Harvard Appoints First Muslim Chaplain

Khalil Abdur-Rashid, an adjunct professor of Islamic studies at Southern Methodist University, will become Harvard’s first Muslim chaplain on July 5, six months after University President Drew G. Faust first initiated the search.

Before teaching at Southern Methodist, Abdur-Rashid served as the first paid Muslim programming associate at Columbia University and as a special adviser to the New York City Police Department on Muslim affairs. He has also served as an imam and a social worker.

Faust first called for the University to hire a Muslim Chaplain in the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order barring immigration from several majority Muslim countries.

Harvard Divinity School professor of Islamic studies Ousmane Kane, who led a committee of students, faculty, and staff in the search for Harvard’s new chaplain, cited Abdur-Rashid’s depth of Islamic knowledge, wealth of experience, and strength of character in the choice.

Abdur-Rashid received his bachelor’s degree in social work from Georgia State University and his master’s degrees in Middle East studies and Islamic law from from Columbia University. He studied Islamic law in Yemen and Istanbul, and is now studying American Muslim identity formation as a doctoral student.

Halah Ahmad ’17, one of two undergraduates on the search committee and former president of the Harvard Islamic Society, said Abdur-Rashid’s background “gives him the compassion, wisdom, and knowledge that we really need.”

“We’re kind of reeling with issues of race, religion, class, and other injustices,” Ahmad said. “Khalil’s education as a son of a student of MLK, as someone who was internationally-educated, and as a black Muslim-American really makes him best suited to speak and provide pastoral care across these issues.”

Beyond supporting members of the Islamic faith, Abdur-Rashid will join fellow chaplains in promoting religious pluralism and a “spirit not of mere tolerance but of genuine inclusion,” Faust wrote in January.

Ahmad said she views this appointment as “a huge equalizer on this campus, where there has been really an utter dearth of resources for all students—especially Muslim students—on Islam.”

Zarin I. Rahman ’18, president of the Harvard Islamic Society, echoed the need for stronger institutional support of Muslim students. “In this political climate, students on campus have struggled a lot in terms of spiritual guidance and mental health,” she said.

Abdur-Rashid’s experiences, Rahman said, will enable him to effectively help and advocate for Muslim students “dealing with Islamophobic rhetoric and political rhetoric that makes them question their faith or makes them feel unsafe.”

Rahman said Harvard’s part-time Muslim chaplain “wasn’t as available as we would have liked him to be or needed him to be.” She notes that Abdur-Rashid, as a full-time chaplain, will also bring a Muslim voice to interfaith and other religious discussions on campus.

Noting that comparable institutions of higher education have a Muslim chaplain, Ahmad said she feels more valued by the University because of this appointment. “It’s really one of the things that I leave Harvard most proud of,” she said.

Abdul-Rashid is “deeply humbled and excited” to begin his new role, according to the press release.

“These are challenging times that require us to commit ourselves to public service and mutual support,” he said, in order “to cultivate a deeper understanding of who we are and where we are ultimately going, and to being the best of who we are while remembering the divine in each other, thereby taking us one step closer to turning hate into hope.”

“I have really huge hopes for how it will better inform Muslim students and non-Muslim students on how to be better people, more conscientious people in general,” Ahmad said.

—Staff writer Sarah Wu can be reached at sarah.wu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_wu_.

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