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Newsmaker

Islamic Society of Baltimore’s first female resident scholar makes clear religion is not holding her back

Huda Hasan can trace the confidence she has both in herself and in her Islamic faith to time she spent in a classroom with Maryam Azam.

Azam taught Hasan Islamic and Quran studies at the Al-Rahmah School in Windsor Mill. Hasan, 21, and her friends found themselves looking forward to Azam’s class every day, drawn by what Hasan called her “practical, friendly approach.”

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Maryam Azam is the first female resident scholar at the Islamic Society of Baltimore.

“A lot of youth struggle with religion, especially in this day and age. So the way she taught us, we were able to grow in love in our religion,” Hasan said. “And she always told us that no matter where we go, people should know that we’re young American Muslim females in society by looking at our character and the way we treat other people.”

Azam’s ability to connect with her students is just one of the reasons she was recently named the Islamic Society of Baltimore’s first female resident scholar.

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A handful of families established the Islamic Society of Baltimore in 1969, according to the organization’s website. The society bought an 8-acre lot, in Windsor Mill close to Baltimore City, in 1982 to build its Sunni mosque, Masjid Al-Rahmah. The Islamic Society of Baltimore now offers several services and facilities, including the Ah-Rahmah School where Azam teaches middle school during the day and high school students in an after-school program.

Lead Resident Scholar Yaseen Shaikh said a resident scholar is another name for an imam who lives and serves within the community.

Responsibilities include planning and speaking at community events, addressing issues facing the Muslim community and providing religious guidance, Azam said.

Azam wants people to understand that while she’s certainly breaking stereotypes, roles like hers have always been open to women in Islam.

“Our religious legacy is basically: Women have been in this position for years, or like in leadership positions for years,” Azam said. “People, a lot of times they stereotype Islam with women don’t work or women don’t serve as leaders of the community and women are oppressed.”

Azam added that while she’s the first female scholar at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, women in her position are “actually more common than we know,” it just may not be as prominent in certain cultures.

“When you learn Islam properly, you really realize that nothing is stopping you. Your religion is not stopping you, definitely,” Azam said.

Shaikh said the Islamic Society of Baltimore felt the need for a female resident scholar who could “serve the needs of the wider community but also focus on the development and nurturing of young, confident Muslim women.”

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Shaikh said the religious affairs committee, which makes recommendations for resident scholars, picked Azam rather than launching a national search.

Azam grew up in Montgomery County, born to parents who immigrated from Pakistan. She completed her studies in higher Islamic education at Darul-Uloom Al-Madania in Buffalo, New York, and started teaching at Al-Rahmah in 2014 after moving to Baltimore; she also has a bachelor’s degree in health services management from the University of Maryland Global Campus. The Baltimore County resident is married and has three children in addition to her 2-year-old ragdoll cat, Munchkin.

Azam is also the director of the Tariqah program, an after-school, coed program for high school students who attend public school during the day. Azam said the curriculum helps students maintain their Islamic identity while navigating high school.

“Islam has been miscommunicated and misconstrued,” Azam said. “One of my goals is to help them understand that, OK, if somebody says something about Islam you don’t just accept it. You have to explain to them that maybe you got the information from the wrong resource, maybe you didn’t understand it. So actually helping them understand their religion better.”

For example, Azam said, some of her female students will express frustration with “gender responsibilities,” pointing out things their brothers get to do that they can’t. But Azam said under Islam, those activities are restricted for everyone.

“A lot of times these students that come to us from high school, it actually helps them because they realize that a lot of things that they’re allowed to do or not allowed to do have really nothing to do with their religion,” Azam said. “It’s basically culture.”

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Girls in the community find Azam relatable, Shaikh said; his own daughter looks up to Azam.

“She’d already been teaching at the school, already serving in many different areas of the organization without really being given the title of resident scholar, even though she was known to be one,” Shaikh said. “Every individual that I’ve spoken to has been really happy about having this resource in the community and a guide in the community that they can relate to.”

Azam has to break some barriers to be relatable. Azam chooses to wear a niqaab, a face veil that exposes only the eyes. As a result, people have made assumptions about her both outside and within the Muslim community, such as that she can’t speak English or that she holds extreme views.

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Despite those stereotypes, Azam feels comfortable and confident in her niqaab, even when teaching or speaking at community events.

“I’ve never been at a point where I have to like, take it off in order to prove myself or to fit in,” Maryam Azam said about wearing a niqaab.

“I’ve never been at a point where I have to like, take it off in order to prove myself or to fit in,” Azam said.

Hasan, who chooses to wear a hijab, said Azam taught her and her friends that clothing does not limit them. While the hijab is compulsory in some cultures and has sparked unrest in places like Iran, Hasan said it isn’t forced and that girls didn’t have to wear it to represent Islam, emphasizing instead character and how you treat others. Those are lessons she took from Azam.

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Years later, Hasan continues to turn to Azam for spiritual guidance, saying Azam was always a mentor in addition to being a teacher.

But her service has gone well beyond that, Hasan said.

“She probably doesn’t even know this,” Hasan said. “But she really has made an impact to a lot of people that she might not even know.”

This article is part of our Newsmaker series, which profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at khigh@baltsun.com.


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