Chaplains go multi-religious

When I went to college, there were only 3 chaplains – a Protestant minister who was the University Chaplain, a Catholic priest who was the Catholic chaplain and a Rabbi who worked for Hillel. Beyond that, the only on-campus resource was the person hired to run a weekly interfaith service.

Now things are different – both universities and militaries have started to add non Judeo-Christian chaplains. The biggest change is the addition of Muslim chaplains, which actually first started in the US at a Catholic university:

Brown’s brown Muslim chaplain

In 1999 Georgetown University hired Yahya Hendi – the first full-time Muslim chaplain at an American university. Today [article was written in 2005], the Muslim Students Association (MSA) estimates that 14 institutions of higher education provide for a Muslim chaplain. [Link]

Now even Yale (whose founders split from Harvard because it was too religiously lax) has a Muslim chaplain. Many of these chaplains are younger and from more untraditional backgrounds compared to mosque imams because there is no standard career path:

At 24, Sohaib Nazeer Sultan could easily be mistaken for a graduate student as he walks the campus of Trinity College… 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… In May, his book, “The Koran for Dummies,” was published as part of the “Dummies” reference book series. [Link]

Similarly, the Yale university chaplain is a 35 year old Pakistani-born, UT Austin trained engineer who is working on his Ph.D in Islamic studies. (There are also Hindu and Sikh chaplains, although fewer of them. Swami Yogatmananda at UMass Dartmouth was the only Hindu chaplain I could find at a US university, although there is one at University of Toronto as well. The only Sikh chaplain I found in North America was Manjit Singh, the first non-Christian director of Chaplaincy services at McGill University. All of these chaplains are considerably older than their Muslim counterparts.)

If you’re non Jewish, Christian or Atheist, would this have made a difference to you in college? Would you have gone to more campus services if they had been of your faith?


On a related note [thanks Salil]:

For what is believed to be the first time in its history, the U.S. Senate will on July 12 be opened with a Hindu prayer, the Senate Chaplain’s Office confirmed Monday. For more than 200 years, the Senate has opened each workday with a prayer usually delivered by the Senate Chaplain, currently Barry Black, a Seventh Day Adventist. [Link]

53 thoughts on “Chaplains go multi-religious

  1. Regarding your reference to Yale’s University’s Muslim chaplain, Mahan Mizra whom you highlighted is the MUSLIM FELLOW with the Muslim Student Association at Yale University. He is NOT the chaplain. The Muslim chaplain is Sister Shamshad Sheikh. Her bio is at and she is also the Associate Chaplain of the University and responsible for multi-faith initiatives.

  2. The Sanskrit word “nastika” did not mean the same as the Hindi “nastik” (“atheist”). In fact, several so-called “Hindu” schools of philosophy, including Samkhya and Vaisesika, were atheistic in part or whole (meaning they denied the existence of an Iswara, Bhagavan, etc. who created the universe). But they were not nastikas.

    Probably the oldest meaning of “nastika” is “one who denies the existence of worlds after death”, while an “astika” was “one who accepts the existence of worlds after death” (This according to the 7th c. grammatical text Kasikavrtti). For this reason, the Buddhists and Jains considered themselves “astikas” (see, for instance, the Jain author Haribhadra’s 8th c. Saddarsanasamuccaya).

    And I know there are more Hindu chaplains in the U.S. than the one you mentioned at UMass (there’s Swami Tyagananda at Harvard, for instance).

  3. …there is one at University of Toronto…

    Actually, there are two Hindu chaplains. The present structure of the Chaplaincy at the U of T, however, is not very conducive to students’ spiritual guidance. Chaplains are currently not given regular office space or hours, and their affiliation with the University is not widely publicized among the student body.