In 2005, Faiyaz Jaffer, then a freshman at Stony Brook University, walked into the campus prayer room on a Friday. He was there for a weekly Jummah service with the Muslim Student Association. Jaffer began to pray as he always did. He let his arms fall to his sides, instead of across his chest like the people around him. He placed a turbah, a clay tablet, on the ground at his feet. When he bowed, he put his forehead on it, in accordance with the Shiite, or Shia, tradition to prostrate on a natural surface. A couple of Sunni students approached him. Jaffer says they didn’t want him using the prayer room again—not if he was going to pray like a Shiite.
“They told me, ‘You’re not welcome over here’—literally,” Jaffer said. “I was able to understand for the first time in my adult life what it means to be a minority of a minority.”
As a Muslim teenager living in the post-9/11 United States, Jaffer already knew what it was like to be a minority. He got picked on in high school for his faith. But he hoped college would be different. He thought he would have a vibrant Muslim community, a new sense of belonging.
After the incident, Jaffer stayed away from the Muslim Student Association (MSA) for two years. He continued to pray, but he did it alone in the library or in the humanities building where most of his religious studies classes took place.
Sanaa Nadim, Stony Brook’s Muslim chaplain for nearly 30 years, says she found out about the incident only after it happened—she can’t remember when—but in response, she gave a lecture to her MSA students on Muslim unity. “I made sure this does not happen again,” Nadim said. “When you’re on my watch, there is no difference between Shia, Sunni … The programs are for everyone, the prayer room is for everyone.”
Still, for Jaffer, that moment in college was formative. “I would never want my kids to have that experience,” he said of his two daughters. He said he and his wife know their kids will face Islamophobia. He doesn’t want them dealing with another layer of discrimination too.
Now 33 years old, Jaffer is known as “Sheikh Faiyaz” to the students and young professionals who attend the Islamic Center at New York University, part of the school’s Center of Global Spiritual Life. While there are a handful of Shiite Muslim campus chaplains in the U.S., Jaffer is the only one hired explicitly to represent the Shiite community.
His role is one of a kind, said Graduate Theological Union doctoral student R. David Coolidge, formerly a Shiite chaplain at Brown University and an adjunct professor at NYU. Coolidge knows Shiite campus chaplains who hide or underplay their Shiism—or feel they didn’t get jobs because of it—whereas talking about Shiite identity is a part of Jaffer’s job description. “There’s no other school that’s like that,” he said. “NYU is the only case where they created a position with that in mind.”
Jaffer recognizes his unique position as an American Shiite faith leader. Most prominent Shiite clerics in the U.S. are born elsewhere and don’t necessarily share the same set of experiences as his students. He’s part of a new generation of American-born Shiites.
Though he grew up on Long Island, Jaffer attended a Shiite mosque in Queens, part of a close-knit community of mostly Indian Muslims. His parents, raised in an Indian immigrant community in Kenya, were observant—they sent him to Sunday school, they fasted on Ramadan—but from a young age, he felt “nerdy” about religion in a way that his family wasn’t. In college, he found himself pouring over religious texts and added religious studies to his political science major. He went on to graduate from the Seminary of Karbala, Iraq, and became an expert in Shiite jurisprudence. Interested in applying his religious education to community development, he spent a year leading a Shiite mosque on Long Island, but he found himself missing the classroom. When he started at the Islamic Center, it felt like a “synthesis between the community and the academy.”
At the center, he looks like he could be a graduate student with a close-cropped black beard, square-frame glasses, and the shy smile of an academic. He talks about issues that interest Shiite young adults—like mental health and economic inequality—because he is one. “I need to speak to this group of young people living with their day-to-day challenges in this country—spiritual challenges, social challenges, political challenges,” he said. “I don’t think I do anything differently other than speak to those issues which are important to me.”
Religious pluralism poses its own set of challenges, and they often play out on campus, where students from diverse backgrounds find themselves worshipping in one community. As students try to keep their specific practices, universities can act as microcosms of broader intra-communal conflicts and compromises. This is especially true for Shiite college students who rarely have Muslim programming geared toward them.
Shiites make up 10 to 13 percent of the global Muslim population and 16 percent of American Muslims, according to the latest Pew Research Center data. Excluding Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain, Shiites are a minority denomination in most predominantly Muslim countries. In Pakistan, there have been suicide bombings in Shiite mosques and neighborhoods. Shiite Hazaras are persecuted in Afghanistan, with attacks on Shiite holidays. In Iraq, former dictator Saddam Hussein killed and exiled Shiite clerics and banned their public religious observances. Historically speaking, widespread anti-Shiite violence is relatively new, said Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University. But today, there’s “an increasing number of political Sunni-Shia conflicts … where political tensions are mapped onto existing theological tensions.”
The divide between Sunnis and Shiites dates back to the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E. with a disagreement over succession. Shiites believe Muhammad chose Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, as the next leader, and place a particular emphasis on the prophet’s family as role models. Sunnis believe he chose Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and friend. The two sects have unique legal systems and customs but overlap in most fundamental beliefs and practices, though Shiites and Sunnis mostly have their own mosques in the U.S. or abroad.
In part, Safi attributes tensions to the growing political influence of Saudi Arabia, and Wahhabism, its brand of Islam, which deems elements of the Shiite tradition “not properly Muslim.” He also thinks American foreign policy—like the U.S. involvement in Iraq—has exacerbated sectarian divides. Meanwhile, he sees anti-Shiite sentiment growing stronger in countries in conflict with Iran and Iran-backed regimes.
For Jaffer, in his day-to-day life in the U.S., the divide is a difference in theology, and a scholarly debate. Still, “polemics often lead to a lack of respect for people and not an appreciation of differences.”
