For several decades and across almost every European polity, political calls for domestic imam training have been heard. In France, in 2003, the government formed the rather top–down Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (CFCM) to create a uniform training system for imams (Peter 2003
; Maréchal 2003
Additionally, in 2003, in Denmark, a government integration policy green paper suggested looking into the quality and training of religious leaders, sparking both significant debate and a Danish pioneer study into imam education (Schepelern Johansen 2005
). In light of the attacks in London on 7 July 2005, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair sought to have more imams and religious leaders trained in the UK. He called for British universities to teach Islamic Studies courses that were ‘redesigned to challenge extremism’2
(see also, Birt 2006
; Scott-Baumann and Cheruvallil-Contractor 2015, p. 57
). In Germany during those years, pioneering attempts at establishing university professorships in Islamic Theology and Islamic religious education resulted in a number of significant observations and recommendations by the German Science Council in their report on Recommendations on the Advancement of Theologies and Sciences Concerned with Religions at German Universities
; Engelhardt 2021
). The council notes that, ‘due to the lack of educational facilities at German universities, imams working in Germany have almost exclusively been trained abroad‘ (p. 41). The recommendations are based on observations from early courses that ‘open the possibility of training a Muslim functional elite in Germany, including imams’ (p. 39). As Jan Felix Engelhardt discusses elsewhere in this Special Issue, following the recommendations, in 2011, the German Ministry of Education and Research set up five university centres for Islamic Theology across Germany.
Recently, and most significantly, at the supranational level, European Council President Charles Michel spoke about ‘a school for imams’ after an Islamist terror attack near a Vienna synagogue on 2 November 2020. Charles Michel argued that the school for imams might assist in the ‘fight against extremist ideologies, violent extremism, messages of hatred, messages of rejection that feed these terrorist actions’. He continued on a more positive note, saying that ‘setting up a European institute for the training of imams, [would] ensure that a message of tolerance and openness can be conveyed at the European level’.3
Generally speaking, the sentiments seem to be the same: namely that some sort of domestic imam training school or education programme is necessary. However, the motives for this are quite different across political spheres. They range from arguing for tolerance, integration, education, and critical and social skills, to arguing against extremism, negative social control, hatred, parallel society, and terrorism. In many Muslim communities—as well as in much scholarship—this latter line of argument is met with staunch criticism. In response to Blair’s suggestion in 2007, the chair of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, Massoud Shadjareh, released a response, saying: ‘It is totally unacceptable that preachers of any faith should be trained by secular universities. This sort of interference is nothing but social engineering designed to highlight Islam as a problem’.4
Similar arguments seem abundant across most European countries. Reflecting on this in a research article based on his report The State and the imams: religion, integration, autonomy
, Göran Larsson summarises the issue of imam training as both an earnest research question and an essentially political question: ‘Do imams contribute to integration, peace and harmony, or do they foster division and hatred of non-Muslims in Europe?’ (Larsson 2014, p. 302
Beyond the questions of political, religious, or other motives, the suggested modes of going about imam training and education seem quite diverse, with significant operational dilemmas and differences of opinion. Should an imam programme be specifically for mosque and prayer leaders, or should it also include others, for instance, female religious and spiritual leaders, teachers, community builders? Should the curriculum reflect the discursive-traditional Islamic disciplines and topics, and/or should it also include political and social studies, leadership and management training, rhetoric, public affairs and media training, and so on? Should faculty members be recruited and teaching be based on what is usually called ‘traditional Islamic knowledge and sciences’, labelled ‘Islamic Theology’, and considered as different from what is called ‘secular, critical, academic education’ delivered by accredited university programmes drawing on humanities and social sciences, as is usually labelled Islamic Studies (Hughes 2014
; Vinding and Chbib 2020
; Engelhardt 2021
)? Questioning and deconstructing these labels is part of the objective of this Special Issue (Groeninck and Boender 2020
2. The Questions and Argument
So far, the reasons for setting up imam and chaplaincy education programmes have mostly been discussed in terms of political and societal necessity; understanding imam and chaplaincy training and education as something ‘new’ and ‘alien’ to Western society. Although these questions are prominent and much discussed, a central unresolved issue remains the epistemological and educational logic in itself for imam and Islamic chaplaincy education and training in Europe explicitly looking to diversify forms of Muslim leadership. To get beyond these frames, I suggest exploring the reasons for offering imam education programmes on the same merits as any other educational programme. This may reveal educationally justifiable reasons for setting up an imam or chaplaincy training and education, and, to a greater extent, it may help reinforce the recruitment, design the programme curriculum, and hone labour market demands.
