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The new role of Muslim chaplains

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When Trinity College students return to their snow-bitten campus next week, for the first time they will discover a Muslim chaplain working there.

Sohaib Nazeer Sultan is one of only a handful of Muslim chaplains at colleges and universities across the country.

But as the number of Muslim college students continues to grow - along with the desire to understand religious and cultural complexities at play in a post-9/11 world - more schools are hiring Muslim chaplains.

Mr. Sultan is a slight man with a soothing demeanor. In khaki pants, a navy tunic, and square, dark-rimmed glasses he could easily pass for a young graduate student.

In many ways, he seems older and wiser than his 24 years. He has already written a book - "The Koran for Dummies" - published last year. He speaks of the need to create a culture not just of tolerance, but of acceptance. He sees his job as a Muslim chaplain as a divine calling.

Yet he's also down-to-earth, self-deprecating, and compassionate when he discusses the many obstacles - both spiritual and secular - that young Muslims on their own for the first time are likely to encounter.

In 1999 Georgetown University hired Yahya Hendi - the first full-time Muslim chaplain at an American university. Today, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) estimates that 14 institutions of higher education provide for a Muslim chaplain.

As here at Trinity, however, many of these positions are part-time jobs.

In the past - and still at many schools today - a volunteer from the community would fill the role of spiritual adviser and advocate for Muslim students. Frequently, a student leads fellow students in prayer.

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