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Imam Mahan Mirza, University Muslim Chaplain leads Qur’an Study Circles, and Islam Hour and sermons with Wesleyan's Muslim community.
 
Posted 10.01.05

Muslim Chaplain Left Engineering for Career in Life in Faith

Q: Mahan, when were you hired to be the new Muslim chaplain at Wesleyan?

A: I was officially hired as of August 29, 2005.

Q: Where did you grow up and when did you move to America?

A: I grew up as the son of a fighter pilot in the Pakistan Air Force. My parents came from India into Pakistan when the country was divided in 1947. My grandparents are from various different parts of India. My first spoken language was the Queen’s English, which I picked up as a kindergartner in 1977 in England. I remember watching Star Wars on the big screen there when it first came out.

Q: Where did you attend college and what are your degrees in?

A: My first year was spent at Valparaiso University in Indiana. I then transferred to the University of Texas at Austin from where I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. After working for two years as a design and project engineer in building environmental control systems, I left my job and returned to Pakistan to study Arabic and the Koran. I then returned to Hartford and continued working part-time as an engineer while enrolled in a graduate program in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary. In 2001, I left my engineering career behind once and for all and joined a six-year full time Ph.D program in Islamic Studies at Yale University. I am currently in my fifth year there.

Q: When and why did you decide to pursue Islamic studies?

A: Anyone who looks around sees that the world has many problems. Through my college years, I wanted to devote my life to something more meaningful than designing and running machines. I wanted to know more than the machines themselves; I wanted to know their purpose. Why do we build them? How do we use them? Who are we? Who am I? Instinctively I turned to my religion for answers to these and related questions. Here I am.

Q: Do you have any idea how many Muslim chaplains there are in academia?

A: I have no idea, but there is at least one more than there were on August 28! We need many more, not just at universities and colleges, but also in hospitals, prisons, and the military.

Q: Approximately, how many students on campus are Muslim? What countries do they come from?

A: Most Muslim students on campus are American. The international Muslim students come from a variety of counties such as Turkey, Mauritius and Indonesia. I have not met all of the Muslim students yet, but the active community consists of about 15-20 people.

Q: How has your upbringing in Pakistan and past 13 years living in America has shaped your perspective on Islam in America?

A: This is a difficult question. My first name is Indian, middle name Arabic, and last name Persian. Although I was born and raised in Pakistan, America and its language and culture have never been truly foreign. I grew up watching American TV shows such as the A-Team, Knight Rider and Threes’ Company. I study Islam from a German Jesuit at a secular University. I am a child of post-modernity. In a matter of speaking, I consciously embraced Islam as a student in America. There is no denying that my background makes my perspective unique, but more than my upbringing, I would imagine it has been shaped more by my academic training than anything else.

Q: How often are you on campus, and when you are here, what are you doing?

A: I am at Wesleyan on Mondays, Fridays, every other Thursday, and some weekends. Being a part-time employee, I do my best to arrange my schedule around the activities and needs of the Muslim students on campus. Students visit during office hours and we often dine together around our activities and meetings. On Fridays, I deliver a sermon and lead the congregational prayers in the afternoon, and conduct a study circle focusing on the Koran in the evenings. In addition to these regular appearances, I come for ad hoc events in the evenings and on weekends.

Q: Where can we get more detail about these events and times?

A: We have a Web site, www.wesleyan.edu/chaplains/muslim.

Q: How do you personally celebrate Muslim culture?

A: By being Muslim, studying Islam, keeping in touch with the Muslim community, and talking about our faith and traditions with others.

Q: I understand you’re starting up a weekly Islam Hour on campus. Tell me more about this.

A: We meet Mondays from 7 to 8 p.m. at 171 Church Street. Here, I host an hour of open discussion on topics related to Islam and Muslims called “Islam 101: Religion & Tea.” This is a tradition that is carrying over from the previous chaplain who offered a lecture series titled “Islam 101.” I have modified this venue into more of a guided discussion rather than lecture format, in which students of all levels can join in and discuss contemporary American discourses on Islam. We also offer tea over the discussion, hence the modified title.

Q: What can you tell me about the Qur’an Study Circle?

A: We meet Fridays between 6 and 7 p.m. at 22 Lawn Avenue. Here we discuss topics related to the Qur’an such as its arrangement and structure, and reflect on the meaning of selected passages. Once again, the circle is not in lecture format, but rather encourages dialogue and reflection.

Q: What are your hobbies and interests?

A: When I was in high school, I used to play lots of cricket and golf. Sadly, I no longer have time for such things. I occasionally try and play squash in the gym if I get the chance. I also have three young sons who keep me busy when I am not studying or at Wesleyan. I am also interested in the world we live in, from the environment to poverty to war. Being religious does not mean being a recluse. On the contrary, spirituality to me is a direct engagement with the world and its affairs in order to make it a better place. This not only means being good to your neighbor down the street, but also to your neighbors across the ocean. But let me not get preachy here.

Q: Tell me about your family and what you enjoy doing together.

A: My wife, Stephanie, and I live with our three sons in New Haven. We’ve been married for 10 years. Steph is in the final semester of her undergraduate studies, which she pursues part-time at Southern Connecticut State University. We enjoy playing board games, reading to the kids, and outings to parks and museums. But I think what Steph and I really look forward to every day is sitting together with a midnight snack once the kids are off to bed!

 
By Olivia Bartlett, The Wesleyan Connection editor