October 25, 2006: Features

Khalid Latif

Khalid Latif

Photograph by Ricardo Barros

A calling to Princeton
Khalid Latif is the University’s first Muslim chaplain

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83

Last month, Princetonians of all faiths gathered in the memorial garden outside Chancellor Green to mark the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, listening as the wisdom of the three great Abrahamic religions was invoked to ease the pain of loss. Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director for the Center for Jewish Life, read the 23rd Psalm, then the Rev. Stephen L. White of the Episcopal Church of Princeton read selections from the Gospel of Matthew. They were followed by Khalid Latif, recently appointed as the University’s first Muslim chaplain, who prayed in Arabic from the Quran, chanting the prayer first in Arabic in a beautiful singing voice, then reading it in English:

Oh you who believe seek help with patient perseverance and prayer, for God is with those who patiently persevere. And do not speak of those who are slain in God’s way as dead; nay, they are alive, but you do not perceive. And we will most certainly try you with somewhat of fear and hunger and loss of property and lives and fruits; but give good news to the patient. Those who, when a misfortune befalls them, say: Surely we belong to God and to Him we shall surely return. They are those on whom descend blessings and mercy from their Lord, and those are the followers of the right course.

Latif had arrived on campus early in September, and the memorial service made for a daunting first appearance. He chose his words carefully, hoping they would convey an important and universal message. “In the Quran there are lots of references to patience during hardship and not allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed. You need to persevere and keep faith in God when [things] get beyond our ability to understand.”

Five years ago, Latif was a student at New York University, just a mile or so from Ground Zero, and watched with thousands of fellow students in sickened silence as the second plane hit the World Trade Center. What followed was a tense and uncertain time for Muslims in New York, he recalls, and because there was no Muslim chaplain yet at NYU, Latif and fellow students took responsibility for each other, even going so far as to organize a buddy system for their physical security. The experience, he says, “gave me a sense of how important it is for there to be a central authority figure, such as a chaplain, to ensure that needs are met for the whole community.”

In preparing for Princeton’s memorial service, Latif’s thoughts drifted toward the future. “We’re all going to be leaving this world someday,” he says. “Thinking back on a time when so many people left this world, I found myself thinking also about our own individual time here, about my time, and what I’m doing with it. Am I using the time well?”

Princeton’s decision to hire a Muslim chaplain had been in the works for more than a year, says Paul Raushenbush, associate dean of religious life, a response both to requests from Muslim students and in recognition of their growing numbers on campus. Because the University does not ask students about their religious affiliation, there is no way to get an accurate count, but Raushenbush estimates that approximately 200 undergraduate and graduate students are Muslims. “We wanted to make sure that when Muslims applied [to Princeton], they got the sense immediately that we valued their presence here,” Raushenbush says.

Latif, who will split his time between Princeton and NYU, where he is also a chaplain, grew up in a Muslim enclave of northern New Jersey, the son of Pakistani immigrants who came to the United States during the 1970s. His father, a doctor, had read Islamic writings, but like many immigrants Latif’s parents tended to downplay the culture of their old country. They did not practice their faith with much assiduity until his older siblings began to take a greater interest in Islam during their college years, when Latif was about 12 years old.

Inspired by his siblings’ example, Latif began to read the Quran and study Islam on his own, to the point that he was invited to deliver sermons during Friday services at area mosques while still a teenager. “It seemed,” he says, “like something that fit into what I was doing already.”

Nevertheless, after graduating from NYU in 2004 with honors in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, he intended to become a lawyer, and completed one year of law school before deciding to change careers. “The idea of being a lawyer didn’t appeal to me,” recalls Latif, a slight man with a well-trimmed beard who usually wears the Muslim Kufi, or skullcap. “On my first day at law school, a professor told us that the legal system is not based on justice; it’s based on who has more money. I don’t know if he was trying to be cynical or funny, but it was something that stayed with me. I decided that there were other things I could do with my skills that might be more effective in helping people on a mass level.” He applied to the Hartford Seminary, the only seminary in the country that offers an accredited program in Islamic chaplaincy, where he is completing his certification.

Although chaplains may help lead worship, they also provide services unique to a university setting. During his chaplaincy training, Latif says, he has gained much insight into the issues faced by American Muslims, particularly students. The questions brought to a chaplain “aren’t always going to be religion-based,” he says. His work includes counseling people on issues of drug or alcohol abuse (Muslims are expected to abstain from both drugs and alcohol) and domestic violence. According to Abdullah Antepli, assistant director of the Islamic chaplaincy program at Hartford Seminary, Muslim chaplains are now in great demand by American universities, though few are available.

