Death Threats, Drinking, And Dating: How Campuses Became Battlegrounds For Muslim Leaders

For decades, US Muslims have been demanding religious leaders who understand what it's like to practice Islam in America. Will the turmoil of the Trump years finally make it happen?

The invitation seemed like no big deal: Would Muslim students at Duke University like to give their call to prayer from the chapel bell tower?

Within days, however, this simple gesture spiraled into a firestorm. Irate Christian donors. Fox News coverage. Anonymous calls threatening murder. Citing safety concerns, the school caved and moved the prayer call, leaving Muslims on campus feeling betrayed and scared.

Students looked to Adeel J. Zeb, the Muslim chaplain at Duke at the time, to voice their outrage in his Friday sermon, but no part of seminary training had covered how to give a public speech under death threat in the South. “I’m sitting there at 11 at night, working out at my apartment gym, and I had my iPhone out making notes and thinking, What do I say in this situation?” Zeb said.

The next day, under the protection of an armed plainclothes officer, he wove together Muslim parables about faith under fire with stories about protests during the 1960s civil rights struggle.

It’s been two years, but Zeb vividly recalls scanning the crowd, wondering whether he should’ve worn a bulletproof vest.

Zeb understood at that moment, in early 2015, that it was time for Muslim leaders like him – American-born, American-educated – to stand up for their communities in a new era of anti-Muslim hostility that’s worsened with the rise of President Donald Trump.

For years, US Muslims have been trying to build an all-American Islamic authority to bridge cultural gaps in immigrant Muslim communities and attract US-born worshippers who seek greater independence from conservative institutions in the Middle East and South Asia. Some two dozen seminaries and other US-based Islamic training programs have sprung up in recent years, laboratories for a new generation of US-born clerics.

But, as in Zeb’s case, the first graduates of those programs are going straight from seminary to the battlefield, thrust into the activism of the moment by young Muslims who’ve made it clear that the bookish imam of yesteryear isn’t going to cut it now – their clerics need to be woke.

What that means in an Islamic context is still being hashed out, but already US-born clerics appear more willing to break taboos and to work more inclusively with allies than the current crop of full-time imams, 85% of whom were born abroad, according to a 2011 study. There’s great respect among the homegrown set for their pioneering immigrant elders, but also a de facto challenge: keep up or drift into irrelevancy.

Zeb was still reeling from the Duke ordeal when, not even a month later, another blow came: Three Muslim students were gunned down 20 minutes away, in the rival college town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Muslims at Duke were devastated, and once again, Zeb faced a crisis with no playbook. He quickly arranged for buses so they could all go pay their respects.

In Chapel Hill, grieving students Zeb had never met recognized him as a chaplain and collapsed in his arms. Some were sobbing so hard, he said, they couldn’t even get out the traditional greeting of assalamualaikum.

Zeb saw the looming challenges of Islamic ministry in the United States on the tear-streaked faces of college kids mourning three of their own. The unspoken thought, he said, was “That could’ve been us.”

“I think everybody’s really scared. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re being called to talk about it in the media, at work, with our families, with our students,” Zeb said of the challenges US Muslim leaders face these days. “So, no, no one’s really ready for it, but I think you find solidarity in the collective anxiety. We’re mobilizing.”

Jihad Turk, 45, knows firsthand the disconnect many young Muslims feel from their clergy. He grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, at a time when there were no mosques nearby and religious instruction came largely from a Muslim summer camp and “one of the dads” teaching Arabic by rote in a basement. Turk described it as boring and irrelevant; he often wished he were watching football.

Suffice it to say that’s not the model Turk had in mind when, nearly four decades and a
formal religious education later, he opened Bayan Claremont, the nation’s first
Islamic school to offer accredited master’s degrees.

Just three students were in the first class in 2011. Today, 53 grad students — including 21 women — are learning Islamic leadership skills in a curriculum that pushes critical
thinking and cultural fluency. Turk described three goals for Bayan graduates: to be relevant for the youth, to be inclusive of women, and to be active in civic life through interfaith and media work.