The question, then, must be examining the educational viability of future imam and chaplaincy training and education in the same light as one might assess and evaluate other educational programmes. Specifically, this calls for assessing and evaluating potential imam and chaplaincy training and education according to the same critical questions, educational philosophies, and practices as other programmes in higher education, such as argued by Astin and Antonio’s theoretical model applied below. The quality of the study programme elements, the faculty, and curriculum are central, but quality is also based on exploring the students’ reasons for seeking education in the first place and, closely related, the employability of the graduates in whatever labour market and stakeholder interest may be established. In other education programmes, such labour market and stakeholder inclusion is a clearly established practice and a defining aspect of the viability of a new education programme. Simply put, where is and what is the labour market demand for education programmes for Muslim religious professionals? Who are the employers for graduates of the ‘imam school’ imagined politically, and who pays the salaries, promises the satisfactory working environment, post-education training, and career advancement opportunities that graduates from university programmes usually expect? Mosques may employ some graduates, especially the most successful and progressive mosques, but it is hard to imagine that mosques and other religious communities will be able to employ subsequent classes of graduates. Previous research has demonstrated that, across Europe, recruitment is highly irregular, that ethnic, gender, and language barriers are frustrating, and working conditions and salaries are seriously wanting (Wissenschaftsrat 2010
; Aslan and Windisch 2012
; Vinding and Chbib 2020, pp. 44–45
For this reason, and for a discussion of expectations of graduates and the purpose of an imam and chaplaincy programme, this article considers American experiences. As will be demonstrated, there are examples of both imam and chaplaincy education and training programmes that have worked well in the United States, generally, and most specifically at Hartford Seminary.5
Although comparison across European contexts themselves is very difficult, extending such comparison to American educational contexts might seem impossible. However, the evidence from the growing Islamic chaplaincy labour market in both public and private institutions shows that an educational programme’s quality depends on an explicit and deliberate alignment between educational provider, student–participant, and employer–stakeholder. Given the early stages of development of Muslim religious education in both Europe and the United States, looking to the longest-running Islamic chaplaincy programme in America may show how such alignment works in practice.
When considering a specific chaplaincy programme and the chaplaincy labour market, it is essential to note that there are significant similarities and differences between a chaplain and an imam. Although both are included in broad-terms such as ‘Muslim religious professionals’ and are vested positions of knowledge and authority and community trust and leadership, there are noted differences. The imam is most commonly understood as a prayer leader, often associated with a mosque or community.6
An imam may merely be the facilitator of rituals but may also be a compound and central leader holding a vast number of religious, social, economic, and other responsibilities (Hashas et al. 2018, p. 19ff
; Vinding and Chbib 2020, p. 5
). As Hansjörg Schmid argues, imams ‘need a wide range of abilities corresponding to the needs and requirements of both communities and wider society’ (Schmid 2020a, p. 65
), which, in turn, demonstrates the need for differentiated professionalism in Muslim religious service. For, as Schmid’s informant says, ‘I’m just an imam, not Superman’ (Schmid 2020a
). Additionally, the word imam is often used as a catch-all phrase for a Muslim religious leader, and often, the political calls for imam training do not specify what is meant by imam, but it remains very wide.
By contrast, a Muslim chaplain serves a community in particular institutions, such as prisons, hospitals, armed forces, universities, among others. Here, the chaplain may perform prayer or participate in rituals, but the pastoral and spiritual care is much more central, which means that the competences and skillset are different from, yet partly overlapping with that of imams.7
This article will look in detail at the wide list of employer expectations of chaplains’ qualities and competences, and how this is built into the Islamic chaplaincy programme at Hartford Seminary. Although this may be different from what is politically imagined in the call for ‘imam schools’, throughout this article, I will keep alternatives as open as possible and generally use the phrase ‘imam and chaplaincy training and education’ unless specified, as in the introduction above, or problematised, as in the discussion below.
The argument of the article unfolds as follows. After specifying the occasion for the study, I present the theoretical argument, and mixed methods approaches are presented. Here, I apply Astin and Antonio’s input–environment–outcome (I-E-O) model to contextualise and situate the logic of assessment to understand the value and purpose of an educational programme. In the analysis and its comparative perspective looking from Europe to the United States, assessment for academic quality and evaluating according to value and purpose of an educational programme is the fulcrum to establishing a would-be imam and chaplaincy training and education programme. Such value and purpose are indeed constructed and situated in context but are dependent on ‘common educational logics’, elements such as economic, societal, and so on. This is, by definition, what makes a good education. Thus, the key argument is that the value and purpose of such education remained situated in and constituted upon an alignment between educational provider, student–participant, and employer–stakeholder expectations. These expectations are first and foremost Muslim students’ learning and development, requirements and standards of employers, and contributions to community and society, and only secondly, the diverse political expectations highlighted above. Although an educational program may be perfectly well aligned, it may still be politically, religiously, or socially biased and, thus, perpetuating certain privileged groups or world views.
