” What makes our work relevant is love. We need love. The Prophet’s love was a source of productivity for those around him. He built the souls of the people around him. People whose hearts are filled with love, their work never stops because their work is driven by love and not by expectation. The absence of this from our life makes our life heavy. It makes a difference when we do things with love. If we have love of God and His Messenger, we see that love in our interactions with each other. Rather than claiming your rights and responsibilities and asking about your responsibilities and rights, instead of expecting, just love others. ~Shaykh Ahmad Saad Al-Azhari, Toronto Grand Mawlid, Jan 1st 2014.
At the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga on January 1st, 2014, I sat in the audience of the theatre with 1300 other people listening and participating in poetry and songs in praise of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. At end of that powerful, moving event, Habib Ali al-Jifri, a spiritual educator from Yemen concluded the evening with a beautiful prayer for all of the attendees, for the state of the world, for peace outwardly and inwardly, and made special mention of the Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto. He spoke about the Chaplaincy as a project that is doing critical work to support youth during a transformational period of their lives, commended those involved, and spoke how the project needs to be supported in order to continue its work. (To learn more about making a sustainable contribution, please see here.)
Earlier in the day, I had been at a lunch titled “A Prophetic Model of Islamic Chaplaincy” at the IMO Mosque in Toronto to learn more about the Muslim Chaplaincy’s success in its first year, and what it needs to become a financially sustainable organization. As a student at the University of Toronto when the Chaplaincy was an idea, to visiting Toronto a year ago and meeting the Chaplain and attending the initial programming, to returning back to the city now, it was a delight to see how the project had grown and developed in the intervening months. There was a blog post recently on Seriously Planning on Faith Friendly Communities, and this event was a reminder that strong communities require proactive organizing and investment to make change happen.
The event started with Amjad Tarsin, the Muslim Chaplain at the University of Toronto talking briefly about their success over the first year, (more information about their work can be found in their 2012-2013 Impact Report here) and the philosophy that governs their actions. A video was also shown of a student named Zahra that was a beautiful, moving reminder that student support looks different for each student, and a university has to address issues of spiritual wellbeing and a positive university experience in ways that resonate with a diverse student body.
Below, a few comments from the different guest speakers who spoke at the event:
Our philosophy is about three things. Embrace. Engage and Empower.
We start with embrace because people want to feel valued. And so through our programming we let people know that we care. We also engage with students spiritually, intellectually, and socially through educational programming, film screenings and other events, and empower students with the tools they need in order to understand key issues and have confidence in their faith. There are other campus ministries at the University of Toronto that have been established for decades, and with nearly 5000 Muslim students at the St.George campus alone, it is important that Muslim students also have the resources they need to succeed.
MSAs and chaplains are two different things. An MSA does not have the resources or skills to support students theologically. The genius of Islamic civilization was that it created structures and institutions to meet the needs of the environment it was in. Minarets, domes and tiles are not in the Prophet’s peace and blessings be upon him original mosque, but they serve a specific purpose and function that is beneficial to the surroundings. The same is true for madressas, muftis and ijazas. The development of new things to respond to circumstances is a perennial issue.
In the Nawawi Foundation’s first trip to China we learnt about the system of female imams, and asked what made someone suitable to be a female imam. They showed us Mariam, who looked the same as everyone else, and said that since she was a young girl, she loved to come to the mosque and help people.The core competencies identified for this role were love of God and love of people. China is primarily Hanafi (a particular school of Islamic law), so these people were not leading prayers. Instead the female imam is a spiritual guide, a spiritual leader, a teacher, someone who can deal with family problems. The community recognised that there is too much work to do to leave for volunteers alone.Th ey knew they needed a paid position to meet the needs of community, and this paid position came out of the 10% that everyone gave out of their income to support the needs of the community.
We need people who love to help others. Helping people, chaplaincy work requires a certain firasa, a certain insight about people. The Prophet peace and blessings be upon him always looked at people directly in the face. He was with people fully. It’s not about mechanically doing what he did. it’s about having the attitude that I am here as long as you need me to be. A chaplain is fully there. It’s a professional role. Often we put too much focus on buildings and not on people. But we live in a time of great dislocation. How many times in our life do we move? When we invest in people, the knowledge that they get goes with them wherever they go. The tradition of growing in community in one place is rare, and chaplains are important for transitionary populations. In jails, in hospitals, in universities, in these environments chaplains are important. Our tradition tells us “to be in this world as a traveller.” And in the past there were the caravanserai. They were endowments for Muslim travellers that offered help if a person needed help. Chaplaincies are like the caravanserai of old.
We are all refugees. We have not been able to form communities in productive manners. Buildings don’t make people. They don’t develop people. We have a building fetish. We have buildings but no imams. Al-Azhar is not the building. Azhar is a way. it’s a practice. It doesn’t go away even if the building goes away. It’s a methodology. We have to think, “Have we left something for our children? Is there a mantle for them to take on? Or is there no mantle to assume?” It’s good for people here at this event to know about the chaplaincy, but other people, and other people still, need to know. We need to tell others. Not every student of sacred knowledge can be an chaplain. A chaplain deals with issues beyond textual issues. They deal with emotional issues. Bereavement issues. It takes resources, training, sacrifice. Doesn’t work with volunteers. If serious about developing communities, need to develop these resources. It’s not charity. The best people need to be supported in these roles.
Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him himself carried out the training of young people. The word qawm (community) is not necessary people linked to by lineage or by location. It’s people linked in any way. Can have a qawm of profession. Muslim have become very unwelcoming to people with difficulties. People’s souls are very tired. They don’t need more discourse but they need to talk. People don’t find people who will listen to them. Prophet gave us a methodology. He said that we must have have good character and a cheerful face. Cannot run short of these two. At the same time though, still need training. The second thing the Prophet did was that he spoke to people’s minds. He addressed them intellectually. And finally he made dua (supplication) for people. So we see in the example of the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him that he addressed people’s social side, their intellectual side and their spiritual side.
Let us renew our pledge of mercy and service. Of high morals and ethics.