Wojouh: Dr. Jamal Nazem Taleb
One of the greatest assets of Greater Tripoli is its very own people. Whether in Tripoli or abroad, Greater Tripolitans have continued to excel and innovate. As a result, Tripolicy has decided to launch a series called Project Wojouh to shed light on some notable figures and rising stars.
Dr. Jamal Nazem Taleb is currently an imam at the Canadian Islamic Centre - Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton, Canada. He has served as an imam for over 25 years. He received his PhD from the Beirut Islamic University in 2017 in Islamic Family Law. Dr. Taleb is a member of multiple national organizations and the current representative of the Lebanese Dar Al Fatwa in Canada. He has decades of experience in advising, interfaith work, and social work.
Tripolicy's Raafat Yamak got in touch with Dr. Jamal Taleb, and discussed multiple topics dealing with his upbringing, career as an imam, and the future issues that will face upcoming generations.
Raafat Yamak: Dr. Jamal, thank you so much for making some time for this interview. We're extremely excited to have you with us today.
Jamal Taleb: Thank you for having me! I'm looking forward to your questions today.
RY: Great! Can you tell us a little about your upbringing?
JT: Sure. I was born in September 1970 in the Qobbeh district of Tripoli, Lebanon. Originally, I am from a tiny village nestled in Akkar known as Tikrit. I did all my schooling in Tripoli. I double majored in Arabic Literature at the Lebanese University, while pursuing another BSc in Islamic Studies at the University of Tripoli in Abu Samra, under the guidance of the late Sheikh Muhammad Rashid Mikati, may Allah (swt) bless his soul. I went on to pursue my MSc from the University of Tripoli, with my advisor being Sheikh Dia-Uddin Al-Hamwi.
RY: Very cool. What was your master's thesis about?
JT: The title of my master’s thesis was "The Islamic Method in Understanding Theological Differences". After my masters, I completed my PhD at the Beirut Islamic University. My thesis was "A Comparison Between Islamic Law and Canadian Law with Respect to Social and Familial Regulations".
RY: That's interesting. What made you want to tackle this topic and why family law, in particular?
JT: Canada was going through a turbulent time where some of my fellow Canadians had an irrational fear with anything that had to do with Islam. There was talk by certain segments of the media that painted Islam as the boogeyman, and that Islamic law was coming to take over Canada. In reality, we knew that this couldn't be farther from the truth. This motivated me to take on this thesis question in the hopes that Canadians can get a better understanding of what Islamic law says about family-related issues, whilst dispelling many of the stereotypes and falsehoods being peddled. Many Canadians were shocked to see how intricate and comprehensive Islamic family law is, and how these fundamental values aim at alleviating many of the social ills we're experiencing today. The ultimate goal of Islamic family law is to protect family values and preserve the family structure, and this is something that any Canadian would like to achieve. I'm of the opinion that with constructive dialogue, many of the issues we face today can be resolved.
RY: Absolutely. A conversation can go a long way in fostering a healthy exchange of ideas. Was there a particular reason as to why you decided to push your PhD so many years after your masters?
JT: Well, I left Lebanon and immigrated to Canada in 1991. During that time, I got busy with work and more importantly, learning the English language. At the time, I only spoke Arabic and French. However, I was also doing lectures and seminars at multiple mosques and community centers across Ontario. Furthermore, I taught Arabic and Islamic Studies at multiple schools in Ontario, and at one point, in Florida. A PhD is a long and grueling process and it requires lots of time to be allocated to it.
RY: It's clear that you jumped around a lot during this time. When did you finally become a resident imam?
JT: In 1995, I was called upon by the Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton, Canada, to fulfill an open position for a full time imam. Al Rashid Mosque is the oldest mosque in Canada and was established by Lebanese immigrants. I served there for five years. In 2000, I decided to move to London, Ontario and became an imam at the main mosque there. At the time, my brother, Dr. Bahaa, was pursuing a PhD at the University of Western Ontario, and my other relatives were all based in Toronto, so I wanted to be close to them. I stayed in London as an imam till 2019. In 2019, I was called back to the Al Rashid Mosque as an imam and advisor to help with the opening of their new Islamic school.
RY: That's great. Congratulations on the new school opening! I'm aware that you're also a part of multiple organizations.
JT: Yes, I'm an administrative member of the Canadian Council of Imams, and a representative of the Lebanese Dar El Fatwa in Canada.
RY: That's nice. I can already tell like most imams in North America, your schedule is packed!
I wanted to go back a little in time. I'm curious to know what motivated you to pursue Islamic Studies. Tripoli in the 1980's was a turbulent time, both on a political and security level. How did you come out of all this and opt for Islamic Studies when for many, it was either engineering or medicine.