The discussion returns to the specific dilemmas of promoting a new educational programme—be it an ‘imam school’ or an Islamic chaplaincy programme—because the excellence of such is defined by the diverse nature of the interest and motivation of students, the employers’ expectations, and the job descriptions. All of which calls on particular kinds of training and education. However, the power structures of excellence of educational programmes that build on this alignment threaten to marginalise other Islamic training education modes.
4. Islamic Chaplaincy Education at Hartford Seminary
In their contribution to the Cambridge Companion to American Islam
from 2013, Zareena Grewal and David Coolidge provide an illustrative sketch of Islamic education in the United States over the course of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century. In it, they consider the question of developing Islamic chaplaincy and take special note of Hartford Seminary.
Islamic chaplaincy programs, such as the one based at Hartford Seminary, offer a uniquely American model of religious authority and a professional Islamic education. The program trains Muslim chaplains to serve in hospitals, universities, the military, and prisons. While the curriculum is relatively light on normative Islamic knowledge, such as theology and law, these programs focus instead on developing applied skills such as counseling, interfaith relations, and leading a congregation. Male and female alumni have many employment opportunities, particularly in hospitals, prisons, and elite universities.
As is evident with Grewal and Coolidge in 2013, Hartford Seminary draws positive attention, at least scholarly, with its focus on its attempt to be ‘a uniquely American model of religious authority and a professional Islamic education’ with an eye on developing applied skills, so both male and female alumni have employment opportunities (Grewal and Coolidge 2013, p. 264
). This professional direction of the Hartford Seminary programme seems to be a distinguishing feature and has been for over a decade, if not from the very beginning, as part of programme founder Dr Ingrid Mattson’s original structure and design of the programme from 2000.
From its very inauguration as the first accredited Islamic chaplaincy programme in 2001, it has sought to meet the needs of Muslims looking for an Islamic equivalent to the Christian Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree, which was identified early on as a requirement to serve as a chaplain in a professional capacity. At Hartford Seminary, the Islamic chaplaincy programme, on the one hand, includes faith-based counselling, ethics, and textual studies, which are found in equivalent Christian and Jewish chaplaincy programmes. On the other hand, these were supplemented with courses in Islamic law, Islamic spirituality, and mental health from an Islamic perspective, and further integrated religion, psychology, and social sciences (Long and Ansari 2018, p. 113
As evidenced by research with a distinct focus on Hartford Seminary, the general process of professionalisation of chaplains has been slow but steady, ‘from part-time, volunteer, and ad hoc leaders to full-time paid professionals, recognised as such by the institutions they work in, the communities they serve, and society at large.’ (Yuskaev and Stark 2014
). In their article, Timur Yuskaev, who serves as co-director of the Islamic chaplaincy programme, and Princeton-educated Ph.D., Harvey Stark, investigate the job announcements and advertisements for Muslim chaplains that—as of 2014—seem to demonstrate that the ‘professional standards for the Muslim Chaplaincy were still in development.’ During this same time frame, the imam and religious teacher training embedded within mosques had not seen the same professionalisation, the same drive in expectations of mosque boards as employers, nor the same drive in interest from students (Yuskaev and Stark 2014
). As educators of and researchers in Islamic chaplaincy programmes, Yuskaev and Stark highlight the expectations of employers that ‘clinical pastoral education’ (CPE), as well as a host of other skills and qualifications, are explicitly needed to fill the positions. Further, national, regional, and local professional organisations, such as the Association of Muslim Chaplains, or the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education, or the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care, or similar, ‘are essential to the professionalisation of Muslim Chaplains’ (Yuskaev and Stark 2014
The reason is that employers need employees with specific training and education, required skills and qualifications, and experience and ‘good standing’, all at the level of accredited and certified standards. This is the trending state of expectations for ‘the new and evolving understanding of these leaders in the United States’ (Yuskaev and Stark 2014
This emerging understanding of the professional expectations from employers to the graduates they seek to hire is not merely seen by the researchers and educators but is also something the students themselves are keenly aware of. Based on a conversation with the then dean, Professor Scott Thumma, in a survey of their Islamic chaplaincy alumni, done in 2017 (65% response rate), 35 former students of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program voiced their feedback. Of these, 68% were at the time serving as chaplains; however, at any time since graduation, all except one person had functioned as chaplains. Overall, there was significant praise for the programme, as many of the open-ended comments demonstrated. Based on these, it is abundantly clear that of the various aspects of the programme, CPE and Field Education were most highly rated precisely because these prepare students specifically for the jobs and challenges of the emerging profession. The most telling question of the survey asked what they wished they had learned that would have enhanced their chaplaincy preparation. The open-ended answers to this query highlight the need for even more practical skills such as ‘shadowing of Muslim chaplains’, ‘networking opportunities with other chaplains’, ‘emphasis on counseling’, ‘practical chaplaincy course work’, ‘experience first-hand beyond CPE and field work’, ‘academic goals that included professional chaplaincy certification’, as well as ‘a track to prepare for the specific chaplaincy field’. In response to this type of feedback, Hartford Seminary redesigned and relaunched its chaplaincy programme in the fall of 2019.
