01 Mar Season 2. Episode 2: Tamara Gray & Zaynab Ansari: Teacher-Student Relationships, Part Two
A continuation of our conversation with Shaykha Dr. Tamara Gray, Founder and Director of Rabata, and Ustadha Zaynab Ansari, Scholar-in-Residence at Tayseer Seminary.
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.
The following transcript has been edited for fluency.
S2.EP2: Teachers-Student Relationships, Part 2
[SHOW MELODY FADES IN]
[00:00:00] 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 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 uphold this sacred dignity and to prevent and respond to misuses of power, knowledge and authority in our Muslim spaces.
Today, we continue the conversation we began in Episode One of this season with respected scholars, Shaykha Dr. Tamara Gray and Ustadha Zaynab Ansari. Shaykha Tamara holds a doctorate in leadership from the University of St. Thomas, a Masters from Temple University and is the founder, Executive Director and Chief Spirituality Officer of Rabata, a remarkable global organization for Muslim women. Shaykha Tamara founded Rabata upon returning to the United States after two decades in Damascus, Syria, where she studied and taught traditional and classical Islamic sciences, Qur’an and Arabic. Ustadha Zaynab Ansari spent her formative years as a student in Damascus, studying the Qur’an, Islamic law, theology and spirituality with many respected scholars. She is part-time faculty of Rabata’s Ribaat online program, while her full-time position is as 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.
In this, Part Two of our conversation, we discuss whether it is ever appropriate for a spiritual mentor to adopt a parental role with a student or to advise them to reject a parent’s demands, Shaykha Tamara and Ustadha Zaynab also explain why spiritual mentorship with a female scholar has unique benefits for Muslim women. And they offer examples of missed opportunities and unintentional harms that can result when scholars, whether they are men or women, lack an understanding of the cultural context and lived realities of their students.
[SHOW MELODY FADES IN]
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Ustadha Zaynab and Shaykha Tamara, you both mentioned the situation where a teacher might take on the role, the parental role. And Shaykha Tamara you mentioned even teachers who are pushing students away from their family, whereas they should be pushing their students towards their family. I know of a number of cases also where there were very messy situations that began with the teacher either asking or accepting that the teacher would call them, father, baba – use some kind of term of respect that was parental and many cases where a scholar told their student that their parents didn’t have their best interests at heart when it came to marriage and that it was okay for them to bypass their parents and allow the teacher to adopt this role as guardian in marriage. That they understood what their best interest was in the spiritual path, whereas their family was not very religious or couldn’t really understand what was best for this person. I’d like to just dig into that a little bit more and explore that relationship – the kind of spiritual closeness and having trust in your teacher that your teacher does know what’s good for you in many ways, but that they are not your parent, they’re not your family. Ustadha Zaynab can you speak to that perhaps first?
[00:05:18] Ustadha Zaynab Ansari: Absolutely. I was thinking Dr. Mattson about the ayah in (Surah) al-Ahzab [33:40]:
مَّا كَانَ مُحَمَّدٌ أَبَآ أَحَدٍ مِّن رِّجَالِكُمْ وَلَـٰكِن رَّسُولَ ٱللَّهِ وَخَاتَمَ ٱلنَّبِيِّـۧنَ ۗ وَكَانَ ٱللَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَىْءٍ عَلِيمًا
and where Allah subahanahu wa ta’ala reveals, so this is 33:40 and this is where Allah ta’ala is revealing, bismilllah arrahman arraheem that “Muhammad” ‘alayhe assalatu wa assalam “is not the father of any of your men, but he is a Messenger of God, and the Seal of the last of the Prophets.” If the people at that time, I’d be reminded that as I mean, as lofty as the stature, the Prophet is ‘alayhe assalatu wa assalam, that he is not the father of any of you.
So, I think that for teachers and scholars, they really should look at this ayah to understand that, because there were certainly entities in the sirah where we know that… Zayd at one time was known was the son of the Prophet ‘alayhe assalatu wassalam. So we need to understand this that in this surah Allah ta’ala is telling the community, there are very clear boundaries that exist here. So I don’t think that it’s appropriate, even if the student is actually asking the teacher to step into this role, I don’t think it’s ever appropriate for a teacher or scholar to claim the place of a parent in that student’s life. The only sort of exceptions I could think of, Dr. Mattson, if there’s a case where the parents of the student are actually deceased and they’re going to their teacher for advice they would ask of their parent. That’s understandable. But even then I think the teacher should make it very clear they’re not trying to arrogate onto themselves a role that would belong to an actual kind of biological family member. To me, that’s super important.
