Ministering To Muslims

At Yale, Woman Chaplain Does What Fundamentalists Insist Is A Man's Job

December 21, 2006|By ADRIAN BRUNE; Special To The Courant

Like the famous chaplains who defined Yale throughout its 300-year history, Shamshad Sheikh stands ready with a reassuring word or a religious article for inquisitive college students looking for divine counsel.

However, the words from the holy book Sheikh quotes and the prayer beads she hands out are quite different from the support offered by her predecessors at the Ivy League college, which was, after all, founded as a Christian divinity school in 1701.

Sheikh, 48, uses phrases from the Koran for emphasis and usually has a set of blue Subha in her pocket for students to use in salat -- the five daily prayers in which the 33 beads are used to repeat the 99 names for God, including the Wise, the Compassionate, the Merciful and the Good.

``Every day I try to do one thing that will make a difference in someone's life,'' said Sheikh.

Late last spring, Yale hired two associate chaplains in a groundbreaking move. The first, Callista Isabelle, a graduate of the Divinity School and a Lutheran, fell in line with Yale's Christian roots. But the second, Shamshad Sheikh, represented a historic choice for the school: She is Yale's first Muslim associate chaplain, and one of very few Islamic women chaplains in the world.

In the last five years, as the number of Muslim students has continued to grow -- along with a need to understand religious and cultural intricacies in a post-9/11 world -- more colleges and universities have hired Muslim chaplains. Georgetown University was the first, in 1999, but since then Muslim groups across the country estimate that at least 27 schools have appointed a Muslim chaplain, including Amherst, Georgetown and Trinity.

However, Yale has split with all of these other schools, and with the traditional, conservative voices of Islam, by hiring a female chaplain. Sheikh's appointment also figures in the controversy among Muslims on the roles women may play in religious leadership: While most schools of Islamic thought believe women may lead all-female congregations in salat, all sects insist a woman cannot lead a mixed congregation.

``Nowhere in the Koran does it say a woman cannot be a spiritual leader,'' Sheikh said. ``A lot of it is cultural and stems from the more practical aspects.

``In high school, however, I always questioned why Muslims didn't have nuns, like the Catholics. I always wanted to be a teacher -- to reach people's hearts with softness.''

Since coming to Yale in July, Sheikh has served as a spiritual adviser not only to Muslims but to Buddhists, Hindus and those who practice B'hai.

``As a colleague, she was a wonderful support and readily brought a Muslim perspective to our discussions that was invaluable,'' said Paul V. Sorrentino, the coordinator for religious life at Amherst College, where Sheikh previously worked. ``The Muslim community is not homogeneous and varies from highly secular to religiously conservative. As a result, not all students agreed with her religious views, but all were uniformly appreciative of her warm and friendly interactions and her efforts to serve the needs of students.''

At Yale, besides keeping her Bingham Hall door open to students and leading prayers for Muslim students, Sheikh has started a regular Friday gathering in which the community comes together over a Halal meal. During the holy month of Ramadan this fall, she also arranged an interfaith dinner with Indian students celebrating Diwali, the major Hindu ``Festival of Lights,'' which for five days celebrates the time when the seventh incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, Lord Rama, achieved victory over the Ravan, a demon king.

``It was the first time Eid [the day marking the official end of Ramadan] and Diwali were celebrated together on campus. We had about 200 students and a lot of food,'' Sheikh said. ``To me, there's no better way to make connections than over a meal. It's an informal setting in which you can just sit, eat, enjoy and learn from each other at the same time.''

Shared meals are an element of Sheikh's ministry that grew out of her upbringing in Karachi, Pakistan, rather than from her religion. The daughter of an agricultural manager and his homemaker wife, Sheikh was raised in an upper-middle class household in which three of the six children eventually came to the United States.

She credits her mother, who never went beyond the basic schooling for women in Pakistan, with encouraging her to get an education. And Sheikh says from a very young age she knew she wanted to join the Islamic clergy. ``For me, Islam is a form of cultural identity with spirituality at its center,'' she said

Sheikh enrolled at Karachi University and earned her bachelor's degree, followed by an Islamic law degree from S.M. Law College in her native city. Nearly 20 years ago, she came to Springfield to enroll in the master's of business administration program at American International College. She also became a Muslim spiritual adviser at both Amherst and Mount Holyoke and raised a daughter, now a student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

``Shamshad is a person who is easy to connect to on a very human level. There is nothing intimidating about her, and one can indulge in conversation without the fear of being judged or scolded,'' said Madeeha Channah, a junior at Mount Holyoke, who described Sheikh as her rock in freshman year. ``Her down-to-earth nature, willingness to aid student initiative and to bring community together is remarkable.

``Shamshad integrated exceptionally well with the Mount Holyoke community. She always took special care of first-year students.''

All the while, Sheikh has been active on human rights issues -- something she hopes to continue at Yale. Shortly after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, Sheikh traveled to a refugee camp on the Pakistan border to bear witness to the suffering of Afghani women and offer them support and hope. She also traveled to Pakistan to help after the 2005 earthquake.

Though realizing that humanitarian organizations and the United Nations often frown on cash, Sheikh provided financial, spiritual and psychological support for people at the Kacha Garhi refugee camp on the outskirts of Peshawar. ``When I saw the level of poverty on that extreme, I would have given them anything I had at the time,'' she said.

Her efforts with not only the Afghani women but also the victims of the 2005 earthquake in the rural mountain villages of Pakistan have sent her lecturing to Harvard Divinity School and the Women's Bar Association of New York, among other places.

The lessons Sheikh recently learned in Pakistan ``reflect on every step of my life,'' she said, and she plans to continue passing them on to elite universities. She also says she hopes to take some Yale students to other refugee camps, perhaps in the spring.

``I don't use the word `challenge' because I love the work I do. The only challenge is that I don't have enough time,'' she says.

``Every day, I think, God has given me a whole day, and I look upon it and see that I haven't done enough.''