If not already clear vis à vis Yuskaev and Stark’s overall remarks, the survey pointed to the need for a stronger alignment with the professional field. Regarding these recent changes to the programme, Hartford Seminary argues on their website that ‘twenty years on, the Islamic Chaplaincy Program has once again developed an innovative pathway to the profession of chaplaincy for Muslim students.’ It then presents and discusses the ‘new Islamic Chaplaincy curriculum’ and how it is focused on learning outcomes drawn from the Association of Professional Chaplains’ Common Qualifications and Competencies for Professional Chaplains.16
This, in light of the specific courses offered, is worth investigating closer to see how qualifications and competences are inculcated.
4.1. The Islamic Chaplaincy Program and Specific Courses
The programme has been reorganised, as stated, and it is currently organised as a Master of Arts in Chaplaincy with a specialisation in Islamic Chaplaincy. A prerequisite for enrolling in the programme is either to have another master’s degree, for example, in Interreligious Studies or to interview successfully with the programme director based on prerequisite knowledge and significant professional experience in the practice of chaplaincy.17
The Master of Arts in Chaplaincy consists of four core chaplaincy courses of three credits each, as well as four electives, also three credits each. For the Islamic chaplaincy specialisation, a Muslim Pastoral Theology course is mandatory, as are six credits for Field Education and three credits for Clinical Pastoral Education (On CPE, see Long and Ansari 2018
, also Kowalski and Becker 2015
). Although the general programme rests on a full academic curriculum and a faculty of research scholars and practitioners, each student’s particular programme is tailored to meet both particular educational needs and the targeted professional objectives of the student and the employers.
Clearly, many different interests are echoed in the programme. There are general educational standards as well as open electives, and there are strong research-based academics combined with both Field Education and Clinical Pastoral Education. These courses include, for example, Sociology and Psychology for Chaplains, or Theology and Scripture in Spiritual Care Practice, or Chaplaincy Models and Methods, or Religious and Cultural Contemporary Ethics. For the Islamic chaplaincy specialisation, the idea of Muslim Pastoral Theology is principal. I audited this element specifically offered as Prophetic Biography: A Model for Pastoral Care and Praxis
, from 18 May to 26 June 2020, offered by Dr Bilal Ansari, who is the co-director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary. Dr Ansari’s professional experience is unique for his position as co-director and as a teacher of the course. Not only is his doctorate dissertation on ‘Shepherding as Islamic Pastoral Theology: Case Studies in American Muslim Chaplaincy’,18
but his own chaplaincy experience spans more than 25 years and includes all four major fields of Islamic Chaplaincy. It includes volunteering as a chaplain at military bases in San Diego, California, working as a correctional chaplain for the State of Connecticut, clinical pastoral education at St. Francis, and most recently, director of campus engagement at Williams College in Massachusetts.
In the course on Prophetic Biography: A Model for Pastoral Care and Praxis
, as well as through his experience, in his dissertation and other publications, Bilal Ansari seeks to develop a descriptive definition of Muslim chaplaincy together with essential elements of its Islamic foundations, professional development, and practice (Long and Ansari 2018
). Bilal Ansari builds his understanding of Muslim chaplaincy on ‘methods based upon the caregivers’ understanding of the Qur’an and the teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad’ (Long and Ansari 2018, p. 110
). Building arguments on both Quranic and Hadith evidence, Bilal Ansari points to visiting those in distress and offering pastoral care as a duty illustrated by the Prophet Muhammad through the metaphor of a shepherd. From this core of his pastoral theology, centred on the prophetic guiding example, the aim of the course is to give ‘a deeper understanding of Muslim pastoral care and praxis,’ as well as develop ‘tools for theological reflection to learn ethics-based spiritual care with the Prophet Muhammad as the central exemplar’.19
This includes ‘spiritual foundations of care’, knowledge from the ‘Sirah literature for leadership and care of souls of others’, and the ‘qualities, characteristics, and virtues of the Rightly Guided as a model of prophetic pastoral care and praxis’.20
Although these specific core requirements and objectives are based on both theory and practices of chaplaincy rooted in an Islamic tradition, the overall educational objective is to produce Muslim chaplains ready for the chaplaincy labour market. This is evident not just in the learning objectives and the reading syllabus, but both oral and written assessment requires students to reflect the prophetic and Islamic tradition into a practical chaplaincy context. Thus, the overall programme draws a direct line from the specific course objectives and specific teaching content to an overall academic, self-reflective professional identity and conduct, and an ability to apply institutional and organisational knowledge in their professional practice as religious leaders.
