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Posted on Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 5:57 a.m.

New chaplain first Muslim leader to serve University of Michigan students

By Kellie Woodhouse


Mohammed Tayssir Safi is the first paid Muslim chaplain to serve the University of Michigan community, one of the first such positions at a public university.

Chris Asadian |

When Mohammed Tayssir Safi was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan from 2004 to 2006, there was not a Muslim figure he could go to for guidance.

"I was ... trying to understand how to grapple between that intellectual side and ... the spiritual side," Safi, 27, said. "There wasn't anybody to go to."

In a twist of fate he never imagined, Safi has become the first Muslim chaplain to serve the U-M community, the very role he felt was missing during his college years and a role that many Muslim university students say has become essential.

It's also the one of the first paid Muslim chaplain positions at any public university, said Eman Abdelhadi, president of the Muslim Student Association and one of the individuals who interviewed Safi for the position last semester.

The part-time position is supported by about $30,000 in funds raised by the Michigan Muslim Alumni Association. Safi also is a graduate student in U-M's Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language program and a graduate student instructor of Arabic.

Safi was hired in December and began his duties Jan. 3.

"The Muslim community is a growing entity on campus and requires a stable presence on campus," Abdelhadi said. "We felt a chaplain would help meet the personal as well as communal needs of students."

At U-M, Jewish students can participate in Hillel, a Jewish organization with a local staff of about 12 and a national network comprised of hundreds of employees, and Chabad House, the college ministry of a local synagogue. More than a dozen religious organizations cater to Christian and Catholic students, many of them manned by full-time staffers, and a handful of local churches outreach to the college, busing students from campus to Sunday services.

Muslim students, however, have mostly been on their own at U-M, Safi says.

MSA, the largest Muslim organization on campus, holds regular events, which are on average attended by between 300 and 400 people, and weekly Friday prayer services, during which a student or invited guest will speak. However, the group, unlike many of its Jewish and Christian counterparts, is led solely by students.

MSA is the only Muslim group affiliated with U-M's Association of Religious Counselors, which represents 35 different religious organizations on campus. Before Safi's recent hire, MSA also was one of the only groups represented by a student and not a religious professional.

In Ann Arbor, there is one mosque. Meanwhile, there are at least five Catholic congregations, two dozen Christian churches and five synagogues.

"There's kind of like this void of Muslim leaders on campus that students can go to with questions," said U-M junior and Economic Justice major Misbah Ahmed.

The relatively scarce resources for Muslim students in Ann Arbor is not due to a lack of need, Safi says.

In 2008 and 2009, about 4 percent of incoming students reported their religious affiliation as Muslim, according to U-M figures. Four percent of the 2011-2012 student body is about 1,700 students.

Safi says one reason there's not a more organized Muslim nucleus at U-M and other universities is that many second- and third-generation American Muslims, whose parents or grandparents emigrated to America in the 1960s and 70s, are still learning how to integrate their religion into their tenure at American colleges.

"Overseas they don’t necessarily need these types of positions because the state interacts with" universities, Safi said. "Muslims are new to this field, they’re dealing with raising money and creating organization to do this."

In a place like Ann Arbor, where there's one mosque and much of the Muslim population moves away after completing school, creating a stable, mature and organized Muslim presence is even more tricky.

"The dynamic of Ann Arbor is different. People come here for school and leave, so there's not a long-standing population of Muslims, although it's growing," Safi said.

Safi's new position is another building block toward a more cohesive Muslim presence serving U-M students, says Reid Hamilton, ARC president.

"The role of religious professionals in general on campus is important and valuable," Hamilton said, adding that religious counselors help "maintain an institutional memory" of a religion's role and history at U-M. "My hope is if the Muslims have a chaplain, then they can be part of the consistency of that (memory)."

Safi received bachelors' degrees in political science and Middle Eastern and North African studies from U-M in 2006, after transferring from U-M-Dearborn during his sophomore year. He grew up in Ann Arbor, graduating from Pioneer High School in 2002. After graduating college, Safi spent two years studying Arabic and Islam in Egypt and Yemen. He worked as a youth director at a Canton mosque for two years.

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.


Tex Treeder

Sat, Jan 7, 2012 : 3:36 a.m.

The University of Michigan is a public institution. It should not have any religious counselors, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc., regardless of where the funding comes from.

Silly Sally

Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 11:04 p.m.

The Islamic Center in Ann Arbor receives government funding from foreign governments, notabily the Saudis. It is not necessarly " unrestricted by government". It is just a matter of which government. This received attention several years ago.

Shirin Qadir

Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 5:32 p.m.

Great news!!Good Luck to you Mohammed Tayssir Safi !!!

