The Challenges and Opportunities in Training Muslim Chaplaincy Students for a Burgeoning New Field


Feryal Salem

Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies and Director of the Master of Divinity and Muslim Chaplaincy Programs, American Islamic College, Chicago, USA


Though a relatively new field, Islamic chaplaincy has become integral to many spiritual care and religious life divisions of public institutions that have undergone a significant shift towards a multifaith presence in approximately the last fifty years. These changes promote new opportunities in which Muslim chaplains can enrich religious life through their distinctive contributions to the field. Simultaneously, there are challenges that need to be addressed such as hiring practices that provide balanced support for Muslim chaplains, the avoidance of tokenization tendencies through ensuring the proper education of students training to become Muslim chaplains, and the need for such students to have their own space for development and formation that does not compromise their religious identities in Christian majority contexts. These challenges have facilitated creative solutions as well as calls for action from interfaith allies.


When I was first appointed as Co-director of the Muslim Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary many years ago, I had much to learn about the many dimensions of growth potential for the field of Muslim chaplaincy as well as the growing pains of a burgeoning profession for Muslims. One of the best decisions I made was to spend my first summer doing clinical pastoral education (CPE) at Stanford Hospital where I served among a cohort of six as an interfaith chaplain in training. As someone who not only studied Islamic Studies from an academic perspective but also simultaneously from scholars of the Muslim world who embodied the spirituality of the faith that they were teaching through their own lived practice, I quickly made many connections between the pastoral care work of chaplains in public spaces to spiritual care rooted in Islamic teachings. One of my goals as an academic advisor to students seeking to become Muslim chaplains quickly became to help them gain confidence in their roles through acquiring a deeper understanding of how their Muslim faith can enrich the practice of spiritual care in ways that are distinct and authentic to their own religious affiliations. I write from the vantage point of this experience as a director of Muslim Chaplaincy Programs.

and MDiv programs, formerly at Hartford Seminary and now at American Islamic College.

Muslim Chaplains and Hiring Practices

For Muslims as with those of many other faiths, being a minority in a predominantly Christian American context often poses its own challenges. One such challenge can be the tokenization that can occur when institutions seek to diversify the representation of religious leadership without adequate funding. A lack of adequate institutional support from a financial standpoint can commonly result in the hiring of Muslim leaders who may fill a quota in terms of diversity but may not have the appropriate qualifications for this delicate role. One of the causes of this is that many institutions are reluctant to financially invest in non-Christian religious professionals in a comparable pay range and full-time work capacity as they do with Christian chaplains. In my experience as a Muslim chaplaincy program director for almost a decade now, I have often been contacted by institutions that want to hire a Muslim chaplain but are only willing to do so on a part-time basis and often without benefits. This has commonly led to a challenging dilemma in which highly qualified students and former students who have dedicated several years of their lives to pursue professional chaplaincy training cannot afford to relocate and live on the limited salaries that are being offered to them.

As a result, institutions often end up either forgoing their resolve to diversify the representation of their religious leadership or may hire a local Muslim who does not require the same amount of financial investment. While this may sound like an ideal solution, these hires may also not be representative of the appropriate qualifications in terms of Islamic religious knowledge, spiritual care experience, and/or professional competency in interreligious social contexts to fulfill their sensitive roles as Muslim chaplains. If various public institutions seek to represent diversity in their institutional settings, then it is important for them to commit to allocating sufficient financial support for cha- plains of non-Christian faiths that will be sustainable for them in the long term.

Navigating Christian Majority Contexts in the Education of Future Muslim Chaplains

Another challenge is that there can often be difficulty in finding appropriate training that is specifically geared towards Muslims entering the field of Islamic chaplaincy. Many chaplaincy programs exist throughout the country, most commonly in Christian seminaries with a focus on training Christian religious leaders. Many of these Christian seminaries have also opened their doors to Muslim students. While this generous support has been much appreciated for its invaluable contribution to the development of the field of Islamic chaplaincy in its early stages, American Muslims today have begun asking what it means for a Master of Divinity program (that is, the conventional career path to chaplaincy) to be focused specifically on the needs of Muslim students who will be Muslim faith leaders in various public institutions.

The curriculum for Master of Divinity programs in Christian seminaries is most often intended to provide training in Christian studies such as Christian theology, Christian church history, Christian scriptural studies, and professional ethics within the context

of Christian congregations. I qualify each of these terms with the word ‘Christian’ to highlight how our default assumption in hearing terms such as theology, religious studies, and religious history is commonly that they are Christian unless specified otherwise. Broader terms that apply to chaplaincy training and technique have similar implications where a Master of Divinity is assumed to be a divinity program in Christian studies unless otherwise specified.