“Our vision statement is ‘A world that understands Islamic values in a modern context,’” Turk said. “So we take the tradition and we apply to it critical-thinking skills and a diverse perspective, and it’s here for the American Muslim context in particular. We want to be a beacon.”

Turk’s familiarity with the everyday frictions of Muslim life in America might be his single greatest asset as Bayan’s president. He gets it when students describe all the little ways even US-born Muslims are reminded of their outsider status. Just that day, he’d frozen for a half second when a Starbucks barista asked his name for the order. He went with “Turk” rather than “Jihad.”

“It’s just easier,” he said with a chuckle.

Housed within the Claremont School of Theology, Bayan is part of a proliferation of US-based Islamic training centers in recent years, ranging from brick-and-mortar colleges with accreditation to less formal, online-only seminary courses.

With the creep of anti-Muslim prejudice into federal policies, Bayan has tailored its courses to reflect the times, with training on how to give TV interviews about hot-button issues and how to build solidarity across cultural and religious lines.

Turk said there’s also an emphasis on the history of Islam in the United States. That means putting a sharper focus on deeply rooted African-American Muslim communities, which make up a large bloc of the nation’s more than 3.3 million Muslims but are often overlooked in a national discourse that centers on the immigrant experience.

Newer arrivals are, belatedly, seeing the value in learning from black Muslims who’ve lived with state and societal discrimination for much longer. One of the most popular courses at Bayan is “Islam in Black America: From Slavery to Hip-Hop” — a timely reminder, Turk said, that Islam is embedded in the foundation of America.

“We’re not so reactionary to Trump per se, but to the reality that’s been going on each election cycle since Obama was elected,” Turk said. “There was a strategic decision by the GOP to make Islam a wedge issue, and Trump is the result of that multimillion-dollar effort to marginalize Islam and Muslims, and other minority communities.”

So far, the school has produced nine graduates of its two-year master’s program, and Turk can rattle off each of their accomplishments like a proud father.

Jihad Saafir, an African-American imam in South Central Los Angeles, turned his father’s storefront mosque into a thriving Islamic center that operates a food pantry for the neighborhood. César Dominguez, born in California to Latino immigrants, is a former theater actor who’s now being groomed to head an Islamic outreach center in Mexico. Sondos Kholaki, who became one of the few women to head the board of a US mosque, is leading a campaign to improve the image of Islam among evangelical Christians.

But two main obstacles stand in the way of Bayan and other US seminaries’ attempts to build a fully American Islamic authority: There’s still no capacity for classical imam training, and they can’t produce graduates fast enough to meet the demands of communities desperate for energetic leaders to help them navigate the Trump era.

Besides, Islamic scholars say, only about 20% of US Muslims attend a mosque regularly, and that number is expected to drop if young, American-born Muslims don’t find an Islamic authority that feels relevant and approachable.

“Wherever I go, people always say, ‘This is fantastic, this is exactly what we want, someone who can relate to our kids and who gets it,’” Turk said. “They say, ‘Give us one of your graduates.’ And I say, ‘Well, all of our graduates are already fully employed. Even our students are employed.’”

Four centuries ago, an Ottoman-era job posting for an imam spelled out the high standards expected of leaders throughout Islamic history.

The ideal candidate, the ad stated, must have mastered the languages of Arabic, Latin, Turkish, and Persian. He must know the Quran, the Gospels, and the Torah inside and out, and also be a scholar of Islamic law. And, for good measure, he must be “up to teaching standard” in his grasp of physics and mathematics.

Easy, right?

The ad was used in an early promotional video for Zaytuna College, a California-based school that offered one of the first Islamic seminary programs in the United States. The idea was that an American institution could produce the modern-day version of the cleric described in the Ottoman ad: scholarly but cosmopolitan, seeking knowledge not only in religious texts but also in the sciences.

