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A Call to Lead

A Call to Lead
By many accounts, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States, and Muslim chaplains are increasingly becoming an essential part of college communities 

By Kendra Hamilton

Imam Yahya Hendi came from afar — the occupied Palestinian Territories — to become, in 1999, the first full-time Muslim chaplain serving at a university in the United States. He is now the chaplain at Georgetown University. Rumee Ahmed, appointed earlier this year as Brown University’s first Muslim chaplain, had a significantly shorter trip, moving to the Rhode Island campus from Silver Spring, Md.

But both men are part of a small but gathering wave of Muslim chaplains whose work tending to the faithful makes them an essential part of U.S. institutions, including universities, hospitals, prisons and the military.
“There are 17,000 Muslims in the U.S. military,” says Hendi, who in 1997 was also the first Muslim appointed to a chaplaincy at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. “But there are only 14 Muslim chaplains serving that population.”

Firm figures on the number of Muslim students at U.S. higher education institutions are difficult to come by, although there are 600 Muslim Students’ Association chapters at U.S. and Canadian college campuses, of which 150 are officially recognized by the national umbrella group. But the number of chaplains serving that population is small.

Ahmed notes that there are no more than 20 chaplains in the New England chaplains’ association he recently joined, and most of them are either part-time or volunteers. That number will increase by one at least in the coming months, as Ahmed’s wife, Ayesha Chaudry, currently a graduate student at New York University, has accepted the chaplaincy at Connecticut College.

According to 2000 U.S. Census figures, there are currently an estimated 6 or 7 million Muslims nationwide, more than 30 percent of whom are associated with a mosque. Between 1994 and 2000, the number of mosques in the nation increased 25 percent, according to “The Mosque in America: A National Portrait,” a 2001 survey commissioned by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The number of Muslims associated with a mosque grew by 300 percent over that period and 75 percent of mosques — especially those in suburban areas — reported growth in the number of congregants.

By many accounts, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States, and very ethnically diverse. South Asians make up 33 percent of American Muslims, while 30 percent are Black and 25 percent are Arab. Just 7 percent of mosques are attended by only one ethnic group. By comparison, Christian churches have long struggled to disprove the adage that “Sunday at 11:00 a.m. is the most segregated hour in America.”

But while mosques tend to be financially well supported by their congregants — only 15 percent reported being in financial difficulty — they are not well staffed. Fifty-five percent have no paid, full-time staff. Only 10 percent have two full-time staff.

Clearly, the need for Muslim religious leadership is great, says Hendi, adding, “It is up to the Muslim community to produce the right people, to produce the qualified men and women” to answer the need.

Interestingly, the path to religious leadership in Islam appears much less rigidly demarcated than in other faiths. “Services are pretty egalitarian,” says Ahmed. “There are five prayers a day, each one following a certain formula, and every Friday we have a small sermon and two cycles of prayer. But anyone can lead. There’s no hierarchy. There’s no clergy” in the sense of someone specially trained, anointed and ordained to the service of a god.

The distinctly different paths traveled by Ahmed and Hendi offers some illustration of Ahmed’s point and hints at the diversity of the men and women called to lead the American Muslim population.

Hendi, for example, experienced the “calling” to ministry as a youth. “I had a lot of questions — I wanted to truly understand Islam, the fruit of Islam. Is it peaceful and benevolent or is it violent? Is it loving and inclusive or is it exclusive?”

Hendi had to work hard to convince his father that he should be allowed to pursue his passion. “My father wanted me to become a doctor. When I told him I wanted to be an imam, he told me, ‘That’s not going to make you rich,’” Hendi says.

It took three months of talking, cajoling and insisting, but Hendi’s father eventually gave him permission to study Islamic theology and law at the University of Jordan. His studies deepened at Hartford Seminary, where, through studies in comparative religion, focusing particularly on Christian texts, he conceived a “passion for inter-religious dialogue.” His doctoral studies at Temple University continued the pattern of comparative religious studies, this time focusing on Jewish history and law.

