As an undergrad, Atiya Aftab recalls having classes at Scott Hall. Walking around campus she’d see other buildings named Milledoler and Frelinghuysen. The university had a Catholic Center on Somerset Street, while College Avenue was home to the Second Reformed Church, Rutgers Hillel, Chabad House, and Canterbury House. What was noticeably absent at a university with an estimated 5,000 Muslim students was an Islamic center, leading many like Aftab to feel like a guest on their own campus.
Since the formal organization of the university’s first Muslim Students Association in the 1960s, there have been several attempts at establishing a center for Islamic life on university grounds. With the help of Rutgers students and faculty, the Islamic Society of Central Jersey (ISCJ) was founded in the late 1970s, but the group ultimately purchased property in South Brunswick, New Jersey to build a mosque.
A decade later, another group of Rutgers students founded Masjid ul Huda before moving several miles away to North Brunswick, New Jersey. An outgrowth from ISCJ, the Muslim Center of Middlesex County (MCMC) came the closest to establishing an on-campus facility, building a mosque adjacent to Busch Campus in 1997.
With renewed interest in 2010 to create a permanent presence dedicated to serving and supporting the university community, the Center for Islamic Life at Rutgers University (CILRU) was born. The following year, CILRU joined what is now the Interfaith Alliance and became the official convener of the Muslim chaplaincy through the Division of Student Affairs.
“There are all these beautiful, individual moments we’ve been able to be a part of and we’re trying to cultivate that.”
Operating under the direction of volunteer chaplains during its formative years, CILRU decided the time was right to recruit a full-time chaplain in 2015. Spearheading the search was the newly appointed chair of its board of directors, Aftab.
Graduating from Rutgers College in 1988 before earning a law degree from Rutgers Law School–Newark in 1991, Aftab has always been dedicated to issues concerning rights and justice, having formerly served as a deputy attorney general for the state of New Jersey before becoming an adjunct professor of political science and middle eastern studies at Rutgers–New Brunswick.
“Religion is important to the spiritual well-being of our students,” says Aftab. “From my personal experience, as well as my two children’s and others I knew [on campus], there is a need here. We don’t receive any financial support from Rutgers and have to fund 100 percent of our operations. At the time, all of these things aligned that allowed us to tap into the financial support [of our donors].”
Turning to a friend who was a member of the Association of Campus Muslim Chaplains (ACMC), Aftab received the names of two possible candidates, one of whom was Kaiser Aslam. Posting the job opportunity in August, Aftab hoped the highly recommended chaplain would apply, but initially received no word. Finally, in early October Aftab heard from Aslam, but instead of opening an email to see his much-anticipated application, she got a message asking her if they could talk.
“I was driving on the back roads of Franklin Park on the way to a friend’s house after leaving campus,” says Aftab of their first conversation. “But as I was talking to him, I began to feel like he was basically interviewing me [instead of the other way around]. He was asking me why he would even want to work for a public university [like Rutgers]. That’s when I thought, this guy is smart.”
A Life’s Work
Coming from a background in the sciences, Aslam double-majored in biology and physics while minoring in both chemistry and art at Elmhurst College outside of Chicago, Illinois. As an undergraduate, Aslam explored his faith and became involved in the Muslim community.
As a by-product of his growing engagement, Aslam was often asked to speak about Muslim issues. At times he found himself sitting next to a priest or rabbi with years of training on how to represent their communities. Seeing how trained religious leaders could leave a lasting impact on campus, Aslam abandoned his desire to pursue a doctorate and teach and instead shifted his focus to the field of chaplaincy. At first unable to draw a connection between his classroom focus and a growing interest in Islamic studies, Aslam began to recognize an underlying commonality: his desire to serve others.
“With an understanding of biological sciences, a physician deals with people experiencing certain realities and has to apply that knowledge to better their lives in some way,” says Aslam. “With Islamic studies, you interact with people and serve by putting your knowledge of theology into very practical terms. Through chaplaincy I could develop and nurture the Muslim identity on campus and have an impact on the [campus] climate.”
“Our approach begins with the idea that spirituality is a part of overall wellness.”
Earning a master’s degree in Islamic studies and Muslim-Christian relations from Hartford Seminary, Aslam accepted a position as a chaplain at Wesleyan University, a small, private school in Middletown, Connecticut. Also serving as a resident scholar at a local Islamic center and a chaplain at nearby Hartford Hospital, Aslam never considered working at a school like Rutgers, in part because at the time Aftab came calling, there were no full-time Muslim chaplains at any public university.
“Sometimes the case is that a university recognizes a need that doesn’t necessarily speak with congruence to what the students are actually feeling,” says Aslam. “But at Rutgers it felt like an authentic expression and the community defining something for itself. Rather than from the outside being told that this is a model you can follow because it’s worked for other communities, in this case there was no model to follow [for a large, public university].”
Learning about how the Muslim community evolved in and around Rutgers over the past few decades, Aslam agreed to an on-campus interview. In addition to meeting Aftab and other administrators, Aslam made it a point to interact with students. Mapping out his next week upon returning to Connecticut, Aslam quickly realized he was scheduling more phone calls and meetings with Rutgers students he’d just met than his own at Wesleyan.