And again, I always think of this ayah in the Qur’an. And if I may say here, for our audience, please don’t think that I would ever try – I’m not ever trying to diminish the role of the Prophet ‘alayhe assalatu wassalam, that’s not what I’m saying at all here. The sahaba had a level of conviction of hearing and obeying and sacrifice that we could even, we could not even conceive of, because they had reached a certain place in their journey of iman where they were able to do this. But the reason why I mentioned certain things in the sirah, I want us to understand the Sahaba or still people that have agency, they have a voice, they’re being respected and the Prophet ‘alayhe assalatu wassalam really kind of uplifted each and every one of them in a really meaningful and profound way. And that’s what I’m getting at here.
So back this question of, can we step into this parental role? Again, we have to be very careful with this because I really think the responsibility of the teacher is to actually give advice and model behavior that strengthens the student’s relationship with their own parents. If by virtue of the student’s relationship with that teacher, those familial bonds are being weakened. I would say that perhaps that teacher is not really understanding their role, perhaps they’re taking on something they shouldn’t be taking on, and to me that really runs counter to the Sunnah of the Prophet ‘alayhe assalatu wassalam, which is all about strengthening those family ties. And I can give you examples. If we have a situation where a student is taking advice from a teacher and next thing you know, they’re going and getting married and their family has no idea. Or all of a sudden their parents’ words don’t carry any weight for them. I would say, be very careful about that situation.
[00:08:47] Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Yeah. Thank you so much, Shaykha Tamara?
[00:08:50] Dr. Tamara Gray: I’m going to go to the other side of the tennis court and, and just reflect on another ayah that tells us that – this is in Surah al-Ahzab [33:6]:
النَّبِيُّ أَوْلَىٰ بِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ مِنْ أَنفُسِهِمْ ۖ وَأَزْوَاجُهُ أُمَّهَاتُهُمْ
It’s so fascinating. I’m really, I don’t know, my heart is a little bit jumping with this thought. That the clarity of the ayah that Ustadha Zaynab reminded us of, that the Prophet ‘alayhe wa sallam is not a father of any one of us. And yet another verse that tells us that “the Prophet” sallallahu ‘alayhe wa sallam, “is more worthy of the believers” is the way Saheeh International translates it, “and his wives are the Mothers of the Believers.” And I think, here is a really beautiful balance of what we’re talking about here. Which is that there is a real role of tarbiyya. A real role of upbringing that has to happen if that mentorship role is going to be successful. And culturally, the word mother at least, often doesn’t have the same kind of, I don’t know what the word that I’m looking for is, but culturally, when we say mother, we very often, we mean someone loving, someone caring, someone looking out for our best interest, someone who is there to upbring us. So perhaps we can say that the shuyukh are meant to be mothers – whether man or woman – with great mercy and great leadership and great help, but not necessarily meant to be fathers in that sort of strict sense of, do exactly as I say, et cetera.
Now, even though I say that I also want to back up and say that I still don’t mean that anyone should replace the role of a parent. I mean this metaphorically. And I really feel strongly that culturally people can, and I’ve seen it, people can use these words like umm and abb as well – I haven’t seen that. As a woman my experience is female for the most part. But they can use the words and really have a clear understanding that this woman is a spiritual mother or this man might be a spiritual father. But that’s completely separate from the reality of my mother and my father. And so I do think that it’s possible to have that sort of rhetoric and those words in an organization or in a group or in a relationship as long as there’s real clarity that mother and father are important parts of our lives.
And you also address another issue, Dr. Mattson, which is the issue of what happens when my parents are not on the path I’m on and I’m an adult. And now how do I interact with that? And that’s a really, it is a difficult question. If somebody wants to have taqwa and fulfill the rights of parents upon you as a child. I think converts deal with this a lot, but not only converts, deal with this whole issue of my parents don’t want what I want. And you mentioned marriage. I want someone who’s, a person like A, and they want a person who’s like B and I don’t think there are any really clean, clear answers here. But I think the right, if I can say the word rights, the advice that should come from the shaykh or the shaykha here needs to be grounded in fiqh.
[00:12:55] Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Ustadha Zaynab, do you have anything to add to this conversation?
