"Religious Life at a Crossroads": Update

Writer: 
November 30, 2008
Duke Magzine images from January/February 2008

Among the groups profiled in the Duke Magazine survey of religious life on campus were Muslim students. Their official adviser at the time was a local imam who received only a small stipend for his service.

This summer, Duke committed significant resources to the Muslim community, hiring Abdullah Antepli as its first full-time Muslim chaplain.

"Duke is today a leading international university in an increasingly cosmopolitan social and religious culture," explained Sam Wells, dean of the chapel. "If Duke, alongside other leading Western institutions, is to become a hospitable environment for the formation of a new generation of international Muslim leadership of a broad-minded character, it has to take proactive steps to show the Muslim world here and abroad that it is open for business."

Duke is not alone. Several other top universities that have also relied on part-time chaplains were conducting searches simultaneously, but with Antepli's hiring, Duke became only the second university, after Georgetown, with a full-time, accredited Muslim chaplain on staff.

Antepli will have several responsibilities in his new role: providing religious leadership to the university's Muslim community; offering pastoral care to students of any or no professed faith; participating in ongoing interfaith conversations; and teaching one course on Islam per semester in the Divinity School.

Antepli came highly regarded. After graduating from Hartford Seminary's Islamic Chaplaincy Program (the only such program in the U.S.), he went on to serve as its associate director while working toward a doctorate in ministry. As a result, says Duke's Muslim Students Association (MSA) co-president Fatema Ahmad, several other Hartford-trained applicants spent large portions of their recruiting dinners raving about his skills as a mentor and teacher.

He also came with an open mind. "During the interview process, I was repeatedly asked what I would do when I arrived on campus," he says. "I don't believe in coming in with huge ideas and projects without seeing what it's like on the ground. I'm a quick learner, but this is a complex institution. I need to see what's going on in the minds and hearts of [those at Duke]. Based on that, I will shape my ministry and teaching. I hope the learning process will continue forever, that I never say, 'I've figured out Duke.' "

Still, his impact on the Muslim community has been immediate, MSA's Ahmad says. At the first Friday afternoon prayer session of the year—attended by forty students and staff members, more than double the usual attendance—Antepli moved comfortably through the room, shaking hands and welcoming students warmly. There are also discussions within Student Affairs to develop a Center for Muslim Life along the lines of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life.

Antepli's journey to the chaplaincy was somewhat accidental. After graduating from college and completing imam training in his native Turkey in the mid-1990s, he went to work building orphanages with a Muslim non-governmental organization in Southeast Asia. But in 1998, the government of Myanmar, where he was working at the time, shut down access to NGOs for a six-month period.

During that time, he traveled to the U.S. to take graduate-level classes at the University of Pittsburgh, and, when his background was revealed, was asked to volunteer as a part-time chaplain at both Pitt and nearby Carnegie Mellon University.

"Within a week," he says, "I was attending administrative meetings and leading services," as well as participating in interfaith campus dialogues. He soon realized that this—"engaging young minds, walking a difficult four years with them"—was what he wanted to do with his life.

Upon his return to Myanmar, he began looking into Muslim chaplaincy programs, and, in 2003, enrolled at Hartford. While there, he also served part time as a chaplain at Wesleyan University.