The remarkable strength of the course on Prophetic Biography: A Model for Pastoral Care and Praxis specifically, and the Islamic Chaplaincy Program, generally, is that its expected learning outcomes are based explicitly on the Association of Professional Chaplains’ Common Qualifications and Competencies for Professional Chaplains. This is clear from the very beginning of the course, and at every turn throughout the course, these common qualifications and core competences are referred to.
4.2. Qualifications and Competences for Professional Chaplains
The Board of Chaplaincy Certification, affiliated with the Association of Professional Chaplains, have made explicit in a substantial long list the specific qualifications and competences that are expected of professional chaplains across faith traditions and denominations. This has been reviewed and affirmed by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE), the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC), the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care (CASC), and—of significance for the cross-denominational nature of professional chaplaincy—all of the three major religious associations; the National Association of Catholic Chaplains (NACC), Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC), and the Association of Muslim Chaplains (AMC). There is, in other words, a significant agreement on what to expect of chaplains and what standards they are to be held to. The text itself is a key tool and evaluation standard that helps professionalise the field and lift both education and training, the programme graduates and job candidates, but also, ultimately, the service and performance expected by employers.
Exploring these qualifications and standards in requisite detail is beyond the limits of this article but suffice it to highlight the structure and the four overall sections, with some examples and references in parenthesis to the specific requirements.21
First, to qualify for a position, the candidate must be in ‘good standing’ with their ‘faith/spiritual tradition’ (QAU1), pay the association membership fees (QUA2), have both undergraduate and graduate-level theological degrees from an accredited member of the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (QUA3), and have a specified minimum of Clinical Pastoral Education (QUA4). Additionally, to maintain one’s status as a Certified Chaplain, one must participate in a peer review every fifth year (MNT1), document continuing education (MNT2), continue to be in good standing (MNT3), and pay the fees (MNT4).
Although these are formal qualifications, the following four sections highlight select abilities of the chaplaincy candidates:
Section 1: Integration of Theory and Practice (ITP) competences. This includes the ability to articulate spiritual care (ITP1), working knowledge of psychological and sociological disciplines (ITP2), spiritual and emotional human development (ITP3), ethical theories (ITP4), organisational behaviour (ITP5), and an understanding of how primary research and research literature inform chaplaincy and spiritual care (ITP6).
Section 2: Professional Identity and Conduct (PIC) competences call on the candidate to be self-reflective (PIC1), emotionally and spiritually attentive (PIC3), respectful (PIC4), appropriate (PIC5), able to communicate (PIC8), presentable (PIC9), and so on, in a long list of areas where professionalism is central.
Section 3: Professional Practice Skills (PPS) competences include the ability to ‘establish, deepen, and conclude professional spiritual care relationships with sensitivity, openness, and respect’ (PPS1), as well as provide spiritual support (PPS2), respect diversity and differences (PPS3), manage crises (PPS4), care for persons with loss or in grief (PPS5), facilitate reflection (PPS8), and, often overlooked, ‘document one’s spiritual care effectively in appropriate records’ (PPS11). This final point speaks to increasing transparency and limiting liability.
Section 4: Organizational Leadership (OL) competences are significantly telling of the authority position that candidates fill. The candidate must ‘promote integration of spiritual care into the life and service of the institution in which one functions’ (OL1), ‘establish and maintain professional and interdisciplinary relationships’ (OL2), work within the institutional culture and systems (OL3), ‘promote, facilitate, and support ethical decision-making in one’s workplace’ (OL4), and work with other faith groups and communities (OL5).
In addition, the Common Code of Ethics for Chaplains, Pastoral Counsellors, Pastoral Educators, and Students demonstrates in equal length the requirements of chaplains on the job, which rests on training and also on experience.
Naturally, all this requires the actual education content of the different university and seminary programmes to be oriented towards this, and for Islamic Chaplaincy, it is what Hartford Seminary has done. The disciplinary and professional recognition of Hartford Seminary graduates’ qualifications and competences are examples of this, and their experience and practices in these past twenty years are forerunners of this (see Section 4.1
4.3. Islamic Chaplaincy Alumni Experience
Although these illustrative examples from the curriculum and standards rest on an assumption of correspondence in the alignment hypothesis, the experience of the Hartford Seminary alumni speaks volumes as to the developing professional successes and trailblazing experiences. The graduate chaplains from the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary are some of the most successful and innovative imams and Muslim chaplains in North America (Khoja-Moolji 2011
; Gilliat-Ray et al. 2013
Here, of course, building on the theoretical basis highlighted above, the criterion of successful education and training is employability and the contribution to society through their employment. This is, granted, a reductionist understanding of chaplaincy success, where the value of the care of souls might be more appropriate, but it is nevertheless completely in line with the expectations of the programme as per Astin and Antonio’s model, and it is in line with the OECD ambitions to respond ‘to the demands of stakeholders and balance labour market’ (op.cit.).
