Sunday, 22 July 2012

How to Begin & Run a Sharing Session

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

As part of da’wah and convert management, there is a need for sharing circles, the cell group, the swuhbah.  In this case, we call it the sharing circle.  The sharing circle serves the combined role of friendship building, mutual support and training, or spiritual apprenticeship.  Therefore the group needs to be small.  The size may vary slightly depending on the dynamics of the group and the needs and capabilities of the people involved.  The structure of this is taken from the sunnah of the Prophet (s.a.w.) and the practices of the shuyukh.  Ideally, there has to be an ‘ijazah, a chain of authorisation going back to the Prophet (s.a.w.).  It may seem that this is re-inventing the concept of thariqa’, but the main focus of a sharing group is to provide the moral support and surrogate social network for those who are about to convert and those who have recently converted, the mu’allaf.  It does not replace the need for converts to attend classes, pray in the masjid, or attend any sort of congregational dzikr.  It is meant to enhance it.

The following is the concept and conduct of a Sharing Group.  Much of it borrowed from my experience as a Catholic missionary and later training in the thariqa’.  The idea is to revive a sunnah and make it accessible to any person anywhere in the world.  Hopefully, it is a useful tool for da’wah and convert management.

At the very top, there has to be a sort of shura’, a group of people to give the group some sort of strategic direction.  And then it widen out into the circles, from the most advanced in learning and experience to the newest initiate.  There may be separate circles for adults and students, male and female, long-time Muslim and newer convert.  Ideally, the sharing groups should be between eight to twelve people at best.  In some instances, better results are achieved with larger groups, especially when practicing congregational ‘ibadah.  Student cells are commonly larger than adult cells.

Although it would be nice for the sharing group to be open to all, the primary function is as a support group for new Muslims.  Consequently, the members should be practicing Muslims or new believers who have indicated a desire to commit.  There has to be a good mix of knowledge, wisdom and spirituality.  We are supposed to be ambassadors of faith and the example is the Prophet (s.a.w.) himself.  There is no place for people who are judgemental, domineering and indiscreet.

Normally, when we discus mu’allaf, it refers to those whose hearts are inclined towards Islam although they have not converted yet, or those who have said the shahadah but are still finding their feet in the community.  In this regards, I believe we are looking at four main groups of people: non-Muslims, new Muslims, lapsed Muslims and ex-Muslims.  Whilst the latter two would not be strictly considered mu’allaf, they are special cases for the Ummah to deal with.

In many cases, the lapsed Muslims should be treated like new Muslims.  They may be the children of converts, the children of non-practicing Muslims or even Muslims who have never had the opportunity or prior inclination to learn about their faith.  For many of them, simply going to a mosque is daunting and the Muslim community at large can be quite judgemental.  There is a need to provide for them an environment of compassion and encouragement come back to Islam.  Ex-Muslims are those who for whatever reasons have left the faith.  In the counselling of apostasy cases, we learn that we should never give up on people.  If even broken hearts heal, so can faith be restored.  It is important to provide that environment for the prodigal children to come home.

In a case where a new person is unsure as to whether he would like to commit to a sharing group, it is preferable to inform him that he is welcome to check out cell if he likes what he experiences being in such a sharing session.  This leaves the question of permanent membership open, in the case of a sharing group that requires it.  A general sharing session is run for either, committed and uncommitted members, Muslim or non-Muslim.  However, each group should work towards a core regular membership so that trust can develop and they can focus on deeper issues of faith.  An open approach is only recommended in home groups where outreach or follow-ups face severe problems.

If an uncommitted sharing group is initiated, it should not be changed later to a committed sharing group unless all of the members explicitly agree to such a change.  That would create problems.  A better way to change to a higher commitment group is to announce that a new group is starting, and offering all members an opportunity to join if they accept the new conditions.  This allows those who do not want more commitment to continue meeting in the existing group.  Committed groups are best for growth, while open groups are better for outreach and follow up.  Depending on the nature of the sharing group and the objectives, it may be a single gender group or a mixed group.

If there is a group of three or more like-minded persons, any group can be started.  The group that we have began with four converts amongst others.  A sharing group can be started by beginning with a one-on-one meeting and adding others over time.  However, it would be better to join an existing sharing group and branch out from there so that a relationship and continuity is developed.  When a sharing group has reached a certain mass, it may then have sharing groups bud off based on topics, demographics and need.  They still maintain a relationship with the main group, however.  The idea is not to create cell groups but to build the basis of a community.

