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Muslim Chaplain Building Bridges At Trinity
January 23, 2005
By FRANCES GRANDY TAYLOR, Courant Staff Writer

At 24, Sohaib Nazeer Sultan could easily be mistaken for a graduate student as he walks the campus of Trinity College. But when students return to classes this week, they will find Sultan in his office in the Interfaith House on Vernon Street, as Trinity's first Muslim chaplain.

A former freelance journalist in Chicago, Sultan began studying in the Islamic Chaplaincy program at Hartford Seminary last year. It is the only program in the country that trains and certifies Muslim chaplains for work in hospitals, prisons, universities and the U.S. military.

Trinity students may also notice that Sultan will occasionally be trailed by a film crew. He is a subject in "The Calling," a four-part PBS documentary series about the spiritual journey of eight people from Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths who have chosen a life in the clergy. The crew has followed Sultan since he was an undergraduate in Indiana and has come to Hartford Seminary to film him there. The project is expected to take a few years to complete.

In the documentary, Sultan said, "we talk about the events that have and continue to shape my role in religious life, and we also talk a great deal about challenges and opportunities that Muslim Americans face in this country, and how people like myself are addressing this reality."

As a religious leader on campus, Sultan said, he is there for both Muslim and non-Muslim students, and to help build bridges between faith and secular communities on campus.

"The most important thing is for me to be available to all students, to answer questions and not take offense, because I know there is a lot of misunderstanding about Islam, and my job is to work through that."

The search for a Muslim chaplain began last year after the Rev. Daniel Heischman, Trinity's head chaplain, was approached by a Muslim student on campus.

"The Muslim students on campus were spiritually underserved," Heischman said the students told him. He said Sultan's presence is also important for non-Muslims. "There is a substantial hunger on the part of students to understand the role of Islam in contemporary life, which will benefit the entire college community. We feel very fortunate to have someone of Sohaib's caliber on campus."

Sultan, who will work with Christian, Jewish and Zen Buddhist faith leaders on campus, said he sees himself as an advocate for Muslim students. For example, he hopes to increase the administration's awareness of Muslim holidays such as Ramadan.

"There might be a way that Muslim students could have food prepared the night before so they can have breakfast before sunrise," he said.

"I think that Sohaib's appointment will help all of Trinity's students learn more about Islam, and that his presence will help to foster dialogue between the Trinity Muslim community and the larger Trinity community," said Shahzad Ahmed, a Muslim student who helped bring Sultan to Trinity.

Born in North Carolina and raised in Indiana, Sultan said he became interested in studying Islamic tradition from a young age because of his father's work as a scholar in Islamic education. "I grew up in that culture of serving the community," he said.

When Sultan was 11, the family moved to Saudi Arabia, where he learned Koranic recitation. He returned to the United States at 16, finished high school in Charlottesville, Va., and later earned a degree in journalism and political science from Indiana University.

Sultan became president and senior adviser of the Muslim Students Association at the university, and preached a sermon at the Bloomington mosque near campus. At graduation he was honored by the university for his cultural diversity efforts and was asked to offer an Islamic prayer during the university's pre-graduation ceremony.

While in Chicago, he also worked as an Islamic affairs analyst for BBC Radio in a series of dialogues on Muslim-Christian relations in the United States. In May, his book, "The Koran for Dummies," was published as part of the "Dummies" reference book series.

As a young American Muslim, Sultan said he knows from personal experience the trials that Muslim students can face on campus, including peer pressure to drink and party, date and have relationships, all of which is frowned on in Islam. "I understand where they are coming from - I've been through the same moral, psychological and religious dilemmas," he said.

"Muslim students on college campuses face this struggle between preserving one's own identity and values, and integration and assimilation into campus culture," he said.

"When someone comes to me for advice, very rarely is it a matter of saying the Koran says this in verse so and so," Sultan said. "I believe that people have ethical and moral values instilled within their hearts, and it's a process of listening, so that they are able to find what their heart is already telling them."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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