NU welcomes Muslim chaplain

Peter Larson

Brightly-colored hijabs fillled Parkes Hall on Thursday night as the Muslim-cultural Students Association gathered to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

Before sitting down to a dinner of falafel and rice, freshman Weinberg Arshad Haque sang a prayer. Afterward, a woman in a light purple hijab stood up. The room went silent.

Tahera Ahmad is Northwestern’s first Muslim chaplain, one of only a handful at universities across the United States. Officially an “associate university chaplain,” Ahmad’s appointment was announced Sept. 16.

University Chaplain Timothy Stevens said the addition of Ahmad should bring major change to campus – changes which both Muslims and non-Muslims will notice.

“She’ll be able to serve the Muslim students, faculty and staff on campus,” he said. “The presence of a Muslim chaplain will provide an articulate voice for Islam to teach the rest of us.”

The advent of Muslim chaplains at American universities is still a relatively new trend, Ahmad said. Georgetown University was the first to hire a Muslim chaplain when it brought on Imam Yahya Hendi in 1999.

Ahmad said she knows of only one other female chaplain on a coed campus, Marwa Aly, at Wesleyan University.

NU joins schools including Yale University, Princeton University, Georgetown, Brown University, Dartmouth College and Duke University to employ full-time Muslim chaplains.

Sohaib Sultan, Princeton’s Muslim chaplain, said the trend recognizes “the fulfillment of the faith needs of Muslim students.”

“The rise in Muslim chaplains on college campuses has been a steady phenomenon for the past six or seven years,” he said.

Ahmad grew up nearby in Morton Grove, Ill., and has worked with Chicago’s Muslim community through roles with many organizations, including the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. She speaks with a thick Midwestern accent despite her traditional appearance. In addition to working with Chicago-area Muslims, Ahmad also taught courses on the Quran at the Islamic Foundation School in Villa Park.

While studying Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, she served as the Muslim chaplain and adviser at Mount Holyoke College. The Hartford Seminary’s Macdonald Center, where Ahmad received her graduate degree, is the only place in the country to offer an Islamic chaplaincy program.

Ahmad said she is ready to start working right away on the issue of Islamophobia on campus and in the wider community. The lively debate over a planned Muslim community center near Ground Zero and a small Florida church that planned to burn Qurans on Sept. 11 dominated American media this summer. Last spring, some NU Muslims were offended when a student group, Secular Humanists for Inquiry and Freethought , chalked stick-figure images of the Prophet Muhammad around campus to spark discussion about freedom of speech.

Ahmad said she was grateful that, for the most part, NU is an accepting community.

However, while they ate, Communication sophomore Rayyan Najeeb and McCormick junior Najim Yaqubie swapped stories about being interrogated for their faith. Najeeb said he was often asked questions that confused his faith for the actions of a radical few.

Hoping to serve as an advocate for NU Muslims, Ahmad said she aims to improve community relations.

And the McSA is thankful to finally have an official leader for interfaith events on campus, said Noreen Nasir, the organization’s co-president.

“We see ourselves as very active,” the Medill senior said, “but we’ve always been lacking an official faculty member role within the Muslim community who can serve as a leader for us.”

Fast Facts on Tahera Ahmad, NU’s new Muslim chaplain

  • Grew up in Morton Grove, Ill.
  • Received her graduate degree at Hartford Seminary’s Macdonald Center, the only seminary in the country offering an Islamic chaplaincy program
  • Worked with the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago
  • Taught courses on the Quran at the Islamic Foundation School in Villa Park
  • Formerly served as the Muslim chaplain and advisor at Mount Holyoke College

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