[00:13:00] Ustadha Zaynab Ansari: A few things here and I appreciate Shaykha Tamara reminding us of the ayah in Al-Ahzab to where, you know that the Prophet ‘alayhe assalatu wassalm is closer to – should be closer to the believers then their own selves. And I was thinking about these signs – what does it mean that we actually love the Prophet ‘alayhe assalatu wassalam, it means that we love him and his family, the ahl el-bayt, the Ummahat al-Mu’mineen, the Sahaba… that we have, in thinking about that, why does the ayah say very firmly that he’s not the father of any of you? Because there was this debate that happened over the marriage of Zaynab to the Prophet ‘alayhe assalatu wassalam. So in a very real sense, there was a certain social custom the Qur’an had to clarify so that marriage would take place. But I also think about the fact that it’s about getting the community to a place in their iman to where they have such a pure unfiltered love for the Prophet ‘alayhe assalatu wassalam to where he is more beloved to them then, well, their closest family. In many instances, people actuall,y would have to make a choice to, especially obviously if the family, if they were mushrikeen. So, to where they had to make a choice where they going to compromise over this issue of faith, or was the Prophet really more beloved to them? There’s that very famous example of sayyidna Umar of having to actually think about it for a while, radiya Allahu ta’ala ‘anhu, in terms of who was more beloved to him, then going back to the Prophet and saying you are more beloved to you than even my own self.
So when I think about putting these ayahs together I think about the idea that it is the recognition from the community, from the believers that the Prophet is in this, that being a Messenger of God being the Seal of Prophethood, that there’s this particular type of unfiltered love that they’re going to give to the Prophet ‘alayhe assalatu wassalam, which is really a measure of strong faith. That even when it comes to their own family, sometimes there are conversations they have to have, things they have to negotiate. I think about that sometimes in those closest of relationships, there’s sometimes even this element of love-hate there. But in the case of the Prophet ‘alayhe assalatu wassalam it’s always about that very unfiltered love. When it comes to a family member, sometimes it’s about what are we getting from that person? Have they lived up to their responsibilities vis-à-vis us?
So I think that when it comes to the student-teacher relationship, I think it’s important to understand what are those lines, where are those boundaries? If you look at the example of the love of the Sahaba had for the Prophet ‘alayhe assalatu wassalam but to also understand as Shaykha Tamara said, there definitely is this role of tarbiyya, of mentorship. But also understanding, can this person be a stand-in for one’s mother or father? To me it’s a little bit, it’s a little complicated, in the sense that if you’re expecting a certain type of spiritual sort of leadership from this person, from the teacher, and then you’re comparing that to what you get from your parents. Because I’ll have people that’ll come and say, okay, well, now that I’ve seen what my teacher can give me, now I’m looking at my relationship with my parents and I’m making all these comparisons and I don’t know that’s always helpful. And I always like to say, I don’t know if I’m making a lot of sense here, but I always like to say, look, even if you meet this teacher and they are telling you things about yourself and about Islam and about your relationship with Allah ta’ala, and you’ve never had this growing up, that’s okay. Your parents are human beings. They tried to do the best that they could by you and to appreciate that, to understand that. It should even make you appreciate them even more. And it’s actually okay. I think to actually say, look, this teacher is actually my spiritual mother, and I think you can say that, without that taking away anything from your actual biological mother, I think it’s looking at it as holistically as possible.
[00:16:46] Dr. Ingrid Mattson: One of the disturbing things I’ve seen in some communities of spiritual practice is when a mureed is infantilized or treated as though they need to be torn down and rebuilt. Sometimes the shaykh’s designee seems to be tasked with emotionally beating down a new mureed, making them so demoralized and vulnerable that they then experience the shaykh as a savior from that low state. It’s a cultish technique that is taken to the extreme in some communities. I wonder if you’ve seen anything like this and what you consider the shaykh’s or the shaykha’s role in helping them break bad habits to allow for spiritual transformation.
[00:17:35]Dr. Tamara Gray: I mean, I’m jumping in. Sorry Ustadha Zaynab, but I really am saddened, when I just, to think about that, because first of all, we don’t see that example at any time. Even Umar, radi Allahu anhu, who we know was so strong that even shape on walking on the other side of the road, we see his interactions with people reflecting respect. Reflecting the recognition that… and I’m thinking actually of a specific example where he was seeing someone coming towards him and he commented that the person coming either he used to be a kahin – like an oracle or- I forget what the, or was, or he’s something else. And when he approached it was true that he had been an oracle, but the person in hearing this got upset and it was like, what do you mean? I’m a Muslim now, kind of thing. And so even in that experience, or we were talking about Umar ibn Al-Khattab saying a truth out of firasa we can say, that he could recognize still the traces of a previous career, if you will, not quite having been erased from the presentation of self – we’re not sure how that is – that still, he didn’t say it in a way that was breaking, because had he done so, the response would not have been, Hey, I didn’t really like that, that you said that.
And so I really think that is a not very Islamic method, especially when we’re talking about breaking someone down. I’m going to also though speak to the flip side of that, because you asked the question has anyone experienced anything in that? And I’ll say that in my personal experience with one very dear teacher, I definitely heard truths from her. Now it was not breaking, because it was never spoken to me in a way that was trying to make me feel small. But they were shoot-from-the-hip straight-up truths, and they were hard to hear. But I was forever grateful that I heard them and I was ready to hear them. I also have to say, I was actually wishing to hear them in and hearing those truths was a long time ago, and it was the first time I felt like someone was taking me seriously. Up until then I felt like everyone was looking at me like the baby convert, you know?
