An Interview with Dr. Ingrid Mattson on Islamic Graduate School Accreditation

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<p>Dr. Mattson speaks at Respect Graduate School’s inaugural Conference. </p>

Dr. Mattson speaks at Respect Graduate School’s inaugural Conference.

Jackson Kitchell

Imagine a weekend interfaith conference with pleasant yet mildly engaging topics on tolerance and positivity, complemented by extensive Hors d'oeuvres breaks in the lobby. This idyllic weekend retreat did occur, sans quaint conversation: it’s simply not how the laser-focused Dr. Ingrid Mattson operates. Dr. Mattson was the keynote speaker at Respect Graduate School’s inaugural Conference on the weekend of October 21st. The topics Dr. Mattson introduced for discussion included populism and political activism in historical Islam; educational apathy contributing to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and its repercussions on our modern society; and the idea of implementing an accrediting agency for Islamic graduate schools to train Sunni Imams. Light faire, right?

Those of us in the room were blessed to hearken the words of one of the premier theological scholars of our time. Dr. Mattson is the London and Windsor Community Chair of Islamic Studies at Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario- as well as a Senior Fellow at Aal Al Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman, Jordan. Her book, The Story of The Qur'an: its history and place in Muslim Life delves into Islamic history with an academic tone, which can still be appreciated and understood by ley persons in western societies.

In her quest to educate the west, Dr. Mattson’s rhetoric at Respect did not omit such topics as the marginalization of women. Instead, she addressed underlying causes such as the overwhelming pressure to marry in some cultures, then asseverated the promotion of education to ensure equality. Dr. Ingrid Mattson contemplates interfaith challenges the world faces today, and promotes sound solutions for a more prosperous world of tomorrow. I was honored to sit down with someone I regard as a humanist and gain a glimpse into the detailed archives of her mind, which she most certainly uses for the good of all. Let’s get down to unpacking it.

(Note: edits have been made for clarity)

Last evening, we heard you say not to glorify the past in our critique of our present modernity, and you went on to describe a future accreditation process for Islamic graduate schools, similar to seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools. Do you have a concrete implementation plan formulated in your mind, or perhaps written down?

I don’t have a concrete plan, but I have a hope and also speaking to people about it. What I’m waiting for is for the institutions to mature themselves. Accreditation should flow out from practice as much as how other organizations are doing it. It should be a combination of looking at best practices that currently exist -for other seminaries and schools- but should also be fed by the experiences of those schools themselves. Otherwise there won’t be a lot of buy in. If we have another 3 to 4 years or so of these schools [Respect Graduate school], we will be at this stage where we can reflect back on performance, and what we need to look at to regulate…not regulate, but design: ethics, oversight, supervision, goals, etc.

During your Q and A today you mentioned how there is no clergy in Islam but I noticed you kept a flat tone without preference for established clergy or not. Would you comment on your thoughts?

Well we definitely need expertise, professionalism, but Sunni Islam generally, has resisted anything. There is nothing like ordination in the sense of becoming someone else. Ontologically a scholar becomes someone different from ordinary people. They have knowledge, they have skills, and they have training, and they should be respected in their tradition. But there should be a transparency in the basis from which they are making decisions. Transparency where they [Imams, for instance] can point to an authority that does not lie within themselves, but from the texts where they are speaking from.
So on that line, no ordination, but professionalism.

The emphasis Dr. Mattson attached to “no ordination” really hit it home for me that Dr. Mattson is a proponent of thorough theological education being prerequisite for professional ministry- while simultaneously recognizing all Imams, regardless of education level, are human beings just like all of us.

“There may be other schools of thought that are equally valid or even superior, but did not survive in their environments”. This is a phenomenal quote from your Q and A, in an extended response to the anthropologist who asked about Hijab and garments with respect to rural/ urban environments. I feel this critique rises above the topic at hand to describe Universal Truths that an individual or a group may discover, and then their society loses or expunges. Are there any specific researchers (besides Allen Austin) who have discovered Truths, written them down for posterity, but the majority of humans currently on this planet do not recognize or know their teachings?

One of the things that I think is really important that perhaps is not lost but marginalized is the living tradition of normative behavior and practies. What do I mean by that, we live in a society that is so text based (even as I am typing on my laptop) So much we learn of our faith and our people is how we model ourselves after people. And by people who have experience. I mean elders. That is so marginalized in a fundamental system that holds textual truths that have been transmitted.
There are so many cases where I know young women were being approached for marriage by someone. This match, you know, is not really ideal, but then you know, in authority, would offer textual examples well why marriage, in marriage you need to look at these qualities etcetera. Meanwhile there is a whole CHORUS of experienced women who are telling a young woman, you need to protect yourself than that. Life is very complicated, you need other resources.
The living experience and wisdom that rises out of experience is marginalized by those who say ‘where is your textual proof?’. That is something that is really really critical. That is why the textual traditions skew towards patriarchy and some homogeneity.

