U-M student group looks to hire university's first Muslim chaplain
Christian students have multiple pastors. Catholic students have a dedicated priest. Jewish students have a rabbi.
But until this year, Muslim students at the University of Michigan have never had a paid religious mentor for their large and growing community.
After more than 20 years of being comprised solely by students, the Muslim Student Association is looking to hire the first Muslim chaplain in U-M history.
“The Muslim community at U-M continues to grow and grow,” said MSA President Eman Abdelhadi. “Taking the Muslim community on campus to the next level requires a chaplain.”
In 2008 and 2009, about 4 percent of incoming students reported their religious affiliation as Muslim. According to Abdelhadi, 700 people are affiliated with the MSA, and between 300 and 400 students attend each MSA event.
“The MSA is one of the largest, perhaps the largest, single student association on campus,” said U-M’s Association of Religious Counselors President Reid Hamilton. “A Muslim chaplain will be a valuable resource.”
Abdelhadi says a Muslim chaplain will bring much-needed mentorship to U-M’s growing Muslim community.
“The college environment can be a traumatic and challenging place for a Muslim student, they’re often faced with a different environment than they’re used to,” Abdelhai said. “It’s a time of a lot of introspection, a lot of religious questioning and up and downs. ... All these questions are more easily answered with a mentor and a guide.”
According to Yale University Muslim chaplain Omer Bajwa, the amount of Muslim chaplains in the U.S. has grown exponentially in the past three years.
Bajwa, who began as Muslim chaplain at Yale in 2008, said that the increase is likely the result of a growing Muslim population and an inflated interest in Islam after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
“9/11 really was a watershed moment in many ways,” Bajwa said. “There was a massive increase of interest amongst students and off campus communities about Islam and Muslims.”
Bajwa estimates that throughout the nation there are “not more than three dozen” full-time, part-time or volunteer Muslim chaplains serving universities.
Even though the number remains small, it’s growing constantly.
“Every six months you’re hearing about another school that’s hiring,” he said. “That’s a very, very wonderful and positive sign because there were needs that were not being met adequately in the past and now people are becoming aware of the best ways to address those needs.”
Unlike the Muslim chaplain position at Yale, which is a private university, the new Muslim chaplain at U-M will not be funded by the university. Instead, it will be supported by donations primarily from the Michigan Muslim Alumni Foundation.
Applications accepted throughout the summer are now being reviewed by the MMAF, which is hoping to fill the position by January. The position will begin as part time, but eventually become full time within the next two years, said Safia Al-Kharsa, president of MMAF.
Although MSA has existed for more than 20 years, Al-Kharsa says a chaplain will offer a much-needed sense of stability for the Muslim community at U-M.
“We hope to create a consistent voice for students on campus,” Al-Kharsa said. “Student organizations, they go through cycles with new executive boards and etcetera, but having a chaplain would provide a consistent presence for students on campus.”
Abdelhadi said the chaplain would serve as a central “anchor” for Muslims at the university.
“Right now the MSA functions as the primary representative of Muslim students on campus,” Abdelhadi said. “But because it’s a student organization, it does have a lot of turnaround our goal is to help sustain the Muslim community in campus beyond the short term.”
“We want a person who can create a safe, inclusive place and help maintain it,” she continued.
Abdelhadi hopes the chaplain also will provide a more authoritative voice for the Muslim community on campus.
U-M’s Association of Religious Counselors represents 35 different religious organizations on campus and has 92 members. Currently, the MSA is one of the only groups in ARC not represented by a “trained and certified” religious professional, Hamilton said.
“We have included students from the MSA (in ARC) because that’s the only way that we’ve had this particular level of contact with the Muslim community available to us,” Hamilton said. “A more diverse range of religious voices on campus is something I wholeheartedly support.”
Hamilton said that it’s important for religiously minded have access to a trained religious professional as a mentor and caregiver.
“For religious communities to be available to students to the extent involving something like a priest, or a pastor, or an imam or a rabbi is tremendously valuable,” he said, “especially for students who are interested in integrating their spirituality into their whole lives.”
Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for AnnArbor.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-4602.