Islamic History Month: An Interview with Ingrid Mattson

Monday, October 17, 2016

Dr. Ingrid Mattson is a trailblazer. After converting to Islam in her twenties, Ingrid Mattson went on to serve as the first woman president of the Islamic Society of North America. She has also earned a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and is currently the London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College at Western University in London, Ontario. Dr. Mattson is respected worldwide as a scholar on the Qur’an, Islamic theological ethics and interfaith relations. 

Last year during Islamic History Month, Dr. Mattson gave a talk at the Museum about concepts of rights in historical Islam. This year she agreed to participate in our interview series – and our conversation was certainly a fascinating one. Her answers reflected the many years she has spent studying and mulling over issues such as Islamic history, human rights, women’s rights and the importance of reaching out to other faiths. 

A head-and-shoulders image of a woman smiling directly at the camera. She is wearing a dark blue hijab and a white blazer.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson. Photo courtesy of Ingrid Mattson.


October is Islamic History Month in Canada. What does that mean to you?

Well for me, history is another word for knowledge and we need to expand our knowledge of humanity – of who we are and where we’ve come from. Islam is a major contributor to world civilization, to the global civilization that we all enjoy – and sometimes don’t enjoy – in our time. So without a knowledge of Islamic history, a Canadian person really doesn’t have a full picture of their own history. You can’t separate Islamic civilization from European or Western civilization – these two civilizations that have interacted with each other, learned from each other. I mean, there’s even some, like the Columbia University professor Richard Bulliet, who say that it would be most accurate from an historical point of view to talk about a pre-modern Islamo-Christian civilization – that it really was this one interacting civilization that dominated, you know, Europe, West Asia and North Africa.

The reality is that most of Islamic history has been excluded from the way we tell stories about ourselves and from the history curriculum in various schools. So like other history months, like Black History Month, for example, or Women’s History Month, this is an opportunity to add to our knowledge about a group of people in a civilization that has often been marginalized in our telling of who we are and where we’ve come from – which is what history is.

And finally, I have to say that I think that Islamic History Month is a great opportunity, not only for the general population, but for Muslim Canadians also to learn more about their own history. Because the reality is that a Muslim who was born and raised in Canada might not be exposed to much of the richness of their own history. As someone who teaches at the university level, I have to say that it’s remarkable to see how little they [Muslim Canadians] know, how little they know about their own history, especially in terms of the diversity of Islamic thought and cultures and the participation of women in the production of knowledge and culture. So it’s also very good, I believe, for young Muslim people growing up in Canada to have a better sense of the range of possibilities of being Muslim in the world based on our historical experiences.


You converted to Islam as an adult. Can you please tell us about how you came to Islam?

I really came to Islam through the Qur’an. I was a person uninterested in religion by the time I reached university. I had left behind the religion that my family practiced and I was simply uninterested in religion. But I came across [the Qur’an] through a series of interactions with some friends I had made, so I started reading the Qur’an – well, a translation of the Qur’an – and that’s what brought back my awareness of God and rekindled this feeling of being connected with both my Creator and also with a universe that was full of meaning and purpose. So because I came to that realization through the Qur’an, that set me on the path of being a Muslim. It was the Muslim community that had transmitted a scripture and taught it to the point of me being able to access it and read it and have such a profound effect on my life.


Last year you spoke at the Museum during Islamic History Month about Islam and human rights. What unique ideas does Islam bring to discussions about rights?

Well I would say there are two important concepts in traditional Islamic thought with respect to rights that are particularly relevant in our time today. One is the idea of community rights and the second is conflicting rights.

