School Graduates First Class:

Triples Number of Muslim Chaplains in U.S. Military

Saturday August 28, 1999 The Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences graduated its first class of fifteen students. Eight graduated with the degree of Master of Islamic Studies. Seven graduated with a degree of Master of Religious Practice.

The School is the first of its kind. It is the only school approved by the United States Department of Defense to both train and endorse U.S. Muslim military chaplains. And as Dr. Iqbal Unus, guest commencement speaker pointed out, it is "the first-ever Muslim-governed graduate-level campus based institution of higher learning in the Western world." Dr. Iqbal Unus is the Director of the International Islamic Forum for Science, Technology and Human Resources Development and a former Dean of the School.

For the students, commencement is not an ending, but a new beginning. Six students graduated with a Masters of Islamic Studies with a concentration in Shariah Sciences. One is now the Director of a Masjid in Houston, Texas. Another is Executive Director of a Muslim social services organization in the Washington, DC area and studying part-time for a PhD. Another is helping to organize and teach in a new Islamic center in the Washington, DC area. Another is helping to establish and will teach in a new Islamic school in Modesto, California. One flew immediately back to her home country to teach. And one is still undecided about her career plans. One student graduated with a concentration in Political Sciences. He has begun a graduate degree program at Urbana University, Champaign, Illinois. One student graduated with a concentration in History, and he is now working with an Indonesian Islamic organization in the Washington, DC area. Seven students graduated with a Masters of Religious Practice, a degree that includes additional training to prepare the candidate for a career as a Muslim Chaplain. Five of these are planning on going into the Army and two into the Navy. As of early November, these Chaplains are stationed in the following places: Camp Pendleton, California (a Marine base); Fort Sill, Oklahoma; Fort Hood, Texas; Korea; Germany; and Okinawa, Japan. One of the Chaplains is currently in a resident program to become a hospital chaplain. Students from Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Indonesia, and Yemen graduated in this first class; along with naturalized students originally from Bangladesh, Iraq, Ghana, Pakistan, and Syria; and two African Americans. Graduating students wore either their native costumes under their graduation gowns, or in the case of the military chaplaincy candidates, their military uniforms.

Ismail Royer, a reporter for the Muslim internet news service, www.iviews.com posted a story on the graduation on August 27, 1999 focusing on the School's tripling of the number of active duty Muslim chaplains available to the U.S. military. Until August 26, 1999 there were only three Muslim military chaplains: two in the Army and one in the Navy, along with an unknown number of lay Muslim leaders. The seven additional Muslim chaplains helps to fill the military's growing need for Muslim chaplains. Ismail Royer writes: " 'This is good news for us in the chaplains corps,' said Captain Mel Ferguson, Executive Assistant to the Chief of Chaplains at the Navy Chaplain Corps. 'We're really pleased that [new Muslim chaplains] will be coming into active duty soon.'...Iviews.com's story continues: 'The demographics as far as the religious diversity in our nation are changing,' said Lt. Col. Tom Begines, a Defense Department spokesperson. 'Of course, since America's military is drawn from all sectors of society, those demographics will be reflected in the military as well.' " The seven additional chaplains will not exhaust the need for the military to obtain additional Muslim chaplains to match these demographic changes, but it will certainly help.

Class Valedictorian, Zainab Alwani spoke during the commencement ceremonies of the challenges and struggle to fully master the profound ideas taught by the School. She also received the Abd Allah ibn Abbas Award for Excellence in the Shariah Sciences. Dawud Agbere, recipient of the Ibn Hazm Award for Excellence in Religious Practice, also spoke, stressing that his studies at the School had become "a family affair, more personal than normal studies." Dr. Taha Jabir Alalwani, founding President of the School, in his commencement address to the students stressed the family-like camaraderie at the School. As the new graduates grow and assume profound responsibilities in the world, he asked them to remember that whatever they fly within the Muslim community of nations, they have a member of their family there, and values that transcend national differences. Dr. Taha addressed the School's efforts to teach its students view the world with a critical mind, adopting the best values to bridge cultural differences. Brian Braiker, in his September 2, 1999 article in the Washington Post Loudoun Extra on the graduation, emphasized this theme. The article quoted Abdul-Rahman Yaki, who had previously been a teacher and researcher at an Islamic center in Ghana, saying: "This school has done a tremendous job of exposing me to other cultures." The article continues: "What impressed him (Yaki-ed.) most about the school was the way it taught even embraced Western values alongside of Islamic religious law, known as Shari'a. 'Let's sit down with others faiths peacefully' to learn from one another, he said." Upon completing his education in this country, "he will return to Ghana to continue teaching and researching what he has learned."

Shannon Sollinger, in her article printed in the Loudoun Times-Mirror of September 1, 1999, stressed the dream of founding President Dr. Taha Jabir Alalwani, "of re-integrating the study of values, knowledge and science in an Islamic setting. 'We don't need religious schools only.' He said. 'There are lots of schools for those issues. We don't need just social sciences schools and universities. We need something to put knowledge, sciences and values together.' Teaching religion in a vacuum, said Alalwani, can 'even without intention, create in the students' minds a sense of refusing life, of looking only to the hereafter.' " Mrs. Sollinger, who has a background in education, noted "that the courses are neither a seminary nor are they for Muslims only. All classes are taught in English, although the ability to conduct research in Arabic is needed for the degree programs. Several courses are offered at a reduced tuition, $100 a credit, in the evening for non-degree students. For information, call the school at (703) 779-7477 or e-mail at school @siss.edu."

Noreen O'Brien quotes Dr. Taha in an article published in Leesburg Today September 1, 1999, saying: "Knowledge should be the main tool to achieve and fulfill a united civilization." She also quotes from his commencement address: "American society seems to be very open to receiving other cultures and civilizations and we are open to having any student from any religion or background take part in our programs."

William B. Reinchkens, United States Information Agency (USIA) staff writer posted a detailed story of the School's first graduation at www.usia.gov on September 15, 1999. " 'Our main goal is integration,' said Dr. Taha Jaber Al-Alwani, SISS president, who pointed out that the curriculum is designed to teach students about Islamic civilization and culture while exposing them to Western civilization, culture and social sciences. He said many of the foreign students who attend the center come because of the Islamic faculty, to improve their English, and 'to better understand the West. There is no country or society today that can close its door to the world and create barriers between people,' Al-Alwani said." Mr. Reinchken's article included details on the background of the faculty at GSISS; The School's impressive 30,000 volume library in English, Farsi and Arabic; and its modern computer network that allows for English and Arabic searches on Internet and links to other U.S. universities with Arabic materials on-line. He also includes several interviews with the just-graduated Muslim military chaplains. The USIA has recently been incorporated into the State Department.