Khalil Abdur-Rashid was named Harvard’s first full-time Muslim chaplain last July, bringing with him a strong foundation in civil rights, social work, higher education, and Islamic law and philosophy. Since choosing Islam as a youth, and embarking on a spiritual journey whose genesis began around the time of 9/11, Abdur-Rashid has cultivated a strong, personal understanding of the African-American Muslim experience.
The holder of master’s of philosophy degrees in Islam and Middle Eastern studies, both from Columbia University, and an Islamic advanced doctorate (ijaaza ilmiyyah) in Islamic legal sciences and ethics from the ISAR Seminary in Istanbul, Abdur-Rashid is also nearing the completion of a doctorate in liberal studies, for which he is writing a history of the development of the African-American Muslim community, from the death of Malcolm X to the death of Muhammad Ali.
But while his understanding of Islam is deeply steeped in rigorous academic inquiry, it is the imperative to help young people connect religious tradition to lived experience that largely drives his work at Harvard.
Abdur-Rashid sat down with the Gazette to reflect on his first academic year, and to share his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the religious community on campus, and in particular for Muslim American students at Harvard.
GAZETTE: You’re closing in on completing your first academic year here. How has your time been spent, thus far?
ABDUR-RASHID: My first year was about doing everything I could to map out the landscape. It was about beginning to understand the culture of the University and the students’ needs, both in terms of, generally speaking, students at the College, and also, more specifically, the Muslim students at the College and graduate schools. I’ve also sought to understand what kinds of programs I can offer to best root the students in a sense of stability. This is so important in today’s overwhelmingly changing social climate.
GAZETTE: Talk more about the opportunity for a university to have a full-time Muslim chaplain. Why is this important to Harvard, and to the students themselves?
ABDUR-RASHID: First and foremost, as President Drew Faust articulated in her rationale for creating this position, there was a matter of equality that needed to be addressed on behalf of Harvard’s Muslim students. Historically, many have felt the sense of being marginalized, of being targeted, and of being left behind. There was a need for somebody to be able to speak to their concerns in a way that represented both the University and where those students were coming from. I’m able to do this in a way that helps them better discover what it means to be a student of an American Muslim background. I can empathize with their feelings of being targeted or of feeling ashamed of their identity. And I can do these things in my role as a University representative, seeking to help those students to understand that they can be proud of who they are.
GAZETTE: I imagine you draw on your experience for this work. You have your own unique story to tell as an American Muslim who chose his faith tradition at an early age.
ABDUR-RASHID: Yes, I can very closely relate to these students. My own experience around a similar age challenged me to figure out what it means to be an American Muslim. I had just graduated from college on 9/11, a traumatic experience and a major turning point for our nation and for Muslims living in America and abroad. But this was also a defining moment for me personally, because it took place at the time when I went on my own spiritual journey, and also when I went out into the real world. It was a lot to deal with all at once. A lot of these students are experiencing similar feelings of so much happening at the same time. They’ve left the homes they grew up in and the families they grew up with. They’re living in dormitories for the first time, getting exposed to different foods that their moms didn’t cook. They’ve arrived in Cambridge, which is in one sense a bubble, and which is in another sense one of the most diverse places on the planet. So much is new, and I seek to help guide them through this newness.
Of course, I draw upon my own background and experiences in my work. My youth as an African-American growing up in the South, whose family was very much involved in the Civil Rights Movement, mixed with my own studies in Islam and my own spiritual journey in a post-9/11 world, have afforded me the opportunity to look at the intersections of race and religion in an American context. These experiences have allowed me to explore the challenges that come with that intersection, and to learn how to rise above those challenges, and speak to those challenges, in a way that’s authentic and gives hope.
GAZETTE: What are some of the specific challenges for Muslim students at Harvard?
ABDUR-RASHID: The major consistent challenges that I’ve seen since I’ve been here come in two domains. The first domain, which affects mostly students at the College, is about “What does Islam have to say about x, y, and z?” For example, police brutality. Gender identity. Can I take Adderall to help me stay up at night to study?
Many of these students grew up in a Muslim home, from a cultural background, and even a religious background, but it was never articulated to them how to be a Muslim in the worldly sense, outside of ritual. Now, in this environment, they have to think for themselves. They have to try to find answers. Sometimes they may come across things in class or when they’re in dialogue with their peers that jar them, challenge them, and cause them to ask questions of themselves as to who they are and where they stand on these issues, not only as American students but as Muslim students. The American side of their brain might trigger one answer, but the Muslim identity might respond differently. Are they consistent? Are there divergences? What happens if the Muslim side says no or yes and the American side says no or yes, and they’re in contradiction? How do I reconcile those two? Is it even possible? And then, how do I think about this whole notion of a dual consciousness? That’s what I see at the level of the College.
