Guest post: Muslim healthcare chaplains

This guest post is from Lance D. Laird, ThD, Assistant Professor of Family Medicine and Primary Mentor of Graduate Students at the Boston University School of Medicine. Through the work discussed below, he is also a Project Leader within the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab.

Muslim Healthcare Chaplains: Education, Translation, and Code Switching in a Minority Religious Community

Lance D. Laird, Samsiah Abdul Majid, Shareda Hosein, Magda Mohamed

In 2018, Samsiah Abdul-Majid and Shareda Hosein, from the Association of Muslim Chaplains, and I began documenting experiences of Muslim chaplains in the U.S., using an online survey of current and former Muslim chaplains to “map” this growing field; assess these chaplains’ educational and support needs; and contribute Muslim voices to the larger Chaplaincy Innovation Lab effort. The Association of Professional Chaplains Transforming Chaplaincy program then funded us to conduct qualitative interviews with Muslim healthcare chaplains, of which we have now 15. 

From the 85 people in 23 states who responded to our survey, we learned that Muslim chaplains are highly educated, almost all Sunni, and two thirds male-identifying. Three-quarters serve in interfaith settings, about half in either healthcare or corrections. They identified challenges related to upholding professional standards when hired as chaplains; gaining legitimacy and recognition within Muslim communities; overcoming gendered expectations; and seeking strong educational grounding in Islamic spirituality and theology. 

I entered this research with a bias. Sajida Jalalzai‘s 2016 dissertation illuminates how training at liberal Protestant seminaries can “translate” Muslim chaplains into a normative “interfaith chaplaincy” model (Jalalzai 2016). I wondered whether an unexamined Protestant curricular hegemony, along with CPE units under non-Muslim supervisors, converged to make “good Muslims” out of such chaplains. (Just putting that out there!) Yet the chaplains we interviewed largely characterized CPE as: 1) deepening their faith; 2) a recovery of tradition, 3) a welcome pastoral care complement to traditional imam training and forms of leadership; and 4) a resource for meeting others where they are. 

Here, we offer a preliminary sample of their narratives, to examine what medical anthropologist Cheryl Mattingly calls a “clinical borderland,” where “lines of difference” sharpen and blur in encounters with cultural Others. In her book Paradox of Hope, “borderlands” designate “spaces defined by practices that bind people together who otherwise wouldn’t belong together…that flexible space in which healing is carried out” by patients and various health professionals (Mattingly 2010, 7). Spiritual-care encounters provide what Mattingly (2014) calls “moral laboratories” — imaginative spaces where Muslim chaplains explore how an Islamic life “might or should be lived”. Within those spaces, several chaplains position baptisms, anointing the sick, praying for patients and family, and male/female physical contact as sites of moral/theological tension.

Muslim healthcare chaplaincy in practice

For example, Shakir, a male Arab chaplain on the West Coast, recalls requests to do emergency baptisms, saying,   “I’ve been given a way out every single time.” He explains:  “[T]he fact of the baptism itself is a commitment to faith that is completely not supported by my faith, tradition, and belief. And the liturgy of what’s being said is something I cannot repeat as a Muslim, nor initiate.” He describes a mother who, having just given birth, embraces her dying baby, whom she wants him to baptize. Shakir responds, “‘You know, Allah gave you that opportunity to bring this child into being. The pact of procreation is a gift and this gift is about to return back. And I don’t see anyone better than you at returning the child back to God.’ And I invite the mother to baptize her own child.” Instead of performing the baptism, that is, he “administers” it, providing a shell for the water and instructing the mother and family members what to do and say. “My role as a Muslim [is] to heal and connect people with Allah; I do that,” he says. “Yet, I try to do that in a way that’s authentic… and I do believe in that, the authenticity of being there for every single patient without jeopardizing my own faith.” He similarly describes facilitating a family’s anointing of the sick, noting a verse from the Qur’an that says, “Allah will find you a way out.”

Abu El-Imam, a North African chaplain and imam in the Northeast, was paged to the pre-op unit, where he found a Buddhist woman crying hysterically. After asking her husband and mother to step out, she conveyed her worry about her kids, should anything happen to her. “I believe my god, Buddha,” she said, “he’s helping me all my life and all this. But now, I feel like… And I believe for him all my life, just to take care of my family, and my kids, my husband, and all this. But now, I am just going…” He replied, “Listen, now you should pray for yourself. And pray to Buddha–he [has been] helping you and he answer[ed] your prayer all these times by protecting your family. And you became the spiritual provider for your family… Now, you need to do this to protect yourself in order to come back to continue your protection for your family.” 

