The new role of Muslim chaplains

When Trinity College students return to their snow-bitten campus next week, for the first time they will discover a Muslim chaplain working there.

Sohaib Nazeer Sultan is one of only a handful of Muslim chaplains at colleges and universities across the country.

But as the number of Muslim college students continues to grow - along with the desire to understand religious and cultural complexities at play in a post-9/11 world - more schools are hiring Muslim chaplains.

Mr. Sultan is a slight man with a soothing demeanor. In khaki pants, a navy tunic, and square, dark-rimmed glasses he could easily pass for a young graduate student.

In many ways, he seems older and wiser than his 24 years. He has already written a book - "The Koran for Dummies" - published last year. He speaks of the need to create a culture not just of tolerance, but of acceptance. He sees his job as a Muslim chaplain as a divine calling.

Yet he's also down-to-earth, self-deprecating, and compassionate when he discusses the many obstacles - both spiritual and secular - that young Muslims on their own for the first time are likely to encounter.

In 1999 Georgetown University hired Yahya Hendi - the first full-time Muslim chaplain at an American university. Today, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) estimates that 14 institutions of higher education provide for a Muslim chaplain.

As here at Trinity, however, many of these positions are part-time jobs.

In the past - and still at many schools today - a volunteer from the community would fill the role of spiritual adviser and advocate for Muslim students. Frequently, a student leads fellow students in prayer.

Before Sept. 11, many of these leaders were international students with strong backgrounds in Islam, well-versed in both Arabic and the Koran, says Ingrid Mattson, director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary. But recent visa restrictions have reduced their numbers, heightening the need to train chaplains in the United States.

As the number of Muslim students on college campuses has increased, so have MSA chapters. There are currently close to 600 in the US and Canada, up from around 400 10 years ago.

Sultan got his chaplaincy start through the MSA. During his four years at Indiana University in Bloomington, he was the public relations officer for the organization, as vice president, president, and student adviser.

After he began to give weekly sermons, Sultan realized that though still a student himself, his peers had "started seeing someone who had answers to certain things" - a totally false perception, he says, laughing.

He received phone calls and e-mails from students seeking guidance. There were the questions that any student might face - who am I and what am I doing? But there were also moral dilemmas specific to a Muslim - how to navigate a setting saturated with alcohol, strictly forbidden to Muslims. And then there were students experiencing profound culture shock - those wondering, as Sultan says, "Holy Morocco, where am I?"

He remembers one student in particular, a young woman who had lived in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation and seen all six of her siblings killed by soldiers. Back home, her family had rallied around her in support, but on her own in a foreign country, many of those feelings came flooding back.

Settling into a leather chair in the verger's room at Trinity College's chapel, Sultan confesses that he was in no way prepared to advise anyone back then.

He consulted his father - a teacher of Islamic education - local Imams, and books on psychology and counseling. What he discovered, he says, was that he'd been doing everything wrong. He had been doling out advice, when "really it's about listening so that people can come to solutions that are usually already present in their own hearts," he says.

As a college senior with a degree in political science and journalism, but no clear career plan, he came across the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary. He realized "it was exactly what I was doing, and I was unaware that I was doing it."

Last year - after a brief stint as a journalist and the year it took to complete his book - Sultan enrolled at Hartford Seminary, where he is working toward a master's degree in Islamic chaplaincy, Islamic studies, and Christian-Muslim relations.

Hartford's is the country's only accredited Islamic Chaplaincy Program. Enrollment has grown from two students in 2000, when it was established, to 12 this year, half of whom are women.

Founded in 1893, the Seminary's Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations is the oldest of its kind, and most Muslim chaplains working today are in some way affiliated with it.

Still, Hartford isn't known for its Muslim presence in the way that Chicago and some other urban centers are. There are three mosques in the city. And of 2,000 students, Trinity has identified about 20 who are Muslim.

Sultan imagines there are more, and he sees himself as a counselor, teacher, and advocate for these students. But equally important, he says that he hopes to be a resource on Islam for the entire community - both Muslims and non-Muslims. He is plunging right in, planning with the start of the semester to begin a weekly lesson on the Koran - open to all who are interested.

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