Muslim chaplains guide students during Ramadan

Group of women standing and sitting around table (Courtesy of Najiba Akbar)
Women come together to discuss spiritual issues with chaplain Najiba Akbar, second from left, at Tufts University. (Courtesy of Najiba Akbar)

As Ramadan approaches, chaplains on U.S. college campuses are preparing to guide Muslim students during a month of spiritual renewal.

Chaplains will coordinate prayer services, study groups and campus events for students. School chaplains can come from any faith, and, according to Maytal Saltiel, president of the Association for Chaplaincy and Spiritual Life in Higher Education, many of them are Muslim.

Joshua Salaam, of Duke University in North Carolina, is among these Muslim faith leaders. He says the diversity of students at Duke, both international and American, allows him to engage with people and traditions from all over the world. The work “connects my heart to others’ paths,” he says.

Salaam recalls that in 2021, there were few students on campus during Ramadan because of the pandemic. But now, in 2022, he looks forward to bringing Muslim students and staff together “in person, eating and praying.” He will stay flexible. “We will see how it goes,” he says. “This is kind of an experiment to see how many Muslims come out to participate.”

Man at lectern speaking to group of people in front of building (© Jared Lazarus/Duke University)
Chaplain Joshua Salaam speaks at an interfaith vigil in front of Duke Chapel. (© Jared Lazarus/Duke University)

Najiba Akbar, of Tufts University in Massachusetts, began the job only a few months ago. Already, she finds walking alongside students in their journeys of faith to be deeply rewarding. During Ramadan, as at other times, she offers students “a safe space to wonder, to ask questions, to imagine who and what [they] want to be in this world.”

Some students, she says, “look to establish or re-establish a connection with their faith and to gain more knowledge about the tradition and how to practice it well.” They take time to explore Islam, as Ramadan invites them to do. “They want to sit with someone to learn and ask questions.”

Both chaplains note that students seek their advice throughout the school year. If they have a problem — whether academic, social or family-related — they look for someone with whom to talk.

“Students need help navigating relationships, mostly,” Salaam said. “Sometimes that is their relationship with God, with their parents, with their professors, with their friends, with Duke, with their degree, with substances, etc. As a chaplain, I help them find the answers through reflection, active listening and spiritual grounding.”

Young people sitting and smiling while holding plates of food (© Duke University)
Duke students socialize at the Center for Muslim Life before the pandemic. (© Duke University)

For Ramadan, Akbar plans two iftars per week as well as regular Tarawih (night) prayers on the Tufts campus.

And as Eid al-Fitr — which marks the end of the dawn-to-dusk fasting of Ramadan — approaches, Muslim students at both schools will look forward to celebrating in person. Akbar plans to transport students to the mosque in Boston (the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center) for Eid prayers and then host a lunch on campus. She may coordinate with other area schools to plan a larger Eid gathering.

Duke’s Salaam says he hopes to have “games, food and other things to make it festive.”

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