Professional Islamic chaplaincy positions in North America are only a recent phenomenon of the past 25 years. Out of a series of court cases about the protection of Muslim religious practices in American prisons in the late 1960s and 1970s, imams and Muslim community leaders were employed part-time or volunteered as religious service providers for state and federal correctional institutions (Kowalski and Becker 2015, p. 21
; Long and Ansari 2018, p. 112
Looking particularly to Hartford Seminary graduates, these have not only been trailblazing into some of the first full-time positions in American mosques, but also into newly established imam, Muslim chaplaincy, and Muslim advisory positions across a wide number of sector institutions, most particular educational, correctional, medical, and in the armed forces. For Hartford Seminary, the list includes Omer Bajwa, the director of Muslim Life in the Chaplain’s Office at Yale University, and Abdullah Antepli, chief representative of Muslim affairs and associate professor at Duke University. The list includes Taqwa Surapati (graduated in 2014), who is now healthcare chaplain at Stanford Hospital, and Khalid Latif (class of 2005), who is now executive director and chaplain (imam) for the Islamic Center at New York University and who, in 2007, was nominated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to become the youngest chaplain in the history of the New York City Police Department. Additionally, until his untimely death in 2021 after a long fight with cancer, Sohaib Sultan (graduated in 2004) was the imam and Muslim life program coordinator at Princeton University.
Although I had previously discussed Muslim leadership issues and questions of Islamic authority with Sohaib Sultan and Omer Bajwa in November 2016,22
which is what led me to seek out the education and training at Hartford Seminary, my visit in 2019 brought me to speak also with Sharif Rosen23
at Williams College in Massachusetts and Yasin Ahmed24
at Cornell in New York. Yasin Ahmed has been at Cornell since 2017, and Rosen has been at Williams since 2015 but became Associate Director of Multicultural and Affinity Engagement at Vassar College in 2021. Both colleges are prestigious liberal arts colleges, and our conversations were about the general nature of the work as a chaplain, about their educations at Hartford, but for the most substantial part, we spoke about the requirements and expectations of the universities. My questions were semi-structured as part of the conversations but were guided along the following lines. ‘What is the main advantage and added benefit for the college—for students, faculty, and community—in having a Muslim chaplain?’ ‘How does Hartford Seminary prepare you for this?’ ‘How do we learn from this in Europe?’ The questions sought to illustrate a best practice that might be operable or applicable elsewhere.
Both interlocutors focused on the benefits of having a chaplain at the college, but did not comment on chaplaincy at other types of institutions. For Sharif Rosen, the value of a chaplain is nested in the ability to ‘be conversant across culture and traditions’, an individual who ‘can sit in both spaces’, that is, both understand the norms of the culture of the college and represent the prophetic tradition in spiritual care and do so in a ‘non-dogmatic’ way. Chaplains are uniquely placed to be that in whatever institutions—on campus, in prisons, in hospitals. Rosen used the expression ‘cultural broker’, and Yasin Ahmed the word ‘mediator’. In this capacity, Rosen said that a chaplain ‘reminds the institutions of their values’ and helps the institutions remember that, ultimately, ‘they are there to serve the whole student, not just the intellectual curiosity’. He was concerned with helping students grow in their ‘moral, value and social citizenship’ and their ‘emotional and spiritual lives’ and not leave part of their identity at the door. Sharif Rosen explicitly asserted that the university has ‘invested in chaplaincy.’ In that sense, he said, ‘It’s not just schooling, but education’, and chaplaincy is part of that.
It is clear that there is a strong alignment in Sharif Rosen’s understanding of the role of the chaplain in the institution. The authority of the employer and the benefit for students must be understood as related through the chaplain. As I asked about the best practice and lessons to be learned for developing a European context, Sharif Rosen pointed to conflict resolution, and ‘taking conflicts out of classrooms and residence halls’, and thus resolving religious, social, or personal issues out of the academic situation. He sees two aspects of benefit in this. Firstly, the chaplain is there and helps wherever help is needed. These may be minor or more significant things and is part of being a cultural broker. Secondly, the chaplain may pre-emptively deescalate or minimise conflict and thereby protect both the community and the institution. In light of the potential damage, a conflict in this field might have, and this is a reflexive point as seen from a Danish research environment25
—the benefit of having a well-trained, socially skilled chaplain with good standing in both the Muslim community and the academic world may far outweigh the cost.
