Building Conscious Community

Imam Khalid Latif

University Chaplain for New York University and Executive Director of the Islamic Center at NYU

In this conversation series, we explore design as a spiritual practice with creative leaders, spiritual teachers, and startup founders from around the world. Here, Peter Gould interviews Imam Khalid Latif; University Chaplain for New York University and Executive Director of the Islamic Center at NYU.
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I’ve long been inspired by Imam Khalid Latif’s leadership and his work in building strong, aspirational and proactive Muslim communities. His skill as a speaker, educator and organiser has brought him global renown, and I was excited to learn more about his role models, what we can learn from them, and how we can apply use those lessons to build better businesses.

“Not to be cliche, or the most obvious, but I do draw a lot from the example of the Prophet, Alayhi Salam,” replies Imam Khalid Latif when I ask him who he would consider the best examples of leaders from throughout history.

“Not only as an individual whose inward and outward were so balanced, but also just the examples of self-awareness and emotional intelligence that he demonstrated.”

To illustrate his point, Khalid relates a story of Prophet Muhammed that he uses in one of the courses he teaches.

“There was a young girl by the name of Umayyah bint Qays, from the Ghifar tribe. They come to participate in the battle of Khaybar, and she’s riding on the mount of the Prophet. She has her first menstrual cycle during that journey, and the Prophet engages her in conversation, comforting her.

“And then, when the battle is done, he comes and finds her and gives her a necklace, which she says she wants to be buried with it. And it’s really remarkable because this circumstance could be very embarrassing for a young girl, and the Prophet not only makes her feel good, but after an entire battle transpires, he still has in the back of his mind that he should demonstrate even more of a concern. He not only helps her get through the complexity of that day, but at the end of it, he makes her feel like a queen. She looks to it as this empowering moment for herself.

“There’s so much in the Prophetic tradition that’s rooted in this prism of self-awareness, consciousness and emotional intelligence, and I think this is a very needed component of leadership.”

“There’s so much in the Prophetic tradition that’s rooted in this prism of self-awareness, consciousness and emotional intelligence.”

With almost 20 years’ experience in leadership and community work, Khaild is expertly placed to speak on the topic.

Having been appointed as the first Muslim Chaplian at New York University in 2005, the current executive director and chaplain for the Islamic Centre at NYU was also appointed as the first Muslim chaplain at Princeton University in 2006, and then in 2007 nominated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the youngest chaplain in history of the New York City Police Department – aged only 24.

Dedicated to building strong Muslim institutions and communities, as well as establishing cross-faith and cross-cultural bridges, he is a highly respected educator, speaker, organiser, activist, mentor, counsellor and mediator. He has offered his experience to the US State Department and various other institutions and organisations across America and the wider world, and has shared the stage with the likes of Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, as well as visiting – and raising millions of dollars for – refugee camps, conflict zones, natural disaster sites and internally displaced populations as part of his humanitarian work.

This is a man who leads from the front as he serves communities, groups and individuals far and wide.

Embracing young leaders

As we continue our conversation about role models, Khalid mentions a more recent example of admirable leadership that he finds inspirational.

“There was a Somali woman by the name of Dr Hawa Abdi, who passed away in recent years. And she was remarkable. She got her degree as a gynaecologist, brought her medical training back to her home country, and started to just see people in need. And when Somalia hit very difficult times and conflict, her health centre essentially became a site for internally displaced populations, to the point where she was now caring for more than 90,000 people.

“Al-Shabbab came in and said ‘a woman can’t be in your role’. So they told her ‘you have to give us control of your centre’. And she just said ‘no’. Things went back and forth between them, and became a global spectacle, and eventually they gave her back her centre, but not until they damaged a lot of it. So she just gets up and starts raising funds to build it again.

“She was a Nobel prize nominee, received numerous awards and other things, and was really a remarkable person who was very clearly driven by a strong sense of self, rooted in values and the living of those values. It has to be rooted in internal strength and internal perspective. You can’t do what she did otherwise. You would run on empty and you’d burn out if you were facing these things and you didn’t know why you were doing what you were doing.”

With these beautiful role models in mind, I’m curious how Khalid might encourage young people to embrace such examples and adopt similar leadership qualities in their own businesses and careers?

“I think now is the right time to engage the younger generations in that way, because they are being called more to values,” he says, before explaining that a bigger challenge is helping them to learn the basics of business; from the building-blocks of entrepreneurship, to the clarity of aspiration required to grow both personally and professionally.

“I would say there’s a problem with what’s in the conventional self-help book, in as much as people write the same book over and over, and people read it, but they don’t actualise it. They don’t have a ‘how-to’ guide,” he says.

“Today, we have a societal norm of individualism. Everybody is told to go and find their own unique purpose. But that becomes hard when you don’t have an outline of established steps, or a structure to get there.

“Young people need to know what those steps are, and after that you can start to build in commentary from different people and different perspectives – examples of proven models that can give people a sense of aspiration.”

Another challenge, he says, is in encouraging young people to develop a sense of consciousness and sense of community; made difficult when they are confronted with the choice of either maintaining their spiritual principles, or loosening them to make commercial or reputational gains.

“Religion theoretically is based on principles. And the corporate sector, private sector, politics, and all these other areas, are based on the compromise of principles. So we need to get people back to a place where they are willing to find intangible rewards at the expense of the tangible rewards they would get for doing things that are absent of ethics. And that’s hard to do when they don’t have a bigger picture in mind.”

Metrics of success

During my own journey, I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating these ‘rewards’ and understanding what ‘success’ really means.

