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 Woman leads a wave of change for U.S. Muslims

Matthai Chakko Kuruvila, Chronicle Religion Writer

Friday, November 24, 2006

A former Catholic, Canadian-born woman who is a widely respected scholar is arguably the most influential Muslim in America.

Ingrid Mattson, the recently elected president of the 43-year-old Islamic Society of North America, is the first convert, first non-immigrant and first woman to lead the largest Muslim umbrella organization on the continent. Her rise to prominence comes as more women and native-born Muslims are defining the faith, making Islam more of an American religion.

"There certainly has been a very strong tendency in Muslim societies to consider it better for women to not assume public office, although (Muslim) women have been political leaders, religious leaders and scholars," said Mattson, 43, who will speak tonight and Saturday at a conference of Muslims in Santa Clara about the life of the prophet Muhammad.

"The fact that our community has decided that being female is not a barrier is the result of many years of scholarship and education on the part of a number of scholars and teachers in our community."

The soft-spoken Mattson is not afraid to challenge long-held assumptions among believers. She wears a head scarf and loose clothes, and she is a forceful advocate for women's rights. She wields a powerful administrative role in establishing American Muslim institutions, and she's hands-on in shaping the minds of the nation's Muslim chaplains.

The Islamic Society of North America serves as an incubator for an array of Islamic institutions around the country, building the infrastructure for a faith that is relatively young in the United States.

Prominent mosques in Fremont and Santa Clara as well as a Muslim domestic violence hot line in Palo Alto have their roots in ISNA or its members.

Mattson's ascendancy underscores the complex roles of Muslim women in America. They have founded and operate several nonprofits and institutions, particularly in the Bay Area. Many sit on the boards of their mosques, especially those run by African Americans, the single largest ethnic bloc of American Muslims.

But there are mosques that physically exclude women, segregate them behind walls or block them from leadership. Mattson's rise has been celebrated by many Muslims as a harbinger of the future.

"Muslim organizations have been dominated by an immigrant group of men that has had a hard time passing the torch to the next generation," said Dr. Laila Al-Marayati, founder and past president of the Muslim Women's League, based in Los Angeles. "She represents that change."

Mattson's coming of age brought her to Islam. Growing up in Kitchener, Ontario, her family lived near a Catholic complex, including a convent, church and school. But at age 15, the once-pious child had more and more questions, and the nuns who taught her had fewer answers. They sent her to a priest, who couldn't satisfy her either. God disappeared.

"Religion wasn't ever to me about dogma," she said. "It was more about how I felt, my own spiritual connection. How much my inability to grasp Catholic theology had to do with my fading spiritual connection, I don't know." She stopped attending church.

In her senior year of college, she went to Paris and befriended several Senegalese, who happened to be Muslim. "As I got close to them, I wanted to know more about them," Mattson said. She returned to Canada and began reading the Quran.

Certain verses gripped her, explaining God to her in new ways. The verses "brought me to believe in God, which I didn't," she said. "It just opened this complete, new universe of meaning to me."

Mattson had never heard of a Muslim before going to Paris. But within a year, she became one. She believes her Christian upbringing -- and a sister who converted to Judaism -- frees her from inter-religious barriers others might have. She thinks her perspective will allow her to better mediate between a minority faith and Christianity in the United States.

"I feel very privileged," she said. "I'm sure I have my own barriers, but I think I'm able to be pretty open to people ... about who they are and what they believe."

After college, in 1987, Mattson volunteered in a refugee camp in Pakistan. There, she met and married her husband, Aamer Atek, an Egyptian engineer and fellow volunteer.

She went on to earn a doctorate in Islamic studies from the University of Chicago. Since 1998, she has taught courses on Islam at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

In 2001, she was elected to the first of her two terms as the Islamic Society's vice president, foreshadowing her current position.

When Mattson was elected president in August, it was because "she was the most qualified," said Ameena Jandali, a Berkeley resident who was on the five-member election committee overseeing the process. "It wasn't a matter of gender."

Mattson's most important role may be as the director of the nation's only Islamic chaplaincy program, also at Hartford Seminary. Mattson is responsible for helping train a generation of leaders who will counsel the most vulnerable believers: those in colleges, prisons, hospitals and the military.

Her students' stories about her help reveal her perspective on Islam. In one class three years ago, she stood before her students, urging them to question the authenticity of a quote long attributed by Muslims to the prophet Muhammad.

"If God had told anyone to bow to anyone but him, then he would tell women to bow to their husbands," Muhammad reportedly said, according to one hadith, a religiously sanctioned compilation of the sayings and deeds of Islam's revered prophet.

Several students disagreed with Mattson's questioning of the verse. They said she was introducing subjectivity into centuries of tradition that had validated the quote.

But Mattson calmly gave them criteria to weigh a hadith's authenticity -- whether it is congruent with the Quran, congruent with Muhammad's other sayings and logically a part of Islamic teaching.

Mattson said the quote didn't pass muster with the Quran's call for gender equality, or Muhammad's body of teachings. Questioning had nothing to do with subjectivity, she said. In fact, Islamic tradition required it.

"She's thought-provoking," said former student Sohaib Sultan, 26, now a chaplain at Wesleyan and Trinity colleges in Connecticut, recalling the scene. "She makes us think outside the box. But by her own calm demeanor, she shows how we can have differences of opinion and at the same time respect each other."

Mattson said her quiet confidence in conflict is the product of her childhood.

"My ability to remain calm is the fruit of having grown up in a large family -- four brothers, very opinionated, a huge extended family," she said. "I was smaller than everyone. I couldn't yell louder. I just had to be calm."

She wants her students, particularly women, to leave her classes with the same quality. She verbally pushes them, and some students initially think she's mean.

"If they're a woman and they're trying to make a point, they have to learn to hold their ground, to articulate a point without getting upset," she said. "If they can't handle me challenging them, they can't handle the rest of the world."

Muslim leader in Santa Clara

Ingrid Mattson will speak tonight and Saturday at the Seerah Conference, a discussion about the life of the prophet Muhammad. The event is open to the public and will take place at the MCA Islamic Center, 3003 Scott Blvd., Santa Clara. For more information, go to

E-mail Matthai Chakko Kuruvila at

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