinking and the agreements and the path and loyal to the appointments and loyal to… I said agreements already, but those agreements of how we’re walking together. So to me, those things are what constitute a healthy relationship. And I know it’s simplistic what I just said. But to me, they constitute, I guess maybe the pillars of a healthy relationship between a teacher and a student.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Now you mentioned agreements. What are those agreements? What do those agreements look like and how are they manifest?
Dr. Tamara Gray: Oh, so some of the agreements would be unspoken for example, in this situation where you have, murshid and mureed, or even teacher and student, there’s a curriculum we’re following. I’m agreeing without speaking about it, that I’m going to do homework, that I’m going to do the work on this path. So for example, the unspoken agreement that I’m going to abstain from grave sin to the best of my ability, I’m going to do the best that I can to fulfill my religious obligations, these kinds of unspoken agreements. And then the more spoken agreements are the teachings. So in a classroom setting, there is a teacher teaching about fiqh let’s say for example. And so talking about doing the reading and doing the assignments. If I’ve joined the class, I’ve made some kind of an agreement to do my best, to do those things. And in the more mentoring relationship, there is the unspoken agreement that I’m going to listen and digest and respond and do my best to- I’m being careful with my words, because- let me say what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that I’m going to agree to do whatever it is that you say, but rather there is an agreement that in good faith, we’re walking together on a path and I’m seeking the guidance of someone who’s further along the path than me. And on the teacher side, I recognize I am further along the path then the student. And so I have a responsibility, my agreement is to do my best to do my due diligence and doing the best I can to offer my time, my treasure too. I think that comes from the teacher to the student, my treasure and my talent to help that student walk along the pathway.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Right. This idea of seeing obedience, ta’a mubsirah. This is something that our listeners would be familiar with because, Dr. Rania Awaad mentioned it in one of our interviews with her, and I think it’s a really interesting concept, because I think it helps us understand that obedience – if this is the word we want to use – is not as not unlimited, it’s not without boundaries. But I’m wondering what happens then when you see, in that seeing obedience, if you see something that is disturbing to you or that doesn’t feel right. So what’s that next step then?
Dr. Tamara Gray: That’s actually really hard because you have to first ask yourself, why am I uncomfortable? Am I uncomfortable because my nafs is in the way, you know, am I seeing someone doing something? Let’s say I’m seeing something that it doesn’t have anything to do with me. So am I seeing something that it would be hard for me, in which case is my level of comfort is challenged in a way that I need to work on myself and become comfortable because sometimes that’s the case. If I don’t want to wake up at night and… I have a personal example, if I can share it. I was with some friends of mine and one of our teachers asked us to review our Qur’an in a month. And all of my friends together, we’re all like impossible. We can’t do that. We’re all too busy. It’s impossible. We can’t review the whole thing. And one of our friends didn’t say anything, but she did it. And so after a month we all got back together again, and she had reviewed her entire hifz in a month. I personally saw that and said, wow, a month ago- and I know her, so I knew how busy she was too. I knew she was as busy or more than I was. And so I recognize that my internal rejection of this request was more about my own lack of willingness to figure out how I can find the time. And of course, I did the worst job of everyone because I didn’t even try. I was like, no, it can’t be done, not going to do it. But I could’ve said, okay you know, I’m really busy, but maybe I’ll try to do a third or something like that. So in that example, this idea of a teacher asks you to do something or asks a group to do something, now, am I rejecting this because it’s too much for me? Am I rejecting this? Can I do some of it? What, how does that look like? But that’s a whole different thing if someone’s asking for something that you’re uncomfortable with because you should be uncomfortable with it. And that’s the place where as a student, that power relationship becomes really difficult. And that’s where I think it’s really important to have peers and friends so you can have that conversation with somebody else and say, how did you feel about this? And can you talk to me about how you feel, to reflect on, is my heart in a place that’s right here? And I shouldn’t…. I should really see this as an uncomfortable thing, ‘cause it actually is? Or should I look more deeply into myself and find a way to recognize that this is just my own nafs those rejecting this?
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Right. Ustadha Zaynab, what’s your perspective on this? You are someone who has both studied and taught in many different settings, different countries, different institutions. And so I’m sure that you’ve seen a lot of variety. And also you’ve been teaching in situations where it is more of that classroom setting versus the mentoring kind of setting where someone’s seeking a deep kind of spiritual guidance and formation. So what’s your perspective on this issue?
