- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Heads pop through the doorway of Rumee Ahmed’s office at Brown University on a regular basis. Students come looking for a friend, a mentor and a teacher.

“I’ve been harassing him since the day he came,” said junior Refai Arefin, who stops by daily for 15 to 20 minutes of study to improve his understanding of the Koran.

Mr. Ahmed is Brown’s first Muslim chaplain and joined four other associate chaplains at the school when he started in January. Many universities have Muslim chaplains, but Mr. Ahmed is among just a handful that are paid, said Janet Cooper Nelson, chaplain at Brown.

School officials realized that adding a Muslim chaplain was essential to serving their students, and to giving the school better credentials in the Muslim community, Mrs. Nelson said.

“When you look at the American landscape, when you look at the global landscape,” she said, “it’s not sufficient anymore to have a Protestant minister, a rabbi and a Catholic priest.”

Mr. Ahmed is not ordained and comes from an academic background: He is working on his doctorate in scripture interpretation and practice — a mix of philosophy of religion and Islamic studies — at the University of Virginia.

But Mrs. Nelson said Brown was not looking for an imam. There is no place to study to become an imam in the United States, and Brown wanted someone who had studied at an American university. Further, some students worried that an imam would be divisive.

The priority was to find a person who knows the faith, understands its variations and shows pastoral leadership, Mrs. Nelson said.

Brown found those qualities in the 26-year-old Mr. Ahmed, who says one of his most important jobs is to help Muslim students build a sense of community at Brown. About 4 percent of Brown’s undergraduates are Muslim, he said.

“That’s a really big challenge is getting all the Muslim students out there together,” Mr. Ahmed said. The university has 150 Muslim students, but only about 40 regularly attend Friday prayers.

Muslims at Brown come from varying cultures and have an array of beliefs. For example, Mr. Ahmed is American, but his parents were born in India and lived in Pakistan and the United States. Other Muslims at Brown come from places in the Middle East and Africa.

A challenge, he said, is getting students to express their religiosity however they see fit “and feeling they have a community and they are welcome.”

Mr. Ahmed has focused on developing programs since he started the job. His efforts include:

• A biweekly dinner that combines chanting and a short talk.

• A lecture series in which scholars from around the nation examine how Islam is practiced in the United States.

• “Muslim Encounters,” a forum in which graduate students will discuss historical events from different religious perspectives.

• And scriptural reasoning, in which Muslims, Christians and Jews take turns presenting their perspective on a common religious text.

Mr. Ahmed is also developing a network for his fellow Muslim chaplains at colleges in New England and New York. In that he has an advantage — his wife is the new Muslim chaplain at Connecticut College and a good friend holds the post at Wesleyan University.

The group of about 20 has created an online discussion board and met earlier last month at Hartford Seminary to organize. Most are volunteers, and many work at more than one college.

Mr. Ahmed said he hopes students will take what they learn through the programs back into the classroom.

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