From the issue dated May 13, 2005


A Connecticut Muslim in King James's Court

On a blustery, mid-March afternoon, a solitary man crosses the campus of Trinity College here. With his dark hair and beard, thick black rectangular eyeglasses, and a shirt that looks like a Nehru jacket, he resembles an earnest beatnik.

He approaches a massive stone chapel of Gothic design, a testament to the institution's Christian roots. Gusts of wind roil flakes of snow that intermittently knit heaven to earth.

The man is Sohaib Nazeer Sultan, Trinity's first Muslim chaplain. The college hopes that Mr. Sultan, 24, who has been on the job since January, will open minds on the campus and chip away at the barriers that isolate Muslims here.

"A lot of work needs to be done to tear down biases and stereotypes," says the Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, who oversees religious life at Trinity, including half a dozen or so chaplains and religious advisers who minister to followers of Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Zen Buddhism.

And now Islam, the second-largest religion in the world. Its more than one billion believers recognize a number of holy cities. Hartford is not among them. Of the college's 2,100 students, perhaps two dozen openly identify themselves as adherents of Islam. If there are others, Mr. Sultan says, they keep their heads down.

Practicing Islam on a campus with almost 200 years of Christian tradition repeatedly tests one's forbearance. Like during Ramadan, Islam's holy month of fasting, when the faithful do not eat or drink during daylight hours -- but the campus dining hall doesn't open before sunup. Or when they attempt to observe Islam's requirement to pray five times daily. Or when someone of the opposite sex extends a hand to shake, a violation of Islam's teachings on modesty and respect between the genders.

And trying to explain oneself can be a challenge -- whether responding to a misinformed professor's comment in class or answering complex theological and political questions lobbed by well-meaning inquisitors. "It's intimidating for many students to take on that role and have to answer for other Muslims," says Mr. Sultan.

Mr. Sultan, who grew up in Indianapolis and Saudi Arabia, knows that firsthand. During his first year at Indiana University at Bloomington, the sororities and fraternities were the main attraction for his classmates. Mr. Sultan, who graduated in 2002 with a double major in journalism and political science, struggled to fit in. "I'm attracted to college chaplaincy because of my experience," he says.

At Trinity, even being perceived as a Muslim can present problems. Ibrahim Jabbour, a Christian whose parents are Jordanian and Lebanese, recalls being confronted by a drunken alumnus who called him "Saddam Hussein." The man threatened to punch him, the junior says. Jalilah Osman, an accounting major who converted from Christianity to Islam in 2000, stopped wearing her traditional head covering after the driver of a city bus suggested that all Muslims be deported to Arab countries and bombed. Sometimes it's easier to just lie low, Muslim students say.

"If you feel that you have to hide such an important part of yourself to be accepted, then your ability to develop into a mature person will be handicapped," says Ingrid Mattson, director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary's Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. Muslim students, she says, "will censor themselves and won't be able to grow intellectually."

Trinity administrators recognized that problem and created Mr. Sultan's part-time job -- one of about a dozen Muslim chaplaincies at American colleges -- to bridge the cultures of Islam and the prevailing secular campus. The social scene at Trinity often revolves around alcohol. A student newspaper, the Trinity Tripod, recently published a 600-word paean to inebriation that extolled the college's "proud heritage of partying hard." By taking advantage of cheap-beer nights at a local bar, the paper advised, the frugal student could "pass a happily inebriated week for only $2.50." The boozy social scene is a problem for devout students of any stripe, but perhaps more so for Muslims, who are strictly forbidden to drink.

As chaplain, Mr. Sultan is counselor, teacher, big brother, imam, ambassador, and minor celebrity. A PBS crew has been filming him for a four-part documentary, The Calling, that will chronicle the journeys of eight Americans who are entering the clergy. He is also a sought-after speaker in Hartford, where churches and other groups have invited him to discuss his religion.

On this day, a student representing the college's fraternities and sororities asks Mr. Sultan to speak on the topic of diversity at an event the Greeks are holding to mend their tattered image on the campus.

"The faculty feels that we isolate ourselves and are very selective," Ryan Sample, a junior, tells the chaplain. "We want them to understand that we are open."

Mr. Sultan agrees to speak on the topic of "embracing diversity" during the annual Greek Week celebration -- at a wine-and-cheese reception.

The chaplain takes it in stride. "You fall into a lot of these ironies working on a college campus," he says.

Sana Khan, a Muslim student from Pakistan, stops by to chat with Mr. Sultan about her plans for graduate school. She is happy that the college is trying to meet the needs of Muslim students. Until now "there's been nothing that brings us together," she says.

Later Mr. Sultan will lead a weekly Koran-study group. He wrote The Koran for Dummies, a guidebook that was published last year.

He would like to hold an "Islam awareness" week at Trinity, but there's no money to pay for speakers and other activities. If the college recognizes Muslim students as an official group, as Mr. Sultan hopes it will do next year, funds should become available. Meanwhile he is rallying support among Muslim students to attend a Boston Celtics basketball game -- if he can find the time. He is enrolled full time in the chaplaincy program at the Macdonald Center and expects to earn a master's degree, concentrating in Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations, in 2007.

He also must overcome suspicion from Muslim students who are newly arrived from places like Bangladesh, where the local imams, or religious leaders, might have been rigid interpreters of Islamic law. Few students are eager to encounter such a figure away from home. Muslims from abroad are also confused, at times, by the term "chaplain," which many associate with Christianity. Nonetheless, every so often a student who has kept his or her Muslim identity secret will "come out" at Friday prayers.

"Students are slowly opening up to me," Mr. Sultan says. "The issue is staying true to this faith and, at the same time, finding a way to integrate into the larger student culture. It's a tough balance to find sometimes."

Arriving at the doors of the campus chapel, Mr. Sultan shakes off the chill and steps into the cavernous space. He strides through the main hall -- past pews, pulpit, and pipe organ -- echoes of his footsteps marking his passage.

Descending half a dozen stone steps, he enters a vestibule where he will lead Friday prayers, an important observance for the Muslim community. The college has no mosque.

The first time he led the prayers as Trinity's chaplain, three people attended. Today a dozen or so worshipers remove their shoes and cover patches of the chapel's cold stone floor with purple pillows and intricately designed prayer rugs of aqua, pink, and cream. In an adjoining room they can see an eternally suffering stained-glass Jesus, whom Muslims esteem as a prophet but not as the son of God.

The worshipers face Mecca, recite verses from the Koran, and fall to their knees. Mr. Sultan delivers the khutbah, or sermon, imploring the faithful to do good works because life is short and destined to end.

"My brothers and sisters," he says, "there is a duality about our existence that we can never escape. We are at once both temporal beings in the physical earthly realm, and eternal beings in the spiritual afterlife."

As the service draws to a close, Mr. Sultan recites the imam's hypnotic chants, consisting of short supplications from the Koran, and instructs the worshipers to "make your lines straight, shoulder to shoulder."

When they are finished praying, the students gather at a campus cafe. Squeezed among them at a large, round table, the chaplain could easily pass for an undergraduate himself. "I enjoy sitting down and drinking Turkish tea and laughing," he says.

Faiza Khan, a sophomore from Pakistan, says Mr. Sultan "pulls us together. ... It's sort of like a minihaven."

Those words are music to Mr. Sultan's ears. "By getting to know people," he says, "you're getting to know God."
Section: Notes From Academe
Volume 51, Issue 36, Page A48