Doug Crist

Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 3:22 p.m.

Way to go

Doug Crist

Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 3:17 p.m.

I use to attend word of life at St Thomas.

Doug Crist

Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 3:15 p.m.

Happy blue year!

Doug Crist

Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 3:09 p.m.

Question: do Islamic teachings help grow our society? Also, will Islam build our nation up? I have read a lot of the Koran. I am concerned with their teachings. I will take some time in the near future to review what I have read in the Koran and read current Islamic writings so I can get a better understanding.


Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 10:39 p.m.

Hmm has a good point. Just reading the original text is not going to give a full sense, any more than just reading the Bible would give a full sense of what modern Christianity is about. Also Islam has a whole body of secondary text called hadith, that is vital to understanding as well.


Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 5:31 p.m.

If you are really so concerned then why don't you just go to one of their places of worship and talk to the actual Muslim people yourself? Books are good but they are not people and cannot give you the answers you're seeking by themselves. Actually interacting with the people you are so concerned about may help you come to a better understanding of what you think you know about their religion.


Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 2:13 p.m.

It sounds like all of the funding for the religious organizations that support students come from private sources? Its good the hear that the Muslims are finally creating a funding source so that they can help others Muslim students. Nothing like freedom, unrestricted by government, to be the source of true help! Good Luck to Mohammed Tayssir Safi and his spiritual adventure to build a Muslim support structure in Ann Arbor. May God be with Him!

Silly Sally

Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 10:57 p.m.

The Islamic Center in Ann Arbor receives government funding from foreign governments, notabily the Saudis. It is not necessarly " unrestricted by government". It is just a matter of which government. This received attention several years ago.

Silly Sally

Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 2:02 p.m.

How are Muslims any different from other religions? How is his role any different? They have had a mosque across the street from north campus, and it seems to be well attended. They get a lot of outside funding, proven a decade ago, similar to other religions. These other religions mentioned do not have multiple venues tending to UM student's needs, just one, There are not 5 Catholic churches that serve UM students, they cater mostly to community members. I do not believe that there are 5 Catholic churches in Ann Arbor


Sat, Jan 7, 2012 : 12:20 a.m.

david frye...i think by the 5th jewish one they may indeed mean the Lubavitch Hassidic Chabad house. It's doubtful they refer to the small local 'messianic jewish" group since they are not considered remotely "kosher" by the others, based on their belief in jesus as the messiah.... which in some respects makes them not all that different from islam actually , in that both believe in an already arrived ultimate messenger of God (although different ones to be sure ).

Silly Sally

Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 10:53 p.m.

Christ the King church near Domino Farms is in Ann Arbor Township. It is the relationship with the township and Mr. Thomas Monaghan that led him to move Ave Maria University and Law School to Florida

David Frye

Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 3:17 p.m.

Google shows 4 Catholic churches in Ann Arbor, one of which (St Mary's) specifically caters to students and the university. The others are St Thomas the Apostle, St Francis of Assisi (doubles as the major Catholic school in the area), and Christ the King out by Domino Farms. The Catholic cemetery also shows up on Google Maps as a Catholic church -- maybe that was #5? Meanwhile, I'm trying to figure out where the 5th synagogue might be. There are the two traditional synagogues (Conservative at Beth Israel and Reform at Beth Emeth), the Orthodox minyan that meets in Hillel, and the Reconstructionist havura that meets at the JCC. Could the 5th be Chabad House? Also, a quick glance at the other Christian churches (mainly Protestant, but also Orthodox, LDS, etc) on Google maps reveals at least 60 in Ann Arbor, so there's more like five dozen, not two dozen.


Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 2:55 p.m.

My impression is that his role isn't different, the reason this is news is that this is the first Muslim chaplain, not that this chaplain is different from other chaplains. Yes many religions have a campus congregation focused more on students, but their other congregations certainly aren't going to discourage students from joining. As to the 5 Catholic congregations, there is St. Mary Student Parish, St. Thomas the Apostle at the north end of State Street, St. Francis down on Stadium. Christ the King church near Domino Farms, and I suspect they're also including Old St. Patrick, even though that's actually out in Northfield Township.

rusty shackelford

Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 1:20 p.m.

I've been impressed at the work MSA has been able to do without any staff up to this point. Congratulations to Safi, he sounds like a natural fit.


Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 12:59 p.m.

Welcome to your new position, Chaplain Safi. Thank you U of M for considering the spiritual needs of our Muslim students, and supporting them. May we all learn to celebrate and treasure diversity!


Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 1:40 p.m.

Want diversity- Start with each individual! i.e. each person is as diverse as another and not group think The preamble!!!!!