Dear ones, we hope that you have had a happy, healthy start to the new school year. This year is filled with so many new beginnings. We have started to go back to work, go back to school, see our loved ones in person. At the same time, so many of us return to a semblance of life before COVID-19 without the ones that were there with us. We carry all of this change, loss, excitement, isolation, with us as we all join each other back on campus this year. With this, we welcome our beloved Imam Khalil Abdullah, the new Assistant Dean for Muslim Life here at Princeton University. We accept him with open minds and full hearts after the tremendous heartbreak of the loss of Imam Sohaib Sultan, the pioneer of our Muslim Life Program and a compassionate, wise, and fundamental figure at our university. The following is a conversation with Imam Khalil. Let this serve as an opportunity for us to get to know him and all he is about, as we welcome him with the utmost joy, honor his and our companionship with Imam Sohaib, and celebrate our wonderful Muslim community at the ORL.
SJ: You completed a master's degree in Religious Studies with a focus on Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary. Tell us about why you pursued that area of study, and how it has impacted your chaplaincy?
KA: I come from a multi-faith background. I embraced Islam. I converted, in my sophomore year of college. So, I didn't go to seminary until I was well into my thirties. I had interest in interfaith dialogue, people from different backgrounds and conditions having a conversation with each other. And my experience at the seminary wasn’t orthodox. I didn’t know that I wanted to be a chaplain till my first chaplaincy at Dartmouth. I thought I wanted to be a professor, I thought I wanted to teach, you know? But my various careers, I had taught at public and private schools, I worked at Starbucks, I found myself in management, working in teams, service. Creating space for people to come and talk. And then when I was working, I decided I would go to seminary, and that’s where I found a balance of both. So, I have a deep interest in not only religion and theology and spirituality, but even more so I have an interest in people. I got to work for Hartford Seminary, [and] raise some money for our Islamic Chaplaincy Program. Hartford Seminary is a place where a lot of chaplains, including Sohaib, graduate from. So, I was learning about the work of chaplaincy, and my colleagues, my peers, were chaplaincy students, so I could learn from them, have conversations with them. But I didn't really know that I was doing chaplaincy all along. I was teaching, I was working with students, I was caring for people and things. I was serving customers, making sure that when I ask what your name is, and you say “Saareen,” I actually say, “how do you spell that?” Right? That kind of paying attention to detail, paying attention to people, individuals, I didn’t know that that’s chaplaincy, right? I was being a Starbucks manager! So, as I look back at all the things I did was really chaplaincy, just led me to this view of life, this calling. It’s not a job, it’s a calling. This is what I was supposed to do. I don’t have to be a professor, I can just be at Princeton. I can just...be! And the seminary, that education, that experience, taught me about diversity. Diversity of traditions, colorful traditions, diversity of thought within those traditions. It taught me to value difference. It also taught me tremendous, it taught me a lot about what other people consider sacred, what other people consider valuable. And through that it allowed me to see how much we have in common. And of course, I think to be in this space, you have to have a certain skill set. You have to have at least some sense of what it means to care, not just what it means to be a teacher, not just...be a scholar. But be a shepherd in the present. So that’s why. That’s a long answer to your question.
SJ: You will be leading the Muslim Life program in the wake of the tragic death of Imam Sohaib, whom you also knew personally. Tell us about your relationship to him.
KA: So, my relationship, like so many of us, was of a student. He was a teacher, he was our guidance. A chaplain’s chaplain. The job I got at Dartmouth, for chaplaincy, he was my reference. So, I valued him in that way, respected him in that way, trusted him in that way. Not only was he a teacher, but he was a mentor, and we sat and talked about chaplaincy. It’s not just about teaching people about religion or Islam, but it was about empowering people. He was, I’ll say, a friend. We’d talk on the weekends, good conversations. We didn’t always used to talk about chaplaincy, or Islam. But Islam was always there, you know? We could laugh, he had this little piercing laugh. We would joke, we would talk about something silly that Radiyya did. We talked about soccer. Juventus was his favorite team. We talked about our love of poetry. So many things. I think Sohaib was a teacher and a mentor and a chaplain to me, but also a friend that I cherish. Those are not all exclusive. Sohaib thought highly of so many people. I think there was a kinship in the spirit between Sohaib and I that goes beyond just colleagues. Beyond a chaplain. There was just this special connection.
