In January, Rumee Ahmed became Brown University’s first Muslim chaplain. As one of only a handful of Muslim chaplains at universities around the country, his role includes creating social and intellectual opportunities geared toward Muslims on campus, providing counsel and support to individual students, and conducting scholarship. Ahmed, 26, a native of Washington, DC, is a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, where he is studying Scripture Interpretation and Practice. His demeanor is friendly, warm, and intellectual, as if he would be equally as comfortable chatting about surfing and semiotics. We recently talked in his office in Brown’s Faunce House.
What brought you to Brown? Is this the kind of work you had in mind while you were in graduate school?
Not at all. I had planned on being a professor. But as soon as I saw the job description, I thought, this is exactly what I want to do. Probably the biggest shock for me in grad school was not being able to work in activism. There are activist professors, but it’s something you do on the side. This is part of the job description, to work in the community and help out the students. And then I could do my scholarship also, along with it. It was perfect.
What has surprised you most since you’ve arrived?
The students, without a doubt. Oftentimes, what students are looking for is someone who’s going to answer their questions; they’re looking for someone to latch onto and follow like a sheep. The students here really were not looking for that. They were looking for someone maybe to help, or to guide, but certainly not someone who has all the answers and can just start dishing them out.
They actually critically engage the issues and they want to come to their own conclusions. I don’t have the most traditional opinions, and a lot of what I say is often construed as heretical. When I first came here and started talking to the students, I kept saying, “Are you sure you want that?” And they kept saying, “Yeah.” I realized . . . I should stop asking. But I was just shocked — and really happy. I’d never seen that before, ever, on any campus.
What does it say that you’re the first Muslim chaplain at Brown?
Quite frankly, there aren’t that many Muslim students here. Estimates put it at two, three percent [about 100 of Brown’s 5000 undergrads.] So, why is there a Muslim chaplain? A major institution actually can’t afford not to have that voice. Right now there’s a lot of confusion, a lot of need for understanding of what’s going on with Muslims, in the minds of Muslims, not just here, but abroad. And I think that the people in Providence are aware that that’s a need and that they’re not getting exactly the full story. It speaks volumes about the people in Providence and the institutions in Providence that they feel they need to have that voice heard.
Given there’s so much misunderstanding about Islam, do you feel like you’re carrying a big weight, being that voice?
In the Muslim theology, every human being is like a steward, an ambassador, for God on earth. Every human being was sent to take care of the earth and take care of each other. That’s a weighty responsibility. There’s a responsibility on the shoulders of Mus¬lims in general — and humankind in general — to figure out how we can live together peacefully. And I don’t think anyone should take that lightly. I take it like this. This is my contribution.