Local Leader Focus: ISB Resident Scholar Yaseen Sheikh

Community News
IMAM-YASEEN Beyond their speeches and activism, local Muslim leaders are community members just like the rest of us. The Muslim Link interviews our local leaders so the community can get to know them and In Shaa Allah help them serve the community. This issue we focus on Islamic Society of Baltimore's latest addition – resident scholar Shaykh Yaseen Sheikh. – TML

TML: Please tell us about your family. Are you married, children, how old, how many? Tell us about your parents, upbringing, siblings, achievements etc. How has your family adjusted to the change and how do they like the East Coast?

YS: My family originates from Surat, Gujarat, in India. My parents are first generation immigrants who migrated to London, England in the late 1960's. My parents are noble, hardworking, committed and devoted parents that played an instrumental role in shaping my direction in life. I am one of five children, 4th in line amongst four boys and one girl.

I had a fairly conservative upbringing, in a fairly conservative Muslim Community in Stamford Hill, North London, which is also home to the largest Orthodox Jewish Community outside of Israel. The importance of praying five times a day, love for and obedience to Allah, adherence to Sunnah was instilled in us from a fairly young age. My father was very conscious of taking us to pray at the Masjid. Thus, I used to offer even Fajr at the masjid from around the tender age of 8, regardless of the season.

In England, it is a tradition for all children to attend Maktab (evening school) at their local Masjid, learning how to read Quran, and more than just the basics of Islam. It is here that I developed a profound love for Quranic recitation and would often learn more than the portion assigned by my teacher. At the age of eleven, to further quench my thirst for Quran, I enrolled at a seminary, Jameah Islamiya, Kent and completed Hifdh within 1.5 years. I was the first Hafidh produced by the institution, may Allah accept.

After this, I developed a zeal to understand the Quran, and to further increase my knowledge and understanding of the noble book, I enrolled in the Alim Program in Darul Uloom London, UK. Here, I completed a six year rigorous Darse Nizami program, studying various Islamic Sciences such as Arabic and it's related subjects, Fiqh and its principles, Hadeeth and its principles, Tafseer and its principles, and Aqidah. I had the pleasure of studying under some of the greatest scholars of the UK, most notably, Mufti Umar Farooq of London, whom I am indebted to for his specific attention and love. Upon graduating, I enrolled at Birkbeck College, University of London, and completed an MA in Islamic Studies.

I have been serving as an Imam ever since graduating from Darul Uloom at the tender age of 20. I made a huge stride by migrating across the Atlantic, to the USA in 2006, and was very privileged to the join one of the best communities in USA, in Plano, Texas. I served the community of IACC for seven years before deciding [that] I wanted to change my career path and take on a new challenge.

I joined ISB, with its Al-Rahmah [School and Qur'an Academy], an educational institute that has a growing reputation in providing outstanding educational services at various levels in June of this year to develop an Alim Program.

I am blessed to have been married for ten years, and am blessed with three beautiful daughters. My family is adjusting well to the East Coast with the blessing of Allah.

TML: What did you want to be when you grew up? When and how did you make the decision to become an imam, religious director, teacher?

YS: In all honesty, as a young child, I always spoke of being a surgeon when I grew up. Not that I had any idea of what that career entailed, but maybe I just liked the word. It was not until I was fully engaged in my pursuit of sacred knowledge that I realized that Allah has a plan for me, and that I am just simply going with the plan he has in store for me. I am humbled that Allah selected me for such an immense and esteemed position, and I pray daily that he assists me in fulfilling the rights of such a role.

TML: Why are you an imam?

YS: The Prophet Sallallahu alaihi wa sallam was Imam of his people, and in his position helped and touched the lives of thousands. I wanted to emulate the path of the Prophet in being able to help people connect to Allah, understand their purpose and direction in life, try to guide them through the various struggles and challenges life presents whilst keeping firm focus on the ultimate goal of life. This is what motivates me daily.

TML: Aside from the Quran, what are you currently reading?

YS: Taareekh Dawat wa Azeemat by Shaikh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi.

TML: What are you passionate about? When you are not teaching how do you keep busy?