Ustadha Zaynab Ansari: Sure. Bismillah Arrahman Arraheem, just so happy to be here. Alhamdulilah just really kind of, reflecting on what Shaykha Tamara said about agreement. And one of the things that really comes to mind, this question about how does this relationship look when it’s healthy? I thought about the bay’ah which is really kind of interesting example. In the sense that, of course the bay’ah is this agreement between the Prophet peace be upon him and the Companions. And I’m not saying, of course the teacher would wield similar authority. What’s really interesting to me when we think about the bay’ah, that there were two pledges that happened when the Prophet peace be upon him, was about to go to Medina, and kind of like, preparing that ground, is that even though we tend to think of the bay’ah in terms of the Prophet peace be upon him, is going to come in and kind of wield all this authority, both temporal and spiritual, that the Sahaba really have a voice in that, which is so interesting to me. One of the elements of the bay’ah, and taking it back to this question of how do we know, what does this healthy relationship look like, is that you don’t ever get the sense that this is like slanted or one-sided or unidirectional. It’s very much that both parties have a stake in this, that there’s just this aspect of cooperation. It’s mutual, it’s reciprocal. And what’s really interesting is that I know at least in one of the books, the way that that I actually teach seerah from the way that it’s characterized is that the Companions are saying that they will follow the Prophet peace be upon him, in that which is ma’ruf: that which is good, that which is widely known and embraced to be good. And sometimes we’ll have a conversation in the classroom with the students in terms of, well, wouldn’t they just be obedient in all circumstances? And certainly there is part of the bay’ah that says that they’re going to hear and obey, you know, even when they don’t understand, or even when it’s difficult. But I think this idea that there is this line and the pledge that they’re going to obey in what is ma’ruf, and that really, to me, that sort of suggests that the Companions really have a stake in this, i.e. they are respected when they come into this. They have a voice when they come into this, they understand exactly what they’re getting into when they are going to come to the aid of the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him. So for me, that’s really profound, because that tells us something about the way the teacher-student relationships should function there. That it’s not this sort of 100% authoritarian model, where the student has no voice or they have no say. And what Shaykha Tamara says about respect is so important. That element of respect has to be there from student to teacher, certainly, but also from teacher to student.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: This concept of ma’ruf is so important. Just for our listeners who don’t know what this means, ma’ruf is a word that is based on the root ‘urf, which means custom or what is known to be good, or good practice. Of course, in the Quran, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala so often tells us to “enjoin what is ma’ruf” and to “deter” or, try to “stop what is munkar.” And you know, what I always think is so important about that, is ma’ruf is not a specific regulation. It is what is known, it is this communal, well-known sense of basic decency, you could say, even. A basic sense of right and wrong. I don’t know if you agree with me Ustadha Zaynab, but it seems to me that it affirms this understanding that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala has given us some resources, some internal resources, both individually and collectively to have a basic sense of right and wrong.
Ustadha Zaynab Ansari: Absolutely. This is where, as I was thinking about this question, how do we know when the relationship is healthy? So there’s this wonderful model of Prophet peace be upon him and the Companions. But then I was also thinking there are other models that we might embrace, and this other model is- like parent-child, and I was thinking that as teachers, we actually have an obligation to say, am I veering too much into kind of like this parent-child relationship? Because I think when we make that mistake, and that’s where sometimes relationships can actually become unhealthy. Cause if we kind of see ourselves as that parental authority figure, then we’re not going to maybe tolerate much dissent, or we’re going to think that we always know best. Or what I’ve noticed Dr. Mattson, what I’ve noticed that happens is that the student, they kind of lose a sense of self to where they’re actually kind of like abdicating a certain level of responsibility. And even when they feel like, “okay, something about this is not quite right, but I’m still going to defer to that person because that’s my spiritual mother, that’s my spiritual father,” I think that’s when there might be an issue. When we read about ma’ruf in the seerah like you said, this is where the Companions themselves… that i.e. that compass, that moral compass is there and is present. And of course, absolutely they have this love and affection for Prophet ‘alayhi assalatu wa salam, understand him as a source of guidance, but it’s a relationship that’s really healthy to where their own sense of self is not being shut down. And that is so important.
Mihad Fahmy: Shaykha Tamara, there’s a couple of things I wanted to pick up on in your answer to Dr. Mattson about the teacher-student relationship. You mentioned walking together on a path, but you also made reference to the power dynamic between teacher and student. So how are those two things reconciled? How do they coexist at the same time, knowing that there is inherently a power imbalance between the teacher and student?