“بتعرفي بتقرأ الفاتحة”
“do you know how to read the Fatiha,” monkey in a cage kind of thing. But I really felt… in fact, I remember really lots of smiles on my face when I was being told some pretty serious things that I need to fix.
And so I guess what I’m saying here is that, I wish – I hope that students looking for a mentor don’t equate being told the truth, with being broken down. Like, insults are not the same as truth. And truth is important and hard to hear. And I do think truth needs to be told when it’s time, but insults are not the way, they’re just not the way of our Prophet, Allahumma sally wasallam baraka ‘alayh. And breaking someone down is not the way of our tradition. I see our tradition is one that builds people up. I see our tradition from the life of Rasul Allah ‘alayhe wasallam with every single Companion. Whether Muhajir or Ansar or even those who were just on the periphery, to the lives of the Khulafa’ al-Rashideen to the mujadideen throughout history, I see people who have uplifted others. And I see when there wasn’t that, it was always something that was a little bit wrong. It wasn’t on that path of ahl al-sunna wal-jama’a.
[00:21:48] Ustadha Zaynab Ansari: Hmm. There is so much, I just want to reflect on what Shaykha Tamara said, because when I think about this, the language that’s used, the idea of breaking the nafs for example, I think that it’s important and perhaps this is where we need to also as people that are involved in the work of da’wah. And especially for those that are in circles of tasawwuf, that I think the language, especially for those who are just uninitiated, I think the language is very important because often people will use these terms, okay breaking the nafs, and breaking the desires. And we have to understand that that work that’s taking place, it’s taking place in a very different, cultural and social context from where, these books were being written and where scholars like Al-Ghazali and others use this kind of language. So what I would advise to students that are wanting to take a particular path or have some type of affiliation with a shaykh of spirituality. Again, this is where I think having the background, the context and self-awareness is very important because I personally feel that it’s, I don’t know that it’s fully possible, especially when we’re talking about tasawuf, about what some people call Sufism and the shaykh-mureed type relationship, I don’t know that it’s fully possible to operate in the present as if you know that language and discourse and terminology and methods as is if they don’t exist anymore. They certainly do. I think there is an inheritance there. But I think just also really being attuned to where the students are, is at the utmost importance. So I would say having some familiarity for the student, having some familiarity with, what are the methods of instruction affiliated with this particular group or order or tariqa, for example. What is the etiquette governing this relationship? What are the responsibilities of the shaykh or the murabbi, the person that’s in charge of the spiritual training? To what extent does consent actually play a role. And ultimately what is the end result of these methods of tarbiyya?
I really appreciate what Shaykha Tamara is saying because one of the things that I have here that I wanted to mention is that I think that in order to grow, and speaking as a student now, we have to be able to be in that space of some discomfort. Otherwise, I don’t know that growth is possible, if the status quo is maintained. To actually be able to hear difficult things about ourselves to actually be able to have that mirror placed in front of us, I think that can be a little painful. But I think that’s very different between a situation where there’s actual abuse, or maybe somebody taking advantage of their platform of authority, misusing influence, I think those are very different processes. And I think it really behooves the student to understand, okay, this is maybe actually part of the culture of this group or tariqa versus now this has maybe veered into more of cult-like territory, and that’s when you need to be very very careful about what you’re stepping into.
I mean looking back in my own personal experience… first of all, let me just say this… I was fortunate enough that, when I met my teachers who told me difficult truths that even at that time, I might not have…I don’t think I was that amenable to hearing those things, but looking back, I can really see to where I’m really happy they said those things. And honestly, I’m really happy that they said those things and the way that they said them. And looking back, I can really see that, alhumdulillah, it was a healthy relationship overall. Because I never, ever experienced to where they were trying to arrogate onto themselves roles that they shouldn’t have taken on, or that they were like, overly, emotionally invested in some kind of strange unhealthy way. Alhumdullilah, I didn’t experience that. So I think that’s what I would say, Dr. Mattson, to this question of, what happens in these relationships of like shaykh and mureed. And I think that, again, there has to be that willingness to be able to hear things are not easy to hear. But that does not absolve the teacher of the responsibility to be compassionate, to be respectful. And of course, language that is, I would say, perhaps emotionally or psychologically trauma-inducing, or abusive, that has to be avoided. And if the teacher does not understand that, what are those lines, then perhaps they themselves should go to their own teacher, or as Shaykha Tamara said, have somebody in their lives that could actually be that voice of clarity for them.