Except that the American clerics also would be dealing with daily questions of LGBT rights, dating outside the faith, abortion, and a host of other thorny issues that aren’t the usual concerns of sheikhs who come from conservative parts of the Islamic world.

Plus, any Muslim leader seeking credibility in activist circles is expected to stand in solidarity with other groups that feel vulnerable under Trump — undocumented immigrants, women’s rights groups, the Black Lives Matter movement, and, perhaps most controversially, LGBT communities. That’s out of the comfort zone for not only the immigrant class, but some homegrown conservatives, too.

The debate around these issues signals change to come — albeit gradually — as American clerics assert their voices in interpreting Islam from this country, for this country.

That shift is embodied in Suhaib Webb, 44, an Oklahoma-born DJ turned imam who’s reached hundreds of thousands online by sprinkling hip-hop and pop-culture references into his sermons, which he adapts for his Snapchat account and shares with over 230,000 Facebook fans. Extremists see his popularity as a threat; ISIS militants deemed him “a tool for taming Muslim youth in the West” and added him to a hit list.

Webb calls his approach “compassionate orthodoxy,” embracing Muslims who a generation ago might’ve been ostracized for lifestyles that don’t square with traditional Islamic values. He’d be welcoming, he said, but he’d also stress that Islam prohibits, say, drinking or sexual promiscuity.

“My job isn’t to intimidate people, but if I’m asked, there have to be true answers,” Webb said. “If a person asks me if making it rain in a club is permissible, I have to say it’s not. But that doesn’t mean I demonize that person.”

Despite the success of Webb and a handful of other American-born imams, US imams are still overwhelmingly foreign-born, and those who wish to be taken seriously spend a year or longer at revered seminaries in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, as Webb did. African-American Muslims have a long homegrown clerical tradition, yet many of their imams also travel overseas for extra training.

There’s also the matter of money. Being an imam just doesn’t pay, especially with all the extra duties of counseling and interfaith outreach that have been tacked on since the 9/11 attacks.

It’s no wonder, then, that many aspiring clerics are choosing the relatively new chaplaincy route, serving in secular institutions such as universities, hospitals, and prisons. Chaplains are paid more, and there’s no uproar about women serving.

“There’s a kind of PR issue they’re helping with,” said Sajida Jalalzai, who focuses on Muslim-Christian relations as an assistant professor of religious studies at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. “They seem to be younger and come from this cultural context, so they see themselves as a bridge between the young generation and the uncles and the aunties of the older generation.”

Tensions run especially high on campuses, where chaplains are confronted almost daily with sensitive questions from students who might not feel comfortable seeking advice from their parents or imams.

In one contentious example, a few Muslim women approached Sohaib Sultan, the chaplain at Princeton University, and said they no longer wanted to pray in a row behind the men at Friday prayers, but alongside them. Such an arrangement is virtually unheard of in mosques.

“Some of the sisters said, ‘We grew up being told that Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus,’” Sultan said. “That’s where it becomes about the American narrative, American culture. Yeah, if you grew up with one of your heroes being Rosa Parks and her refusal to sit in the back of the bus, I can see why front and back makes a huge difference.”

Sultan agonized for weeks over what to do, spending sleepless nights praying for guidance. He asked imams their opinions; there was no consensus. This would be his call to make. He ended up allowing the change, and got some backlash, but then people got used to it. For all the heat of the debate, he said, the outcome was pretty anticlimactic.

So, a year later, is Sultan confident he made the right call?

“No. I’m not confident,” he said. “But I’m comfortable. I see it more as something that needed to be done. I would call it an accommodation.”

That willingness to test taboos is what makes the older immigrant clerical class — as well as some younger, homegrown conservatives — wary of the emerging American generation. They fear that seemingly harmless moves like Sultan’s eventually will lead to a faith that’s stripped of its ritual and sacredness, so diluted that being Muslim is merely an identity.

Sultan said Islam, like most religions, puts parameters on social conduct, but also leaves room for interpretation. He worries that if clerics in the United States don’t show some flexibility, they’ll lose young Muslims who don’t see their lives reflected in Islamic circles where “Americanized” is still too often invoked as a pejorative.

