This article has been jointly written by Chaplains Shazeeda Khan and AbdulMalik Negedu.
“Do we call ourselves ‘Chaplains’ or find an Arabic word for a Muslim/ah Islamic equivalency within this profession?”
This was one of the questions pondered by the men and women who had gathered for a workshop in a quaint lecture room on Yale University’s Old Campus over a decade ago. The workshop was part of a historic Shura and In-service Training Conference for Chaplains, Imams, and other service providers to the Muslim community held in March 2011. It was the first such Shura that brought together imams and religious leaders (lay and otherwise), counselors, scholars, students, and other stakeholders in Islamic chaplaincy (Muslim and non-Muslim). The Shura was convened to explore the professionalization of men and women who work as chaplains in various institutions through education, training, professional and personal support, and endorsement. Among the objectives of the conference was that Muslim chaplains would begin to attain parity with those of other faiths, in terms of professional competencies, as well as having the qualifications to serve as leaders and representatives of the American Muslim community.
So, the question was primarily about identity and professional development. It was a pertinent one to ask due to the Christian roots of chaplaincy, specifically of the word from which chaplaincy is derived. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a chaplain was originally a priest or member of the Christian clergy. The word originates from the latin cappellani (singular: cappellanus) which referred to a religious order of men who were originally charged with guarding the half cape (cappella, diminutive of cappa) of Saint Martin of Tours, and later, with providing notary services and advice in religious and secular affairs in the royal courts of medieval Europe.
Among the things that were explicitly discussed at that Shura was the question of the compatibility of the principles of Christian chaplaincy with Islamic practices. Also, since chaplaincy was primarily a religious vocation and secondarily, a profession, the acceptability of women serving as chaplains in certain settings was discussed. Muslim women have historically and traditionally served and excelled in similar roles by bringing their love of Islam, stories, and natural instincts to relate to others. The example of women who train and work as spiritual guides (or Murshidat) in Morocco was underscored.
Also understood was the role duality of chaplaincy. Chaplains are members of one institution serving in another institution. Like the priests in the European courts of the Middle Ages, Muslim chaplains were acknowledged and accepted to be Muslims, first and foremost, representing Islam and the American Muslim community (in all its diversity) while they worked in various settings as professionals.
Since 2011, the field of Muslim chaplaincy has evolved, and continues to evolve due to the diverse and multifaceted settings in which chaplains work. There has been a tremendous increase in the number of Muslim chaplains and in the number of institutions where they work. And the words “chaplaincy” and “chaplain” -including the Islamic or Muslim prefixes- have gained acceptance within the general American Muslim community.
Another part of this evolution is the professionalization of chaplaincy in general, which now places greater emphasis on providing emotional care to support persons during times of crises, and helping them to navigate grief, anger, or depression, regardless of the persons’ religious beliefs -or lack thereof-, and lesser emphasis on religious or spiritual guidance. Religious or spiritual guidance is limited to facilitating religious services and/or accommodations.
The foundation of this shift in emphasis is mostly attributable to the prevalence of a theological or philosophical paradigm about connectivity with the Spirit of Self or Being, within and beyond religion or inter-spirituality. As a result, many lay people with little or no formal religious education, including Muslims, are hired as chaplains in various institutions if they have received professional training in chaplaincy only. Even God has either been relegated or removed from the chaplaincy equation. In August 2021, the New York Times published an article that Greg Epstein, an avowed atheist, and humanist, who authored “Good Without God” was elected as the president of Harvard University’s organization of chaplains.
Religion at its Core
Muslim men and women who elect to be and serve as chaplains do not have the luxury of de-emphasizing religiosity, and or relegating or removing Allah from their paradigm. The duality of leadership, service in the way of Allah , and representing the Ummah in the United States –and by virtue of this, working in an institutional setting- places additional responsibilities and expectations on them. The field of chaplaincy affirms the principles and the spiritual, emotional, psychological, and mental healing qualities of Islam –a faith tradition, belief system, and way of life. Therefore, in addition to providing pastoral care and counseling and arranging for religious services to persons of all faiths and beliefs, a Muslim chaplain is required to provide advisement on matters relating to Islam to the institutions in which they work. They also provide classes on religious education to Muslims and non-Muslims as required, lead other worship activities as needed, and conduct learning circles on the application of Islamic theology and morality.