So again it can be complicated because again, these…. often, sometimes someone will say, well, this is the way that I was taught, and this is our etiquette, this is our adab, and this is how what’s expected, and these are the modes of tarbiyya. And if they don’t agree to it then… so I think understanding again, back to the idea of agreement that you were actually going into this as a fully, I would hope, a fully consenting adult who’s agreeing to be in this relationship of tarbiyya. You’re not being like, forced into this. That would be, I think the first thing that I would really emphasize here, there shouldn’t be any coercion.
[00:27:47] Dr. Tamara Gray: May I just talk a little bit about some points you made Ustadha Zaynab on language, which I think are really important. Sometimes what also happens, and I do think this is the responsibility of the teacher, I think a student can give grace for translation issues and can give grace for understanding that something might not come out exactly right, because maybe English is a second language. But at the same time, I think it’s the teacher’s responsibility to understand the cultural context in which he or she is working. That’s a responsibility, and it’s not enough just to say, this is the way we do it. If your students come from a certain culture, no matter that culture, there should be some learning happening with the teacher, who’s learning about that cultural context. And there needs to be humility there. And a willingness to really listen and especially in the area of language, when that’s the second language. Ask questions: what are appropriate words to use? Many, many Arabic phrases cannot be directly translated, literally translated to English and still carry the same meaning. And you talked about old books, like talking about breaking the nafs– even I when I first came back to the United States, I have that language in my head in Arabic. But when I started to speak it out loud in English, I found it harsh, like, break the nafs, what are we talking about? And I switched to honing and toning because to me, that’s exercise. We understand this in the culture. All of us want to hone and tone our physical selves. You don’t want flabby selves. I think that’s a common – even, and that’s not about weight, that’s about wanting to be honed and toned and strong. And so in the same way. And they also thought about [Surah al-Fajr, 89:27-28]:
يَا أَيَّتُهَا النَّفْسُ الْمُطْمَئِنَّةُ ارْجِعِي إِلَى رَبِّكِ رَاضِيَةً مَرْضِيَّةً
So in that case, we’re actually looking for a healthy nafs. We’re not looking to get rid of it. So grounding myself in texts, but also looking at the wording that is going to be understood for the goal and culture. And that’s just one example. But I mean I’m American, English is my first language, maybe that was easier for me to do. But it is a responsibility before anyone in this role, I think to be able to think about that, ask questions and then listen if someone says, hey, no. Don’t respond with, oh, that’s just the word we use. No. Pay attention. Listen, think about that, because words can hurt, and words can uplift, and words can teach something you didn’t intend to teach. That’s the other thing, when it’s a second language issue there. So really important points Ustadha Zaynab, and I really call on anyone in that position to really be thoughtful around the words that you’re using.
[00:30:46] Mihad Fahmy: So when I’m listening to both of you talk about these truths that are communicated to students and you’ve experienced it yourself, and you said that they were hard truths, but when you look back, you’re grateful to have heard them. Can you clarify, at what point in that relationship it’s appropriate to have those hard conversations?
[00:31:13] Ustadha Zaynab Ansari: Insha Allah if I may, Shaykha Tamara. I think that there, there needs to be a relationship of trust there in order for these truths be communicated. So let me clarify what I said. It’s not that I was walking in off the street and my teachers, may Allah preserve them, just started to make all these observations. I mean, this is after some pretty extensive interaction. And there was a relationship of trust there. I mean, there’s familiarity. I mean, they know something about me as a person, as a human being. That is of the utmost importance. That’s actually why I started out by saying, I want students to be clear-eyed. So for example, you know, going into a one-year program, you’ve never met anybody there before you, you don’t know the teachers, that you have to understand that the teachers only have a finite, a small, a short amount of time to actually work with you. So that’s where again, that language becomes very important because I think that sometimes it might be easier to accept something from a teacher if you’ve known or been their student for many years, versus you’re just sitting in a program for six to eight months and that’s it. So I think the duration of the relationship is of the utmost importance. And I really think that the teacher also needs to make sure that you’re not just saying things just to, I don’t want to just be venting. I need to get this off my chest, but you really feel that that student is receptive and that this is the appropriate time to communicate things.
I’ll give you an example. I mean, if I may. Sometimes you, as a teacher might have to say things, even when you don’t want to. So for example, if you’re in a mixed gender environment and to see things happening that you know if you don’t address, then next thing you know, the community is talking about it. And in that case you can’t just shrug your shoulders and say, well, I need to wait several years before I could have, no, you have to address that now. But there are other things which I really feel that I, in my own personal experience, I wish that I had waited I’d learned more about the student and then I would have given that particular piece of advice or made that comment or that observation.
