As the nation’s first ever Muslim chaplain, Imam Yahya Hendi has always played a unique role on campus, but this month, he’ll be even more busy than usual. In addition to his dual role as the university’s Imam and as the senior Imam of the Islamic Society of Frederick in Frederick County, Md., he has been preparing various seasonal activities. With Ramadan beginning last week, Hendi is working to coordinate a special iftar on Oct. 3 called “Fast-a-Thon” that hopes to bring Muslim and non-Muslim students together to celebrate Islamic culture and raise money for charity. Hendi took time from his schedule to discuss the importance of interfaith dialogues and the role he plays both at and outside Georgetown.
In 1999, you became the first full time Muslim Chaplain at Georgetown, also making you the first Muslim Chaplain at any American university. What was the significance of that event, and how have times changed?
I think it was quite important to have a Catholic university be the leading college doing this. We have always wanted to strengthen the relationship between Catholics and Muslims, but also Christians and Muslims. Muslims worldwide started looking up to the Catholic Church, especially because of Pope John Paul II and his vision of reaching out and building bridges. Since then, things have improved – other colleges have imitated Georgetown and have been taking this as a challenge for them to be as outreaching and as inclusive as Georgetown. Now we have five Muslim Chaplains at universities in the country, and I have a feeling the number will grow.
In addition to being the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown, you serve as the senior Imam of the Islamic Society of Frederick in Frederick County, Md. Do you ever have trouble managing your dual roles?
I am the leader who gives vision and leadership, but I am not there every day – I am here, at Georgetown. It is a challenge, but it can be done if one knows how to organize one’s time and if you know how to say “no,” and when to say “no,” when to say, “Sorry, I can’t do it.” I schedule myself to completely honor my commitment here and my commitment there.
Have you seen the Muslim Students Association grow since you arrived at Georgetown?
Yes, the fact that they have a Muslim chaplain and the fact that the university and [University President John J. DeGioia] are supportive has helped. Without a doubt, our Muslim students are interested in reaching out to give their fellow students the true – but honest – picture of Islam, and to do this you need to reach out and build bridges. And this is why their presence is being felt, because they want to reach out, and because of this they have been organizing all kinds of events.
What are your upcoming goals for the MSA?
My goal is always to insure that Georgetown Muslim students continue to be united. I want to make sure that every Muslim at Georgetown is part of the community and part of the group and isn’t left out because he or she feels that he or she doesn’t practice the full Islam. I am working with Rabbi [Harold] White to see if it is possible to have a Kosher Halah that will be able to meet the demand of, I don’t know how many, but I would suspect 1,200-1,400 Jewish and Muslim students at Georgetown.
What do you think is the biggest challenge students face being at school and maintaining their faith?
Some people may believe that to be religious means to be close-minded, and to blindly accept whatever the clergy tells you. Being a student tells you to think critically and to question, to open up your mind. Speaking as a Muslim, the words “reflective” and “knowledge” are repeated in the Quran almost 400 times. Accept that there is a God but also read about it, think about it, criticize it, be criticized. The prophet Muhammad told Muslims that he was not interested in them just reading the Quran; he was interested in them understanding the Quran.
You’ve frequently written and spoken about the importance of interfaith understanding and the notion of “three religions, one God.” Why is this message so important?
We live in a world that is at war with itself, a world that is divided. We forget that there is one creator. If God had wanted to he would have made us all one nation – he has the power to make us all Christians, or Jews, or Muslims or Hindus or atheists. He did not, and therefore it is a divine will and God intended us to be different.
The challenge for us is how we can celebrate our differences. We are all created from God and therefore are all the children of God, regardless of how one thinks. There are those you want to use religion as an exclusionary force. We are all brothers and sisters, we are all created from dust, and to dust we will return. Let us celebrate our differences, I do believe our unity and our success lies in our diversity. I believe we are better off having Christians, and Jews, and Muslims, and Buddhists and Hindus, than [having] one religion.
Does Georgetown embrace this religious diversity?
We hold conferences here all the time that try to enhance that spirit of religious diversity. We invite speakers who support this. The Interfaith Council helps with this issue. The president has his focus on religious diversity and interfaith dialogue. I don’t think this exists at any other university. We have an environment that allows our students to become leaders of a dialogue after they graduate.
– Interview by Jimmy Wade