Why a Muslim Chaplain at Cornell University?

The Muslim students and alumni at Cornell University have been diligently working on establishing the first Muslim chaplaincy position on their campus. Together they have organized an official association, the Diwan Foundation, aimed at providing programming and services to support the well-being of Muslims on campus. As part of this wonderful and ambitious initiative, they have also recently begun publishing a newsletter addressing issues of relevance to Muslims on campus. It was my honor to have been asked in their latest issue to provide them with a brief introduction to Islamic chaplaincy: Why a Muslim Chaplain?

Diwan

Caring for Ahmad and Other Muslim Youth

To continue the conversation about youth at risk, and how imams and Muslim chaplains can respond, I asked my dear friend Sh. Jamaal Diwan to offer a reflection on the points raised in my article “What Happened to Ahmad: Responding to Muslim Youth at Risk.” The following is his insightful response:

Since I was asked to write about this topic from the perspective of a student of Shari’a, I would like to begin my comments with some reflections on the role of the imam in America and then work from there towards my thoughts on the relationship between chaplains and imams.

Generally, the imam is looked to as the leader of his community and the source of guidance for his congregation. In America this is no different and requires the presence of certain traits in the ideal imam. From these traits are things such as the following: having a strong training in and knowledge of the traditional Islamic sciences; understanding the people and culture that he is serving; speaking English fluently; knowing how to deal with people, empowering and motivating them; being aware of the major trends in society and cultivating the ability to address them from the perspective of Islam; having a spirit of humility, self-sacrifice, and servitude; and so on.

I recognize that it is very rare to find all of these traits in one imam, but it does represent an ideal that we as a community should strive towards. It is of note here that from the previous description, it is necessarily a part of the imam’s role in the community for him to engage in pastoral services at some level. However, that does not mean that this is what the imam is usually primarily trained in nor does it mean that it is the best place for the imam to spend large quantities of his time. In many of our communities we find that imams are busy in a never-ending flow of counseling sessions that wear them out spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. This has the devastating effect of taking them away from the crucial roles of religious instruction, guidance, and their own personal studies. We face many challenges and imams that do not have the chance to even review things that they learned in their studies, let alone increase their knowledge, will find themselves incapable of addressing these challenges and come up short in providing thought and guidance for the people.

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“What happened to Ahmad?”: Responding to Muslim Youth at Risk

“Ibrahim,” he asked, “can you speak with me?”  Ahmad*, 19, was a young Muslim man struggling with peer pressure at his community college to drink and engage in sexual activity. I was not the imam, nor was I a chaplain at this time, but I could see in his eyes that he was desperately seeking some good advice and someone who would listen to him.  While Ahmad came from a practicing Muslim home, he did not feel comfortable speaking to them about the peer pressures he faced.  He confessed to me that he had been giving in to them and knew that what he was doing was wrong.  Though he had wanted to seek help for some time from his local imam, he worried that the most the imam would tell him was that what he was doing is ḥarām. Ahmad also felt the imam, who had been raised in another country, would not understand the pressures of growing up in an American society.  He wanted to speak to someone who, he felt, would understand the pressures he faced and not simply offer a legal verdict.

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Ramadan and the Honda Accord

Ramadan compared to other holidays is like driving a Mercedes while everyone else has a Honda Accord.* Imagine if you were a young child sitting in the back seat of that Mercedes. Your mom or dad is driving along and everywhere you look every other kid, like you, is sitting in the back of a Honda Accord.

At this point you would be too young yet to realize the quality and value of your parents automobile, so you may feel somehow left out, awkward, and like you just don’t fit in. Likely you may even wish your parents drove a Honda just like the other kids’ parents.

But imagine how much your view would change once you got behind the wheel…

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