[00:31:13] Mihad Fahmy: And when you’re having those conversations with your students as a teacher, does it… have you experienced situations where you feel as if you’ve reached the limit of what you can offer the student as a teacher and you need to refer them to perhaps a therapist or another specialist? I mean, is the teacher-student relationship, how much can it really encompass in terms of support and development of your students? We’ll start with Shaykha Tamara.
[00:34:09] Dr. Tamara Gray: So yes, there have been a number of times when I have referred students, sometimes to medical doctors, especially if students have coming to me saying I’m really tired, I’m not able to get up at night and in general they were before. My first thing is always, go get a blood test. Go see your doctor, find out what’s going on. And I’ve have also as well referred students to therapists and mental health care practitioners. All of that I think is really important to be able to do.
The world of this work, murshid and mureed, let’s say, or teacher and student, is somewhere within the world of the teaching of knowledge, like the passing along of knowledge and understanding of our texts, our heritage, our tradition, as well as helping students grow in virtue. Pardon me for using maybe an old fashioned word, but helping students grow in virtue and goodness and working on, and being that person of ihsan. And that is the place, in my view, of this work. And so in that place, there’s a lot to be to be done. And there’s a lot to work on. It’s difficult to work- to become a person of ihsan. It’s quite a journey to get to that place of a virtue, especially in this very secular society that is no longer God-centric. This is a secular society, a materialist society. There’s a lot of dismissal of virtue and good qualities, akhlaq, adab, whatever words we want to use for the core work which is here in this space of teacher and student. Because even if you’re teaching a subject matter, whether it’s fiqh or ‘aqidah, or sirah, ultimately the goal is that subject matter will improve the individual. And by improving these individuals in their virtue and goodness, and ihsan. But that the community becomes a community of ihsan. And so that is I think where we work. And so if I can also answer the question of when are truths told there, it’s when that student after, certainly in a relationship, I mean, there’s a relationship with teacher and student, but also think about if you are a teacher in a classroom where your student is not doing the work. And once in the semester she says, I really had a tough week. I just can’t get it done, you’re probably going to say, alright, no problem. But after two or three times, you’re going to say, I’m really sorry, or maybe you aren’t going to say I’m sorry, you’re going to say: the policy is that you will have to drop that, or you’re going to get a C or you’re going to get a different kind of grade. And maybe even on the spiritual path, you might have to sit down and say, what is going on here? What’s happening here? Is it actually life? Maybe it is. Is it something else? Is it something where there’s a difficulty with the subject matter? Or, I mean, even in like secular subjects, you’re going to have conversations with your students.
So in the world of that relationship, when I’m going to tell a hard, uncomfortable truth to a student, I am always – I’ve been taught to do that – in such a way that I have a hand behind the – metaphorically, okay, not actually, but metaphorically, there’s a hand behind the back before the word is spoken. So that support is there, there is a clarity around that support is there, here’s the hard word, and be ready if that student is and the way I say it to also be ready, if that student is immediately coming back with stuff that looks like they’re not ready to go and dial it down. And bring it into something that’s a little bit easier for them to digest. The teacher has a real responsibility in that communication. But it’s true that the truths have to be told. Like one has to know if they think their patient that they’re not. Or if they think they’re generous, but they’re not. Like these are things that have to be told in one way or another. And if they can’t, if they’re not being understood in the sort of regular teaching, sometimes they have to be told directly in order for that student to really grow.
[00:39:07] Mihad Fahmy: So we’ve been talking about so far in gender neutral, almost, language. And I want to shift our conversation to the relationship between a female student and a male teacher or scholar. And Shaykha Tamara you’ve really been one of our pioneers, mashaAllah in the U S and in Canada, in developing the area of female scholarship. And you spoke earlier about the need to lift other women up as a female scholar yourself. And I think that this is really, as as Muslim women who are always looking to learn, and myself as a mother of two daughters, is so encouraging, mashaAllah. It’s very hopeful. And I’m wondering as more women turn to this kind of study, are there risks in your view, inherent in relationships that are male scholars and female students. And if there are, how do we navigate those?
[00:40:18] Dr. Tamara Gray: Well, certainly there are risks. This is a different type of ‘ilm, you know, it’s not math. I think even in math classes you can sometimes cross the line between a teacher and a student; that’s just something that is part of the world we live in. But in this world, when someone is taken by the sirah, let’s say you’re teaching, you’re a male scholar and you’re teaching, let’s say ‘aqeeda. And a student comes in, who’s been struggling with their ‘aqeeda. And now because of some amazing, incredible things that you’ve seen. She has openings and understandings and clarity. And she’s so appreciative. Okay. Ding, ding, ding here comes the dangerm because now she is really emotionally growing as well. And it’s really careful here that the teacher is going to have a lot of serious walls up there. I mean follow shari’ah, don’t be alone with her. Don’t have alone time on WhatsApp or messaging or wherever else people are messaging – Signal and Telegram and all these. Don’t be alone on Zoom. I mean, if you’re going to be on zoom with someone or in an online space, make sure there are people in your space or people in your student’s space.