On a similar note, Christo-centricity in the chaplaincy field may be even more apparent in our choices of terms such as ‘pastoral care’ or even ‘Muslim pastoral care’ to describe spiritual care whereas, reframing this as ‘Christian imamic care’ or ‘Christian rabbinic care’ would be unthinkable for many. Despite the shared relevance of the root meanings of each of these three terms to each of the three Abrahamic traditions, the exclusive use of ‘pastor’ and ‘pastoral’ in the chaplaincy field as opposed to ‘rabbinic’ or ‘imamic’ reinforces an implicit bias of a hierarchical relationship between Christians and everyone else. This is because the dominance of Protestant terms and themes within the chaplaincy field tacitly confers the status of normativity to these models of religious practice in which other faiths must then define themselves within the frameworks of a Christian normative mold.

This becomes even more challenging in Christian seminary spaces training Muslims and those of other non-Christian faiths, where empowering non-Christian faith communities to understand how spiritual care is distinctively practiced from within their own traditions becomes difficult without a separate space in which Muslims can experience the individuality of their own faiths. At times, implicit Islamophobia in which the assumption that Islam is by default a rigid and legalistic tradition that must seek models of compassionate spiritual care outside of its own faith tradition may even be reinforced for some Muslim students in their Christian seminary experience.

During my time at Hartford Seminary, we were fortunate to counter these challenges with four full-time Muslim faculty out of nine, plus various Muslim part-time faculty that had combined both academic PhDs and religious training. This was a distinctive setting that afforded students with an experience of the individuality of learning within a community of Muslim faculty who were both practitioners as well as professors and who were simultaneously integrally invested in the institution through the governance powers, job security, and decision-making privileges conferred to them through their core faculty status. This collective presence of Muslim full-time faculty and students at Hartford Seminary was also empowering through its creation of a communal spirit among Muslims whose significant representation in a predominantly Christian space prevented the alienation commonly felt by tokenized communities.

The Role of Safe Spaces for Religious Minorities in Balancing Power Dynamics and Dismantling Systematic White Christian Privilege in Interreligious Education and Chaplaincy Training: Lessons from the Hartford Seminary Model

It can often be difficult for individuals who have always been in the white Protestant majority to understand why minority groups such as Muslim Americans and people of color need designated times and spaces to themselves and how this so often contributes to healing from the oppression of judgment and prejudice that they may regularly encounter in mainstream American society. Many white Christians in primarily white institutions may consider the creation of Muslim spaces as a reflection of Muslims being ‘siloed’ or of a lack of assimilation by minorities within the broader public. Others may argue that Muslims and other non-majority groups seek ‘special treatment’ in requesting such spaces. Kelsey Blackwell articulates the reason for this Need experienced by many minorities in her essay, ‘Why People of Color need Spaces without White People,’ when she writes:

People of color need their own spaces. Black people need their own spaces. We need places in which we can gather and be free from the mainstream stereotypes and marginalization that permeate every other societal space we occupy. We need spaces where we can be our authentic selves without white people’s judgment and insecurity muzzling that expression. We need spaces where we can simply be—where we can get off the treadmill of making white people comfortable and finally realize just how tired we are.

The values of whiteness are the water in which we all swim. No one is immune. Those values dictate who speaks, how loud, when, the words we use, what we don’t say, what is ignored, who is validated and who is not. Unless we are actively and persistently dismantling these constructs, we are abiding by them. In integrated spaces (where we are less likely to be ourselves given the divisions that white dominance has created), we fall into the roles society has assigned us. As a person of color, and perhaps the only one in the room, it’s exhausting to always be swimming upstream.1

The personal growth and formation that Muslim students experience within these types of Muslim spaces enables them to develop the skills needed to bring their whole selves to interreligious spaces from a position that is both confident in their distinctive identity and unapologetically Muslim. In short, it makes Muslim chaplaincy students better interfaith chaplains and interreligious dialogue partners when they enter their new careers in public institutions.

While many public gestures have been made by institutions making public statements to demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion, Sara Ahmed in her book On Being Included notes that many of these gestures are used performatively as a form of public relations.2 Without a substantive engagement with the power structures of institutions that maintain white Christian normativity, attempts to include minorities under the umbrella of this normativity can have unfavorable consequences on minority groups.

