The challenge of balancing Muslim faith and student life

Nate Herpich (Harvard) Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

July 16, 2018

The following is a just an extract of an interview that appeared in Harvard Gazette recently.

The interview was conducted by Nate Herpich, Senior Communications Officer at the Harvard University. The article has been highly edited by us. To read the full interview, please visit

Muslims studying in graduate schools in the US constantly face the challenge of balancing their Islamic faith and student life, a Muslim clergy has said.

In an interview to the Harvard Gazette, a website publication of the Harvard University, Khalil Abdur Rashid, who was appointed the first full-time Muslim Chaplain at the University last year, said that many Muslim students have never been told how to be a Muslim in the worldly sense, outside of ritual.

Some tough questions

According to Mr Rashid, the major consistent challenges that he has seen are in two domains. The first domain, which affects mostly students at the College, is about “What does Islam have to say about x, y, and z? For example, police brutality. Gender identity. Can I take Adderall to help me stay up at night to study?”

“Many of these students grew up in a Muslim home, from a cultural background, and even a religious background, but it was never articulated to them how to be a Muslim in the worldly sense, outside of ritual. Now, in this environment, they have to think for themselves. They have to try to find answers. Sometimes they may come across things in class or when they are in dialogue with their peers that jar them, challenge them, and cause them to ask questions of themselves as to who they are and where they stand on these issues, not only as American students but as Muslim students.

“The American side of their brain might trigger one answer, but the Muslim identity might respond differently. Are they consistent? Are there divergences? What happens if the Muslim side says no or yes and the American side says no or yes, and they’re in contradiction? How do I reconcile those two? Is it even possible? And then, how do I think about this whole notion of a dual consciousness? That is what I see at the level of the College.

Intersecting Islam with Study

Mr Rashid said that the second domain, which is more prevalent in the graduate Schools, is more about how to intersect Islam with a student’s field of study and planned career path.

“It is about how do I “interdisciplinarise” my faith with my work?

Let me give you an example. A young woman from the Kennedy School came into my office the other day. She is a Muslim woman from an East Asian country, one year away from graduation. She told me that she wants to go back to her country and become the first Muslim woman Prime Minister there. That was her goal. So her question to me was: ‘What does Islam say about this, and how do I persuade the male-dominated culture that I come from that I should be Prime Minister? How do I work within an Islamic framework, using terminology and sources from the tradition, in a way that will resonate with Muslim clerics in her country, to the men in her country who are in parliament, and to those who would come to her website to learn more about her candidacy?’ Amazing, right?”

‘One Harvard’

When the Gazette asked Mr Rashid to speak about the concept of ‘One Harvard,’ he said that it was ‘absolutely reachable,’ within the work that he does, and especially through collaborations with the 30-plus Harvard chaplains.

“We believe that together, that this University is sending the message that Harvard is about making the world a better place. And we believe that ‘One Harvard’ is about utilising all of our individual strengths to leverage our collective strength in hopes of reaching that goal. As chaplains, of course, we advocate for the religious, spiritual, and ethical life to supplement the intellectual life, that the human being is not just a robust intellectual being but a spiritual being as well.”

But Harvard is often seen as a secular institution. How does spiritual life fit in here, and how does it complement the academic journey being undertaken by Harvard students?

Spiritual Quotient

Mr Rashid that there is an SQ, a Spiritual Quotient in life.

“I believe that both of those things need to be synchronised. I also believe that faith and spirituality matter here at Harvard. And they matter because they help students to learn the right thing to do in an environment where the right thing is often based in very restrictive settings — in a math class based on algorithms, or in a language class that is based on grammatical rules, or in another class that’s based on the rules that the teacher has outlined.

One of the things I do with both undergraduate and graduate students is give them a religious language to use that makes sense in the secular environment,” he said.

To read the full interview, please visit


Picture of Khalil Abdur-Rashid by Stephanie Mitchell Harvard file photo)

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