The Prophet (s.a.w.) Received Revelation from 610 CE.  From that time until the hijrah to Madina in 622 CE, he built the foundations of that faith.  It was here, amidst persecution that the seeds of the Ummah were planted.  It was not about the Law.  It was about values.  If there is no relationship with Allah (s.w.t.), there is no attachment to the faith.  And if there is no community of believers, then that attachment to the faith will wither in the face of trials and tribulations and fail.  It is only when he migrated to Madina that the fruits of that became apparent.  Each and every one of those stalwarts, who sat in his association, his swuhbah, became a swahabah, a companion.  Not a student, not a follower but something more than that.  It is the nucleus of a new family, a family that is to encompass more than a billion souls.

Certainly, there are things to consider.  The first is the meeting place.  We can never overlook the importance of a good meeting place and good atmosphere for the sessions.  These are especially important for new members.  When people come to a group they are impacted by the over-all experience, not just by the teachings and the food.  In most cases, the ideal meeting place should be at a private home.  An institutional setting is not conducive to good fellowship since the atmosphere is too sterile and there is a greater propensity for distractions.  Business conference rooms have been used with some success.  However, we realise business people associate conference rooms with doing business, not with building deep relationships.  Homes are associated with family and friends.  Also, homes lend themselves to social time and recreation after the meeting.  Meeting places should be suitable for socialising afterwards.  Moving from one location to another location after the meeting is not preferable since you may lose people in transit and the ones most easily lost are the invariable the most vulnerable ones since they feel the most distant.

It is sunnah to sit comfortable on the floor, with or without cushions, in a circle.  The circle symbolizes completion and no one feels left out by virtue of the seating arrangement.  Since there is no ‘head’ and therefore no hierarchy of sitting, it is reduces the ego and makes all feel equal.  People usually need to be facing each other and close together in order to feel engaged during a discussion.  Crowding is not necessarily a bad thing but comfort is also important.  Because there are no tables in between, a psychological barrier is removed and the sharing group can work on removing the other barriers, the barriers of the soul.  The temperature should not be too warm and the place must not be too humid.  This may lead to drowsiness.  Coffee or a warm drink is encouraged.

We must allow sufficient time for talking and warm up before gathering the group together.  People need to be eased into the setting.  Periodically schedule activities together before the meeting like cookouts, dinner at a restaurant, or a special treat.  Make an effort to commemorate the significant events of people’s spiritual journey such as conversions.  These activities can be significant in building a sense of community in the group.  The leaders and the host should be there early to greet members as they arrive and set a positive, welcoming tone.

Sessions should be held on time, regularly, at a time when members can put together two to three hours.  This means most groups meet on weekend evenings, or especially Friday nights.  If you meet on a work night, try to start your meeting after maghrib.  Our sessions are normally from 2000h to 2230h.  Sessions should start on time even if some are absent at first.  The others will come on time when they hear that a good thing is going on.  Starting late teaches members to be late.  It is also important to respect people’s amanah and end on time.  Never indulge the ego and drag longer than necessary.

The sessions must be free-flowing and natural.  They should include both instruction and interaction.  Keep periods of instruction interesting.  This necessitates that the one conducting the session be prepared intellectually and spiritually.  There has to be a connection, a rabithah.  The adab of teaching requires that there be passion and certainty.  Do not speak of states that have not been experienced and never be afraid to say you do not know.  It is good to have self-deprecating humour.  It keeps the learned humble.  It is permissible to stand periodically and walk around in order to hold attention but not necessary.

During interactive periods, the discussion needs to be guided while not discouraging creative sharing.  The sessions should not be held to a rigid outline.  Invite polite interruptions within reason.  Alternate between short periods of teaching and discussion to maintain flow.  This is called leader-guided or moderated group discussion.  The learning is partly by lecture.  At the end, there is a short summary and comment to most or all of what was shared.  These summaries crystallise what was said, and stimulate further thinking.

The key to getting participants of a sharing session to think is not always to speak.  It is better done by asking questions to stimulate thinking.  It also helps to prod members toward a particular line of thought.  The following are types of probes that may be used to facilitate a guided discussion: One could state an apparent contradiction in the introduction and ask the group how it might be resolved; one could ask how a particular truth might apply to life in general or to specific situations given as examples; one could give a statement from a third party and gauge their reaction to it; one could ask how someone from a certain perspective would answer a particular question; or, one could set up a real life, morally ambiguous situation and ask how principles, beliefs and shari’ah might apply.  We should ask for exceptions to the norm.

It is sunnah to begin and end with a du’aDu’a is an important aspect of the group.  Like sessions should at least begin with the recitation of the swalawat and Surah al-Fatihah.

Much of relationship building occurs after the session.  We should strenuously avoid leaving soon after the sessions as this communicates disinterest or low priority on spending time with the group.  Should there be a need to leave immediately, do so only with apologies.  It is important to build consensus that the time after the meeting is the socialising part of the evening.  These serves to transform the group into a community, rather than simply a class.  It is preferable to have drinks and food on hand beforehand.  There has to be a balance between making sure that no one is being ignored, and engaging one or more members in relatively deep conversations on their needs.


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