There are an estimated 5,000 Muslim students at Rutgers University.
For the first time in the university’s history that community is being represented by a full-time Muslim chaplain, Kaiser Aslam, who also is one of the first to hold that position at a public university nationwide.
“That is a gigantic population that has been here for a very long time. On the one hand, how did it take this long? And then on the other, it feels like, wow, we’re ahead of the game,” said Aslam, who joined Rutgers in August after serving as the Muslim chaplain at Wesleyan University. “It’s time for the Muslim community to institutionalize themselves. We are part of the fabric of this country.”
Christian and Jewish students have had access to full-time chaplains at Rutgers for decades. But prior to Aslam, Muslim students who sought spiritual counseling relied on part-time volunteers who often worked remotely, said Atiya Aftab, chair of the Center for Islamic Life at Rutgers University (CILRU). Formed in 2010, the CILRU filed in 2011 to create a Muslim chaplaincy, at which time the group began raising funds for the position. Five years later the organization reached its goal of $150,000 – less than half of which is used to pay Aslam’s salary and the rest finances an office, programming, website and a soon-to-be-hired assistant.
“When you are in college, you are at an age and stage when you are questioning your identity and faith,” said Aftab. “A full-time chaplain is needed to help students navigate through those changes on what may be their first time away from home and first introduction to new ideas and religions.”
Since his arrival, Aslam’s met with more than 150 students in his temporary office at Rutgers Off-Campus Living and Community Partnerships on Union Street in New Brunswick. He will move to a dedicated space the CILRU is renting on Sicard Street behind the College Avenue Student Center once renovations are complete. He lives in Somerset with his wife and 9-month-old daughter.
Aslam plays a variety of roles when mentoring students. Some students come to him with spiritual and identity issues typically addressed by those in pastoral care. Some are dealing with emotional, physical or mental health crises that require referrals to other campus agencies. And
then there are those worried about persecution, deportation or worse.
“It’s a very disheartening moment,” Aslam said in reference to President Trump’s renewed travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries and an uptick in crimes targeting immigrant and minority communities. “There are those who were on the edge of indulging in their Muslim identity but are fearful. Some students want to practice but their families are telling them not now.”
Aftab, who graduated from Rutgers College in 1988, earned her law degree in 1991 from Rutgers Law School-Newark and teaches “Islamic Law and Jurisprudence” and “Islam and Muslim Institutions” as an adjunct at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, said it is “a happy coincidence” that CILRU was interviewing for Aslam’s position while anti-Muslim rhetoric became commonplace on the presidential campaign trail. The CILRU’s ultimate goal is to raise more than a million dollars to purchase a structure where Muslim students and staff can meet, pray and dine together.
“Given the political climate, the urgency now is to have a permanent space,” she said. “So when students walk by they see we have a place here; we are permanent; we belong side by side with people of other faiths or no faiths on this campus.”
Selected from a field of 19 candidates, Aslam has a master’s degree in Islamic Studies and Muslim-Christian Relations from Hartford Seminary. His prior studies, experience as a chaplain, ease with male and female students and strong Muslim-American identity make him uniquely qualified for a role that requires much defining, said Aftab.
“You have people coming here from over 50 Muslim-majority countries. It’s like a melting pot,” she said. “There is a new idea developing, an American Muslim identity, and if we hired someone from one strong ethnic background it might be challenging for other students to relate.”
Aslam was born in India and spent 5 years in Saudi Arabia before moving to the United States with his family as a 6-year-old, eventually settling in Chicago. As a child, he remembers his family being more culturally Muslim than religiously Muslim – until 9/11 when he first felt the call to support his community by actively participating in it.
“I remember when I went over to friend’s house, I was asked to share my full name. I was told the next day that you’re no longer able to come to my house,” he said of the post 9/11 discriminations he experienced. “You just feel very other-ized. I think it’s a typical experience of people at that time. It’s still typical today.”
Aslam joined the Young Muslims, taking on local leadership before rising to the state level and becoming the group’s national leader from 2012 to 2013. In that role, he traveled every other weekend to a different U.S. Muslim community.
As an undergraduate, he majored in biology with a concentration in physics and minors in chemistry and art at Elmhurst College. Teaching was his ultimate goal, until he fell in love with the field of chaplaincy. He sees his new role at Rutgers as an opportunity to set the standard of Muslim chaplaincies here and abroad. His student flock is thankful for his presence, said senior Hasan Usmani, because Muslim students have many emotional, psychological and pastoral needs, especially today.
“Adding a full-time Muslim chaplain on campus is a huge resource for the Muslim community and something we are in need of,” said Usmani, 21, a supply chain management major. “There is so much we do on campus for which we need religious assistance and guidance. Having a chaplain as a resource to turn to is an amazing asset.”
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