Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim started to come into the Islamic faith while he was a student activist at the in the mid-1980s. In November, he returned to campus as a representative of Islam on an ecumenical panel at . Imam Kashif joined a rabbi and a priest to speak informally with students about the way their religious beliefs and community outreach intersect.
“They got a chance to see that we're all on the same page in terms of human service and reaching out to the community, all the things that God tells us we have to do to take care of the world,” he says. “They saw that we have more in common and that's what came out of that meeting.”
Kashif is heartened by the mindset of students on the UConn campus. “Many of the young people who come to the university come from a religious context, but they are all trying to merge into a new way of thinking in the future, in terms of their faith. How do we all get along and network and talk to one another,” he says.
Kashif has served as imam of the Hartford County mosque for six years. Much of his work includes college students from the Hartford and Storrs campuses of UConn, Trinity College, Wesleyan and Southern Connecticut State University.
In September, the Muslim Students Association at UConn and other students participated in a book bag and school supply giveaway at a center in Hartford's Frog Hollow. Kashif says 325 book bags with supplies were given to city children. Students and organizers worked with the Islamic Council of North America to hand out pamphlets in a door-to-door effort to spread the word of the event.
“The intention isn't to convert people to Islam, it's more about making people comfortable with our faith,” Kashif says. “So they're not caught up in Islamic phobia.”
He says the level of paranoia, where Muslims are viewed as terrorists rather than people of God, depends in large part on what is reported in the news of the day. “If something is going on in the Middle East, then I see the paranoia trickle in. There are people who have no understanding of Islam at all. The media dictates what happens in America. The more we do to contradict that picture, the better we are,” he says.
American understanding of the Islamic faith is much better now, he says, especially with troops coming home from war. “After 9/11, things were terrible. But also people started to investigate what Islam is, and they had never thought about it before then. Believers, I use the term 'Closet Muslims,' had to come out and tell people what their faith was.”
Following the Faith at UConn
The Islamic Center of UConn, set back from North Eagleville Road between the Lakeside Building and , is open 24/7 to both Muslims and non-Muslims, their Web site says. The center offers a place to observe the five daily Islamic prayers. Kashif comes to campus as a visiting imam, but Muslim students, who are part of a rotation, lead Friday prayer at the Islamic Center, says Zabihullah Mamun, president of the Muslim Students Association at UConn. Mamun says about 300 Muslims gather for the weekly prayer, and students also study, relax and socialize at the center.
Mamun says the association organizes three or four programs a semester for Muslim students, including guest lecturers and dinners. “We have an annual awareness dinner, which gathers around 300 UConn students, informing the University population about Islam,” he says. When dining halls are closed around Ramadan, the association provides food for students as they break their fasts. Normally, Halaal meals for lunch and dinner are offered at the Roger A. Gelfenbien Commons dining hall, known on campus as the Towers.
Weekly study circles about the Islamic faith and staffing an information booth at the Student Union and campus library are also association programs. “Typically, my job is to make sure all that is functioning correctly,” Mamun says of his role as president.
During high holidays, such as Ramadan and the commemoration of the Hajj, or religious pilgrimages to remember the sacrifice of Abraham and Ishmael, most students go home to celebrate with their families, school breaks permitting, or join services in Hartford or on campus, Kashif says. Some of the high holiday services held at countywide mosques in Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury and Fairfield attract 4,000-6,000 worshippers, Kashif estimates.
Journey to Islam
Kashif was born into the Southern Baptist Church in North Carolina but moved with his family to New Haven in the 1960s, as part of the migration for jobs in the North, and grew up there. At UConn, he threw himself into campus activities. He was president of the , newsletter coordinator for what was then the , and worked with student government and on the board of governors. “I did a lot of work with mainstreaming and bringing a united sense of where we were going,” he says.
Every time he wrote a paper, he focused on the African American experience. He found in his research that many African slaves who came to America were Muslims from the West Coast of Africa.
He immersed himself in the microfiche trove at the UConn library, where he sifted information from the publication Muhammad Speaks. “I would like to use newspapers because they were more current to experience,” he says, recalling a paper on the Malcolm X assassination and other topics that fed his interest in Islam.
But when he returned home after he got his degree in 1985, “It was hard to find anything,” he says about his interest in Islam. It wasn't until he bumped into a man who was carrying an issue of the Muslim newspaper, newly renamed Muslim Journal, that Kashif got back in touch with a source for news about the faith.
The same man introduced him to a mosque in New Haven. He studied, became a prison chaplain and stayed in New Haven for about 15 years before going to Hartford and spending four years progressing toward his role as imam, which means “person out front,” a leader of the prayers, he says.
The imam teaches a course on pastoral counseling from the Islamic perspective at Southern Connecticut State University and serves as a resource for social workers and other professionals at the Department of Children and Families, and for police on the local, state and federal levels. Much of his work in the Hartford area is related to social causes, particularly health care services for the masses.
Whether at UConn or in the Hartford area, he works with many college students. Mamun, and others from UConn, participated in the September book bag event benefitting Hartford children, for instance. Kashif is not a campus chaplain but supports UConn students through counseling and other programming.
“I see the students at UConn as being very progressive,” he says about how they practice their faith, but he clarifies that they are traditional in their religious focus. “Hit Facebook and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about. They really bring a new energy.”
Kashif praises the overall openness of students on campus, Muslim or not. “They're students,” he says. “They don't know, but they're open.”