With his strong background in all three religions, as well as job experiences leading mosques, working for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the U.S. Navy and now in a university setting, Hendi has evolved into a strong national voice for inter-religious cooperation.

He travels widely, speaking to campuses on the true nature of Islam, a religion that he says is “loving, kind, caring, inclusive of women and women’s rights, tolerant to Jews and Christians.” His classes at Georgetown, Johns Hopkins University and other institutions in the Mid-Atlantic region tend to be team-taught, drawing both rabbis and Christian priests into the conversation.

Hendi is also quite vocal politically, issuing statements condemning terrorist actions worldwide. He was one of the Muslim leaders who met with President Bush in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack as well.

The American-born Ahmed, by contrast, never imagined that he’d wind up on this career path. Born to parents who migrated to Maryland from Karachi, Pakistan, more than 30 years ago, Ahmed did his undergraduate work at the University of Maryland. Raised in Silver Spring, he says he never considered applying anywhere but Maryland.
Always fascinated by religion, he’s finishing up doctoral work in the University of Virginia’s innovative Scripture, Interpretation and Practice program, which stresses the study and interpretation of figures and stories common to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. “I always thought I’d be a professor of religious studies,” he says.

Ahmed applied for the chaplaincy at Brown at the urging of a friend who was doing his doctoral studies at Yale University. Both “activist types,” as Ahmed says, the friend had taken the chaplaincy at Wesleyan University and loved the job. Ahmed, committed to his academic aspirations, was initially skeptical, even after landing the position. But his skepticism soon turned to enthusiasm after meeting and working with Brown’s students, who he says impressed him by “not looking for prepackaged answers.”

What he’s discovered is that the chaplaincy provides him with “the perfect balance.”

“The students are facing identity issues — questions of where does their loyalty lie? With the religion? With their parents? Their nationality? With America?” he says. “I see my job as helping them to navigate those waters, discovering what is at their core. I help them to figure out questions like, how do they see themselves in acting their faith so there’s no cognitive dissonance? At the same time, I get to do my scholarship and focus on activism as well.”

Indeed, the activist role that might land a Christian or Muslim congregational leader in hot water is greeted with a warm embrace at institutions of higher learning.

“The pastoral role of the chaplain is certainly a very important role, especially in a time of crisis. But in the campus setting, activism based on religious traditions is a part of the self-exploration students do and part of what makes the community rich and vibrant,” says Dr. David Greene, vice president of campus life and student services at Brown University.

Campus chaplains must “have a very strong moral voice that can raise issues that others tend to be silent on. That’s why it’s critical to us at Brown to have a Muslim chaplain at this time of misunderstandings about and prejudice against Muslims in this country and around the world. We need this voice to educate our community not just through our academic programs but through the experience of faith as well.”

Interfaith dialogues are particularly important at Georgetown, notes Father Timothy Godfrey, director of the Office of Campus Ministry, both because of the school’s founding traditions — “we were founded in 1789 as the school that no one would be turned away from on the basis of religion”— and because of its location in Washington, D.C., a crossroads for international
cultures and politics.

Indeed, Georgetown’s campus ministry is something of a crossroads itself, with chaplains on staff representing the Roman Catholic, Protestant Christian, Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim faiths.  The chaplains all “pray together and discuss different issues from the perspective of each faith tradition,” Godfrey notes, “so that a cross-fertilization can happen whereby we can be of use to someone from another faith tradition should the need arise.”

“And so that’s why Imam Hendi has such an important place at Georgetown. We’re promoting faith, promoting dialogue and building a future where the possibility of peace becomes more tangible because there is a capacity for dialogue and mutual understanding and respect,” Godfrey adds.

Hendi describes his role in similar terms.

“As Muslim chaplains, we have an opportunity to shape the future leaders of this world,” he says. “The children of today, and the university and college students of today, are the leaders of tomorrow. If we shape their minds in the compassionate values of the three faith traditions, we ensure a better future.”

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