A Caravan on the Road to Becoming Fully Human

Muslim chaplaincy promotes a deliberative Islamic theology to embrace religion pragmatically

Chaplains meet at ISNA Convention.

By Rasheed Rabbi

March/April 2022

Rumi’s caravan to debunk despair (39:54 — Come, Come,/ Whoever you are / Wanderer, idolater, worshipper of fire / Come even though you have broken / Your vows a thousand times / Come and Come yet again, ours is not a caravan of despair) and uphold compassionately comprehensive Islam is perhaps advancing professionally by Muslim American chaplains, who extend their heartiest welcome to all, from the oft-returning inmates to the atheists. They are always vigilant to stimulate our hidden longing for God, especially when we struggle to make sense of loss and suffering in hospitals, crises on the battlefields, isolation in prisons, overwhelming circumstances on campuses and other moments of vulnerability. 

In their capacity as public institution appointees, chaplains offer both emotional space and a safety net to careseekers so they can open up or even release emotional outbursts, such as, “Why did it happen to me?” This oft-silent burning question becomes evident in ways that chaplains are masters at discerning, and thereby enable careseekers to confront their sufferings in the light of religion to conquer despondency, disillusionment and despair. In such situations, the latter’s first attempts to provide answers reveal the raw presuppositions of the God–human relationship that shape their entire lives and everyday activities. In pastoral terms, this is known as embedded theology. 

A common example of this is the unconscious affirmation when we Muslims learn of someone’s death: “Verily, we belong to God, and to Him are we destined to return” (2:156). This Islamic expression potentially wraps up our memories, beliefs, feelings, values and hope (Howard Stone and James Duke. 1996. “How to Think Theologically,” p.15), waiting to be explored. To that end, chaplains step forward with a systematic approach to unpack these elements, an undertaking that starts with lending a compassionate shoulder to the grieving friends and families so they can unburden their memories, the primary reason for dwelling in denial. 

Even Umar al-Khattab was in denial when he heard of the Prophet’s (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) demise. Many such narratives help resituate a grieving person’s faith-based conviction that no death is untimely because the exact time of one’s birth and death is divinely predetermined and appointed. This process of correlating prophetic narrations and sacred stories with careseekers’ memory, which involves reflecting together to evaluate and reorient their understanding of faith as well as expanding upon it further and/or synthesizing a new one, is called deliberative theology. Although Islamic theology differs from its Christian counterpart, the above process facilitates a discourse that simultaneously includes our creed, worship and rituals, ethics and law to exercise our jurisprudential scholars’ legal reasoning. 

Thus, Muslim American chaplains are helping us travel with a caravan working its way toward a revived mode of Islamic theology. There’s no barrier to boarding this caravan. Chaplains enjoy handling all skepticism and reservations with relentless enthusiasm to engage in godly discourse. At the moment of initial shock or the denial of it, becoming aware of embedded theology functions as an antidote for despair, and examining it with a mentor exudes the courage to evaluate and develop new beliefs so that one can better relate to his/her suffering. Both chaplains and careseekers engage in this process of deliberative theology to bring God into the midst of the latter’s experiences of loss, crisis and struggle.

Being accrued over time, unquestioned and even unspoken, it’s easy to carry the embedded theology for years. However, this unintentionally accrued theology developed in a Western society could be at odds with Islam, a reality that Muslim chaplains also try to address. For example, during the diagnosis of a terminal illness, the patient’s family often contends that disclosing it could cause unnecessary pain and suffering. This perception is widely held in Muslim communities as well. 

In response, Muslim chaplains refer to the Prophet’s heart-touching story of when God disclosed his impending death. Although the manner of being informed could be specific to him, his experience demonstrates that the patient’s right to know is universal. The Prophet also hinted about the death of Fatima (radi Allahu ‘anh), his only surviving daughter, who passed away within six months of her father’s demise. 

Although knowing the truth is shocking, the vigor of a sudden shock stokes a fuller awareness of a situation that chaplains capitalize on for their patients to theologize more deliberatively about their experience of God and relate their sufferings. Doing so helps us find either the immanent God we have known all along, or the transcendent God who reveals anew by removing the veils of ambiguity. Muslim chaplains create recurring grounds to exemplify the drill of evaluating the beliefs we’ve taken for granted i  to let us continuously experience both of the immanent and the transcendent God.

As a way to embrace this practice more pervasively, Muslim chaplains frequently personify God by mentioning His beautiful names (7:180; 20:8), among them the Resurrector (al-Ba‘ith), the Ever-Living (al-Hayy), the Self Existing (al-Qayyum), the Giver of Life (al-Muhyi), the First (al-Awwal), the Last (al-Akhir), the Subduer (al-Qahhar) and the Taker of Life (al-Mumit). Interestingly, these names are often known as tanzih (transcendent) and tashbih (immanent) (journals.sfu.ca/rpfs/index.php/rpfs/article/view/234) and function as a bridge between two disparate worlds — faith and reason, belief and knowledge, beauty and truth, divine and human — to become a complete human being. 

The more we can tolerate the complexity and ambiguity of deliberative theology, the more rewarding will be our journey on this caravan to experience God. It rekindles our conscientiousness, an inborn longing to live a life “that witnesses to God in the most fitting way possible” (Stone and Duke. p.18-19). Such a renewed conscientiousness is the moral basis for a lasting relationship with God, one that enables to withstand life’s complexity and vulnerability, and its resulting theological perspectives can be used pragmatically to serve as a social basis for strategies seeking healing, equality and justice.

Rasheed Rabbi, an IT professional who earned an MA in religious studies (2016) from Hartford Seminary and is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry from Boston University, is also founder of e-Dawah (www.edawah.net) and secretary of the Association of Muslim Scientists, Engineers & Technology Professionals. He serves as a khateeb and Friday prayer leader at the ADAMS Center and a certified Muslim chaplain at iNova Fairfax, iNovaLoudoun and Virginia’s Alexandria and Loudoun Adult Detention Centers.

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