Dr. Tamara Gray: Yeah. So I think really we can refer to what Ustadha Zaynab was talking about there. Masha’Allahjust such a beautiful description of the relationship between the Prophet sallallahu ‘alayhi wa salam and his Companions and how certainly the Prophet sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam was Rasul Allah and not only Rasul Allah, but also in Madina, the political leader, as well as the Imam in a religious leader sense as separate from prophethood. I know those are difficult to unpack and separate but in all of these different capacities, he was a leader in Madina and still the Companions had a great sense of initiative of realizing that their contributions were valued and valuable and that their contributions would walk the walk if you will, with the Prophet sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. One of the examples I’m thinking of is when Tamim radiya Allahu ‘anhu – Tamim al-Dari maybe? Yes, Tamim al-Dari when he lit up the masjid. I remember the first time I learned that story and I realized that he had made up his own mind that the masjid needed lights, needed light. And he didn’t go to the Prophet ‘alayhi wa sallam and wait in a line or wait quietly or wait to see what- he didn’t, you could even say, bother the Prophet ‘alayhi wa sallam with this detail, or maybe with this big picture idea, but rather he realized in this walk that we are on together, “I’m going to do this really cool thing that hasn’t been seen here before.” And so he did this thing where he lit up the masjid. Tamim bin Aws al-Dari, thank you. And the Prophet sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam was so pleased with his action. And the first time I read that, I thought, yeah, like that is how it should look. It should look like that, where a student doesn’t feel like every little baby step, every little thing I do, I have to go back and ask, I have to go and say, you know, should I, I don’t know, brush my teeth in the afternoon. Maybe that’s too silly and that’s a sunnah to brush your teeth. So maybe that’s not a good example. But I, should I buy a red car or have a blue car or a black car? Should I buy a Honda or a Mazda? Unless your teacher is a real car person, that doesn’t make any sense to ask someone that, you know, should I put olives on the pizza or pineapple? Unless you’re giving a piece of pizza to the teacher, it doesn’t matter. And so this idea of initiative, and I’m walking with you, and I’m contributing to this process in this project of growing myself and growing community.
Now the power dynamic is that when the Prophet ‘alayhi wa sallam was pleased, Tamim was certainly pleased that the Prophet ‘alayhi wa sallam was pleased and had he done something that displeased the Prophet sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, he certainly would have rectified the situation and found a way to make it better. And I think when we read the seerah we really see this where, even one time when the Prophet ‘alayhi wa sallam was so upset with Usama ibn Zaid, so upset with him. He had been in a battle and he had come back and told him a story about someone who was just… he was in the middle of a battle, so I think it’s difficult for any of us to really understand what that is like to be in the center of drawn swords and the danger of that. And in that real danger and whatever that is, that happens in a battle like that, this person – man – had said to him la ilaha illa Allah, and done it a couple of times that Usama really believed that he was just saying that to get them to stop fighting. So then he stopped fighting and come back, stop fighting, you know? And so Usama was telling, radiya-Allahu ‘anhu, was telling the story to the Prophet sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam you know, this happened, but I figured him out, you know, I got him anyway. And the Prophet ‘alayhi wa sallam turned pale and was visibly, not in any kind of ugly way towards Usama, his love for Usama didn’t disappear. That relationship didn’t disappear, but he definitely clearly disapproved of that action, but he said, what will you do? How will you face la illaha illa Allah? How will you face la illaha illa Allah? To the degree that Usama – the way to rectify it was only to really go into a deep tawba and recognize the mistake he had made.
Well, there’s the power dynamic there is clear because the Prophet ‘alayhi wa sallam knows more, he’s Rasul Allah. In our examples, as Ustadha Zaynab said, and it’s very important that we understand that no matter how great a shaykh is, no matter how amazing a guide is, no matter how scholarly, how religious, how just mind boggling, mind blowing amazing, they don’t come close to the level of Rasul Allah sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. Prophethood is different. But in that, even in that kind of relationship, there is a power dynamic and there’s a human being, there’s just has to be two fully human beings that are interacting with one another with clarity. So the teacher has a responsibility to be clear, as the Prophet ‘alayhi wa sallam was. Not to say, “Oh, that’s okay,” knowing that no, actually it’s not okay. And also to say, “Great job, amazing!” when someone does something amazing. But at the same time to recognize the humanity and sincerity and hard work of the person who has either done well, or has made a mistake unintentionally.
