Muslims from all different backgrounds and fields find themselves united on one very essential matter—their love for the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He was a man concerned for our wellbeing in this life and the next more than we are concerned for ourselves. He dedicated his life to spreading the message of God, no matter what torture and torment came upon him as a result. For that, we are ever indebted to him. Muslims try each and every day to walk in his beloved footsteps.
Over the next few weeks, WhyIslam will share conversations we had with Muslims around the United States about what they do and what the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) means to them. Below we hear from Omer Bajwa, the Muslim chaplain at Yale University. From upstate New York, Bajwa spent much of his winter and summer breaks at a traditional Islamic school in Buffalo. There, he witnessed his teachers not only talking about the ways of the Prophet (peace be upon him), but actually living it. That exposure for him was life-changing and very heavily influenced his spiritual growth. His journey took him to Hartford Seminary to become a chaplain, and now he helps the Yale University community—his “flock”—navigate life as Muslim Americans in our current time. Below, Bajwa talks about his journey, his love for the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and how the compassion the Prophet (peace be upon him) displayed over 1400 years ago in Arabia inspires his own work today in New Haven, Connecticut.
In a few sentences, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am very privileged to serve as the full-time Muslim chaplain for Yale University. My official title is Director of Muslim Life. I serve the students, staff, and faculty at the university and beyond.
How did you get started at Yale?
During college I spent a lot of my time at a traditional Islamic school in Buffalo, New York, and I had great companionship and mentorship by the scholars there. It was really a life-changing experience for me, living in a very practicing Muslim environment and being exposed to scholarship. That was concurrent with my time in college. I went to SUNY Binghamton in upstate New York. Then I went to Cornell for graduate school. I was very active in my MSA—I was giving Friday sermons and doing study circles. When 9/11 happened, there was obviously a huge demand and interest in interfaith engagement and in Muslims explaining Islam to the broader American society. I started doing a lot of outreach, interfaith talks, going to public libraries, and schools to do presentations about Islam to clarify a lot of misconceptions that people had in the aftermath of 9/11. I found it incredibly fulfilling, rewarding, and meaningful.
I met this amazing Muslim professor of Islamic studies, who was a practicing Muslim. He and I had a lot of long conversations about what was going on, about academia, about life, about what to do for a career. I decided to go to the Hartford Seminary and become a chaplain. Given my background, my interests, and my aptitude, what would be the best place for me to put my time and energy into? It seemed like chaplaincy was a natural fit.
What motivated you to do what you do?
What I was very deeply motivated by was an attempt to try to clear up misconceptions that people have about Islam. One of the major misconceptions is that Islam is very belligerent, violent, and intolerant. When you study the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him), you see this profound deep compassion, love, and service for humanity. Those two things, the major misconceptions I just mentioned and the life he lived, totally don’t match up. For me, the inspiration was how can I study the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the compassion that he had, and then embody it? That’s the way of changing people’s hearts, minds, and perceptions about Islam.
All of the prophets of God were shepherds. When you’re a shepherd, you have a flock. The job of the shepherd is to keep the flock safe from danger, any predators, wandering off, getting lost, getting injured. It takes a lot of work to pay attention to all of the weak and the strong, the fast and the slow member of your flock. That, to me, is really what motivates me today as a chaplain—that this was, in a way, the work of the prophets, and the greatest of all the prophets was the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He had people who were rich and poor, people that were young and old, people that were powerful and powerless.
How has the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) inspired you?
It was the profound compassion that the Prophet (peace be upon him) had for everyone: obviously for the Muslim community, for the non-Muslim community, from the animals to everyone around him. We study his life, and we talk about him as a mercy for all the worlds. His life is an embodiment of that. That, to me, is his most inspiring thing. Everywhere he went, he brought nothing but goodness and benefit to whomever he dealt with. His life is replete with examples—from how he spoke, the way he behaved, the way he carried himself, the way he lived—and everybody absolutely respected and adored him.
How do you apply what the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) taught you in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of life? Is there a specific story you can share?
When the Prophet (peace be upon him) was in Makkah, there was an older woman who had never met him, but she had very negative things to say about him. She had a load of luggage, and she was trying to leave the city. The Prophet (peace be upon him) meets her and picks the load, and he begins to walk with her. As they’re walking, the woman keeps complaining, criticizing, and defaming the Prophet (peace be upon him)—not knowing that was the very man who was assisting her. This whole time, the Prophet (peace be upon him) has nothing but the most graceful and exemplary manners and character. When they reach the destination, she realizes she didn’t get the name of this man who helped her. He reveals himself, and she’s taken aback. The narration says she accepted Islam.
I love that story because that, to me, is faith in action. That is the Prophet (peace be upon him) literally being put in a circumstance where you have antagonism, misinformation, and animosity from this woman who is attacking him, his character, and the religion. Yet, he has nothing but this composure, compassion, and concern for this woman. I work with a lot of young people, and they’re very overwhelmed with all of the bigotry out there. But this story of the Prophet (peace be upon him) should inspire us.
What keeps you connected to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and your religion?
My spiritual teachers emphasize on me the inward and outward Sunnah (ways of the Prophet (peace be upon him). For example, having a beard for a man, the way we walk, the way we talk, and the way we eat—that’s the outward Sunnah. The inward Sunnah, that’s really the purification of the heart and trying to emulate all of the beautiful characteristics and the manners of the Prophet (peace be upon him). That’s number one. Number two is sending blessings and salutations on the Prophet (peace be upon him) and making time for it throughout my daily routine. Number three is, I really believe in the power of storytelling and the power of narrative. I love reading the stories of the Prophet (peace be upon him). I love sharing them with my students because the more we talk about him, it deepens the love and admiration we have for him.
What do you find most touching about the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) life or character?
It’s fascinating that people that were attracted to the teachings of the Prophet (peace be upon him) were in many ways people who had compromised situations. They were hurting, they were forgotten or neglected. They were attracted to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the beauty of who he was, his manners, and his character. He was always reaching out to and looking out for these people. He was able to give them hope. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was an orphan, and he went through so much as a young child. He lost his father before he was born. His mother died when he was 6-years-old, he lost his grandfather. He lost his uncle eventually. He lost his wife. All these points in his life—these emotional and physical vulnerabilities—they make him so profoundly gifted to be able to connect with vulnerable people and uplift vulnerable people.
What do you wish more people knew about the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)?
He was a mercy to the world. Everything he brought was mercy. People have this very distorted image. His cousin and companion, Ali, said that if you knew him, you fell in love with him. He would totally win over hearts and transform people. Every interaction he had was coming from a place of mercy.