The price of inclusion is too often overlooked by white Christian majorities where minorities risk erasure of their identities through becoming absorbed into the dominant culture if strategies are not in place for the preservation of differences. Otherwise, this form of ‘inclusion’ may simply maintain a rebranded liberal form of white supremacy that both enables and reinforces the hegemonic dominance of cultural whiteness as the standard of acceptance and professional success. Rather than equal partnerships among diverse communities, minorities that lack distinctive spaces commonly reshape themselves within the cultural, theoretical, and theological template of the majority which in turn perpetuates the status quo of centering whiteness and White Theology. While we were acutely aware of these risks in interreligious education during my years as a professor at Hartford Seminary and we resolved them through ensuring the existence of a robust full-time core faculty of Muslims whose benefits were already mentioned, Hartford Seminary as a Christian institution went a step further in purchasing a separate building for the Macdonald Center for Islamic Studies and Christian–Muslim relations where Muslim students, faculty, and staff had their own prayer space and classrooms that focused on the study of Islam most often taught by full-time Muslim faculty and where Muslim students led social events that they invited their co-religionists to.

This simple act of restructuring power dynamics related to space resulted in a striking effect of leveling the partnership between Christians and Muslims by enabling interfaith dialogue and interreligious events to occur in what was perceived as a ‘safe space’ that centered the Muslim presence in an otherwise predominantly Christian seminary located in a mostly white Protestant New England landscape. The impact of such inter- action on egalitarian terms between Christian and Muslim students offered a distinctive educational experience that differed from those of other Christian institutions that attempted to emulate Hartford’s interfaith education but without attention to and/or recognition of the way unequal power dynamics between Christians and Muslims in Christian majority spaces restrict honest exchange and personal growth among all participants.

Such models in which institutions give extra accommodations to minorities to offset the social inequalities manifested in majority contexts may at times be objected to by those in the white Christian majority with accusations of minorities being ‘siloed’ or excluding others in their designated spaces and gatherings. On the issue of common objections by white Christian majorities to accommodations given to minorities, Khyati Joshi writes in her book White Christian Privilege:

One common response to the issue of how much accommodation is ‘reasonable’ is to eliminate all religion rather than make physical or social space for religious minorities. Such thinking is often driven by the flawed theory that religious inclusion is a zero- sum game: to make space for B, we must make less space for A. The archetypal example of this approach is the high school ‘Winter Concert,’ held in December but devoid of any Christmas music. Settling on an extreme solution rather than do the difficult work of exploring what is possible, yields its own problems. Members of religious minorities get blamed for Christianity’s removal from public spaces (in this case, the winter concert), resulting in Christians feeling that their ‘rights’ are eroding. Religious minorities are portrayed as wanting ‘special rights,’ the same dismissive language used to silence the fight for equal rights for LGBTQ people, such as marriage equality. These ‘special rights’ are nothing more than opportunities and treatment that Christians have always received. The perception that equal rights for religious minorities somehow constitute defeat or marginalization of Christians can lead to hostility toward the increasing religious diversity in communities.3

In the case of Hartford Seminary, addressing the common problem of systemic white Christian supremacy through ensuring a robust number of full-time Muslim faculty with the powers and privileges that come with this role as well as making separate spaces available for Muslims to gather in the Macdonald Center not only shifted the dynamics of dialogue through substantive strategies for inclusion and diversity as opposed to performative ones, it also in turn empowered Christian students and faculty to openly practice and talk about their own faith. This distinctive learning environment at Hartford Seminary made it one of the foremost centers that excelled in the specialized field of fostering dialogue between Christians and Muslims—a focused field of study which exists in only a handful of institutions of higher learning around the world.

Chaplaincy and the Emergence of Muslim Institutions of Higher Learning

In recent years, American Muslims have been asking themselves how they can further develop their own Islamic educational institutions and Master of Divinity Programs which are considered key to further rooting Muslims as a fabric of the American religious landscape for years to come. A number of formidable programs such as American Islamic College, The Islamic Seminary of America, Tayseer Seminary, Boston Islamic Seminary, and Bayan Islamic Graduate School have each begun to provide new programming that centers Islamic paradigms of spiritual care and learning. These institutions also seek to address another challenge that is essential for the relevancy of a Muslim chaplain in her role, which is to graduate students with a religious literacy in foundational Islamic knowledge that will be relevant to their work.

The Muslim faith community has the distinctive feature of not having a formalized clergy system or centralized institutional governance with membership. This gives the individual members of a Muslim community a significant role in determining their leaders through what may be termed as the ‘social capital’ through the epistemic authority and pious ethical conduct that engenders community support. Thus, religious learning, liturgical competence, community involvement, and authenticity are all factors which give Muslim leaders legitimacy in the Muslim communities they represent. This process generally holds for various forms of Muslim leadership that includes the settings in which Muslim chaplains will seek to serve.

Additionally, Islamic religious literacy is key for a number of functions that Muslim chaplains are responsible for in settings such as college campuses where they will be responsible for or take part in leading Friday prayers, funeral prayers, Eid prayers, and will be sought for their skills in providing spiritual guidance from an Islamic context. While some of the above-mentioned religious rituals, such as the Friday prayer, may be delegated to students, this still requires a level of religious literacy on behalf of the chaplain that will allow for properly preparing those delegated for these roles.