Mihad Fahmy: Subhan’Allah, thank you so much for that, because I think what you’ve done is you’ve put a different lens on our understanding of a power dynamic. Because I think we often are talking about power imbalances in relationships as necessarily harmful or necessarily problematic as opposed to a fact of the dynamic. And it’s what we do with that dynamic that could either lead to harm or not. So I want to actually just break it down a little bit more. What we’re going to do is we’re going to look at the students and the teachers. Let’s start with the students. In the last, my observation anyway is in the last ten to twenty years, young people are really thirsting to learn their deen in a more comprehensive way in a more methodical way, very different than how my generation learned Islam. You know, we learned it through a patchwork of a weekend Islamic schools, camps, conferences, local mentors and family members. And that’s what sustained us. And, you know, we made it through to, alhamdulilah, to where we are. But young people are looking for more, and are looking for some overseas opportunities and now, alhumdulilah, more domestic opportunities. If I could ask you, what advice would you give a young person, male or female in terms of what questions should she, or he asked before engaging in this kind of study?
Ustadha Zaynab Ansari: I think primarily when a person is setting out to seek sacred knowledge, I think it’s very helpful to be able to understand what can be attainable within the parameters, so for example, I teach at a seminary, so to understand what can be attainable in the parameters of that program. And when I say the parameters of that program, in other words, when you go into this program and the setting, looking at the teacher, looking at their background and qualifications, looking at the time, duration of the program, thinking about the amount of time you’re going to spend in the classroom versus engaging in dhikr or independent study or your own kind of time for reflection.
So I think what I would really say to anybody that wants to kind of set out on that path, you have to understand that in the beginning, there’s a lot of preliminary work that you’re going to be doing. Much of that work actually lies in figuring out who you are, what you want, and ultimately what those goals are. The goals might actually change. And then understanding that any program, no matter how wonderful the teachers, or their credentials, or the environment, or the other students, there’s a built in set of limitations there because of course, ultimately all of us are human beings that are setting out along this path. So that’s what I would say. And I would also say that it’s very important for that student going into the program – we always say to our students as much as possible – try to empty your cup, because I think that when you kind of go into that program and you already have a cup that’s brimming over with expectations, that if you find that those people are human beings, that you might end up feeling that those expectations were not met. And of course, I’m not saying don’t go in without standards. You have to have standards, right? The adab, the etiquettes of seeking knowledge, of teaching, of being in that classroom, of gender, all those things have to be observed. The institution itself should be run – based – upon transparency and accountability and all of those best practices. However, it’s really important that you know, that you’re as self-aware as possible when you go into that setting, because I think that self-awareness really helps. And again, to also be able to kind of like again, to temper those expectations with understanding what is realistic, what is possible, what is doable within those parameters? Have high himma, have high spiritual aspiration, but also be grounded. If you see, for example, that you’re going into a setting where that teacher is especially busy, right? Then you need to understand that maybe kind of having the model of Rumi and Shams al-Tabrisi in your mind might not quite align. So making sure that there’s a healthy dose of reality, there, I think is very important.
Mihad Fahmy: Shaykha Tamara, do you have anything to add in terms of red flags that students should be watching out for, or specific questions that they should be asking?
Dr. Tamara Gray: Oh, that was awesome Ustadha Zaynab, that was just awesome. And it’s so important. That idea of your expectations, recognize your expectations, because even sometimes this idea that the teacher, or teachers, are human. Of course they’re human, but sometimes their humanity is just a little different than yours, not bad. It doesn’t have to be that you’ve been disappointed because they’re different than you. It can just be that they are different. They have different ways of expressing themselves or different ways of doing things. But to answer your question more specifically, my sister-in-law Anse Sawsan developed a program called the Falah Program and inside of it, there’s a program called, Travel with a Guide, and inside of that, there is a list of questions to ask yourself if you are saying, “oh, you know what? I’m a student and I’d like to choose this person that I’ve been learning from or working with as a guide. So if I may, I’ll say a few of those questions.” Ask yourself, does I’m going to use the pronoun “she” just because I’m a woman, but certainly if it’s a man, you would be using “he,” so does she practice what she preaches? Is she interested in your personal achievement and not like hers. Okay. So she wants to uplift you. She should help you feel strong and independent. Does she bring the vibrancy of Islam to the here and now? Does she balance you by praising your efforts when you’re low, but pointing out your faults when you’re kind of vain and thinking that you’re all that, kind of thing. Does she allow you to question and ask for explanation? Do all aspects of her life that end with Islam? I mean the ones that are outward, we can’t see what’s inward. Does she have regular tahajjud? When she speaks, does you speak to your heart? Does she have a teacher guiding him or her? So those are some of the questions that the answer should be yes. And I also want to share the questions where the answer should be, no. The answer should be no to the question, does she or he latch onto you and act possessive of you? That answer should be no. Does she resort to wasting time? Does she waste time or waste your time? Is she or he comfortable using students’ time, effort and money for personal gain? These answers should be no. And obviously the answer should be no to does she exhibit un-Islamic behavior or anything like this as well. But those questions I think, are really helpful to be thinking about as you’re deciding about a person that you would like to be to work with on the level of mentorship.