SJ: Thank you for sharing that. I feel like when Imam Sohaib passed away, it was so... it was so weird to tell people what was going on, because it sounds weird to be like “my imam passed away and that's why I'm sad,” because it's like...okay, it's just your imam. Like it's not that deep. But then it might be more accurate to say “my mentor passed away,”… Then people get it, like, “oh, this is what you're missing, this is what you're grieving.” But then it's also something missing with that too. It doesn’t explain your full relationship to him. I feel like that's one reason why Imam Sohaib was so special. He was just like...he was just this giant of a character in so many people's lives, even if they never even met him, you know what I mean? Because he just mastered being so many things for so many people simultaneously… He’s your imam, but he's also your mentor, but he's also your friend, and you lost all of those things at once.
KA: He was a shepherd to so many people, and we’re still grieving. When we come back in September, we’ll all be grieving, collectively, together, but we will also be celebrating him. We’ve had some distance; we’ve had some time. 12 years is a long time. This community is already carrying on his legacy. You already carry on his gentleness, his spirit, all the things we loved about Sohaib. That’s the beautiful thing about the ummah. That’s why we’re called the “Muhammadiyya,” because after he passed, after someone passes, he still lives on in his people. He’s embodied. His values, it’s embodied in our practice! He’s still living when we speak his name. That’s the thing about saintly people like that, and I mean that when I say saintly. We know how special he was, you understand. But that’s my relationship with Sohaib.
SJ: Thank you. You’ve been involved in the ORL Advisory Council since 2019 and are familiar with the Princeton Muslim Life Program. Given this experience of yours, what have you noticed or observed about the Muslim Life community on campus?
KA: Welcoming, diverse, loving, resilient, a community I ascribe to serve. I find it to be spiritual. It’s got this top-down approach. Also, it’s engaged in the community, so I think that what the MLP has been able to grow into beyond this campus community, it’s a model campus community. This campus suits a model community that I think some might call an ‘alternative space.’ But I've found the desire for learning sacred knowledge here is as valued or as needed as any mosque. It's a place that wants to see the beauty of Islam. It sees Islam as diverse, as joyous. I think that if you just see the programming, it speaks for itself. The Friday Jummah, the collective community worship, fellowship. The Quran study, this connection to sacred text, sacred scripture. The Mizaan retreat, caring about nature, caring for our youth, caring for our young people. Creating opportunities for young people to be out in nature. The arts and spirituality are deeply important to this community. I know Sohaib poured into qawwali, and the mawlids. The various expressions of Islam beyond formalities. It’s something I think that characterizes this community.
SJ: That's one of my favorite things about this community too because it can be incredibly isolating for students, because there's oftentimes nowhere for us to go. But then every Friday we see people from outside the gates just coming in and being so happy to be here and also being so open to talk to. You get to sit next to them. You get to pray next to them, it's just a feeling, it just feels very good. It feels like you're human again, you're not just a robot student.
KA: So, can I ask, when you spend time in the masajid wherever you are, at home, wherever, does this feel more like home? This space that we share?
SJ: Yes, I would say yes. The reason is because when you’re at home you’re a kid, you know? That’s your role in the community. You are a child of the community. And also it’s very male centric, very…
SA: It’s very patriarchal, and if you want to ask the imam a question you have to, like, make a trek across the men’s section like you’re parting the Red Sea. I just feels very...weird. So that's why I feel more at home here. I feel more like an individual, or I feel more like my own person than I do there.
KA: I think that's the beauty of this community. I would say, it’s...it’s beyond formalities. I mentioned that, but I also think that what comes with that is this sense of courage. This community has courage. This community has a willingness to do things differently, despite potential criticism. But if you trust in Allah, that something is, I don’t know, “allowed,” or “permissible.” But if things have been done in a typical way, within Islam...throughout history, there’s some way that we can see how people were able to...be themselves, then, then there is a willingness to try it. Right? A lot of communities aren’t willing to try and fail. And I mean, Sohaib, look at the program. He did one thing one year, and the next year he was doing something different, maybe for two years, “for this program, let’s do something different.” The ability to be flexible and try different things and to do those things, and the ability to change. I think that that’s all the model. The arrangement, the seating arrangement. On Friday. Right? That’s unique, that’s special, but we couldn’t imagine it any other way. It’s so...I think, this is a special ummah. It’s so honoring to be a part of.