Just follow that shari’ah rule is going- that’s going to save from, I would say 80% of what could possibly be a risk there. But also internally, the teacher has to recognize that that student’s sparkling eyes are not about you. Maybe they are about the way you said something, but you have to immediately say to yourself, this not about me, this is the incredible religion I’m teaching. And to recognize that this is dangerous for you as a teacher. If you’re going to each time a student opens up to the subject matter in a beautiful way, you’re going to allow for some kind of an intimate relationship – and by intimacy here, I only mean emotional – that, it’s going to mess everything up, for lack of a better way to say that. And so the risks are great, but the responsibility is there.
That doesn’t mean that men, male scholars should say, oh, that’s it. I don’t want to teach women. They should just do a responsibly and recognize that they are in the role they’re in. And so be responsible with that. Give the information. Hold your own emotions under control. Be strong there. Have your own ‘ibadah schedule. Have your own worship schedule. So you yourself are strong in your faith, you know where you’re going. And also, so you can gauge your heart. So if one day you missed the tahajjud, you can say, whoops, what happened yesterday? Did speak too much? Did I speak privately? What did I do that made me miss this today? Have a schedule, have something where you are doing continuous self-check because it is our responsibility to raise up the next generations to give this knowledge that we’ve been given. Alhamdullilah for the blessing of that, and we have to take responsibility and give it forth. And we have great, amazing examples in our history of plenty who are able to do that. So it’s work. We’re all able to teach, inshaAllah, without breaking down those very important emotional…. I don’t know… we need to just hold those spaces of care and lock and virtue that we are teaching people. I guess that’s the way to say that.
[00:44:22] Ustadha Zaynab Ansari: It’s interesting that you asked that question. Cause I work in a seminary where, this is a coeducational environment. So naturally we do have a female, well, actually most of our students are female. It’s interesting. I’m the only female teacher, but we have mainly female students mashaAllah. So just based upon my experience here, one of the things we ended up observing was, we found that… a couple different things. One, for some of our students, that there’s almost like where they are making a connection between authority and the male scholar in the sense that, okay, yeah, alhumdulilah, that’s great, there’s a female there and she does this, and the other my real pressing issue, I want to actually take it to the shaykh. And I’ve actually found that not just what you know, in our institution, but really, it seems that this is something that women as women, we deal with this, that, okay, yeah, yeah, that was naseeha and whatever from the shaykha or the ustadha, but I really need to get to the shaykh and have this, as if somehow he’s, that he’s going to dispense a level, a certain type of advice is going to resolve all the issues.
So what I’m saying, are just to Mihad is that, I want to address the thinking that somehow we feel that the advice, or the information that’s given us is somehow more sound, more valid, more effective because of the gender of the person dispensing it, particularly when it’s the shaykh dispensing it. I think that we need to work on that. And what’s really interesting counterintuitively I’ve actually found sometimes that male students are more open to receiving advice from me than some of the female students. I don’t know why that’s the case. Maybe it’s the novelty of having a female teacher, so go figure. So I think understanding that, that our tradition from the very beginning has empowered women to step into those spaces of leadership, the Ummahat al-Mu’mineen, Mothers of the Believers, I’ve always seen them as being leaders in their own. So understanding that this is not just some kind of a, that we don’t just see women as being like secondary, that they play some kind of role as window dressing. No, this is actual kind of leadership and authority here and that the that the teachings of our female scholars carry weight. So addressing the mindset that might exist amongst some women I think is very important. But then having said that, I think the other end of this is that you might actually get students to where maybe, in the wake of the ‘Me Too’ movement, they really feel like, no, they can’t sit with male scholars at all. They have to exclusively have female teachers. And that anything that comes from a man must be suspect. So I think really making sure that our students have a balanced understanding of the role of the scholar, the advice that’s being dispensed and the idea that ultimately Khatim Annabiyyeen, our Prophet, our last Prophet and Messenger ‘alayhe assalatu wassalm was a man, right?
