The fireweed that blooms: nurturing an elevated strategic mindset amongst Muslims

In light of recent events in the Ottawa Muslim community, I’ve put together some thoughts on refining our strategic mindset. This is the start of openly sharing my learning journal “Designing with Adab (أدب)”.

بِسْمِ ٱللَّٰهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ | In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate

Preface: We live in a time of unbounded media. At the risk of being redundant, I’m identifying the audience for this article as mainstream, Sunni orthodox Muslim community leaders in Ottawa. Beyond that audience, the message could apply to other Muslim communities in the Windsor-Ottawa corridor.

An abnormally fiery winter in Ottawa

It occurred in December. And then again in January. Another month, another unexpected firing of a respected imam in Ottawa at the hands of the mosque’s board of directors.

Much energy gets poured into these issues. Voices plead at the mic. Petitions circulate. Videos and images spread through WhatsApp. For all involved, it’s a rollercoaster of emotions.

My role isn’t to unpack the particulars of these cases. Instead, I offer a reframe of these incidents for those who are in leadership positions: this is an opportunity to rethink the premises upon which Ottawa Muslim communities exist.

Stagnation by doing the wrong thing right

In the short to medium term, I sincerely believe that the Muslim communities in Ottawa will navigate the fallout and come to stabilize, inshaAllah. This is precisely because, from my experience and observations, we Muslims excel at reacting to the moment. We know how to gather resources, direct our energy and efforts, and rally others to address an urgent issue.

The calls for people to be more involved in the management of our places of worship are no doubt on the tips of everyone’s tongue who wishes to avoid these issues in the future. However, this type of problem-solution mindset is precisely the type of reactive thinking that I think Muslims – especially the leadership – can now see as being sorely outdated.

A new model of thinking, one that is more strategic, may help prevent, or at least reduce, the number of urgencies we need to address. Sure, we Muslims excel at urgently solving problems. But viewed in another light, is it not an issue that we’ve become so good at urgently solving problems of our own making? What other important aspects of community life are we not tending to when we’re perpetually stuck in reactionary solving mode?

Elevated strategy by knowing “when” we are

If we use the case study of the unexpected firing of a trusted, long-standing imam by the mosque’s board of directors, then a strategic mindset might ask a new set of questions about the foundations these issues emerge from. Why is the board of directors’ decision seemingly out of sync with the community? What are the external and internal forces impacting the ability for our community members to be more or less involved? More or less on the same page? How has it changed since the past? And where might this trend be heading? What governance models serve us best, now, at our size and at this phase? What trust, in stewardship, has the leadership built up over the years and what risks and opportunities does that open up? What changes do we seek to make and what can we affect and not affect? On what timelines do these changes occur and what energy do they require over these timelines? These are just a few examples of the premises worth rethinking, in light of these incidents.

Ultimately, this strategic perspective invites us to dramatically depart from how we typically see community. It’s common to see community from an object-oriented viewpoint, a static whole made up of parts (individual members). Instead, we could see our community as an unfolding process, one that waxes and wanes depending on where it is in its cycle or rhythm. This perspective gives primacy to “time”, in our understanding of ourselves.

This perspective is inherent to Islam. Take the lunar calendar we follow, as an example, especially so because of its symbolism for Muslims. A process-oriented viewpoint of the moon’s phases is, by Allah’s design, intended to give us a sense of “when” we are.

They ask you, [O Muhammad], about the new moons. Say, “They are measurements of time for the people and for Hajj.” [2:189]

As for the moon, We have ordained ˹precise˺ phases for it , until it ends up ˹looking˺ like an old, curved palm stalk. [36:39]

When we take a process-oriented view of our Muslim communities, it gives us pause to think deeply about our makeup. A mature mosque, for example, might ask premise-level questions about how well its governance and decision-making process fit with, not just “where” it exists, but also “when” (in its timeline) it exists. Do the consensus-finding mechanisms that serve an upstart mosque still make sense once it becomes more established, larger, and trusted? The variables – external and internal – to calibrate with are endless. It’s a constant refinement. And that’s exactly the point. A process-oriented perspective of our Muslim community can guide our attention to the maintenance work that keeps us from falling into the reactionary problem-solution cycle.