SJ: I know, even the way we sit on Friday, I mean, it’s just the way we sit, but it means the world to me, I know it must to so many people. I feel like, honestly, it’s changed people’s lives, people’s perspectives, I know it definitely did that for me. It’s so special. So, my next question is, what drew you to chaplaincy?
KA: I love people! Serving people, caring about people. I want people to flourish, I want people to feel heard and feel seen, not feel othered. I think many of the things that we’re called to do or find ourselves doing is connected to our own experiences, our own personal journeys in a way. We’ve experienced being othered. Whether it's being biracial, or the name that I took. Maybe if I thought about, like when I was 19, I might’ve just took a different name, I took like this…
SJ: It’s a cool name!
KA: I love it, I love it! People couldn’t imagine me not being Khalil. So, so, I think it comes from a personal place, of when I was about 20. When I was 19 or 20, I had this incredible, life-altering experience. Taking shahada. When I was 19, when I was thinking about questions that I was asking about who I was, about spirituality, about social justice, about race, all the big things, I was trying to figure that out. And it felt heavy, to some extent. I also remember loving hip hop. Hip hop was talking about Islam. They were talking about being a Muslim. “Assalamu ‘alaikum,” I would hear it…
SJ: Ice Cube!
KA: Like Ice Cube! Like everyone. So many people. So, there was also this social, cultural factor. And so, as I think about, when I was 19 or 20, the world hasn’t changed much. Conflict, Rodney King. Riots. Technology was changing. Genocides were happening. Just so much. Race, and black and white, multiculturalism became a word. Post-racial America. All this stuff. The Cosby Show was popular. Just trying to sort through all of what it meant to be. That’s what I do as a chaplain. Just working with a lot of younger me’s. Younger selves. And it’s a privilege, and I have some sense of what students are experiencing, questions that they are asking. What it means to feel othered and not heard. Six years, I was working paycheck to paycheck. And then, somehow, I ended up at Dartmouth College, chaplaincy, a job at an Ivy League school, and now I’m here! At Princeton. It’s amazing. So I’ve had quite a life. Lots of careers. So why chaplaincy? Because I’ve lived a full life. And I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I’ve picked myself up every time. I’ve had lows and I’ve had highs, lots of losses, I had some wins. I’ve experienced so many ranges in emotions, that there’s a way that I can help others, share, walk with others. My life is not ordinary and my path to chaplaincy was a long time in the making. I told you I would just be talking.
SJ: That’s what we want! Thank you. So, next question is, how are you feeling about this new chapter of your life moving to Princeton taking this position after such an enormous loss?
KA: Big shoes to fill. I told others, I feel honored, encouraged, embraced, but it feels big and scary.
SJ: This place is big and scary.
KA: Yeah. So, it helps to have people like yourself, Sister Sabrina, Sister Arshe, my colleagues, Hakim, who sets up on Fridays. People who are reaching out, people who are welcoming. It makes it feel less daunting. So, we all have to grapple with imposter syndrome, it’s always there. You’re always trying to ground yourself. Authenticity. It’s what we’re trying to grow into, our authentic selves. I think I engage with the process of trying to become, part of chaplaincy is to encourage people to be their authentic selves. And I think that encouragement to come into a space like this, the Princeton MLP, it’s a model community, like I said. But then, I’m the chaplain. I try to inspect and reflect in the shared approach, have some consistency, some familiarity, but also know that the hope and the trust that Sohaib and others have placed in me is also encouragement to...I haven't quite figured out how this looks or how this feels, to make Princeton MLP more joyous. More celebratory. To make it a place that feels safe. I’m excited. I know I have big shoes to fill. So how am I feeling? I’m feeling excited, I’m feeling welcomed. Honored.
