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Meet Harvard's First Full-Time Muslim Chaplain

September 13, 2017

Since Harvard University is nearly four centuries old, nearly everything that happens on campus has already happened before. But as the arrival of Harvard’s new Muslim chaplain shows, there are still some exceptions to that rule.

But first, the backstory. On a purely human level, the most remarkable thing about Khalil Abdur-Rashid becoming Harvard’s first full-time Muslim chaplain is that he was alive to take the job.

"I was walking home one night from class, walked through the wrong neighborhood, and I got mugged," said Abdur-Rashid, recalling an incident that occurred in 1995, when he was a student at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "The person pulled out a gun and pointed it point blank at my face. I gave them my wallet. They wanted my watch."

The watch, he adds, was a family heirloom with which he was loathe to part. So he hurled it angrily at his attacker.

"He pulled the trigger," Rashid recalled. "And when he pulled the trigger, the gun jammed ... The gun jammed, and I ran."

That brush with death in Atlanta sent Abdur-Rashid into a period of deep introspection and ultimately led him to embrace Islam.

"I grew up in a convert family," he said. "I went to the mosque and the [Southern Baptist] church.

"My mother ... she gave me the Quran, and she gave the Bible, and she said, 'Read both. Make your own decision.' And I read both," Abdur-Rashid said. "For me, personally, I understood the Quran better. I had a lot of questions that didn't get answered, but ... the message, for me, made sense. It spoke to the way I was at the moment."

Later, when a job as a social worker left him feeling spiritually unfulfilled, Abdur-Rashid took another leap, quitting to attend an Islamic seminary in Turkey. Now, after stints in New York (at Columbia University) and Dallas (at Southern Methodist University), he's setting up shop in Cambridge, where his primary responsibilities will be serving Harvard's Muslim undergraduates and grad students. 

"Students aren’t just cerebral beings," he says, explaining the rationale for his work. "They’re spiritual beings as well. They have existential concerns. They have spiritual concerns ... At the very least, young students who are [freshmen] and sophomores are experiencing some kind of identity concerns."

And for young American Muslims, he adds, the issue of identity can be especially fraught.

"These students come to college with a perception of being a member of a faith tradition that labels them as an other, even though they may be born here," he said. "That’s a projection they have to get over.

"It’s not just about understanding that there were Muslim slaves here. It’s also understanding that the forefathers of this country had encounters with Islam."

The Harvard chaplains’ office is substantial, with more than 30 men and women representing a host of faiths and denominations. But even though he's a newcomer to campus, Abdur-Rashid stands out. He’s one of only two full-time university chaplains and the first chaplain ever to be hired directly by the Harvard president's office.

Back in January, Harvard President Drew Faust announced her intention to hire a full-time Muslim chaplain in a letter that sharply criticized President Trump's decision to ban travel from several predominantly Muslim countries. At the time, Faust wrote that she hoped the move would "bring a welcome measure of further institutional support for valued members of our University who have particular reason to feel a sense of vulnerability at this time."

When I asked Abdur-Rashid if his job is inherently political, though, he demurred. 

"There has been, since 9/11, a need for a strong presence amongst Muslim Americans — to be a voice in representing their own faith, their own tradition, their own self in speaking for themselves," he said. "And we have lacked.

"To have a consistent voice that meets the needs of Muslim students is ... a moral decision, not a political one," Abdur-Rashid continued.

Still, it's clear that Abdur-Rashid's own conception of Islam has concrete political implications. 

"You have to cultivate a relationship with the divine that’s intrinsically connected to ... everything around you," he explained. "People, objects, plants, animals, the environment, everything.

"Preservation of life," he added. "That means supporting the lives of undocumented immigrants. Supporting the lives of DACA students, because part of life is insuring strong families."

On Friday, Abdur-Rashid will lead morning prayers at Harvard’s Memorial Church. It will be a personal milestone — and a potent reminder that Harvard, originally founded to train Puritan clergymen, is changing with the times.

 


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