Designing with adab (أدب) for “complex” issues

If we accept this perspectival shift, then, as Muslims, we can pursue the strategic act of “designing with adab”. This phrase I’ve termed is a process-oriented description of refining one’s knowledge of the proper place of things, in a given situation or point in time, and acting upon it with pragmatic wisdom.

I firmly believe that linear, problem-solution, thinking is dramatically outdated and insufficient for the times we’re living in. This thinking is out of place, for Muslim community building, at this time. Whether you subscribe to a VUCA world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) or the polycrisis, or even the meta crisis, all indicators show that designing for well–structured solvable problems is an outdated model. Instead, we’re at a point where we can only design for degrees of agreeableness amidst unsolvable complex issues, including those affecting our Muslim communities. We are not immune. But we are distinct in our approach, in our adab.

The higher-order domains of strategic design

Designing with the complex is the role of a strategic designer. There’s the word again, I’ve been using so much. “Design”. I get it, my use of it may be confusing. Design might usually bring to mind: photoshop, logos, branding, colours, etc. I am not that kind of designer.

The theory, methods, and practices of design have evolved beyond those product and service domains to now cover the design of social systems such as organizations, communities, and society. In these domains, the designer’s role is to surface multiple perspectives on an issue and facilitate its negotiation. Notably, it’s not about solving problems. This is what I do in my training, my work, and my research as a strategic designer.

Fit for the local Muslim community context

I understand that Muslim community leaders may not be exposed to this type of strategic design, since, as a field, it only recently became salient. The latest generation of strategic designers, including myself, are only now bringing these skills into settings previously untouched, including religious communities (albeit rarely, given the secularization of design practices in modernity). So they may not have known that this perspective even exists, which may explain its absence and its omission.

The Imams and devoted Muslim community leaders most likely don’t get this perspective from the set of active advisors who laterally use their professional experience and reputation in community building. The likes of doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants, bureaucrats, etc. After all, their success is predicated on linear thinking that gives preference to procedures and technicalities. The skills that they bring to community building, once invaluable and essential (of which we are enormously grateful), no longer fit the context we live in. In an adab’ic sense, those skills are no longer in the proper place when designing our community’s social systems today, as is evidenced by the absence of its upkeep.

Islamization of strategic design

And here is where the opportunity lies for not only rethinking the premises, but in doing so, reconfiguring – or rather “islamizing” – our strategic mindset for designing the systems that we rely on, to the extent we can. Based on the knowledge I’ve learned and continue to learn about Islamic principles, I can see it reflected in strategic design. I believe this is because in its purest form, design, like the embodied principles of Islam, attempt to deliver justice in setting things in their proper place.

What I, and other strategic designers, bring to Muslim community leaders is a new strategic perspective for navigating the shifting, local, complex context. So, by integrating knowledge of the rich, islamic tradition, that our local scholars bring, with strategic design, there’s an opportunity to be designing (the Ottawa Muslim community’s social systems) with adab. This is an opportunity for refinement and rebalancing.

Refinement for a renewed spring

The fireweed springs upon burnt land. The moment calls our attention to nurturing the fireweed and rethinking the premises upon which the community sits. The nurturing of the seed, with intellectual humility, can perhaps move us closer to the Prophetic way of: being in harmony with our context, expressing beauty in our character, and delivering justice in our outcomes.

الله أعلم / Allah knows best

Raised in Ottawa, Zaid now lives and works in Toronto, but keeps a close connection to his hometown. He is a strategist with a range of experience in research methods, strategic planning, concept development, and project management. He works at a globally recognized creative consultancy with senior business leaders. He also works at the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of Toronto to maximize the impact of its research. He holds a Masters of Design from OCADU’s Strategic Foresight and Innovation program. He’s a researcher with Systems Changes Learning, a group that is updating the field of Systems Thinking. He organizes and hosts the monthly meetups for Systems Thinking Ontario.

Zaid is accelerating the launch of the “Designing with Adab” project in light of recent events. The project aims to elevate the strategic thinking and doing of Muslim community leaders in Ontario, who work in a variety of fields: community, policy, advocacy, media, technology, business, education, etc. The project will offer articles, presentations, resources, talks, and a coaching and advisory service. Muslim-community leaders who are interested are welcomed to get in touch.