Campus chaplains are also commonly involved in interreligious work that requires strong skills in navigating the diversity of religious observances and a wide range of practices. University chaplains also often cooperate with various student organizations to advise or speak from a place of religious leadership. For Muslim chaplains this includes working with the Muslim Students Associations across campuses to provide spaces for religious counsel and discussion of topics related to Islamic learning and Muslim spiritual practice.

A Muslim prison chaplain, on the other hand, will commonly find that Islam is a religion with among the highest conversion rates within the prison system, thus creating a significant number of inmates who are eager to learn about the intricacies of their new faith. At the same time, prison inmates are also some of the most well-read Muslims that chaplains will encounter since they commonly preoccupy their prison time with extensive readings of Islamic scriptures and related texts. These inmates will often put newly appointed Muslim prison chaplains to the test of gauging the depth of their Islamic knowledge. Based on common experience, if the new Muslim chaplain passes this test, they are embraced as one of the most valued resources for Muslim inmates in the prison. If a Muslim prison chaplain lacks the depth of Islamic knowledge that gains the trust of these well-read Muslim inmates, then their work in prison contexts is often an uphill battle.

Knowledge of Islamic ritual and Muslim spiritual practices are similarly relevant in hospital and military chaplaincy settings. A depth of knowledge and an acquired wisdom as to how to provide Islamic spiritual care that is appropriate to each individual in each unique circumstance is a matter that requires hands-on MDiv training that is comparable to the Christian seminary and rabbinical school training received by many of the colleagues Muslim chaplains will work with.

Interfaith Solidarity and Calls for Action

Muslim chaplaincy is an exciting new field as various institutions are exploring different models of learning that balance strong inter religious experience and spiritual care skills with a depth of Islamic learning that will enable Muslim chaplains to thrive in their roles. Success, however, is also largely dependent on the support from friends and allies from other faith traditions, particularly those in the majority. This can take the form of addressing the various challenges that were highlighted here such as improved hiring practices that ensure equitable compensation and appropriate chaplaincy qualifications of Muslims considered for spiritual care roles.

Additionally, Christian institutions and leaders seeking to support Muslims can help their fellow practitioners in the majority understand the need felt by Muslims to have their own spaces for prayer, education, and activities as well as why this is essential for their sense of wholeness in interreligious settings where Muslims are often a minority challenged by various prejudices in the broader American contexts. This can also be done by Christian allies anticipating some of the common criticisms of minority groups who seek individual spaces as being ‘siloed’ or ‘asking for exceptional treatment’ by those in the majority who may not immediately comprehend the different lived experiences of minority communities.

Christian seminaries and institutions can also support the various Muslim chaplaincy programs through partnerships that enrich both faith communities. Examples of this may be jointly taught courses that bring Muslim and Christian faculty and students to learn from one another as well as joint interreligious programming opportunities that prepare students from all faith backgrounds for the diverse public settings they will work in.


  1. Kelsey Blackwell, “Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People,” The Arrow, (April 23, 2020), people/.
  2. Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, (Durham:Duke University Press, 2012), 143.
  3. Khyati Joshi, White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America. (New York: New York University Press, 2020), 177-178.

Disclosure Statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s). Notes on Contributor

Feryal Salem, PhD (University of Chicago) is Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at American Islamic College where she also directs its Master of Divinity and Muslim Chaplaincy Programs. Her research interests include Islamic philosophy and theology in the post-classical period, interfaith dialogue, and the development of Muslim thought in the contemporary era as it came into conversation with aspects of modernity. Dr. Salem is the author of The Emergence of Early Sufi Piety and Sunnī Scholasticism: ‘Abdallāh b. al-Mubārak and the Formation of Sunni Identity in the Second Islamic Century (Brill 2016). She was recently named one of ‘25 Influential American Muslims’ by CNN for her work training Muslim chaplains. Dr. Salem previously taught at Hartford Seminary where she was Assistant Professor of Islamic Scriptures and Co-Director of its Islamic Chaplaincy Program.


Feryal Salem Bibliography

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

Beaudoin, Tom. “Why Does Practice Matter Theologically.” In Conundrums in Practical Theology, edited by Joyce Ann Mercer, and Bonnie Miller-McLemore. Leiden: Brill, 2016.

Blackwell, Kelsey. “Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People.” The Arrow, April 23, 2020.

Joshi, Khyati. White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America. New York: New York University Press, 2020.

Salem, Feryal. “One Hundred Twenty-Five Years of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary.” The Muslim World 108, no. 2 (2018): 254–288.

CONTACT Feryal Salem Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies and Director of the Master of Divinity and Muslim Chaplaincy Programs, American Islamic College, Chicago, USA
© Society for Pastoral Theology 2022

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