Mihad Fahmy: Those are really helpful questions. And what we can do is link to that resource on our website as well for our listeners. Those are very helpful. Thank you. What if we flip and we look at advice that you would give, Shaykha Tamara, to teachers, how can teachers, perhaps their questions that they have to ask themselves or reflections, what advice would you give teachers in establishing and then maintaining healthy boundaries with their own students?
Dr. Tamara Gray: The very first thing I will say is, do not imagine that you can stand alone without someone who’s helping you. Otherwise, it can be really dangerous terrain. Oftentimes students will attach themselves to you, and if you are a person who’s going to be… their ego is going to be fed by that, that is a really dangerous position to be in. And so make sure if you’re going to take on the role of mentor, of Shaykh, of Shaykha, or Murshid, or Murshida, a guide, a guiding light, if you will, to someone make sure that you are on a path and following a guiding light. Because I have personal experience where people get attached to me, but I have perhaps a fault in my personality or maybe it’s a blessing, that I just, that’s not something that feeds my ego, and I’m blessed in that way because I couldn’t do this work if it was something that fed my ego, I would be in big trouble and I would have to be constantly checking that, that’s reasonable. That’s something I’m always, I’m constantly checking, I just have a tendency, for example, to overwork people. I’m always giving people- so I’m always checking, for example, I’m really looking carefully at what is this person’s whole life, so that I’m not just saying, oh – especially in the volunteer world, because you don’t want to burn people out and you want to respect, so there’s that word again, so respect your students as a teacher. Have someone who you’re listening to, you’re following, you have someone who can tell you, “Hey, not like that. Be careful. How’s it going?” Check in with you about your worship. Friends: even if it’s not, the very least have friends who you were vulnerable and honest with, not people that you’re like the teacher with. You can’t be the teacher with everyone all the time. It’s healthy to have a spouse… who can tell you, listen to that spouse, who’s telling you the reality of where you are, and children as well, adult children, not younger children so much, but adult children – I mean younger children are wonderful to have, but in this role of what I’m talking about here. And also, but friends, like I have found with my friends that it’s been really helpful to me to have friends that will shoot from the hip, so to speak and say clearly, and even if I disagree with them sometimes, which I sometimes do, having heard their perspective allows me a moment to say, hmm do I need to rethink this? Do I have to think about this in another way? So don’t try to be a lone soldier or a lone cowboy, you know, in this world of spiritual assistance and help and guidance to others. It’s dangerous for you because in the end, right now you’re in this position, oh, you who are a teacher of being the teacher and the guide and their role model, but you could easily, ya’l-Latif, and that role could be what takes you to Hell Fire, what takes you to a place of darkness and pain. Not only for others, but also for yourself. So this role is a scary role. It’s not something to be taken lightly and it’s not something to be sought out of. You know, it’s something to do out of duty.
Mihad Fahmy: Yeah. Subhanallah, before we move on. Do you have any additional thoughts on advice to teachers?
