Muslim Chaplain Building
Bridges At Trinity
January 23, 2005
By FRANCES GRANDY TAYLOR, Courant Staff Writer
At 24, Sohaib Nazeer Sultan could easily be mistaken for
a graduate student as he walks the campus of Trinity College. But when students
return to classes this week, they will find Sultan in his office in the Interfaith
House on Vernon Street, as Trinity's first Muslim chaplain.
A former freelance journalist in Chicago, Sultan began studying in the Islamic
Chaplaincy program at Hartford Seminary last year. It is the only program in
the country that trains and certifies Muslim chaplains for work in hospitals,
prisons, universities and the U.S. military.
Trinity students may also notice that Sultan will occasionally be trailed by
a film crew. He is a subject in "The Calling," a four-part PBS documentary series
about the spiritual journey of eight people from Jewish, Christian and Muslim
faiths who have chosen a life in the clergy. The crew has followed Sultan since
he was an undergraduate in Indiana and has come to Hartford Seminary to film
him there. The project is expected to take a few years to complete.
In the documentary, Sultan said, "we talk about the events that have and continue
to shape my role in religious life, and we also talk a great deal about challenges
and opportunities that Muslim Americans face in this country, and how people
like myself are addressing this reality."
As a religious leader on campus, Sultan said, he is there for both Muslim and
non-Muslim students, and to help build bridges between faith and secular communities
"The most important thing is for me to be available to all students, to answer
questions and not take offense, because I know there is a lot of misunderstanding
about Islam, and my job is to work through that."
The search for a Muslim chaplain began last year after the Rev. Daniel Heischman,
Trinity's head chaplain, was approached by a Muslim student on campus.
"The Muslim students on campus were spiritually underserved," Heischman said
the students told him. He said Sultan's presence is also important for non-Muslims. "There
is a substantial hunger on the part of students to understand the role of Islam
in contemporary life, which will benefit the entire college community. We feel
very fortunate to have someone of Sohaib's caliber on campus."
Sultan, who will work with Christian, Jewish and Zen Buddhist faith leaders on
campus, said he sees himself as an advocate for Muslim students. For example,
he hopes to increase the administration's awareness of Muslim holidays such as
"There might be a way that Muslim students could have food prepared the night
before so they can have breakfast before sunrise," he said.
"I think that Sohaib's appointment will help all of Trinity's students learn
more about Islam, and that his presence will help to foster dialogue between
the Trinity Muslim community and the larger Trinity community," said Shahzad
Ahmed, a Muslim student who helped bring Sultan to Trinity.
Born in North Carolina and raised in Indiana, Sultan said he became interested
in studying Islamic tradition from a young age because of his father's work as
a scholar in Islamic education. "I grew up in that culture of serving the community," he
When Sultan was 11, the family moved to Saudi Arabia, where he learned Koranic
recitation. He returned to the United States at 16, finished high school in Charlottesville,
Va., and later earned a degree in journalism and political science from Indiana
Sultan became president and senior adviser of the Muslim Students Association
at the university, and preached a sermon at the Bloomington mosque near campus.
At graduation he was honored by the university for his cultural diversity efforts
and was asked to offer an Islamic prayer during the university's pre-graduation
While in Chicago, he also worked as an Islamic affairs analyst for BBC Radio
in a series of dialogues on Muslim-Christian relations in the United States.
In May, his book, "The Koran for Dummies," was published as part of the "Dummies" reference
As a young American Muslim, Sultan said he knows from personal experience the
trials that Muslim students can face on campus, including peer pressure to drink
and party, date and have relationships, all of which is frowned on in Islam. "I
understand where they are coming from - I've been through the same moral, psychological
and religious dilemmas," he said.
"Muslim students on college campuses face this struggle between preserving one's
own identity and values, and integration and assimilation into campus culture," he
"When someone comes to me for advice, very rarely is it a matter of saying the
Koran says this in verse so and so," Sultan said. "I believe that people have
ethical and moral values instilled within their hearts, and it's a process of
listening, so that they are able to find what their heart is already telling
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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