Princeton University has first Muslim chaplain

Monday, July 13, 2009 6:59 PM EDT
By Reem Nasr, Staff Writer

From a young age Sohaib Sultan has always fostered a deep passion for serving the Muslim community.

Now at 28, he is the first full-time Muslim life coordinator and chaplain serving at Princeton University.

The past academic year was Mr. Sultan’s first as a full-time chaplain. Two years ago, the university launched a pilot program to evaluate the Muslim community’s response to having a Muslim chaplain on campus. It was a part-time position for one year filled by Khalid Latif, the Muslim chaplain at New York University.

”I think that university Muslim chaplains are critical to the development of vibrant, ethical and intellectual Muslims and non-Muslims in this country,” said Mr. Sultan. “Muslim chaplains play a very critical role in shaping Islam in America.”

Mr. Sultan did not always know that he would become a chaplain. Born in North Carolina, he went to Indiana University where he majored in political science and journalism. While working as a journalist he received a contract to write “The Koran for Dummies,” published in 2004. It was then that he discovered his passion for Islamic studies.

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”I found myself in the position of being a resource for young Muslims and I really enjoyed it,” said Mr. Sultan. “I decided that I wanted to work with the youth to fulfill a need in the community.”

Mr. Sultan then began his degree at the Hartford Theological Seminary, where he received his master’s in Islamic studies, Christian-Muslim relations and Islamic chaplaincy. After his first semester, he was invited by Trinity College to serve as its Muslim chaplain. Mr. Sultan graduated from the program in 2009.

There are about 15 official Muslim university chaplains in the country, most of whom are on the East Coast. Georgetown University was the first to hire a full-time Muslim chaplain.

Mr. Sultan is sure the number of Muslim chaplains will grow in the near future. He would like to see the phenomenon grow out of the East Coast to the rest of the nation.

There are about 250 Muslim students at Princeton University, according to Mr. Sultan. From 70 to 80 attend the weekly Friday prayers, which are held on campus at Murray-Dodge Hall. Muslim students can use another room in the same building to pray the regular five daily prayers whenever their schedule allows. His office is also located in Murray-Dodge Hall.

”The Muslim community has dramatically increased in its presence over the past few years,” said Mr. Sultan. “Just about three to four years ago there were only five to 10 people who would come together for the Friday prayer.”

Princeton University is one of many universities to have a Muslim Students Association (MSA) on campus. It is a non-political, faith-based organization that aims at uniting Muslims on college campuses. Princeton established its chapter in 1995.

Mr. Sultan works with the MSA and other groups to facilitate programming. He explained that their programming is centered around four core ideas: spiritual and religious enrichment, service, engagement and dialogue, and community building.

For religious enrichment they offer Nights of Devotion and a Qur’anic Study Circle. For community service the students participate in Project Downtown, delivering food and supplies to the homeless in Trenton. They also host humanitarian fundraisers for regions like Gaza and Darfur.

To engage with the greater society Mr. Sultan began the Islam in Conversation lecture series, in which each month a scholar or artist or thinker visits campus. Community-building events aim to bring the Muslim student community closer together by hosting daily iftars, breaking of the fast, in the month of Ramadan and other events. Mr. Sultan hopes to increase that kind of programming next year.

”I think that the most important quality of a chaplain is to be a person of compassion, empathy, and to be a good listener,” said Mr. Sultan. “As a Muslim chaplain I wear many different hats but the one that I feel most called to and that I enjoy the most is counseling.”

He explained that most Muslim students approach him with questions about relationships and issues of identity.

”They want to know how to be a confident Muslim while preserving their values and being an active part of society,” said Mr. Sultan.

Non-Muslims approach Mr. Sultan as well. Some are generally interested in Islam while others use him as a resource for papers they are writing.

Two of the biggest misconceptions about Muslims involve violence and the subjugation of women, he said. Mr. Sultan referred to the Gallup polls about the Muslim American community by Dalia Mogahed. Ms. Mogahed is the first Muslim scarf-wearing woman to be appointed to President Obama’s administration. Mr. Sultan said that Muslims are the only faith-based community in America whose women are slightly better educated than their men. Another poll showed that Muslim attitudes toward indiscriminate violence are very similar to those of other faith communities.

”I think that these myths and misconceptions are eroding with the rise of the younger generation,” said Mr. Sultan. “They are more open-minded.”

Mr. Sultan is looking forward to a greater number of Muslim female chaplains. Among female chaplains are Al-Hajjah Khalilah Karim-Rushdan at Smith College and Mumina Kowalski at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy, Pa. One of his long-term goals is to have a female Muslim chaplain as an assistant.

Mr. Sultan has enjoyed his stay at Princeton University and hopes to continue working there in the future.

”The Muslim students have responded very well and the Muslim community here has been very hospitable and warm in their greeting of a Muslim chaplain,” said Mr. Sultan. “The students really seek me out and use me as a resource.”

Mr. Sultan is also the author of “The Qur’an and Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad,” published in 2007. He and his wife now reside in Hamilton.