Speaking with Yasin Ahmed, the conversation focused on how the differences between American and European contexts and how the political drive to educate and train imams and chaplains top–down is entirely different from the institution and graduate-driven understanding of the need for someone to do this kind of chaplaincy work. The political logic is a ‘push’ with a potentially negative reception in the community, while the institution logic is a ‘pull’ logic that understands the need and benefit for almost all parties involved.
The Hartford Seminary experience prepared Yasin Ahmed for the ‘diversity of the Muslim communities; you see that and navigate that, and that was a great education for coming into chaplaincy.’ Other, more traditional Muslim education centres may be stronger in traditional knowledge, but for the skills and training needed for chaplaincy, Hartford Seminary was the right place in terms of both curriculum and developing pastoral and practical skills, according to Yasin Ahmed. Naturally, such remarks reflect an ongoing debate about traditional as opposed to liberal arts education and academic skills as opposed to practical skills and training, which has been a core part of legitimising Islamic education (Schepelern Johansen 2008
Yasin Ahmed accentuates that the chaplain is a guide and partner for the students and that they work together on stress, vulnerabilities, and spiritual problems. Chaplaincy is part of the whole package and a competitive arena among universities. A school of a certain status cares for minorities, and Yasin Ahmed points to the fact that the number of highly qualified applications from potential Muslim students increases if there is a Muslim chaplain. This is mirrored by the fact that the actual recruitment of the chaplain is done by an alumni association that is interested in developing a better culture and environment.
In Ithaca, New York, where Cornell University is located, the first mosque opened in 202126
. Yasin Ahmed relates that it has long been important to the community that he is available. He says the sentiment is that a chaplain is by far a better alternative to a local layman or perhaps even a poorly educated imam. He adds that the community is much better serviced by chaplains trained and experienced in building relationships, speaking at events, and doing interfaith work, and that a well-trained, highly skilled chaplain may provide a better service in indirect competition with local voices.
Muslim chaplains, local mosque imams, and—more generally—Muslim leadership are caught in almost impossible gridlocks of expectations from all sides, from the boards of the mosques, from the Muslim coreligionists, from private and public employers, from media and political opinion makers, and from international peers (Rosenow-Williams 2012
; Vinding 2013
; Vinding 2018
). In the task handed to them and the challenges they face, Muslim professional leadership, generally, and Muslim chaplains, specifically, are cast as stewards of their faith in the everyday life of Muslims as Muslims interact with society (Gilliat-Ray et al. 2013
For several decades, theological and societal responsivity to the problems, challenges, or even a ‘crisis’ of Muslim society has been direly wanting (Roy 2004
; Klausen 2005
; Grewal 2013
; Ali 2018
). Zareena Grewal’s 2013 book has the telling subtitle of American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority
. A qualified and competent chaplaincy is part of a developing answer. Here, the challenge is indeed ‘global’, and the answer is not necessarily as ‘uniquely American’ as the Grewal and Coolidge quote above about Hartford Seminary might suggest. Considering experiences from the United Kingdom (Gilliat-Ray et al. 2013
; Scott-Baumann and Cheruvallil-Contractor 2015
), Netherlands (Boender 2013
), recent developments in Norway (Grung 2021
; Danbolt et al. 2021
), and elsewhere, educators are also looking to labour market expectations and student motivations to calibrate their Muslim religious leadership and chaplaincy education programmes. There are many reasons and occasions for this, including the theoretical and practical arguments for education quality.
However, at Hartford Seminary, the alignment model of correspondence between students’ interests, education content, and employer expectations is particularly explicit. This is seen in the expected qualities and competences drawn from the professional standards of the Association of Professional Chaplains and how these are explicitly incorporated into learning objectives of the specific courses and overall Islamic Chaplaincy Program.
The starting point of my 2019 visit—and thus this article—was that Hartford Seminary’s model provides Muslim graduates with the skills and competences to find those responsive theological answers to the crises of everyday Muslim life. Specifically, and corresponding to the overall working questions, it seems there is both an internalised and genuine ‘push’ by the graduates that is cultivated at Hartford Seminary, as evidenced, for example, by the internal survey, and a ‘pull’ from religious and secular employers who find the graduates’ unique competences highly advantageous. This dialectic is embedded in the alignment of the deep structures of Hartford Seminary as a non-denominational seminary that actualises a long history of religious professional and chaplaincy training and the dire need for Muslim chaplains who are responsive to the challenges Muslims face.
