More U.S. Colleges Adding Muslim Chaplains

By Matthew Daneman
USA Today

ITHACA, N.Y. (RNS) When Jainal Bhuiyan attended Cornell University, he and his fellow Muslim students were mentored and led in religious prayers by a collection of Muslim professors, graduate students and staff.

"That was our network that filled the void," said Bhuiyan, 28, and now senior vice president at the New York investment bank Rodman & Renshaw.

Cornell soon could join the growing ranks of universities with full-time Muslim chaplains working alongside the Christian and Jewish chaplains already common on college campuses.

Bhuiyan and other Muslim alumni have created the Diwan Foundation, which launched last month to raise money to establish such a position at Cornell.

"We're not thinking of this as trying to address a major deficiency, but rather a natural evolution," said Nadeem Shafi, a Cornell alumnus who is an assistant professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine. "The idea of having a Muslim chaplain provide supportive services is not a new one. There are several (universities) that have them. It's time and appropriate for such a support system to be here (at Cornell)."

Pushing the trend are both the nation's Muslim population growth and increased interest after the 9/11 terrorist attacks for better engagement with the Islamic world, said Omer Bajwa, who became Yale University's first Muslim chaplain in 2008.

The Pew Research Center estimates that there are 2.6 million Muslims in the United States -- a number projected to grow to 6.2 million by 2030 because of immigration and high birth rates.

"The last two to four years is when you really saw it taking off," Bajwa said, pointing to Yale, Princeton and Duke all hiring chaplains in 2008 and Northwestern's hire last year. "You find it picking up momentum."

Bard College in New York's Hudson Valley was the first U.S. university with a Muslim chaplain in the mid-1990s, said Timur Yuskaev, assistant professor of contemporary Islam and director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Connecticut's Hartford Seminary.

The seminary started its Muslim chaplaincy program more than a decade ago to meet demand for military, hospital and prison chaplains, and then expanded it to university chaplaincies, Yuskaev said. Today, 40 students are enrolled in the program.

"The job prospects are pretty good," he said. "The university chaplaincy is one of the growing fields in our program."

No one keeps official numbers, but more than 30 Muslim chaplains work on college campuses or at private high schools around the nation, most of them part time, said Tahera Ahmad, who started at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., last fall as associate chaplain and the
university's first Muslim chaplain.

"I don't necessarily only cater to the Muslim students," she said. "I've had more non-Muslim students go through my office than Muslim students. I serve the larger campus community."

Prior to Ahmad taking the position, "it was just students taking initiative on their own, planning things like Friday prayers," said Noreen Nasir, 22, of Grayslake, Ill., and a broadcast journalism major at Northwestern.

"It would have been nice to have a religious scholar or religious figure on campus we could go to, we could turn to and offer us advice and steer us in the right direction," said Nasir, who is co-president of the campus' Muslim Cultural Students Association.

Now, because of Ahmad, the Muslim student group is more involved on campus with interfaith activities and programs, she said.

Although Cornell has had Muslim faculty or staff serve as de facto chaplains for years, "it's simply not an efficient way to meet full-time needs," said Kenneth Clarke, director of Cornell United Religious Work, which offers various religious services and programs on campus. "There needs to be a person dedicated to that specific role," he said.

Christian and Jewish chaplains at many institutions are often paid for by campus ministry organizations such as Hillel or the Newman House.

"Right now, Muslim students do not have such a structure," Bard College's Yuskaev said. "That's the next step."

Bajwa said that so far, there has been little negative feedback to the idea.

"I don't doubt there's been reluctance and criticism" at campuses for such positions, but "generally, I've heard favorable responses," he said.

Matthew Daneman writes for USA Today.