New chaplain first Muslim leader to serve University of Michigan students
by Chris Asadian | AnnArbor.com
When Mohammed Tayssir Safi was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan from 2004 to 2006, there was not a Muslim figure he could go to for guidance.
“I was … trying to understand how to grapple between that intellectual side and … the spiritual side,” Safi, 27, said. “There wasn’t anybody to go to.”
In a twist of fate he never imagined, Safi has become the first Muslim chaplain to serve the U-M community, the very role he felt was missing during his college years and a role that many Muslim university students say has become essential.
It’s also the one of the first paid Muslim chaplain positions at any public university, said Eman Abdelhadi, president of the Muslim Student Association and one of the individuals who interviewed Safi for the position last semester.
The part-time position is supported by about $30,000 in funds raised by the Michigan Muslim Alumni Association. Safi also is a graduate student in U-M’s Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language program and a graduate student instructor of Arabic.
Safi was hired in December and began his duties Jan. 3.
“The Muslim community is a growing entity on campus and requires a stable presence on campus,” Abdelhadi said. “We felt a chaplain would help meet the personal as well as communal needs of students.”
At U-M, Jewish students can participate in Hillel, a Jewish organization with a local staff of about 12 and a national network comprised of hundreds of employees, and Chabad House, the college ministry of a local synagogue. More than a dozen religious organizations cater to Christian and Catholic students, many of them manned by full-time staffers, and a handful of local churches outreach to the college, busing students from campus to Sunday services.
Muslim students, however, have mostly been on their own at U-M, Safi says.
MSA, the largest Muslim organization on campus, holds regular events, which are on average attended by between 300 and 400 people, and weekly Friday prayer services, during which a student or invited guest will speak. However, the group, unlike many of its Jewish and Christian counterparts, is led solely by students.
MSA is the only Muslim group affiliated with U-M’s Association of Religious Counselors, which represents 35 different religious organizations on campus. Before Safi’s recent hire, MSA also was one of the only groups represented by a student and not a religious professional.
In Ann Arbor, there is one mosque. Meanwhile, there are at least five Catholic congregations, two dozen Christian churches and five synagogues.
“There’s kind of like this void of Muslim leaders on campus that students can go to with questions,” said U-M junior and Economic Justice major Misbah Ahmed.
The relatively scarce resources for Muslim students in Ann Arbor is not due to a lack of need, Safi says.
In 2008 and 2009, about 4 percent of incoming students reported their religious affiliation as Muslim, according to U-M figures. Four percent of the 2011-2012 student body is about 1,700 students.
Safi says one reason there’s not a more organized Muslim nucleus at U-M and other universities is that many second- and third-generation American Muslims, whose parents or grandparents emigrated to America in the 1960s and 70s, are still learning how to integrate their religion into their tenure at American colleges.
“Overseas they don’t necessarily need these types of positions because the state interacts with” universities, Safi said. “Muslims are new to this field, they’re dealing with raising money and creating organization to do this.”
In a place like Ann Arbor, where there’s one mosque and much of the Muslim population moves away after completing school, creating a stable, mature and organized Muslim presence is even more tricky.
“The dynamic of Ann Arbor is different. People come here for school and leave, so there’s not a long-standing population of Muslims, although it’s growing,” Safi said.
Safi’s new position is another building block toward a more cohesive Muslim presence serving U-M students, says Reid Hamilton, ARC president.
“The role of religious professionals in general on campus is important and valuable,” Hamilton said, adding that religious counselors help “maintain an institutional memory” of a religion’s role and history at U-M. “My hope is if the Muslims have a chaplain, then they can be part of the consistency of that (memory).”
Safi received bachelors’ degrees in political science and Middle Eastern and North African studies from U-M in 2006, after transferring from U-M-Dearborn during his sophomore year. He grew up in Ann Arbor, graduating from Pioneer High School in 2002. After graduating college, Safi spent two years studying Arabic and Islam in Egypt and Yemen. He worked as a youth director at a Canton mosque for two years.