This leads, perhaps, to the two most important critical discussion points before concluding. Firstly, these developments and driving logics need to be understood in a critical light. Hartford Seminary is arguably amongst a few leading institutions across Europe and the United States that train a new pedigree of Muslim chaplains, both male and female, and these are likely to remake what it means to be a Muslim leader through the professionalisation of Islamic chaplaincy. However, simultaneously the power structure of ‘assessment of educational programs’ is applied to higher Islamic education and the economic, value-based, and liberal market approach drives the developments. Such power structures and market drivers may marginalise other incentives, motivations, and drivers for Islamic education, perhaps deliberately. The curiosity drivers searching for ‘faith’ (dīn) or religious knowledge (‘ilm) with associated discursive-traditional connotations and other incentives, such as personal development, duty, ethical self-fulfilment, and closeness to God, may be relegated. The governing political logic, highlighted in the introduction, may be seen as a power ‘push’ with a potentially negative reception in the community that alienates the educational needs for mosque communities, including imam training and inculcation of other more Islamic ‘skills and competences’. In this light, there are many other reasons for seeking education that may certainly not be for the job market and thus ‘not for profit’ to borrow from Martha Nussbaum (Nussbaum 2010
The second point follows and regards the professional differentiation between imams and chaplains. As Schmid and others have argued, imams are not super-men, and there follows from the growing and very diverse expectations of Muslim religious professionals a differentiation of tasks as people specialise. This is discussed in recent literature (See, e.g., Hashas et al. 2018
; Schmid 2020a
). However, the differentiating logic that seems to manifest is primarily according to employment and, with that, the job requirements, expectations, and different religious services gain defining powers over education and training. On the one hand, imams in Mosques are providing a ritual service, and on the other, chaplains in institutions are providing a pastoral service. Although these two are not mutually exclusive and there is quite a bit of overlap and complementarity between imams and chaplains, nevertheless, the power of accreditation, recognition of merit, further education, full-time pay and pensions, general working conditions, and more is a powerful driver in favour of embedding religious authority with chaplains in institutions rather than with imams in mosques.
Taken together, these two points reinforce a situation where, potentially, the quality assessment and quality, value, and purpose of an Islamic chaplaincy educational programme becomes a politically driven, self-fulfilling performative prophecy, whereas other forms of religious training and education are less incentivised.
The ‘uniquely American model’ as Grewal and Coolidge phrased it, pointing specifically at Hartford Seminary, is an interesting but particular example for the European context worth considering. It demonstrates a strong alignment of input, environment, and outcome that is employer and job market driven through the norms and standards of the American Chaplaincy Association. The expectations of graduates from their employers, the Hartford Seminary chaplaincy programme, and the specific class on pastoral example builds explicitly towards this three-part alignment.
The argument made in this article with the examples explored throughout may seem banal in the alignment logic but is highly consequential for the operational success of any attempts to build Muslim professional education in Europe. Islamic chaplaincy is not new (Gilliat-Ray et al. 2013
; Kowalski and Becker 2015
) but is being professionalised and gaining wide attention (Schmid 2020b
). Although the experience in North America may demonstrate a stronger or more deliberate alignment, it does not mean that there is nothing to build on in a European context. This is well-documented in the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Scandinavia, Germany, and many other European countries (Vinding and Chbib 2020
, as well as the other articles in this Special Issue), but the explicit identification of employer stakeholders and expectations of students and graduates to drive the development of education needs to be further explored, both academically and practically. Not just for the pure educational logics of the assessment model but also for the reasons given by the OECD report and the potential social, economic, and welfare impact of a regular and employment-driven education.
The major open question remains to understand and explore—scholarly and politically—where the relevant job market may be and how it may be developed in the European Union? Who will employ Muslim professionals in the future? If Charles Michel’s call for an ‘imam school’ is earnestly interested in providing education on its own merits, then the entire flow from recruitment to education and further to a job market of rightly high expectations must be included. Merely taking the logic from setting up a school to ‘push’ graduates into Muslim communities is an amputated approach, and this is the case for any prospective educational programme. There can be no school without a ‘pull’ labour market or employers to recruit the graduates and to make clear the expectations, qualifications, and future for the graduates.
In addition, while Islamic pastoral theology may be rationalised through the texts of traditions and life and practice of Muhammed, the driver for theological development, as seen in the example of Bilal Ansari’s research and teaching, is also contextual, practical, and operational. This is so because there is a lived religious reality of Muslims in prisons, armed forces, hospitals, and universities, where there is a need to reflect critically and theologically. For this, the employers as the institutional authority are part of defining and outlining the basis and context for such practical theological development. The theological and pastoral quality and responsivity of Muslim religious leadership and professional contributions is not just something emanating from schools or educational programmes, as is sometimes assumed. Rather, the expectations of professionalism, qualifications, and competences from institutional employers are helping to qualify this development further and align the students’ input with education content and the learning environment and the output received with the employers. If the input–environment–outcome alignment presented and argued herein is correct—and the evidence here seems to support this—this is a viable approach to further Muslim professional excellence in education.