JT: Tripoli has always been a relatively conservative city, if not religiously but culturally. My father and mother instilled in us values that revolved around family. My older sister, Fatima, also played a role in my decision to pursue Islamic Studies, as she used to provide me with words of encouragement and patience when I would rehearse my sermons in front of her. In addition, my aunt's husband, Sheikh Mohammad Badreddine Al-Husseini, was the imam at the Central Mosque in Tikrit and was heavily involved in the dawah scene in Tikrit. Also, my uncle, Sheikh Nazeer Naji, was the imam at the Grand Mosque in Beereh, Akkar and worked at the Shariah Court in Tripoli. I would say these were the primary figures who motivated me to choose this career path.
RY: Family almost always guides one to a certain career path as they are usually our mentors growing up. Do you have any particular scholars that resonate with you?
JT: For me, there are many, but if I had to choose, I would say Sheikh Abdul Karim Zaidan. He has a phenomenal book called Usool Al-Dawah. Also, Sheikh Mahmoud Aboud Harmoush, who recently passed away, may Allah (swt) bless his soul, had a great impact on me, especially his books. Sheikh Sobhi Al-Saleh is also another scholar that I can't help but mention when it comes to his impact on me.
RY: It's great to hear your acknowledgments of these scholars who have undoubtedly had an influence not just on Lebanon, but the entire Muslim world.
I want to move on to the Canadian Muslim community. You have been an imam in Canada for over two decades. One of the major fault lines we see in North American mosques is the schism that occurs between the mosque board and the imam. Many times, the imam is not compensated enough for the hours he puts in. Is this still a common issue?
JT: Unfortunately, yes. In certain circumstances, you may get a mosque board that is made up of individuals with minimal Islamic knowledge, yet insist on interfering in the imam's agenda. The imam becomes a mere employee with no autonomy, and subjugated by the mosque board to act within what they deem to be appropriate. This creates a series of confrontations that forces the imam to either accept a below-average pay and policies that may be contrary to our Islamic beliefs, or quit. This is why you will now find many imams pursuing a side business in order to meet basic expenses.
RY: Do you see a solution to this reoccurring problem?
JT: Yes, there are many solutions, to be honest. One way to solve this issue to is to create an autonomous transparent body whose purpose is to appoint and pay the salaries of the imams. At the same time, this autonomous body can receive funding from the mosque to fulfil its duties. It's very similar to the Dar Al Fatwa paradigm that exists in other countries, but it does a great job ensuring that the imam is paid properly while ensuring that qualified imams are appointed across Canadian mosques. Furthermore, if there is an error that the imam commits, the autonomous body can deal with the issue in a constructive manner amicable to all parties involved. Of course this autonomous body must consist of qualified individuals possessing a high degree of Islamic knowledge and conflict resolution. Ultimately, the imam's position needs to be decentralized away from the auspices of a mosque board, to where the imam can execute his role in an efficient and effective manner.
RY: That sounds like a great solution. Resolving this issue will lead to a healthier community and overall better communication between all involved with the mosque.
I want to ask what kind of suggestions you may have for Muslims living in the West who want to seek Islamic Studies. There has been much debate about whether studying Islam at Western institutions is superior to the traditional schooling that involves when studying under a Sheikh. What are your thoughts about that, as someone who has somewhat straddled both worlds?
JT: I'm a firm believer that traditional schooling is the way to go. Islamic Studies programs in Western institutions approach Islam in a dry manner with no linkage to scholars who have learned from other scholars of the past. Scholars from traditional schools study Islam as a lifestyle and way of life, not merely as academic endeavor. Scholars in traditional schools have learned from other scholars, who in turn have learned from other scholars. Knowledge is passed down through a chain of authorities that all fall under the umbrella of Islamic consensus. The environment is completely different. Language is another important factor to keep in mind. In traditional schools, there is no room for weakness in the Arabic language. I can go on and on about this, but my suggestion to a Muslim living in the West looking to learn Islam in a rigorous fashion is to seek traditional schools.
RY: The points you raise are extremely important and adds valuable input to the discussions going on today about this topic. To conclude this great interview, I want to ask you what your dreams are regarding the future, and especially, to tie it all back, to Tripoli.
JT: Tripoli is a beautiful city that I can speak about for hours and hours. Tripoli has always been known in the region as the city of knowledge and scholars. Everywhere you look in its ancient alleys, you see historic schools built from the time of the Mamluks to the Ottomans. My dream is that Tripolitans living overseas contribute back to the city in any way that they can. We can't forget about where we came from. For me, I am blessed to have my wife who has stood by me in raising a family that values our origins. It is only with awareness can we begin to create change, and hopefully be able to cement ourselves back to our beloved homeland. I pray that peace and stability returns to Tripoli and the entire region.
RY: Ameen to your prayer. Thank you so much, Sheikh Jamal, for your time.
JT: Thank you for the work you are doing. Tripolicy is doing great work with spreading the voice of Tripolitans. Keep up the great work!
RY: Much appreciated!
About the Author:
R. Mahmoud Yamak is a petroleum engineer currently residing in Dallas, TX. He is a commentator on Arab and Middle Eastern affairs who has previously written for the Daily Sabah, The New Arab, Muftah Magazine, among others.