Traditional Islamic thought gives rights to different religious communities within an Islamic political-judicial sovereignty. So while Islam might have been, in a pre-modern state, the official religion of the state and the foundation for the political and judicial system, at the same time other religious communities had the right to live and function and operate within their own communities as religious people. And that means that they’d be doing things that Muslims are not supposed to do. For example, Muslims are not allowed to drink alcohol or eat pork, whereas that is not prohibited, for example, in a Christian religious community. They absolutely had the right to practice that, because the prohibition was based not on rationales but on religious belief. So there was a separation between laws that are based on religious belief – and those couldn’t be imposed on anyone – and laws that are based on rationales for the public interest – and those were for everyone. So this idea of how do you accommodate different religious communities – some of them very small or minority communities – gave fruit to a lot of really interesting discussion. It’s not to say that the solution that we came up with in those times are appropriate for today, but the conversations – the concepts and what they involved – I think are instructive and helpful.

The second area that I specified is in conflicting rights and this is something again that is important to us today. If a community claimed that something they practiced was part of their religious tradition but the majority felt that this conflicted with the natural law or rational understanding of harm and benefit – that is a classic conflicting right issue. Again it’s interesting to see how traditional Muslim jurists really struggled with trying to understand how to deal with these situations. Some of them disagreed very strongly over whether certain things were part of natural law, or part of a rational conception of harm and benefit. So I find those conversations particularly helpful and instructive for us today. It’s something that Canadians deal with all the time – trying to understand how we can live together in our diversity when some of us see certain practices as, in our minds, obviously harmful or detrimental, whereas others feel very strongly these are beneficial to them and their families and their communities.


You’ve been a strong advocate for women’s rights, and for the rights of Muslim women in particular. How do you see women’s public role in Islam?

Well, I would say that in our time, we see that there are so many more opportunities – because of technology, because of democracy, because of the context of human rights – freedom of speech, freedom of conscience. So it is more possible, perhaps, than ever for women anywhere – including Muslim women – to articulate their vision, their perspective and their interest in a public way and then also have opportunities to serve the public on the basis of the convictions that they have.

I would say, however, that one of the things that is challenging in modernity is that there is always a tendency towards centralization, towards the consolidation of power, and technology can also lead to that. And so when we compare the situation of women now with women in a pre-modern period, there are a lot of things – most things – that are much better, but on the other hand, we can also see that in traditional societies, the idea of the public was not so dominating in a way – that people lived in communities where power was more diffuse, decision-making was decentralized. There were many opportunities for women to participate in decision-making in their community in a way that sometimes is more challenging in a modern society. For example, to get to the point of being an elected representative to Parliament where laws are being made that affect all sorts of communities, you need a lot of resources. You need to conform sometimes to certain public standards of what a political leader might look like. So I think there’s benefits and drawbacks, but Muslim women are pretty much like women everywhere in trying to take advantage of and build on the opportunities that they themselves have fought for, to be included in public decision-making.


You are a very strong advocate for interfaith engagement – why is it so important today?

Well, I would say at the most fundamental level, the question of first, do no harm. We don’t want our religion to be used as an excuse for violence, for divisiveness, for oppression, for hatred. And that happens sometimes. That’s the reality – that religion can be used for those purposes. Because of that, I believe it’s an imperative for all religious communities to engage with other religious communities in conversation – working together to build these strong relationships in faith communities and have a demonstrated commitment to each other’s welfare and the public welfare, to be able to marginalize those hateful voices.

The second reason is that I believe that there’s a lot of work for us to do together to help make our society more compassionate. We live in a time when we see that civic engagement at all levels has dropped off, whether it’s a Rotary club or any other kind of serving the public through a volunteer capacity. There’s been a huge drop-off and I think that has something to do with the mobility of people today. I think a lot of people simply don’t make deep attachments where they live. We also have a very careerist kind of ethic in society where people devote more and more time to their careers and will say they don’t really have time for the volunteer work. For all religions traditions, after faith in God, the most important thing is service. Service to others, service to the poor, to the needy, to the marginalized, to the lonely. We have a lot of people like that in our society. And so wherever, as religious people, we can, we really need to harness our collective power to counter the trends in society towards being disconnected and being self-interested, rather than looking out to those who really need our support and our advocacy and our compassion and our presence.