I believe that success, especially in a design or startup context, should not be primarily about valuation, stock price or user growth, but rather should be more holistic – something unique to each individual or organisation, but rooted in purposeful, meaningful impact, both to the people you’re serving and to yourself.

Reframing success as inclusive of financial impact, personal and spiritual wellbeing, and community service can profoundly change the way we approach our work and what we focus on whether we are start-ups, corporations, agencies or governments.

It’s heartening to see increasing numbers of organisations working to reframe what success means to them, but overwhelmingly it feels that success for most is still built around sales revenue, net profit margin, shareholder returns, and other financial metrics.

Khalid calls this a “phenomenon of modernity”, and explains that “we have transitioned into a place where we moved away from conversations on virtues, and towards conversations on values”. The problem, he contests, is that there are no tangible specifics to what these values really are.

“We have transitioned into a place where we moved away from conversations on virtues, and towards conversations on values.”

“In America at least, these values are rooted in a claim for Western philosophical experience that didn’t even talk about these things decades ago,”  he explains. “They’re more so dealing with a construct that becomes problematic because it claims to be rooted in something that it’s not actually rooted in. And now they also get applied to companies, which are spaces of ambiguity. Because companies are just made up of individuals that bring their own ethics and values.

“So people can get lost in all of this if they don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing to begin with. There’s a Hadith that tells us that the son of Adam, if you give him a mountain of gold, he’s going to chase after another mountain of gold. I’ve seen it with people – they got a mountain of gold and they weren’t happy. But they didn’t know what else to seek, so they thought maybe it wasn’t enough, so they went to find more gold.

“So you have to ask yourself: What brings you meaning?”

Building better businesses

Having a clear intention (Niyyah in Arabic) and understanding your position, talents, motivation and means as an Amanah (translated as ‘trust’, or ‘responsibility towards others’) are important elements in shaping our organisation’s mission, vision, and purpose.

But as Khalid says, without a solid framework with which to carry a business, achieving success – however you might frame it – is almost impossible. So how does he advise people to build this framework while ensuring a heart-centeredness that can oftentimes be lost among the rigours of the modern business world?

He gives an example of a non-profit he helped two members of the Islamic Centre NYU community to establish in 2018: Pillars of Peace – a project to help sufferers of domestic abuse.

“We conceptualised the idea for six months on paper, and after that we did a broader engagement of our community through email lists, etc, to discover our weaknesses: What are the things that we have lacking, and how do we fill those? How do we solicit professional volunteers to help us in this first phase?

“After we brought in people to fill some of those gaps, we worked very theoretically again until Ramadan 2019, when we launched a capital campaign to raise funds for our first project, The Noora House – an emergency confidential shelter for women and children survivors of abuse. We raised a million dollars from over 9,000 contributors in a week and a half, alhamdulillah. And from there we pushed forward and built out other aspects governance-wise.

“A lot of the onset of that was very introspective. What is the sense of identity that we give to this institution, to see it in a personified way? And within an Islamic framework, we wanted to recognise that a God-centric worldview is about bringing everything back to Allah at the end of the day. A house of God is meant to draw attentiveness to God and not the house.

“A God-centric worldview is about bringing everything back to Allah at the end of the day. A house of God is meant to draw attentiveness to God and not the house.”

“So where we’re building organisations, we're working as a community of God, which stems from the Masjid – the house of God. And which is based on a book by God, or the followings of the teachings of a messenger of God.

“And that link necessitates an understanding of how this [organisation] can embody elements of the divine that we can actualise, and how we  can take Prophetic tradition and Hadith that tell us things for individuals, and use them to give a personality to this institution.

“For me, God is good. And so where can we seek to actualise the names that God has applied to himself? Allah says he’s merciful and that he’s good. So to be merciful is good, so be merciful.”

Take care of your heart

As much emphasis as Khalid puts on serving, considering, and taking care of others, he also highlights the vital importance of self-care in business.

“Your self care is critical,”  he says. “There will be ups and downs, and it’s hard work. And you can’t take care of somebody’s heart if you’re not taking care of your own heart.

“It’s important to have a sense of self care so that when your physical, emotional, spiritual and mental spheres start to expend energy, you have a mechanism of replenishment and rejuvenation; so you’re still bringing the best of yourself to the work.”

He adds that part of this self care – and part of a successful organisation – is the ability to tap into our own emotions.

“There are arguably upwards of 34,000 emotions that people can feel, but most people express only 10 or 20 of them over decades of their life. I’m usually just angry, or sad, or happy. But there’s so much more depth to it than that, and really understanding that – understanding how we truly feel – becomes so important. It helps us to know ourselves properly. Which then helps us to admit that there are certain things that we can learn. It builds emotional intelligence which benefits ourselves, as well as our organisations.”

“There are arguably upwards of 34,000 emotions that people can feel, but most people express only 10 or 20 of them over decades of their life. I’m usually just angry, or sad, or happy. But there’s so much more depth to it than that.”

This brings us full circle to Khalid’s story about Prophet Muhammed’s own emotional intelligence, and the influence it had on his leadership more than 1,400 years ago: Leadership that has been celebrated and remarked up in countless lists, articles and books, including The Leadership of Muhammad, by management scholar, John Adair, and Muhammad (s): 11 Leadership Qualities That Changed The World, by Nabeel Al-Azami.

The example of Prophet Muhammed, and the blueprint he provided, shows that spirituality plays an active and important role not only in leadership, but in developing a more meaningful professional paradigm: Building conscious communities, designing ethical and effective strategies, and reframing what it means to be truly successful.


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