Muslim Chaplains: Serving in Diversity

Choate Students with Chaplain Ibrahim (May 2010)

For many imams, their primary concern is to care for the congregants of an Islamic center who, for the most part, share a common vision of Islam.  However, the Muslim chaplain must be able to work with a diverse array of Muslims (and non-Muslims) within a secular environment.  This means that a chaplain must be able to assist those whom they might otherwise disagree with in other matters; like ethics, law and theology.  For example, it is not uncommon for Sunni chaplains to provide care for Shi’i Muslims within their institution; a chaplain must see beyond differences of faith and opinion and try their best to care for the well-being of all who seek their assistance.

The institution within which a chaplain works may also require certain professional and procedural guidelines to be followed.  These guidelines, which differ from institution to institution, may include: the obligation to serve people of all faiths; keeping a record of all professional visits with patients, inmates, students, and personnel; attending professional seminars, and working with other chaplains of different faiths to better the institutions interfaith relations.

While a chaplain is officially tied to an institution, be it a hospital, military unit, prison, or university, his or her training and education can make them a unique resource for their institution’s surrounding community. University chaplains such as Yahya Hendi (Georgetown), Abdullah Antepli (Duke), Khalid Latif (New York) and now Amjad Tarsin (Toronto) are often more visible than other chaplains, but a chaplain in any institution should be seen as an asset to the wider community.

Although a Muslim chaplain may be trained in Islamic law, the purpose of their position is not to simply act as a jurist, nor does their spiritual care training mean they are solely counselors.  Rather, Muslim chaplains are religious leaders whose experience and training uniquely equips them to provide both religious and counseling services; fulfilling what is considered by scholars to be a communal obligation (fard kifaya).  In fulfilling these needs, chaplains try their best to make themselves open and available to address the social and mental health concerns of members within and outside of their faith tradition.

Chaplains are Trained to Work in Diverse Environments

Faces of Muslim Chaplaincy at Hartford Seminary

Muslim chaplains are trained to sensitively work with an individual’s belief system, without imposing their own ideologies upon them.  This is crucial in a secular institute, which might cater to Muslims and non-Muslims of varying persuasions.  This does not mean that a Muslim chaplain may not hold their own opinions, or even disagree with some of those they serve; rather, they try to conduct themselves in a way that looks past these disagreements to be of aid and service to anyone that may be in need.

For this reason, a Muslim chaplain must have some specialized training which includes a Master’s degree in Islamic Studies, or a related field, and have successfully completed a chaplaincy training program, usually entailing courses in mental health, social services, and field education.  The most rigorous portion of the training is often said to be the clinical pastoral education (CPE) which teaches the chaplain essential spiritual care and counseling skills within a clinical setting.

Not all chaplains have obtained these credentials, especially those in fields with high demand for Islamic services, such as prisons and other correctional facilities.  Here, chaplains are needed to help the facility comply with state and federal mandates which protect the inmates’ right to practice their faith.  Due to the high demand for Muslim chaplains in these facilities, and the fact that Islamic chaplaincy programs themselves are few in number and still relatively new, chaplaincy certification or Islamic training is often not a prerequisite.

Muslim Chaplains and Imams

Marwa with her husband Ahmed and daughter Sumaya

Muslim chaplains and imams are similar in the respect that their positions of religious leadership are validated by a professional appointment; however, an imam’s appointment is to serve the community through its Islamic center and the chaplain’s appointment is to serve the community through one of its secular institutions: prison, military, hospital, or university.  An imam’s education may also vary greatly from one Islamic center to the next, some having little to no formal Islamic education and others having studied very extensively in prestigious institutions of higher Islamic learning.  While the Muslim chaplain’s education may also vary greatly, with some possessing doctorates and formal ijaza’s (a traditional license to teach a particular text or subject), to be certified he or she must possess a Master’s degree and have completed their chaplaincy training at minimum.

Though it is met with some reservation by more conservative Muslims, the position of Muslim chaplain may also be filled by a woman.  One successful example of a female chaplain is Marwa Aly who worked for several years at both Wesleyan University and Trinity College in Connecticut.  Aly showed great skill in managing Islamic activities between the two campuses, as well as creatively ministering to her students while respecting traditionally male roles, like offering the Jumu’ah khutba (Friday sermon).  Aly wrote the sermon and then individually assigned male students from each school to conduct the services; coaching them as well in the etiquette of the Friday prayer.

Thoughts for the Future

Imams and Muslim chaplains both should be prepared to utilize each other as a resource.  For some communities, unfortunately, this may still only be an ideal scenario. Though many imams will recognize a Muslim chaplain as a colleague in religious leadership, others may see them as a threat or their position as illegitimate.  Unlike most imams, chaplains are hired by secular institutions and cater to those in need within an institutional setting.  The imam and chaplain, like any other religious leader, may also possess differing ideological and legal opinions which, if handled unprofessionally, may lead to hesitancy, or outright refusal, to recommend the services of the other to those in need.  While it is inevitable that some religious disagreements will always exist, for the benefit of the community, and especially those in need, religious leaders should seek to work together despite differences.

Islamic chaplaincy programs, which are still very few, must consider these realities in the education and the training they provide.  Presently, the only programs for obtaining a certificate in Islamic chaplaincy are offered at Christian seminaries such as the Hartford Seminary.  Though the programs are run by Muslims and only housed in a Christian institute, some imams have already professed their distrust of such programs.  While there is no current alternative, an institution like Zaytuna College would be a great place to start such a new initiative.  Until then, and after, communities should welcome Muslim chaplains into their institutions as resources in the field of Islamic leadership and spiritual care.

– Ibrahim J. Long

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