Perhaps the highlight of Latif’s spiritual journey was a physical journey he made last winter on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. This being the 21st century, he described his feelings and impressions in a blog (http://icnyuchaplain.blogspot.com) he began at the suggestion of Beliefnet.com, a multidenominational religious Web site, and which, time permitting, he hopes to continue. Latif’s home page on the NYU Islamic Center’s Web site also contains a number of audio files of his past lectures in Arabic, on topics ranging from “The Rights of Children” to “Preparing for Ramadan.”

Robert Coolidge, a Ph.D. candidate in religion at Princeton who has been active in the Muslim Students Association, has known Latif for several years through his participation in Islamic groups in northern New Jersey. He describes the new chaplain as “soft-spoken and calm, but not in a meek way. He walks and talks with a sense of personal strength. He is definitely one of those people who could be described as one whose actions speak louder than their words.” The need for a chaplain was strong, Coolidge says: “Muslim religious life pretty much rises or falls on whether there is leadership. With a chaplain, there is someone to take some of the responsibility but also provide a resource and, hopefully, a motivation for students to increase their religious life and provide momentum for the whole Muslim student population.”

Wasim Shiliwala ’09, who grew up in the same area of New Jersey as Latif, agrees. Until Latif arrived, he says, “there was not someone responsible for the Muslim community. At interfaith events, there would be a rabbi from the Center for Jewish Life and a minister for the Christians, but no one for Muslims who was as knowledgeable as a chaplain would be.”

Although the majority of Muslim students are believed to be Sunni (as Latif himself is), members of the largest branch in Islam, those from Shiite, Sufi, or other backgrounds are readily accepted within the Muslim Students Association. Any such differences, Latif says, will not impede his work. Being chaplain makes him “responsible for all the Muslims on campus,” he says, “and not just those from a specific cultural background.”

Because the nearest mosque is almost six miles from Princeton, and because of the inherent transience of campus life, it has been difficult for Muslim students to develop a strong bond with one another, Latif says. That is something he hopes to foster. “It’s hard for individuals to establish community when they’re together only nine months out of the year,” he suggests. “They need a constant factor that is there.”

In his first weeks at the University, Latif has continued the practice of daily prayers in a room set aside for Muslim prayer on the third floor of Murray-Dodge Hall, as well as larger and better-attended jumaa services each Friday, the Muslim Sabbath. As Latif sees it, however, his call includes reaching out to students of other faiths as well.

Already, Latif and Rabbi Roth have held a joint study session on the meaning of fasting in Islam and Judaism. On Sept. 29, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and just before the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur — both of which require fasting — about 70 Jewish and Muslim students sat down together for a Sabbath meal at the Center for Jewish Life, and then discussed what fasting means in their faiths and lives. Latif introduced himself to the group, explaining that he hoped to be a resource for all Princeton students, and the atmosphere was warm. He and Roth also were exploring the possibility of holding a Muslim-Jewish retreat during fall break.

“That’s why it is so great to have Khalid here,” Raushenbush says, “because he has been so engaged in constructive dialogue between groups.”

While splitting his time between Princeton and NYU, Latif also teaches an interfaith educational program at two New York high schools: one a Jewish day school in Manhattan, the other an Islamic school in Queens. He continues to deliver Friday sermons at Islamic centers and hospitals in the area. To deepen his own spiritual background, he is studying privately with Islamic scholars and working to memorize the Quran, while continuing to pursue his master’s degree in Islamic studies, with a concentration in Muslim-Christian relations, at Hartford. “The importance of working together in a collaborative effort should transcend any distinctions of faith or culture,” he says. “There are tensions all over the world. A lot of people could find common ground in faith if they would let themselves do so.”

Latif believes that it is incumbent upon Muslims to do more to educate others about their faith. “Muslims have a tendency to be passive,” he says. “It’s easy to say, ‘Don’t look at the people [who are proclaiming the tenets of Islam], look at the [Quran].’ But people do look at the people who are proclaiming what they believe Islam means. It’s important that we learn the text, and once we learn it, to be sure that we are acting in accordance with it. Muslims have to mobilize so that we’re the ones teaching it.” end of article

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.




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