Muslim Chaplaincy in a Pluralistic Society
The general expectation for these men and women from the Ummah is that, in choosing to tread the path of chaplaincy as Muslims, they have acknowledged that the foundation of the vocation is built upon religion – that they are primarily inspired by Islam, as their professed religion, in wanting to live, work and impact others from within its paradigm; that they are bound by the dictates of the religion; and that, regardless of setting, they are assuming religious leadership with its requisite responsibilities.
In terms of religious leadership, chaplaincy is unique for Muslims in that it is a spiritual ministry which functions in a pluralistic environment. This ministry provides both opportunities and risks. The chance to counsel from within one’s religious context is a boost to contributing to the overall healing and well-being of society. It elevates trust in the relationship between the chaplain and those whom the chaplain is serving. The efficacy of psychosocial support interventions provided by Muslim chaplains would be much more powerful and authentic if Islamic principles are combined with pastoral care techniques.
The risks inherent in functioning in a pluralistic environment are the confrontations with issues and encounters with situations that can create doubt and potentially lead to either loss of identity, belief, or both. A Muslim chaplain must demonstrate wisdom that is based on sound knowledge, and confidence that is based on their identity to maintain their own religion, while dealing with those of other faiths or no faith. Therefore, it is imperative for him or her to maintain his or her Islamic identity and acquire knowledge that is far more than incidental or rudimentary. And it is critical to remain grounded in Islam by communing daily with Allah through Salawat and listening to His response by reading the Qur’an. It is also essential that the chaplain fortifies his or her heart through daily spiritual praxis.
The participants in the workshop at the Shura in 2011 concluded that “Muslim Chaplain” was acceptable. At the core of this self-identification is the appellation that is directly given by Allah to those who believe in the Qur’an and are witnesses over all of humanity:
And strive for Allah with the striving due to Him. He has chosen you and has not placed upon you in the religion any difficulty. [It is] the religion of your father, Abraham. Allah named you “Muslims” before [in former scriptures] and in this [revelation] that the Messenger may be a witness over you and you may be witnesses over the people. So establish prayer and give zakah and hold fast to Allah . He is your protector; and excellent is the protector, and excellent is the helper. [Surah Al-Haj:78]
A Muslim chaplain has influence as the face of Islam in the settings where he or she serves. The chaplain has the potential to reach the masses beyond that setting and with this potential, can affect how Islam is perceived in the United States. Therefore, it is important that male and female Muslim chaplains be mindful of how they will be held accountable as a witness in this regard.
Chaplain Shazeeda Khan has an economics degree from New York University. She began her career as a commodities accountant at a Wall Street firm. She has a certificate in Islamic Studies and is currently a volunteer chaplain at the United States Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, CT since 2005 where she serves Muslim women. She is the Director of Islamic Education and teacher for the Baitul Mukarram Masjid of Greater Danbury. There she develops the Islamic Studies curriculum for the youth ages 5 to 18 and supervises a team of teachers. She also develops halaqa programs for women. Since 2000 Chaplain Khan has served on the board of the Association of Religious Communities (ARC), an interfaith community service organization. She is one of the founding board members of the Muslim Endorsement Council (MEC, Inc.) and the Secretary of The Islamic Seminary of America (TISA).
Chaplain AbdulMalik Negedu is a community Chaplain with and Secretary of Malik Human Services Institute, Inc. He provides staff services to MEC. A founding member of the Association of Muslim Chaplains and former VP for Community and Membership chair, Chaplain Negedu completed his Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) residency at the former Hospital of St. Raphael (Now Yale-New Haven Hospital – St. Raphael campus). He taught Islamic Studies, Personal Financial Planning, and Leadership in Islam and is a contributor to the New Haven Register ‘Faith Matters’.