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Amjad Tarsin: the first Muslim chaplain at U of T

Amjad Tarsin, 28, is the first full-time Muslim chaplain for a Canadian university (photo by Jon Horvatin)

The University of Toronto is the first university in Canada to hire a full-time Muslim Chaplain. Amjad Tarsin recently received his master of arts in Islamic Studies and Graduate Certificate in Islamic Chaplaincy from Hartford Seminary, Connecticut. Tarsin, 28, began his work at U of T on October 1, 2012 and writer Gavin Au-Yeung spoke with him about his role as chaplain, building interfaith dialogue, and what it’s like to live in Toronto. 

Why U of T?
The Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto formulated the position and I was really impressed with their level of professionalism, their research into chaplaincy, their vision for what the Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto could be (both short and long term), and the fact that the University of Toronto is one of the best universities in Canada and the world.

It was kind of a no-brainer for me to come to a place like University of Toronto. It’s a great opportunity and I’m really happy to be here.  

What sort of tasks do chaplains perform?
The shortest way to describe what a Chaplain does is that they are a religious counsellor. The work of Chaplaincy is really an intersection of many different fields. But the primary thing is gauging the needs of students – whether they are religious, spiritual, emotional – providing support for them, and also providing educational/social programming, as well to really engage the needs of the students and help them face any challenges they might have in university life.

What can we expect from the Muslim Chaplaincy program this year?
The Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto is really a producer of culture. To have a full-time Muslim Chaplain at a university is really something that is pioneering in Canadian history.

What we hope to provide in this first year is really connecting with students and allowing them to know that this resource exists on campus. And that we are here to support them in whatever way we can. We’re using many different ways to reach out to students; for example, all the social media tools. But I’ve also attended student meetings and events to meet different students on campus and to introduce myself. We have been trying to take a proactive approach to meeting students and letting them this service does exist for them. And the response has been really positive! 

How important is interfaith dialogue, especially in a diverse setting such as U of T?
It’s extremely important because we live in a global village; the world is becoming a much more sensible place in terms of information and learning about one another. We’re not set into geographical and ideological ‘boxes’ where we can separate ourselves from others. Interfaith dialogue is really important because it helps people learn about each other’s faith in a way that is civil and respectful. It’s a way to build bridges which is really important in this day and age.

Interfaith dialogue is a very central aspect of chaplaincy. The Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto is also part of the Campus Chaplains Association – which is an interfaith body of campus chaplains. We are really excited to get involved with interfaith initiatives on campus and we see it as a very important part of the chaplaincy. 

You were in law school before deciding to pursue your degree in Muslim Chaplaincy – what motivated the change?
Before starting law school I had been taking my Islamic studies very seriously. I took a year between undergrad and law school to dedicate myself to the study of Islam. So when I went into law school, my heart was still in Islamic studies and working with the community.

I found law school very unfulfilling and I really wanted to further my Islamic studies education in a way that would give back to the community. I couldn’t see myself in law in any long-term capacity so I made the decision to go into chaplaincy and get a master’s degree in Islamic studies and to work in a way that is a benefit to the community.

You’re into travel, photography, and movies – will that help university students relate to you and vice versa?
I would say I’m a pretty regular guy; my interests are really similar to a lot of students. Being able to understand what someone is going through and being able to provide them with direction and advice is really critical. Being able to relate to their academic, cultural and religious challenges is extremely valuable in giving advice and counsel that students can implement and which really speaks to their reality. 

But what I really bring to this position is both my religious and professional training in chaplaincy. I’ve been studying Islam at university and with scholars for six years; this allows me to understand the faith that is relevant to today’s society especially in North America. Those are really key parts of being a chaplain, especially in a dynamic place like the University of Toronto where you’re going to be dealing with all different kinds of people, questions and issues.

Can you share your first impressions of the city and the university?
I’ve never lived in a big city, but as far as big cities go, Toronto is really starting to grow on me. I like the diversity and the fact that there are so many different things going on. I’m a big film buff so I’m looking forward to the many film festivals in Toronto. Also, Toronto is a really happening place – there’s so much going on, and it’s exciting.

The University of Toronto is a part of that as well. There’s always something going on. And it’s nice to be at an intellectual centre where ideas are being discussed and cultures are being formed. I love it and I’m happy to be here.

Listen to Tarsin's interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning here.