Ustadha Zaynab Ansari: No. Absolutely. I think that…there’s so much that Shaykha Tamara said that’s just so profound mash’Allah, but I think this: that you’re not getting into to feel better about yourself is so important. That if you find that you’re in a situation where maybe the student just has that disposition or personality where there’s a lot of, I don’t know, obsequiousness or fawning, and I think most of us like to be kind of flattered and praise, just to be really careful about that. And also something else that Shaykha Tamara said about emotional… you know, I guess to have a certain amount of emotional intelligence to where you know, that you’re not getting emotional needs fulfilled from being in that mentoring relationship. That’s super important, ‘cause I think if we’re not careful there, especially if it’s like opposite gender, lines could really be crossed. And even where it’s a female teacher mentoring female students, I think just to be really careful because, in terms of, again, like I said, that emotional piece, because sometimes a student might come to you as the teacher and maybe you’ve kind of become a stand-in for a relationship that they don’t have with their family. I think we have to be careful there because obviously we can be empathetic, we can be compassionate, we can try to provide advice, we can try to be to fill in maybe some of those gaps, we can’t fill in all of those gaps. And I think that’s where we definitely want to be careful and step back and say, maybe there’s someone else that can actually be fulfilling this role. Maybe it’s time to actually go and speak to that therapist or counselor. I think that’s what I would suggest to teachers that you can’t be all things for all students. So very important for us to recognize that.
Dr. Tamara Gray: Can I add to that a couple of practical ways to check yourself. You know, the Prophet sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, we know that he accepted gifts, but he did not accept charity. This is one of the things we learned from Salman al-Farsi. If I may suggest that in this day and age, that you don’t accept gifts or that you make it a limit. So like gifts that are under $20, cards, a home-baked something, although be careful about food, but something that’s that isn’t trying financially to the student. But be very careful of your gift-accepting policy, because that’s a place where you can discover that you’re enjoying this attention or benefiting from it in a way that you shouldn’t. So that’s a really good rule to think about, just no gifts. And it’s difficult because people love to give gifts. So you can maybe accept gifts from new students, especially, like I said, smaller things, but once someone gets closer and that relationship is really starting, you can just say, okay, no gifts, no, absolutely no gifts. And the other point that I want to emphasize, which also links up with what Ustadha Zaynab saying, is push your students toward their families, no matter what. No matter who that family is, no matter what that means, it might mean in order to, for that student to manage their parental relationship, they have to go to therapy or something to figure that out.
Ustadha Zaynab Ansari: And if I may say something about gifts. I actually liked that idea. It’s difficult in the sense that, of course you want to encourage generosity from student, from teacher because that’s per the Prophet ‘alayhi assalatu wassalam. But I do agree that sometimes if you’re not careful, and, you know, in terms of what is the purpose of this gift. And in other words, it’s one thing if it’s just kind of like a spontaneous thing, say the students get together, maybe they realize the teacher is kind of having a difficult time, what have you, whatever it is. And they want to do something to cheer that person up versus now as this thing where the student will come and say we gave all these gifts and we expected better grades, or maybe there would be some flexibility on such and such policy. That can definitely be that gray area, which we really have to pay a lot of attention to.
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Mihad Fahmy: One of the beautiful things about seeking sacred knowledge is that it is a lifelong journey. There will always be more about Islam to learn, reflect upon and implement. This is why the student-teacher relationship is so important in our ongoing quest to live a life that is pleasing to God, but it is also why problems in these relationships can cause significant harm to a person’s sense of self and relationship with Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. In this episode, we learned that a primary pillar of healthy student-teacher relationships is mutual respect that is intentionally practiced by both parties. Intertwined with this respect is a shared understanding between teacher and student that together, they are walking on a path that one of them is further along on. This does not mean however that the student is to uncritically obey the teacher or disable their internal moral compass. Rather, students are encouraged to tap into what they know to be right and wrong, and also to share any concerns they may be having with peers, friends, and family. Similarly, teachers of Islamic knowledge are advised not to isolate themselves and to find and keep close a support network of friends and peers with whom they can be honest and vulnerable.
Developing strong emotional intelligence is also key. For example, teachers need to recognize that they may be using their mentoring relationships to fulfill their own emotional needs. And finally, teachers cannot be all things to their students. And in many cases, will need to refer the student to a counselor, therapist, or other professional.
We continue our conversation with Shaykha Tamara and Ustadha Zaynab in the next episode of the Hurma Project Podcast. We will discuss whether it is ever appropriate for a teacher to step into a parental role, the difference between being told hard truths, and being broken down as a student, and whether the relationship between a male Islamic scholar and a female student is inherently risk-laden.
We want to thank you for listening to this episode and learning along with us. If you would like to help us reach a broader audience, there are a few very simple things we’d ask you to do. Subscribe to the podcast on your favorite podcast platform. Leave us a rating or review. Or tell someone in your life about the Hurma Project. We’d like to thank our funders Pillars Fund and the Waraich Family Foundation, as well as the El-Hibri 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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