SBU Muslim Chaplain Sanaa Nadim: "It is an honor to be given the chance to serve God and serve humanity"

When Rehat Mannan was just a senior in high school, his friend, who attended Stony Brook University, gave him a tour of the campus. Fascinated with what the school had to offer, Rehat saw Stony Brook as a top choice for school. But meeting Sanaa Nadim, the Muslim chaplain, may have sealed the deal. 

“She was doing her speech for the GBM,” Rehat said, referring to the general body meeting. “and she was talking about unity. That's where I first met Sister Sanaa, and it was an amazing experience because first of all: it's a female. And in our religion, a lot of the times, females don't take up a speaking role. So for me this was different. It was inspiring and it was moving. And for her to talk about unity above all of that, really struck a  chord with me and I was like ‘Wow, this is an amazing person, an amazing organization’ So that’s why I stuck with the MSA.” Rehat is now the president of the club.

The Muslim Student Association, also known as MSA, is an organization focused on the Muslim community at Stony Brook University. It serves as a place for Muslim students to gather and be together, creating a safe space where they can openly practice their religion. The organization holds GBMs every Wednesday, as well as Friday night prayer, and occasional social events.

On the days when there are no meetings, you will still find MSA students all around the upstairs of the Student Union. “This whole floor” said Rehat “everybody knows it's MSA territory. You see on the left side, MSA people. Right side, MSA people. Prayer room, MSA. You see that glass door? Everyone’s MSA in there. Everybody knows this is the chill spot, hangout spot.”

All the MSA students seem to hang in and around the prayer room. Rehat said that as a freshman, he would spend about eight hours a day in there. “We use the prayer room for everything” he said. “Some people study there, cause at night it's really quiet, so it's a nice place to study, take off your shoes, chill out, relax.” Students use the area to eat together, study together, and even wrestle a bit. The prayer room is a large part of the bonding between Muslim students on campus. Although the MSA has been around for decades, the present prayer room has only been around for eleven years. Before they had the current large, carpeted prayer room, the prayer room they had was a small, closet-sized mail room. When the Interfaith Center was located in the Humanities building on Stony Brook’s campus, the prayer room was too small to hold congregational prayer. Students had to wait for fellow worshipers to exit the room before they could enter to pray.

How did they upgrade the prayer room? Chaplain Sanaa Nadim. “It was very small,” said Nadim. “They didn't have anything. They had a mail room for a prayer room. So I struggled for so many years , and I was able to get what we have.”

Sanaa Nadim came to Stony Brook not only as the first Muslim chaplain at the university but one of the first in the nation. In 1992, she was called by the university’s Interfaith Center and she felt it was her calling. “It's a calling. There are moments in your life when you stand before time and you figure out what your calling is, and you do that when you have everything.” Sister Sanna told me. “And when you have everything and you still feel that there is something  you have to do, something that is a lot more important than yourself and enjoying the blessings God has bestowed upon you, there are more things that you can do to serve.”

Before she settled into her current residence in Smithtown, NY, Nadim took a journey to get there. Born in Cairo, Egypt, she was the youngest of seven children. She remembers attending a private French school, spending summers on the Mediterranean, and participating in many extracurricular activities.

Her affluent childhood became harder during her teen years when she lost her father, and then her mother a year and a half later due to sickness. For a fresh start, she moved to the United States to live with her older brother and his family. She began her high school years in Queens, New York.

Nadim says it was a transformation for her because she had to be more independent. “I walked to school, walked back from school.” she said. “But it did me good because I don't want to say spoiled child, but someone who was dependent on her parents, on her dad, on her family for everything, becomes independent in terms of going to school and studying.”

As an adolescent, Nadim saw herself as a teacher or working in law because of her love for advocating. She was influenced by her brother, a banker, to go into business and marketing. She studied that at Baruch College in Manhattan, but always had an interest in people. “I realized that faith was something I was interested in. So I started studying and finding different teachers, getting to the new different ideologies, analyzing and studying and went into chaplaincy” said Nadim.In her early 30’s, she finished her career as a foreign exchange trader for an international marketing firm and chose the path of God. “Growing up as a Muslim, you really didn't have Muslim chaplains in the seventies and the eighties, so in my mind, I thought it was something so necessary for young people to have. I felt that I could be of help” she said.Her passion for advocating and helping people shined through her work as a counselor, teacher, and Chaplain. Nadim has made presentations at many national and international conferences for unity, women, universal spirituality and worship. She has broadcasted faith programs and was even invited to a dinner at the White House back in 2012.

The Iftar dinner, which breaks the fast during Ramadan at sunset, was hosted by President Barack Obama. At the dinner, which honored many successful, influential, world renowned Muslim humanitarians and advocates, he recognized Sister Sanaa for her work.

