The Need for Muslim Chaplaincy | An Interview with Amjad Tarsin
“You must, O my brothers, be mindful of God in all your movements and times of stillness, at every moment, with every blink of the eye, with every thought, wish, or any other state. Feel His nearness to you!”
These words were penned in the 12th century by the great scholar Imam Abdullah bin Alawi al-Haddad, in response to a student of his who asked for a concise treatise which could assist him on his path to God. Imam al-Haddad responded with The Book of Assistance. Firmly based on principles from the Quran and Sunnah, it became widely renowned as a concise manual on Islamic spirituality.
His blessed words did not remain confined to his hometown of Tarim, located in the Hadramawt province of Yemen. Instead, they trickled out through space and time, until they reached the state of Michigan in the 21st century — where a young undergraduate student, known as Amjad Tarsin, was encouraged by his brother to attend a class at the local mosque. The instructor had studied in Tarim and was leading the class in a study of The Book of Assistance.
“There was just something different,” remembers Ustadh Amjad Tarsin, now a Muslim Chaplain at the University of Toronto. “Something unique about the book and the way it was taught.”
The impact it had on him was so great that he couldn’t remain satisfied with just one class. His research led him to discover the Dar al-Mustafa Islamic Seminary, established in Tarim by Habib Omar bin Hafiz, a descendent of the same line as Imam al-Hadaad and one of the foremost scholars of the modern age.
“From that point on, I just said that I have to see it for myself. I have to see this place.”
But by then, he had already graduated with a degree in English literature and Islamic Studies, and been accepted into law school. A high-paying career as a lawyer awaited him but he knew what he really wanted to do was to go to Tarim, even though some of the people close to him were initially wary of his plans.
“And then, subhanAllah, Allah just opened the doors,” he says in wonder. Not only did he receive a deferral on his law school acceptance, but he also discovered unexpected support. “The people who were the most not comfortable with me going to Yemen were the ones who were telling everyone [about my plans to go to Yemen]. Change of heart, all of a sudden.”
Tarim, cradled in towering golden-gray mountains surrounding it on three sides, is a bowl of narrow streets and mud-brick houses steeped in ilm (scared knowledge) and dhikr (remembrance of God). At night, the sky, in the eyes of the Western traveller, holds stars rearranged from the Northern Hemisphere’s familiar patterns now completely scattered, a reminder that this is someplace different on all spheres.
Amjad stayed at Dar al-Mustafa for a year, studying the various Islamic sciences inherited from Imam al-Haddad and other great scholars. However, what impacted him was not the academic-aspect of it all, but the spirit of it.
“One of the things that stood out was just the way they practised Islam. While there, it didn’t feel like something you had to be forced to do. It was lived, in every aspect of life.”
“In Ramadan, when they would do a khatam (completion) of the Quran, they would have a parade, give little kids firecrackers, sing anashid (songs)…everyone in the neighbourhood was partaking in the celebration. I found it to be a beautiful expression of life and faith.”
The environment he was in affected him heavily. When his year was up and he had to return to the States, he realized that he didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore.
“When I came back from Dar al-Mustafa, my heart wasn’t in it. [But I was told] not to make any rash decisions. So I tried it out for a couple of years, but really, I knew for a fact that I couldn’t see myself in that field. At that point I decided to transition into something else.”
After what he’d learned in Tarim, a career in chaplaincy seemed appropriate.
“The thing that really seemed to fit the closest to the way we were taught dawah (through) community engagement, teaching, and so forth, was chaplaincy.”
It was then he enrolled in the Hartford Seminary’s Masters of Chaplaincy program and was due to graduate in June 2012.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, a group of concerned individuals had seen the need for solid religious support amongst the University of Toronto’s thousands of Muslim students, and began the formation of the organization they called the Muslim Chaplaincy. Because the university did not endorse any religious groups, they had to rely on the community to raise the $70,000 dollars needed to support the program for one year.
As he prepared to graduate, he found out about the position. He sent them his resume and underwent a few interviews.
In the September of 2012, at the age of twenty-eight, he was picked from a large pool of prospects to be the university’s first full-time employed chaplain. This move was significant not only because it was the position of the first full-time employed Muslim chaplain at the University of Toronto, but also because this was the first full-time employment of a Muslim chaplain in any Canadian university since, well, the beginning of time.
Amjad was eagerly welcomed into the community. “It was all very overwhelming and exciting,” he says of his first few days. “I had to adjust to a new job, new city, and new country! The students were very friendly and welcoming and I immediately felt comfortable working at UofT.”
His concern for his students’ feelings sets him apart in many aspects…such as the fact that he’s known by his given name instead of any formal title. “Initially we didn’t want students to feel too intimidated to come speak with me if they ever needed counselling. I also didn’t feel comfortable with the title ‘Imam’ or ‘Shaykh’ which is reserved for scholars.”
He also speaks enthusiastically about the Muslim Chaplaincy. “There are two major services that it seeks to provide for students. One major service is to provide quality educational services; relevant programming; classes, seminars, symposiums…giving them the tools to understand their faith within a university context, within a modern context. And the second aspect of that is supporting that education duty with counselling. So we have office hours, we meet with students, on any issues that they really want to talk about. Sometimes it’s issues of faith, sometimes it’s emotional stuff, sometimes it’s relationship stuff, sometimes it’s school stuff; different things.
“So (there is) the education side and the counselling side.”
His days are busy and full of activity. “My day normally consists of several counselling sessions, an occasional administrative meeting, and usually a halaqa or event in the evening. Alhamdulillah, there’s so much energy at UofT and it’s a blessing to work closely with students.”
Currently, Amjad is finishing his third academic year in the position and attests to the fact that his students are facing a lot of challenges. “A lot of Muslim students are really trying to figure out who they are, how they can live their Islam within an environment that is very staunchly secular—and secular, not in the sense of not promoting one particular religion, but in the sense that ‘religion is not welcome here, intellectually.’ So I think that’s one of the biggest challenges for a lot of Muslim students; kind of negotiating where Islam falls on these issues, and where do I fall within all of that?”
The answer, he believes, lies in education.
“Education is key, because I think Muslim students need to be equipped with a sound understanding before they’re faced with all these secular ideals and ideologies that are being forced very heavily on them.”
In addition, he draws on his time in Yemen. “Another way to deal with it is… providing the spiritual support as well. A lot of people, [when] they’ve been in an environment where they feel a strong connection to Allah and His Messenger, they’re not easily shaken by these arguments.”
When asked about what other chaplains can do to improve their services, however, he grows concerned. He feels that the problem can’t be solved so easily. “More [important] than the chaplains, is that the community recognizes that there is a need, and that we, as a community, support services for Muslim students. So I think that are a lot of chaplains doing great work, but there needs to be more of a support system, a vibrant centre for Muslim life on campuses.”
It is interesting to note that, although the University’s Muslim Students’ Association was established in 1965, a chaplain wasn’t hired until 2012—almost half a century later. Clearly, Amjad is right when he says that more is called for.
“The MC is funded by support from donors and the community. The University does not fund our operations, because they don’t support faith-based positions. We serve literally thousands of Muslim students. At the downtown campus alone, there are approximately four to five thousand Muslims.”
“The way that things can improve inshaAllah, moving forward, is [through] greater community awareness about the challenges that Muslim students go through at university. We need to have more of a support system.”
—If you wish to donate to the Muslim Chaplaincy and support their excellent work, please visit their website here.
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