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Muslim chaplains fill void on campus

TaherAhmad is first Muslim chaplaNorthwestern University. Ahmad from MortGrove was hired last fall. | Kindling Group/

Tahera Ahmad is the first Muslim chaplain at Northwestern University. Ahmad, from Morton Grove, was hired last fall. | Kindling Group/

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Updated: July 31, 2011 12:15AM

A growing number of universities are adding Muslim chaplains to work alongside the Christian and Jewish chaplains already common on college campuses.

No one keeps official numbers. But today more than 30 Muslim chaplains work on college campuses or at private high schools around the nation, most of them part time, says Tahera Ahmad, who started at Northwestern University in fall 2010 as associate chaplain and the university’s first Muslim chaplain.

“I don’t necessarily only cater to the Muslim students,” she says. “I’ve had more non-Muslim students go through my office than Muslim students. I serve the larger campus community.”

Ahmad was raised in Morton Grove, and, while attending Niles West High School, played varsity basketball. She did her graduate studies in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Connecticut’s Hartford Seminary.

Prior to Ahmad taking the position, “It was just students taking initiative on their own, planning things like Friday prayers,” says Noreen Nasir, 22, of Grayslake, and a broadcast journalism major.

“It would have been nice to have a religious scholar or religious figure on campus we could go to, we could turn to and offer us advice and steer us in the right direction,” says Nasir, who is co-president of the campus’ Muslim Cultural Students Association.

Now, because of Ahmad, the Muslim student group is more involved on campus with interfaith activities and programs, she says.

Pushing the trend are both the nation’s Muslim population growth and increased interest after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for better engagement with the Islamic world, says Omer Bajwa, who became Yale University’s first Muslim chaplain in 2008.

The Pew Research Center estimates that there are 2.6 million Muslims in the United States — a number it says will grow to 6.2 million by 2030 because of immigration and high birthrates.

“The last two to four years is when you really saw it taking off,” Bajwa says, pointing to Yale, Princeton and Duke all hiring chaplains in 2008 and Northwestern’s hire last year. “You find it picking up momentum.”

The Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Connecticut’s Hartford Seminary started more than a decade ago to meet demand for military, hospital and prison chaplains, then expanded it to university chaplaincies. Today, 40 students are enrolled in the program.

Gannett News Service

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