SJ: That’s great! Thank you. We are so excited to have you too. Tell us about your family.
KA: So Asma, my wife of almost 10 years. 10 year anniversary in December inshAllah. The two of us have 8 boys. She has four boys, I have four boys. We had four boys pretty much at the same time. Two of our boys share the same name, she has a Yousef and an Adam, I have a Yousef and an Adam. At one point we had 6 of the boys living in the house. It was a lot of stuff! We have 8 beautiful boys, mashAllah. The youngest is 20 and the oldest is 27. I have 4 beautiful, responsible, loving Black Muslim boys. They have pride in who they are as Muslims. They’re incredibly talented. One is an amazing photographer in Atlanta. Three of them are in Atlanta, one in Raleigh.
SJ: That’s a great place to live, Atlanta.
KA: Yeah, yeah. They don’t want to leave. Another is a music producer, a rapper extraordinaire, has worked with a lot of different people. Another is an amazing musician and fashion designer, like taught himself to sew, has his own, like, fashion line, and everything. And so, I’m really proud of them. They’ve all seemed to really find their passion. And doing it with a lot of faith and trust in Allah. I’ve talked about Asma, I couldn’t be married to a more courageous, thoughtful woman. She’s amazing. She’s Libyan. She grew up in New Jersey. She’s a community organizer. And then my parents. My mother is still with us. She lives in Texas, she’s a native Texan. When you get older, you start thinking about your parents and your upbringing, and you start putting it all together. I promise this will happen, you’ll hit thirty, and you’ll say, “oh my God! Now I realize why I did this because my mom, my dad.” It just happens that way. My mother was a nurse, the head RN at a city hospital, like downtown, big hospital. My mother then became a teacher. Now she’s a retired teacher. She was a nurse for many years. It's part of why I think I have a kind of disposition or inclination for caring for people. Because I watched my mother do it. My mother cared for people who were sick and dying. She’d bring me to work sometimes. I would just kind of roam around the hospital, and she would always find me in a senior citizen’s room, just talking to them. That was always kind of my disposition, and I think I got that from my mother. And then as a teacher, she loved knowledge, to share. I got that from her. My father passed away in 2017, my first year at Dartmouth, just a few months into my time there. He worked at restaurants. And then I think, “how’d I end up at Starbucks, managing people?” It’s because at 12 years old, I grew up at the cash register, I was going to work with my dad at restaurants and bars. He was doing that, retail, serving customers. He was also a jazz musician. And then my father, when he was in his 40s, I converted to Islam, my father, you know, went back to church. He returned. He not so much went back to church, but he went back to school. My father went to seminary. And later in life, he was a pastor. And so, my parents I think were big influences on me. So, I had my mother and father.
SJ: Thank you for sharing that. You have a very, very cool family!
KA: Thank you, thank you. You’ll meet them. My mother will jump on the first plane, as soon as I’m situated, to come. And my kids are incredible. They’re on Instagram, you know, on their stories, saying “my pops is a Princeton man! Way to go pops!” So, it really feels good.
SJ: Yeah, they got a cool dad!
KA: You’ll see ‘em, they’ll come. You know, my kids came to Dartmouth, they came to visit me, but everyone was gone. I’m so excited for them to come here when there’s life on campus.
SJ: My last question is: what are you looking forward to?
KA: I’m looking forward to getting to meet and get to know the students. I’m looking forward to spending time with students, looking forward to getting to know the community. I’m really excited about Fridays. I’m really excited about Jummah and sharing this space again with everyone. Fellowship in the sense of togetherness. I’m looking forward to thinking together with the community of ways to honor and celebrate Sohaib. I’m also looking forward to putting the MLP with departments across campus. Like African American Studies. Other departments, other programs. Like leadership. You should take advantage of opportunities to develop your leadership skillset, let’s say, for example, sexual violence. Are there Muslim students who are engaged or a part of the voice, or the efforts, or the conversations around gender, for instance? Conversations around service, social justice. How can we be good partners across campus, around issues that are important to the Muslim community. That are meaningful and creating a healthier, more full experience for the Muslims on campus.
SJ: Thank you so much for talking to me, Imam Khalil. It has been such a pleasure.