She smiled and asked, “Can I have a hug?” Then Abu El-Imam tells me, “In my tradition, I never shake hands with women!” He recalls, “The wrestling inside me between ‘I’m betraying my traditions’ and ‘I’m serving a human being’s soul!’ So, I just decided in [this] matter… to hug her. I did hug her. And then she became happy, and she calls her husband from outside. He sees a difference. He asks me, ‘What you did to her?’ I said, ‘I didn’t do anything. She did it to herself. She’s okay now and she’s ready to go to surgery.’ And then, the husband’s like, ‘Can I have a hug?’ I said, ‘Of course. Come here. I give you one.’”

Later, Abu El-Imam wondered if he had betrayed his belief—whether this job was really for him. He consulted with his shaykh, who replied, “If you didn’t hug that woman at that moment, I would just tell you this job is not for you”… and he started telling me about many times how the Prophet Muhammad called his followers to practice ‘good manners’ with unbelievers,” even when they did something offensive. 

Abu El-Imam also remembered a Jewish family that requested a rabbi on a Friday night to pray for a dying loved one. He explained to them that he was a spiritual care provider and an imam; they asked him to pray anyway. “What I start praying is an end of life for him, actually. … So, I just choose verses from the Quran, which mention Moses and Abraham.” He saw the mother and wife crying and the son praying, at peace. After he finished, the mom stood and thanked him. Pointing to the patient, she said, ‘My son, when he was very young in Israel, one day … when he was coming back from the school, he comes running to me and said, ‘Mom, today there is an imam who blessed me.’ And now, the last prayer is coming from the imam. Isn’t that telling you something?”

Several chaplains related stories of initial rejection, which they transformed through creative connection. Latifa, an African-American woman chaplain in the Midwest, describes a tense encounter with an elderly white, Catholic woman. When Latifa entered her room wearing hijab, the woman immediately said, “Oh, no. You don’t believe what I believe” and shooed her toward the door. Latifa said:  “’Oh, really? I would love to hear what you believe’ and that kind of startled her. She said, ‘Oh, okay.’ So, she let me sit down … She starts telling me about Christ and she’s Catholic and I said, ‘Oh, that’s so.’ And then we talked. [I told her] “The group that I’ve worked with – a Muslim group – we actually went over to Italy and we’ve done some work with [a] Catholic group… I’ve been to St. Peter’s Cathedral. I went to the Vatican.” 

They discussed the woman’s favorite Bible verses, Latifa drawing on her own religious studies major at a Christian college. Latifa agreed to read the Gospel of Matthew with the woman every night before she went to bed, to ease her anxiety. The woman’s daughter thanked her, saying: “She loves your visits.” Latifa said, “This is the kind of ministry I want to have.” Although other Muslims have challenged her for reading Christian scriptures about Jesus, she responds, “I’m not compromising. I’m sitting here helping people connect to what’s meaningful to them. It doesn’t mean I’m not a Muslim anymore because I’m reading something.”

Hassan, a South Asian male chaplain in the Midwest, talked about “an older – in his late 70s – Italian/Sicilian dyed-in-the wool Catholic gentleman” who requested a chaplain visit but reacted negatively to him as a Muslim. “He said something horrible that apparently he thought I was gonna do to him, and he was very scared.” Hassan talked to his supervisors, who insisted he go back. The relationship shifted when Hasan explained to the man that his nurses and doctors were also Muslim. He researched the history of Sicily, once ruled by Muslims, and explored the man’s Sicilian culture. Hassan also called the patient’s Catholic priests, who thanked him for serving everyone. The man asked for Hassan when he was dying, saying, “Just pray while you’re here with me.” Hassan remarked, “So, here I am as a Muslim praying for this man who did not recognize my religion until the last moments of his life; I’m gonna to carry that experience with me for a long time.” 

Borderlands and boundaries

Patients, families, and chaplains navigate clinical borderlands, where “care” involves spiritual and moral experimentation. Multiple actors co-narrate multiple possible futures. Chaplains mindfully explore their own boundaries to preserve their sense of authenticity. They wrestle with breaking religious rules, and seek affirmation from their own religious leaders. Their skillful, creative, and professional facilitation of spiritual care for non-Muslims includes successful “crossing through the borderland” (facilitating baptism, reading the Gospel of Matthew, encouraging prayer to the Buddha, hugging). 

We also see patients crossing boundaries to receive care from someone they perceive as a sometimes dangerous Other. Through interfaith spiritual care, offered specifically by a Muslim, patients or staff find a new appreciation of Islam and Muslims as a healing force–a blessing, perhaps. We ask: how might such chaplaincy figure into larger anti-Islamophobia work or even da`wah (inviting or calling to Islam) practices? What do these relationships in the borderland mean for Muslim chaplains, and how might they inform the broader field of chaplaincy?

Jalalzai, Sajida. 2016. “Translating Islamic Authority: Chaplaincy and Muslim Leadership Education in North American Protestant Seminaries.” Ph.D., United States — New York: Columbia University.

Mattingly, Cheryl. 2010. The Paradox of Hope: Journeys through a Clinical Borderland. 1st ed. University of California Press.

———. 2014. Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life. First edition. Oakland, California: University of California Press.