A Welcoming Community for Muslims

Celene Ibrahim, the Muslim chaplain at Tufts, leads a small but thriving group, and hopes to build bridges to other faiths as well

Celene Ibrahim

Umar Shareef, A17, a political science major, rises at dawn every day with a special goal in mind: slowly memorizing the Qur’an. His lifetime objective: to memorize all 114 chapters of the sacred text. “His level of self-discipline is phenomenal,” says Celene Ibrahim, the Muslim chaplain at Tufts. “I’m humbled to be a guide and mentor for the pursuits and passions of all my students. To be surrounded by such sincerity and tenacity is inspiring.”

Ibrahim, one of several new members of the University Chaplaincy team, is quite inspiring herself. In her second year on the job, she has already had a significant impact on Muslim students, alumni and programming at the university.

During this summer’s Ramadan celebration, Ibrahim welcomed a steady stream of students and special guests, and the annual Eid celebration in October, the largest yet at Tufts, drew more than 200 students, alumni, parents and friends of Tufts. The event featured tech entrepreneur Shahed Amanullah, a senior advisor for technology at the U.S. Department of State who works on digital diplomacy and innovation projects for the Special Representative to Muslim Communities.

The Friday prayer hour, held weekly in the Tufts Interfaith Center, “brings a strong and diverse community together,” says Ibrahim. “It regularly brings 60 to 70 people, including students, faculty, staff, Boston-area alumni and wider community members, even including a local mail carrier who has timed his route around the prayer gathering.” Tufts Muslims include students from as far away as China, Indonesia, India and Tanzania.

A Rich, Diverse Life

Much of the reason for the vitality of the community lies with Ibrahim’s commitment to supporting her Muslim students in their spirituality, academic pursuits and leadership potential. “My goal is to nurture their faith and strong existing ethics of service,” she says.

That desire to nurture stems from a childhood in the Poconos in Pennsylvania, where she played in streams and hiked through the mountains with her family. She brings similar experiences to her students by taking them on field trips to orchards and mountains near her home in New Hampshire, where she lives with her husband, Ahmed, and daughter, Rahma.

“I try to put a lot of emphasis on healthfulness and mindfulness,” she says. “Take breaks, eat good food, get plentiful sleep and slow down. Hard work must be combined with periods of rejuvenating rest.”

Her hope is that her students will be able to have the same kind of rich, diverse life that she herself has enjoyed. As a teenager, she joined the United World College movement, an alternative high school experience stressing coexistence and peacebuilding between the nations of the world.

She developed a passion for language, and she caught the travel bug as well. Her most memorable trips as a young adult: to Cuba, where she worked in an alternative medicine clinic; to Brazil, where she collaborated in a think tank on educational access; and to Egypt, where she learned Arabic, met her husband and started her family.

A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Divinity School, Ibrahim is now pursuing a doctorate in Arabic and Islamic studies at Brandeis. She also co-directs the Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education in Newton, Massachusetts, a program of Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College. That work, she says, infuses her with ideas to implement at Tufts, such as ways to tap into the power of storytelling for interreligious leadership.

This year, in collaboration with artist Nancy Marks, the community service learning coordinator at the School of Dental Medicine, Ibrahim facilitated a program called The Intimacy of Memory, inviting Tufts community members to make art based on stories and objects saved from a loved one who had passed. The exhibit is displayed in the Slater Concourse Gallery at the Aidekman Arts Center through the end of November. “Oftentimes when someone tells a story, it might awaken a part of the listener that they haven’t accessed in years, ‘opening the windows and bringing in air,’” she says, alluding to a line in this year’s Tufts Common Reading Program book, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel.

And while she says her highest priority is her students’ well-being, she also relishes the opportunity to educate the Tufts community about Islam. One of her efforts has been to support Muslim Students Association (MSA) programs that promote awareness of Islam—one recent focus has been the prolonged conflict and refugee crisis in and around Syria.

Ibrahim guides Muslim interfaith workshops, in which she aims to create a welcoming atmosphere and foster understanding. “We want peers to come and experience, observe or ask questions on Islamic tradition and current events,” she says. “We’re providing a place where people can truly understand Islam with nuance, exemplifying that our faith’s basis is compassion, mercy and wisdom.”

A Place to Call Their Own

Until this fall, Tufts Muslims did not have a dedicated room for performing their five daily prayers, other than common space in the Interfaith Center that is used for many programs, and a small room in the Muslim Life House residence hall. But this fall, at the request of students and with support from alumni donors, friends of Tufts and the university administration, a new prayer room, or musallah, was opened and is available daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“People from many different class years and walks of life have not only been giving to the new Tufts Muslim Life Fund for the musallah project, they’ve been reconnecting with Tufts in inspiring ways,” Ibrahim says. “And when these alumni come back to Tufts, they’ve expressed their deep joy at being able to pray in the new musallah. Now a little corner of Tufts has a special sense of home.”

Kristin Livingston, A05, is a freelance writer based in Wakefield, Massachusetts.

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