“It’s not ‘Come as you are and we’re going to upend Islam for you,’” Sultan said. “But to the degree that Islam has flexibility, has malleability, has a wide breadth of capacity, my job as a chaplain in a diverse Muslim community is to see how far we can stretch.”

Shock waves from the February 2015 triple shooting in Chapel Hill rippled all the way to California, where Aiman Chaudhary, 21, was studying politics at Pomona, one of the liberal arts colleges in the Claremont University Consortium known locally as the “Five C’s.”

She belonged to the small Muslim Student Association, but there was no resident Muslim cleric to counsel the students through the grief and outrage of the news. A decades-old chaplaincy arrangement allowed only for a Protestant, a Catholic, and a Jew.

When those clerics failed to speak out about Chapel Hill, Chaudhary said, she wrote an open letter to administrators urging them to better serve Muslims. After a brief experiment with a part-time hire, she said, Claremont finally began searching for a full-time chaplain to minister to Muslims in a liberal, politically active college setting.

Chaudhary said one candidate was a woman who was impressive but lacked leadership experience; another was a male convert who seemed OK until students learned he wouldn’t shake hands with women.

And then came a third applicant who instantly connected with students: Adeel J. Zeb, the Duke chaplain who’d counseled his students through the prayer call controversy and then the Chapel Hill rampage.

Chaudhary said she was relieved that the school had found someone as battle-tested as Zeb — and just in time to help students through Trump’s election and the travel ban fiasco — but she’s still disturbed that after so many years of pushing for American clerics, the bench remains thin.

“To think that there’s such a dearth of educated Muslim leaders who are capable of shaping and mentoring the next generation of Muslims in this country? To me, that’s a void,” she said.

Chaudhary was speaking over Sunday brunch with four other members of the Claremont MSA. All of them said Zeb’s arrival last summer had rejuvenated Muslim life on campus, his judgment-free approach welcomed by students who’d grown up with clerics who spoke largely in terms of haram or halal, forbidden or permissible.

Zeb adheres to his own religious obligations but meets students where they are. For instance, he doesn’t make a fuss about some MSA members openly chatting about their adventures on Tinder. The students still crack up about the time they shared a dating meme along with jokes about how Zeb should pray for their love lives — then someone accidentally tagged him in the post.

Within minutes, his deadpan reply popped up: “As a chaplain, I do not recommend this activity.”

“I come to him with so many things I’m struggling with, and he has not once shamed me. Like, not ever. Which was the total opposite of any Islamic education I’ve received in this country,” said Rohma Amir, 20, co-president of the MSA.

“His being American is great because he gets our culture,” added Ali Momin, 19. “I was raised in a community of immigrants and they didn’t get it. Things like social media, dating, having gay friends. A lot of homophobia and anti-blackness. I feel like Adeel allows for these things to be talked about, discussed.”

The students said Zeb also makes sure they’re exposed to a spectrum of Muslim voices — one visiting cleric said protecting the environment is a religious duty (“Sooooooo good!”), and another argued against evolution (“Dude, you’re on a college campus.”).

Like many MSAs across the country, the one in Claremont is split between liberal and conservative factions, a microcosm of the tug-of-war over Islamic authority in the United States. Sehreen Khan, a 20-year-old sophomore, said Zeb gives space to a range of religious expression rather than automatically siding with the camp that doesn’t date before marriage or wear shorts in the summertime.

While Khan has no plans to pursue a career in the clergy, she still considers Islam a driving force behind her activism as anti-Muslim hostility hardens under Trump. And she’s only involved in faith-based organizing, she said, because Zeb has created an atmosphere that makes it “OK to be Muslim the way I’m Muslim.”

“Adeel’s voice is important because the most important thing we can do right now is assert ourselves as Americans,” Khan said. “A lot of us are second-generation, and we’re no less American than someone who’s Christian. We need to own the fact that we are Americans.” ●

Topics in this article

Skip to footer