Milestone At University Of Michigan: Muslim Chaplain

Feb 8, 2012
Originally published on February 8, 2012 1:19 pm

Although the population of Muslim students is growing, there are only about 30 Muslim chaplains at colleges across the country. This semester, the University of Michigan became the first public university with an endowed position for a Muslim chaplain.

"Muslims need to rely on somebody through times of hardship," says Mohammed Tayssir Safi, who was recently hired for the chaplaincy. The university has an estimated 850 Muslim students on campus.

The transition to college can be hard for Muslim students, who often come from tight-knit immigrant communities centered around mosques. Keeping their faith can be challenging because college life can glorify alcohol and premarital sex, which are forbidden by Islam.

At a gathering of Muslim students at a Middle Eastern restaurant, Safi says, "There's not a solid environment where a Muslim feels — perhaps 'safe' is the right word, not from violence but safe as in they feel safe and at home in being able to express themselves and who they are."

Funding A Religious Position

Although he'll work with students, Safi's salary won't be paid by the university.

"The university is very supportive of the idea, but they can't lend even a penny toward the cause because of separation of church and state," says Chris Abdur-Rahman Blauvelt, chairman of the Michigan Muslim Alumni Foundation.

Blauvelt reached out to fellow alumni and parents for donations through a crowd-funding campaign and raised $30,000 in a matter of months.

With enough money for a part-time salary, Safi was hired. He's now one of about 90 religious counselors on campus. They represent a long list of Christian groups, a number of Jewish ones and a Hindu mission.

Reid Hamilton, president of the university's Association of Religious Counselors, says it's about time Muslims were represented in a professional capacity.

"I think it's vital that they be part of the whole religious conversation here on campus," he says.

Student-Led Services

Until now, Muslim students have found ways to meet religious needs on their own. They organize prayers in a mahogany-lined meeting room that serves as a makeshift mosque on Friday afternoons.

After slumping off book bags and slipping off shoes, the students settle into neat rows to listen to a sermon that is part of Friday prayers.

But the service isn't led by the chaplain. Instead, 19-year-old Mohamad Omar Hadied delivers a sermon — after swapping his Michigan T-shirt for a long white tunic. Hadied and other students take turns leading services.

"None of us are scholars," the neuroscience major says. "I'm just a student that did some research. I don't know; I don't have all the answers."

Helping students find the answers will be a part of Safi's job.

A Chaplain's Role

Safi's role matches that of a counselor and advocate more than that of an imam, which is why students decided to continue leading services on their own. This way, the chaplaincy will remain open to both genders, since Islam doesn't allow women to lead men in prayer.

Regardless of gender, a chaplain needs to relate to students, which Safi says he'll have no problem doing.

"I do feel at home in Ann Arbor," he explains, "not just because I went to school here, but because I grew up here. And I hope that I can serve that population."

Many Muslim students are eager to meet with the chaplain.

"I already have a few questions," says sophomore Gallal Obeid, "things I've always been wanting to discuss."

Safi says he's looking forward to answering questions posed by students — and not just Muslim ones.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The population of Muslim students in this country is growing, which is adding to some demand for Muslim chaplains at schools. And the first endowed Muslim chaplain's position at a public institution started at the University of Michigan this semester. NPR's Beenish Ahmed reports on the challenges of that job.

BEENISH AHMED, BYLINE: The movie "Mooz-lum" follows a Muslim freshman as he negotiates a strict religious upbringing with the freedom of college life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MOOZ-LUM")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Come on man, drink it. What you got to lose?

AHMED: In a scene that might be found on virtually any college campus, Tariq Mahdi, the film's protagonist, drinks from that proverbial red plastic cup as his hallmates goad him on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MOOZ-LUM")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Drink, drink, drink, drink...

AHMED: The transition to college life can be hard for Muslim students who often come from tight-knit immigrant communities centered around mosques. Keeping their faith can be a challenge since college life glorifies alcohol and premarital sex - forbidden by Islam.

CHAPLAIN MOHAMMED TAYYSIR SAFI: Muslims need to rely on somebody through times of hardship.

AHMED: At Michigan, Mohammed Tayysir Safi will be that somebody for an estimated 1,700 Muslim students. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: A more accurate estimate is 850 Muslim students on the University of Michigan campus.]

He's now one of about only 30 Muslim chaplains at universities across the country. At a gathering of Muslim students at a Middle Eastern restaurant, Safi says...

SAFI: There's not a solid environment where a Muslim feels, perhaps, safe is the right word. Not from violence, but safe as in they feel safe and at home and being able to express themselves and who they are.

AHMED: Although he'll work with students, Safi's salary won't be paid by the university.

CHRIS ABDUR-RAHMAN BLAUVELT: The university is very supportive of the idea, but they can't lend even a penny towards the cause, because of separation of church and state.

AHMED: That's Chris Abdur-Rahman Blauvelt. He reached out to alumni and parents for donations and raised $30,000 in a matter of months. With enough money for a part-time salary, Safi was hired. He's now one of about 90 religious counselors on campus. They represent a long list of Christian groups, a number of Jewish ones, and a Hindu mission. Reid Hamilton heads Michigan's Association of Religious Counselors. He says it's about time Muslims were represented in a professional capacity.

REID HAMILTON: I think it's vital that they be part of the whole religious conversation here on campus.

AHMED: Until now, Muslims have found ways to meet religious needs on their own. They organize prayers in a mahogany-lined meeting room that serves as a makeshift mosque on Friday afternoons.

After slumping off book bags and slipping off shoes, the students settle into neat rows.

MOHAMMAD OMAR HADIED: Assalamu Alaikum, everybody. My khutbah topic today is going to be about patience.

AHMED: But the service isn't being led by the chaplain. Instead, a sermon is delivered by 19-year-old Mohammad Omar Hadied, but not before he swaps a Michigan t-shirt for a long white tunic. He and other students take turns delivering Friday sermons.

HADIED: None of us are scholars, you know. I'm just a student that did some research. I don't know. I don't have all the answers.

AHMED: Helping students find the answers will be a part of Safi's job. He's there to be a counselor and advocate more than an imam. So students decided to continue leading services on their own. This way, the chaplaincy will be open to both genders, since Islam doesn't allow women to lead men in prayer. Regardless of gender, a chaplain needs to relate to students, which Safi says he'll have no problem doing.

SAFI: I do feel at home in Ann Arbor, not just because I was a student here, but because I grew up here. And I hope that I can serve that population.

AHMED: Students, like Gallal Obeid, are eager to meet with the chaplain.

GALLAL OBEID: I already have like a few questions.

AHMED: Safi says he's looking forward to talking to all students, not just Muslim ones.

Beenish Ahmed, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.