By: Ustadh Ubaydullah evans
In his esteemed collection of rigorously authenticated Prophetic traditions, Imam al-Bukhārī records the statement of the Prophet (upon him be peace): "The best deeds in the sight of God are those that are performed with the greatest consistency.”
The American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM) has been hosting its annual summer program for over two decades. And although much has changed in nearly a quarter century, ALIM has consistently delivered on its mission of empowering Muslims through Islamic literacy. Our students have been consistently excellent; bringing with them a diverse range of experiences and areas of expertise which enhance exchange in the classroom.
Our counselors have been consistently great—usually former students (or Alimni as the internal designation goes…) that had positive experiences during previous summer programs and then later return to dedicate themselves to facilitating similar experiences for newer students. And our board, coordinators, and volunteers have been consistently excellent. Every year they carefully craft the schedules of the students so as to balance culturally enriching activities and spiritual restoration with academically rigorous 8 hour instructional days. And lastly, our teachers, both core faculty and visiting scholars, have displayed unstinting passion, patience, and erudition. In his Jām`i, the renowned traditionist (muḥaddith), Imam at-Tirmidhī records the following Prophetic tradition:
“The scholars are the inheritors of the prophets.”
The brothers and sisters that have assumed the prophetic office of teaching within our program have upheld their trust and imparted more than simply knowledge to the students. They have modeled faith-affirming, critical engagement with the Islamic tradition and thereby unlocked the potential of generations (plural!!!) of young Muslims. These core elements (The students, counselors, coordinators/board, and teachers) along with many other auxiliary components create the unique ALIM Summer Program experience. As this year’s program draws to a close, this is a short post dedicated to recognizing them for their consistent excellence.
At the risk of confirming my eligibility for “old guy” status, I recall attending the ALIM Summer Program in 2005. I distinctly remember observing the pedagogical styles of the core faculty of ALIM. I was awe-struck by Dr. Jackson’s scholarship. He masterfully created a nexus between the world of the Qur’ānic revelation and our own social context. During his classes, we were treated to a virtuoso presentation. His class on the Prophetic Biography (Sīrah) included carefully selected historical references, insightful social commentary, and vivifying personal anecdotes. I watched and thought to myself…we must be witnessing him in “rare form.” Imam Muneer Fareed entered the classroom as an embodiment of rigorous training in traditional madāris combined with the analytical skill of a Western academician. If truth be told, in my year, Imam Muneer’s classes were the defining feature of ALIM. In a manner that can only described as “brilliant,” he challenged some of our oversimplified ideas of tradition while still affirming the positive value of tradition. I observed his sophisticated mix of intellectual flair and devotion like a highly skilled acrobat walking a tightrope before a gasping audience. In 2005, I thought: He must really trust this particular group of students to teach with such freedom! Shaykh Ali Suleiman Ali taught ulūm al-Qur’ān and Post-Prophetic history when I attended ALIM. After some years of Islamic study, I learned that these were topics of the highest level of consequence and difficulty. Those who cast aspersions onto Islam usually attempt to do so through textual deconstruction of the Qur’ān and bad faith readings of early Islamic history. Shaykh Ali fortified us against some of those negative influences. However, you wouldn’t have known that such intellectually rigorous work was taking place in those classes because he did it with such grace. Shaykh Ali also combines the best of East and West in his training but his avuncular charm is the perfect Trojan horse for his immense intellectual gifts.
Almost 20 years later, very little has changed—aside from a lot more gray hair among the instructors (including yours’ truly!). Dr. Jackson elected to teach virtually this year. In spite of 3 thousand miles of distance and patchy internet connection, he did a phenomenal job of vivifying the life of the Prophet (upon him be peace). Imam Muneer’s classes remain a source of faith-reinforcing exploration beyond students’ comfort zones. And Shaykh Ali is still the knowledgeable, sage, unperturbed elder statesman that he’s always been. Additionally, Ustadha Zaynab Ansari, Ustadha Leena Safi, Ustadh Tayseer Safi (The Safis are orchestrating a takeover of ALIM but it isn’t hostile!), Dr. Saeed Khan, and the inestimable, Imam Mohamed Magid all contributed mightily to this year’s program.
Our teachers were invariably phenomenal. However, the ALIM experience is only partly defined by the exchange that takes place between students and instructors. The container inside of which that educational experience happens is often created by the counselors. Alimat Mahmoud (apparently her parents could foresee her playing a significant role in the work of ALIM) and Yasin Ahmed were absolutely stellar in their role as counselors this summer. The learning environment, which intentionally blends students across a vast array of experiences and backgrounds, remained safe, nurturing, and conducive to intellectual and spiritual growth. As someone interested in effective leadership models, I learned a great deal from Alimat and Yasin. They led by example; modeling the brotherhood and sisterhood they encouraged the students to embrace. The warmth, consideration, and amiable character displayed by Alimat lifted all of us. There was perhaps no better example of this than her presentation of the certificates of completion during the closing ceremony. She offered gracious remarks and disclosed some unique, commendable quality about each sister to whom she presented a certificate. Yasin also personalized his presentation of the brothers’ certificates. And I as watched him use humor to make each brother feel a little more at ease while being recognized by those in attendance, I was reminded of the great Prophetic virtue of “bringing joy to the heart of one’s fellows. We were extremely fortunate to have them this year.
The Alimni are a diverse collective. Over the years we’ve had students of various backgrounds, representing a wide range of institutions and fields of endeavor. The consistent thread, however, has been excellence. And the Class of 22’ was no exception. There is much I can say about this cohort but the presentations they offered on the penultimate day of the program stand out as the highlight. They were informed, dynamic, and serious but also charismatic and theatrical. The original proposal was for them to offer reasoned arguments about the overturn of Roe v. Wade—Dr. Saeed Khan provided a broad historical/legal overview of the landmark decision during the program. Some of the students explored the initial prompt while others opted to go in different directions. In addition to hearing some good presentations on Islamic approaches to the contemporary abortion debate, we also learned about Islam and the environmental imperative, responsible consumption, and the history and future of Islam in America. During the presentations the most promising thing I observed about the students was their comfortability in their skins. I recall my 20’s as being a great time of transition and instability. Some of it was from without (school, marriage, fatherhood, relocating, etc) but much of it was from within. Being a young Black American student of Islamic studies sometimes entailed a tortuous internal dialogue: How should I dress? Is this too Western? Is this too Arab? Should I laugh at that kind of joke? Does piety entail certain specific kinds of acculturation as opposed to just virtues, etc? Watching the newly-minted Alimni present in all of their idiosyncrasy, quirky humor, style, candor, and personality was truly gratifying for me. The future lies in teaching young Muslims to use their unique gifts mine our tradition for proximate answers to perennial questions. The summer program is our humble contribution to the creation of that culture.
And last but certainly not least, I must acknowledge Shirin Khan, our ED, the board, and volunteers that work tirelessly to make the ALIM program a reality. Shirin has been leading our effort with a deft but gentle hand. With the encouragement of the ALIM board—every member of which is a volunteer with their own very active career—Shirin and the team have consistently made Summer ALIM more than just an Islamic studies intensive. Rather, it has become a rite of passage for young Muslims. It symbolizes our transition from passive recipients of an Islamic tradition being produced by “people of consequence” somewhere to active contributors to the substance of that tradition—not in the form of Islamic scholarship for all of us but in the form of informed, empowered engagement with our tradition. Thank you!