“They are faith leaders like Sanaa Nadim, one of the first Muslim chaplains at an American college -- a voice for interfaith dialogue who's had the opportunity to meet with the Pope to discuss these issues.  We're very proud to have you here.” the president was quoted saying, according to The White House Briefing Room.“I was honored by the president, he honored my work,” she said, “He is our first African-American president and I really felt that it was an honor to be honored by him... For him to have recognized anything that I've done because I have great respect for him. And for the office itself. And that's why it's really terrible what's going on at this time”

The growing misconception of Islam, which harvests fear into people, has been spreading xenophobia and discrimination across our nation. “Our media now, unfortunately, because of the acts of the very small percentage of the Muslim world” said Nadim ”horns in on what excites people and drives people and only negatives.”

Sister Sanaa expressed her worries regarding the proposed ban of Muslims into the United States. “I think it’s crazy to say that we’re gonna ban Muslims. Number one, it’s not constitutional. This is the United States of America and we have a constitution, thank God that we still believe in and stand on. To protect our borders and to protect ourselves.”

Referring to the ban as inhuman, she believes it would drastically change the country. “We cannot allow America to be something that it's not because if we lose that, then it's not America. Its somewhere else... we’re anybody else.”

Sanaa Nadim does her very best at protecting and helping the Muslim students at Stony Brook University during these hard times.

Dean of Students Timothy Ecklund said “In these times where there's a lot of precariousness around the Muslim faith, with the rhetoric and fear and the terrorist acts that are inappropriately generalized to the Muslim faith, it puts us in a position where we have to have a great relationship with our Muslim students and Sister Sanaa so they know they are safer here and valued here and we are going to do our best to make sure they are free of violence and any other derogatory things that could happen to them.” He described Chaplain Nadim as a source of inspiration and guidance, adding that she cares deeply for her students. “If she has a student who needs something from our office, she’s very good at advocating for them.” he explained.

“She’s a really big advocate on campus for Muslims” said Ali Khan, a Stony Brook Alumni and former MSA member. “She would always get the Dean of Students to come in and it gave everyone lots of security. When events happen around the world,  it was just nice knowing there's someone on campus who’d be willing to support us and help us if we ever had any issues.”

Khan said she always did her best to make the students feel safe on campus. “She would be on the front line helping us with any issue.”

The prayer room also serves as a significant safe space for the students. “It is like a very peaceful place, and the fact that there are so many Muslims on campus and we had an actual designated prayer area for us, it was really comfortable” said Khan. Having a prayer room is another way for Muslim students to feel protected. “She’s done a lot for this community. The biggest achievement I would say is the prayer room right here” Rehat said. “She worked twenty-five years of her life for this room.” Getting the prayer room wasn’t easy, so the MSA had to show that they were populated with members. Despite the large Muslim population at Stony Brook, less than half are members of MSA. Of the 2,600 member emails they have listed, about six hundred seem to be active, which is a lot more than the three hundred Rehat said were active when he was a freshman.

Dean Ecklund described the Muslim student body as large and active “I know it's a really important feature on the campus to have a prayer room, and I know that it's very important for the Muslim faith, because I know there are students who pray up to five times a day”

Throughout the five daily prayers, the prayer room hosts about two hundred attendees every day. Sixty to seventy brothers and sisters at a time gather for congregation between classes and throughout their days. On their Friday night prayer service, Jummah, the prayer room can expect to have anywhere from two hundred to three hundred people.

“It was very difficult to be able to get that particular space, to go through the Interfaith Center, but it was a blessing. I have to say, the administration was very cooperative towards us.” Sanaa explained.

In addition to her work with the prayer room, Nadim also serves as a counselor for students, helping them with their individual adversities. “She’s very open about communication. She gave everybody her cell phone number, her email address, her direct email address, so I think that was important.” Khan told me. “She helps with school, stuff like any family issues, friend issues, she is always there. She was kind of like a counselor and if anyone ever had issues she was there for them.” When Rehat was stressed with school and family conflicts, he was able to confide in chaplain Nadim about his matters. “She spoke to me, gave me encouraging words, words from the Qur’an,” he explained. “Very uplifting, very motivational, and helped me through a very hard time in my life.”

Being there for students and helping them achieve is the most important thing to Sister Sanaa. “I fought discrimination as a Muslim, I fought discrimination as a woman, and the way I fought it was I became the best of who I am and the best of what I could be,” she said.

Helping students overcome obstacles by being the best that they can be is that holds the most value to Nadim. “My students and my children. I live for all for them when my students come and tell me ‘I became a doctor or an engineer. I made it Sister Sanaa’” she expressed. “Its an honor. It is an honor to be given the chance to serve God and serve humanity and do good and find them involved within themselves. And be good because you were there. You were the gatekeeper, trying to make everything work so that they are happy students and happy citizens and happy people. And faith and mind is sound. No one is playing with their mind that's the most important thing. That you give them a chance to have an open mind to the world and reach to the stars if they could.”