Yes, Ingrid answered my question, and more than satisfactorily. Rather than point out key researchers lost to the pages of history, she utilized my prompt as a productive means to highlight how pages themselves can hamper a society’s progress towards equality. She also implemented her charismatic emphasis again. One can almost hear the chorus of sage advice from decades past given to girls, who have then gone on to lead their own lives. Also present was a definitive rebuke of fundamentalism, and I cannot help myself but to highlight the relevant hook in this New York Times article.

Dr. Ingrid Mattson: One.

Male Saudi student: Zip. (and some expanded horizons lets hope).

From your perspective now in 2017, the London and Windsor chair of Islamic studies at Huron Univerity College at Western University and author of The Story of the Qu’ran, Senior Fellow of Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman, Jordan. [I didn’t get to finish with her titles, she, in humbleness, hushed me, and I responded “yea, you know your titles”.] What drove you to continue seeking the best in the world, and for your own success? When you were younger, did you see yourself being such an influential scholar? Was that your plan and your dream? With the 2008 C-100 World Economic Forum summit on your resume, the sky’s the limit.

No, I did not predict myself as a scholar. I did not see myself as anything. We were raised not to see ourselves as anything. We were raised to do our best, work hard, and be a good person. I remember coming home with a good report card, and my brother’s report card was not [good]. I felt very proud of myself. My mother came to me and asked, “Did you do your best?” I replied “I think so” Then she asked my brother if he did his best, and he said he did. My mother told him “That’s great! I’m proud of you!” [She then told me,] “Dinner is at 5.” That is the world I was raised in.

Having reached a more casual point in our conversation, Dr. Mattson and I bonded over straight A’s and a love for astronomy. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was a large motivating factor of her youth. The professor of theology then exclaimed the Perseid meteor shower on August 11th fell on her nephew’s birthday. The distinct intensity in her eyes softened slightly when talking about family, but her attentive gaze could still be felt. It struck me that here in front of me is a role model who embodies family values and an empathy and respect for all walks of life. Too often in the news “family values” becomes misconstrued and confined for political gain.

Last evening you spoke of the fall of the Ottoman Empire (with some feigned trepidation in your body language for audience appeal). [There were many Turkish-Americans in attendance]. I recall you describing the truth that institutions always fall for a reason. Today during the Q and A, you name dropped libertarianism and constitutional monarchy. Perhaps I am reading into this as a Freudian, I wouldn’t say slip, but a Freudian Disclosure. What are your ideas for a practical government with respect for separation of Mosque and State?

I think we clearly see those things falling apart right now. We see American democracy falling apart before us. Its just very frustrating Over 20 years, I have met and worked with so many amazing people. If I just think of the business community, so many business leaders I have met. They have contributed their goods and services to society. Very philanthropic, often contribute to their faith group. But I don’t see any of them holding political positions. They are not the ones making our decisions. Its not that America lacks qualified, innovative people, its just that they are not getting elected.

“Its not that America lacks qualified, innovate people, its just that they are not getting elected.”

In our fluid modernity, As the world is seeing an increasing prevalence of referendums such as Catalonia independence, Pennsylvanians voting to raise mandatory Judge retirement age last fall- would you feel a Direct Democracy could thrive among an educated and informed electorate?

I don’t prefer any political system. I mean I believe in democracy certainly, No one has any power to exert political power without the consent of the people, That’s the bottom line. I live in a monarchical parliamentary. The Queen of England is still our head of state. She is still the one that signs off. I don’t care so much about ideals. Politics is all about outcomes and processes. [There’s that charisma again.] There will be different solutions in different countries because of their history and population [nationalities]. There will be rulers that rule over them without consent., There have to be protections for constructional constitutional freedoms and human rights.

Lastly, are there any topics that you feel you did not address today or yesterday?

I mean, for this weekend, the women are too shy to raise questions. There should be smaller discussion groups. I would suggest that I stop earlier and break up into discussion groups. They have to be more aware here [at Respect] in the educational process. [story-time:] There were some Turkish students [whom she had taught at Hartford Seminary] that had come directly from Turkey. After a little while I invited them to meet outside of class. And I told them point blank, “hey, I haven’t heard enough from you!” The one spoke so quickly, she really couldn’t be understood. The other one speaks so quietly, she gets interrupted. They told me they were to listen to the men here in the class. They felt that way because when they were in turkey 15 20 years ago, they felt that they were belittled by their teachers (as girls) and their teachers would belittle them in the secular educational system. They developed these patterns. So I would poke them. I met with them outside of class and had them practice speaking up.The men in class would sit back and speak loudly about nothing that they knew.

Since Respect’s inaugural conference is also about pedagogy, it is important to ask: are these barriers to student participation a result of their cultural background, or previous negative history with education? For her pupils, Dr. Mattson described when she would “poke them” a couple times out of class, meaning she went out of her way and took the time to develop these young women and boost their confidence. Earlier in the interview, Dr. Ingrid Mattson also referred to the ‘educational process’. What an eloquent way to recognize that our human understanding and intellect is transient! With the aim of increasing knowledge per capita, Dr. Mattson recounts everything she says in precise detail. Whether for the aim of training professional Imams or to encourage young women to take an active roll in their world, Dr. Ingrid Mattson is on the front lines to drive out ignorance. We should look to her example and follow suit. Every interaction we have can be treated as our daily pedagogy.

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