YS: I am passionate about various things. Civic engagement, interfaith, social justice are some of them. My biggest passion, however, is soccer, and more specifically, English premier league soccer. I simply can't get enough. Despite being in USA for over seven years, I still haven't caught on to the American Football hype, and have never watched one entire game of American Football. Maybe it is my British stubbornness.

TML: What inspires you daily? Is it hard to be a imam?

YS: My daughters, the reality that I will leave this world any time, and will meet my Creator. It is extremely difficult to be an Imam, but also a great honor.

TML: What makes a good imam?

YS: That is a tough question. The American Muslim Congregation is like pleasing various consumers at a grocery store, each attending for something different. For me, the most important ingredients for a successful Imam, aside from being competent in this field is to be compassionate, have empathy, be relevant, and be able to connect with a people as a human being, non judgmental, being on their level. If an Imam can incorporate the above into his work, he will achieve great success in his Masjid, as long as he steers clear of Masjid politics, and sectarian drama that almost all masaajid in USA seem to be plagued with currently. May Allah protect us.

TML: Tell us about your leadership style.

YS: I don't know if I have a specific style, but having a different accent helps. I feel I have a good rapport with the youth, and seem to have a good way of relating with them on a personal level, as a friend, and not just their Imam.

TML: What innovative ways of sharing your knowledge are being used at Islamic Society of Baltimore (ISB)? Are you very active on social media?

YS: ISB is always trying to increase avenues for learning, and it is in this light that their programs are streamed live, and lectures are recorded and posted on YouTube. They are also on instagram. I am currently on Facebook and am fairly active.

TML: Any plans on engaging with the youth, wider Muslim community and people of other faith?

YS: Absolutely. One of my key areas of interest and enhancement at my previous place of service was increasing the awareness of Islam and Muslims amongst neighboring communities, raising our profile by engaging with our neighbors and creating opportunities to work together in increasing social cohesion and understanding.

I always worked closely with the other masaajid around the Metroplex and other organizations, and intend to do the same in the DMV, with the permission of Allah.

I am currently hosting weekly sessions with the youth, boys and girls, called Open Spaces. This is a discussion group where youth can attend, and be themselves, not be judged, and discuss issues important to them, challenges they face on a daily basis.

TML: What is your position at ISB? Please mention your past that has brought you to this point ie previous jobs etc? How has the experience at the Plano masjid prepared you for the ISB community? How are the positions similar/different?

YS: My current position is Resident Scholar. It is different from the typical position of an Imam, where he is expected to be leading all five prayers. This position is more educational. Despite the difference, I am still heavily involved with the congregation and my position in Plano equipped me with essential skills required to carry out this task effectively.

TML: Tell us more about the seminary.

YS: The Al Rahmah Seminary is a dream and vision that is now becoming a reality. Our launch is this month and we currently have five students enrolled. The seminary is an Alim and Islamic Scholarship program that will produce tomorrow’s Muslim leaders. Students will study a rigorous Islamic Studies Program tailored for American needs. Muslims will never be rooted in this land until we produce our own scholars who understand the intellectual history of the people they are serving.

It is with this focus that the program will be integrated, in that the program will be in the morning, with the afternoons free, allowing students to continue their pursuit of mainstream academic subjects in college, enhancing their grasp in areas that would increase their appeal and give them a more comprehensive skill set required to serve. Would it not be ideal to have an Islamic Scholar who is also a physician, or a historian, or a politician, an attorney, a psychologist, or a journalist. The opportunities are immense. What makes this program unique from other Alim Programs is that it is for both males, and females. For far too long the womenfolk of our Ummah have been starved of in-depth learning of the sacred sciences, and as a result, we see a serious shortage of female Muslim Scholars, traditionally trained.

TML: How has the community received you?

YS: So far, the settling in period has been great, and I am thankful to Allah.

TML: What are you goals for the community? What gaps have you seen that need filling and how do you aim to fill them?

YS: One of the gaps I have observed specifically in the Baltimore area is civic engagement, service work and interfaith. There are efforts taking place, but I have not seen a system with a clear focus and direction. One of the ways I aim to establish this effort is by seeking a dawah and outreach coordinator, and establish a core group of dedicated and passionate volunteers, willing to enhance this noble cause.