On the Banks
While Aslam’s official arrival in August of 2016 marked the end of CILRU’s search for its first full-time chaplain, its pursuit of a permanent home was just beginning. Knowing that the lack of an office presented a barrier to entry that could prove to be the difference between the center’s ultimate success or failure, Aslam took his message to the people.
During his first week, he conducted three training seminars with incoming resident advisors about how to interact with Muslim students. Connecting with two faculty members, Aslam served as a guest lecturer in several classes. Scheduling appointments with up to 20 students a week, he set appointments in public spaces before accepting a proposal from Kerri Willson, the university’s director of off-campus living and community partnerships, to temporarily utilize space in the department’s unused offices.
“Our role first and foremost, is to serve individual students,” says Aslam. “Our approach begins with the idea that spirituality is a part of overall wellness. When you’re in college, you’re transitioning into adulthood and you’re at that age where your ideas are being challenged. We want to empower and lift them up, while helping them develop emotional resilience, spiritual resilience, and spiritual literacy.”
One such student was Nehaj Aftab, a senior majoring in finance with a minor in math. Going to a high school with a very small Muslim student population, she grew increasingly disconnected from her faith. A student worker for Willson, Nehaj Aftab first encountered Aslam during CILRU’s time at off campus living, where she soon found herself attending weekly classes.
“It’s another vehicle for personal and spiritual growth,” says Nehaj Aftab. “All students experience moments when they are confused, lost or need guidance. Beyond religion, I know that I can turn to CILRU and Chaplain Kaiser [Aslam] for any advice or issues that I’m facing. The center is another platform for Muslim students to utilize for their spiritual and personal development and having an organization to turn to in these situations has had an amazing positive impact on my experience at Rutgers.”
In addition to giving spiritual guidance, helping to develop identity, and mentoring individual students like Nehaj Aftab, Aslam also consults with those suffering from a host of issues ranging from mental health to physical, financial, and other crises. With some studies showing that minority populations are less likely to use social services, Aslam has acted as an important conduit, connecting students with other on-campus units and resources such as Counseling ADAP & Psychiatric Services (CAPS), Victim Prevention and Victim Assistance (VPVA), or the Rutgers Food Pantry.
“We are figuring out a way to get those needs addressed, whether they be through the university, our own means, or by referencing them elsewhere,” says Aslam. “We don’t want our students to come here to hide from everywhere else. We want them to come here and be strengthened with their identity, and to go out into the world and be strong, make a difference, and give back.”
In the spring of 2017, CILRU took a small step toward improving its services. Striking out on its own, the organization identified a rental property near College Avenue and signed a lease on a space above Zookini Pizza on Sicard Street. After moving into the new location, Aslam was able to better meet students’ requests for additional programming by adding two nights of classes to the one he’d been previously holding in Willson’s offices.
“I think there were 30 students the first night” says Aslam. “We didn’t have furniture yet, so everyone was just on the floor. From the beginning it was obvious that we’d already outgrown the space.”
Then in the summer of 2018, an unexpected opportunity presented itself. The opening of the Rutgers’ new Academic Building resulted in several departments shifting offices. As part of a handful of relocations, the Center for Latino Arts and Culture (CLAC) moved from 122 College Avenue to 172 College Avenue, directly across from Alexander Library. Following a conversation with then-vice chancellor for student affairs Felicia McGinty, Aftab decided to move CILRU’s operations to the newly available, and more importantly, much larger space.
A Beautiful Moment
Completing the center’s third move within a calendar year, Aftab and Aslam have carefully crafted an inviting space. A bright red exterior door gives way to light gray walls adorned with pieces from Islamic artists and photos of Rutgers landmarks.
“We want to show this merging of identities and for students to be proud of their culture and their university” says Aftab. “But when we moved in, we also wanted to put our stamp on it. On each of the columns in front of the house we have Arabic calligraphy. There are 10 columns and there’s 100 names for God, so each column has 10 of those names or attributes. It’s reflective of the beauty in Islamic culture and it’s one of the many things that are very purposeful.”
With a building now bearing a nod to Islam joining the likes of other religious institutions on campus, Aftab’s mission of ensuring representation for Rutgers’ Muslim community is complete. This past October, CILRU hosted its grand opening and standing on the center’s steps alongside Rutgers president Robert Barchi, New Brunswick mayor James Cahill, newly-appointed vice chancellor for student affairs Salvador Mena, McGinty, and Willson, Aslam and Aftab cut a ceremonial ribbon and officially opened CILRU’s doors to the greater university community.
“A designated space for a cultural or faith-based community is a gateway to campus inclusion,” says Willson. “It’s important to have a space that they recognize, to build community and to feel at home. It’s been very rewarding to watch CILRU grow and see how our students have flourished with their support. CILRU is a great partner to student affairs and our interfaith community and now with an established presence on College Avenue it’s part of the fabric of this vibrant community.”
In the months that have followed, Aslam and CILRU host classes three nights a week, while the center also offers a main lounge, study rooms, and a kitchen for student use. Aslam has also continued to work with and mentor individual students, scheduling up to 30 appointments a week. Locking up one night after a particularly late meeting, Aslam turned to see a woman, her husband, and daughter.
“She was an alumna and asked if they could please just come in [for a quick tour],” says Aslam. “She talked about how she wished the community had this back then and was so happy that it’s here now. There are all these beautiful, individual moments we’ve been able to be a part of and we’re trying to cultivate that.”