So a lot of different things are occurring to me in answering this. But there is something that I feel very strongly about. I saw an advertisement the other day, this was a course designed around issues of women’s fiqh and their identity. But it wasn’t being taught by a woman. I really have to say I took umbrage at this. Because as well-meaning as our male ‘ulama are, as knowledgeable as they are, as impeccable as their credentials are, they have not lived as women. So that’s why I really have to say, especially for, back to your original question, especially for students, female students who are seeking a particular level of intense, like intense mentorship, where they really want to spend time with that teacher, where they’re really looking for a role model for how to be in this world, I think is very important that they avail themselves of female teachers and scholars and mentors. And if they find themselves having some type of reaction to having a female teacher to investigate, why is that? Why is that happening? So I could probably go on and on about this. ‘Cause it’s something that I really feel very strongly that we have to be balanced, but I also feel that we, as a community, especially male scholars, we need to look around ourselves. If we’re not actually training women to go out and work with other women that to me is a problem.
[00:49:00] Mihad Fahmy: Right, right.
[00:49:05] Dr. Ingrid Mattson: One of the last questions we have is, what should be done with the body of knowledge we may have received from a teacher whom we come to know has engaged in abusive or exploitative behavior. What do you think? Can we still cite that scholar’s writings?
[00:49:22] Ustadha Zaynab Ansari: I’ve actually had to ask myself this question because I used to assign works, written works by by someone where there is this, unfortunate kind of things that we heard about in the news and so on. And I had to decide what do we do with the body of work that exists? So one of the things that I personally found helpful when I thought about assigning these things was to actually have a conversation with the students. And it ended up being a really productive conversation. We talked about issues of tawbaand grace and redemption. And to what extent are we to make that separation between a person, and their shortcomings and the work they’ve produced, and, is it, for example, should we continue to read about, to read from them on X, Y, and Z subjects, but maybe when it comes to A, B and C subjects, maybe we go to someone else? It ended up being a very helpful conversation.
[00:50:19] Dr. Tamara Gray: Yeah. I’d like to say a few things about that too, if I may. And because we used to teach a book that was at Ribat – our online academic institute – we used to teach one of the books that was written by someone who has as Ustadha Zaynab so lovingly and full of adab put it, someone who we heard things in the news about. And I took the book off, even though I really liked the book, but I took it off because it was a level-one course. And I didn’t want to challenge the, my students who perhaps could, would look up the author. Maybe they didn’t know them and maybe they didn’t know him and they would look him up and find these stories and feel confusion and challenge there. So I do think it’s difficult. I think it’s a sensitive area and we have to really think about the students themselves. And if the book is really good, I really like what you did Ustadha Zaynab, start talking with the students about how we can learn something. We are in cancel culture. We know that we’re in a cancel culture. We also are willing to read books by orientalists and Islamophobes sometimes. And so there is that world of, is it something valuable for us to learn in this book? But there’s also the world of who am I learning from, and who is the author, and how much is that going to challenge and possibly hurt the students that are studying from that book? So it’s a lot to think about, and I don’t think it’s an easy answer.
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[00:52:01] Mihad Fahmy: Once again, Shaykha Tamara and Ustadha Zaynab helped us explore difficult topics and teased out some key principles of healthy boundaries for both student and teacher. To the student: while in many ways, a teacher may know what is good for you, remember that she is not your mother and he is not your father. Even if you are discovering Islam for the first time or in a deeper, more meaningful way through your teacher, don’t let this lessen the appreciation and respect shown to your own parents.
To the teacher: even if your student is asking you to step into a parental role, resist the urge to do so, your role is to give advice and model behavior that strengthens the student’s relationship with her family, not weakens it. By nature, mentorship goes beyond delivering and receiving information. It is a relationship that develops over time through extensive and consistent interaction between mentor and mentee. A student looking for such a mentorship needs to be ready for the type of growth that comes through having a mirror placed in front of her. This can be uncomfortable, but the fact that some discomfort may be necessary doesn’t absolve the mentor of the responsibility to be compassionate, respectful, and conscious of the language being used.
Given the emotional growth that is inherent in acquiring Islamic knowledge, there are risks associated with a male scholar-female student relationship. But there are external and internal safeguards that can, and should be adopted. Take care of your own heart, your own worship, and recognize that any benefits of the relationship lie with Allah and the beauty of the deen not with imparter of knowledge.
Finally, it is time to address the misplaced yet prevailing mindset in our community that a male scholar must be consulted in order to get a sound opinion on an Islamic matter.
In the next episode of the Hurma Project podcast, we speak with Hind Makki, an educator with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and founder of Side Entrance, an award-winning website documenting Muslim women’s prayer experiences in mosques. We talked with Hind about the need for female representation on mosque boards and the dangers of tokenizing such participation. We also explore the power and drawbacks of creating women’s only places of worship and how we can all re-imagine Muslim spaces that are safe, inclusive, and spiritually fulfilling.
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 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, the Waraich Family Foundation, and 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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