The second domain, which is more prevalent in the graduate Schools, is more about how to intersect Islam with a student’s field of study and planned career path. It’s about how do I “interdisciplinarize” my faith with my work?
Let me give you an example. A young woman from the Kennedy School came into my office the other day. She’s a Muslim woman from an East Asian country, one year away from graduation, who told me she wants to go back to her country and become the first Muslim woman prime minister there. That was her goal. So her question to me was: What does Islam say about this, and how do I persuade the male-dominated culture that I come from that I should be prime minister? How do I work within an Islamic framework, using terminology and sources from the tradition, in a way that will resonate with Muslim clerics in her country, to the men in her country who are in parliament, and to those who would come to her website to learn more about her candidacy? Amazing, right?
GAZETTE: Let’s talk more about this “interdisciplinarization” that you advocate for in your own work, because it reminds me of all of the diverse opportunities here at Harvard, the multitude of Schools, programs, activities, and perspectives that all make up this University, yet too often exist in silos. President Faust has spoken frequently about the importance of creating “One Harvard,” and breaking down barriers across campus. Have you had any One Harvard moments in your first year, and how can your work serve to further this important mission?
ABDUR-RASHID: The vision of One Harvard is absolutely reachable within the work that I do, and especially through collaborations with the 30-plus Harvard chaplains here. We believe, together, that this University is sending the message that Harvard is about making the world a better place. And we believe One Harvard is about utilizing all of our individual strengths to leverage our collective strength in hopes of reaching that goal. As chaplains, of course, we advocate for the religious, spiritual, and ethical life to supplement the intellectual life, that the human being is not just a robust intellectual being but a spiritual being as well.
GAZETTE: But Harvard is often seen as a secular institution. How does spiritual life fit in here, and how does it complement the academic journey being undertaken by Harvard students?
ABDUR-RASHID: In life, just like there’s an IQ, there’s also an SQ, a spiritual quotient, and I believe that both of those things need to be synchronized. I also believe that faith and spirituality matter here at Harvard. And they matter because they help students to learn the right thing to do in an environment where the right thing is often based in very restrictive settings — in a math class based on algorithms, or in a language class that’s based on grammatical rules, or in another class that’s based on the rules that the teacher has outlined.
One of the things I do with both undergraduate and graduate students is give them a religious language to use that makes sense in the secular environment. And often that language is ethics. How do you treat people, and how do you advocate for good treatment? My work is less about helping students to understand Islam as a theological tradition. For most of these students, that’s already a given. Instead, so many are looking for ways to translate the teachings that they know so well into a way that can be a part of their studies and their future professions. I seek to help them to understand Islam as a lived experience.
GAZETTE: What are some of the programmatic offerings you’re working on to help students to enhance their “spiritual quotients”?
ABDUR-RASHID: I’ve just finished putting together 10 programs that will be gradually introduced in phases over the next three years. These programs will be directed toward Muslim students, but also University-wide, open to everyone, even if they’re not students of faith. There will be two programs this coming fall, the first of which is called “Life Matters.” “Life Matters” is an interview show where I speak with an esteemed faculty member or prestigious person who is a part of the Harvard community, and ask her or him to share certain aspects of their life story that no one would have known before. We’ll discuss times when that person has faced a challenge, and how they’ve used some aspect of faith or spiritual teachings, or even family teachings passed down, in their decision-making process in order to overcome those obstacles. We hope to have these shows available as podcasts for archive and for the benefit of future students and alumni.
We’ll also have a program called “Faith in Conversations,” a roundtable discussion involving me and two or three distinguished members of the faith community at Harvard. The conversations will not be about commonalities, but instead we’ll talk about our differences and how these differences can be used to get to know one another and eliminate blind spots that we have around each other.
The whole idea is that narratives are very powerful, that when you get to know someone, this is what can break down walls. I’m looking forward to partnering with Pastor Jonathan Walton of Memorial Church, and the Rev. Kathleen Reed, who is president of the Harvard chaplains, for the first program. I hope to start with the Abrahamic traditions, and then go into other traditions. I’m very much looking forward to it.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.