That’s true on American college campuses, as well. Muslim student associations and centers are predominantly led and attended by Sunnis. While schools like Rutgers University and the University of Houston have distinct Shiite student groups, Shiite practice is rarely prioritized in mainstream Muslim campus institutions.
At NYU, Jaffer serves the entire campus community of Sunnis and Shiites with an emphasis on building Shiite community. On a Wednesday night in 2019, Jaffer sat on the floor of the expansive prayer room in the Islamic Center, teaching his weekly class—“Sheikhing It Up with Sheikh Faiyaz”—to about 30 students, both Sunni and Shiite. Qur’ans lined the shelves of the space, and students left their shoes in neat rows outside. There was a partition in the middle of the room, to separate men and women during prayer. But there was also a large plastic container of turbahs, the small clay tiles Shiites use to pray. And while Jaffer spoke about the soul that day, a topic you could hear expounded on at any mosque, his sentences were peppered with references like the supplication of Kumail, a prayer traditionally recited by Shiites.
Imam Khalid Latif, the Sunni executive director of the Islamic Center, hired Jaffer almost five years ago as a part-time associate chaplain, but seeing room for growth, he turned Jaffer’s chaplaincy into a full-time position a semester later. College was Latif’s first exposure to Muslim diversity. The Muslims he knew growing up in New Jersey mostly reminded him of his father: South Asian, culturally Muslim. After he stepped into the Islamic Center as a first-year at NYU, he started meeting “Muslims from different religious backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds.” He said, “I’d never experienced Islam like that.” Latif wants that for his students, and he hopes they’ll continue to value Muslim pluralism post-college.
According to Jaffer—and other Shiite chaplains—no Sunni-majority campus institution has put as many resources into Shiite inclusion. For seven years now, the Islamic Center has held programs every night for the first twelve days of Muharram, a holy month in Islam. The beginning of the month is an important Shiite mourning period marked by special communal services—particularly the tenth day, or Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Muhammad’s grandson Hussain. At the Islamic Center, Shiite and Sunni community members gather together to hear Jaffer’s sermons and traditional Shiite lamentation poetry. The center also offers alternative Shiite prayer services during the last nights of Ramadan and advertises a trip Jaffer leads to Shiite holy sites in Iraq. Jaffer estimates there are now about 350 Shiites involved at the Islamic Center, including students and members of the broader community.
Meanwhile, for Sunni students, the center’s Shiite programming can be a unique opportunity to learn about Shiite practice. Growing up in Sudan, junior Monia Yousif never met any Shiites before college. “I was Sunni, I grew up in a Sunni family, and everyone around me was Sunni,” she said. When she got to NYU as a freshman, she was curious about Muharram services but nervous to go. When she finally decided to attend, she said, “They were so welcoming and made sure to make me feel like this is my space too, as much as theirs.”
During the 2018-2019 school year, the center took new steps to financially sustain its Shiite programming. A fundraiser brought in $105,005 to continue the center’s Muharram program—which feeds 300 people for 12 nights—and to work toward the center’s long-term goal, the “Imam Hussain Chair for Shiite Chaplaincy,” an endowment to “facilitate Shia programming and services to run at New York University in perpetuity.” There were ultimately 222 contributions, according to Jaffer. The following year, the Islamic Center held its second fundraiser for Shiite programming, bringing in over $138,000 from 374 donations. “That gives me all the motivation in the world to keep pushing ahead,” Jaffer said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic emptied NYU’s campus last spring, the center’s programming was forced to shift online. Chaplains’ roles also changed. Now Jaffer spends much of his time counseling community members through crises, but it’s a “very different experience” trying to offer that support through virtual tools. He finds students struggle to have open, one-on-one conversations via phone or Zoom while at home with their families.
Now, the Islamic Center offers a flurry of weekly online classes and meet-ups. In May, the center hosted a virtual Eid event, marking the end of Ramadan with two Zoom prayer services, one Sunni and one Shiite. “The benefits are we’re able to get a larger crowd, a crowd that’s more diverse, or a crowd from the West Coast, really from all across the world,” Jaffer said. For the online Muharram program, there were “hundreds of people every night from across the country.” Still, he misses the center’s characteristic “communal feel” and the face-to-face work of “cultivating that sense of community, that sense of belonging.”
At most schools, there isn’t any investment in Shiite programming. On campus, Shiites sometimes face outright discrimination like Jaffer did. But more often than not, Sunni leaders just don’t know enough about Shiite tradition to accommodate them.
At Rutgers’ Newark campus, Shiite students formed a separate Shiite group, the Ahlul-Bayt Student Association, in the spring of 2018. The co-presidents, Najma Hassan and Mastora Saleh, grew up together in a Shiite community in New Jersey and felt left out of the university’s Muslim Student Association. In one incident, the MSA put up flyers for a celebratory fall gala, but the group had planned the event on Ashura, arguably the most sorrowful day in the Shiite calendar. There was an uproar on Facebook from Shiite alumni. Though the MSA apologized to them and the community on Facebook before rescheduling the event, Hassan and Saleh still felt alienated. “The lack of awareness to this very serious Muslim occasion, which is on the iPhone calendar, too—I don’t know how they didn’t know—it seemed very disrespectful,” Hassan said.
Nadia Rizvi, who graduated from Rutgers University in 2009, now goes to the Islamic Center as part of its young professional community. She had stayed away from Muslim student life in college on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers; she said there was no Shiite leadership or programming during her time on campus. She said NYU has been a different experience. As a Shiite, Rizvi said it’s the little things that make her feel at home at the center. During her first Ramadan at NYU three years ago, Sunni students set aside 10 to 15 plates of food for Shiites, who typically break their fasts about 15 minutes later, based on a difference of opinion about whether the fast ends at sundown or nightfall. It was a small gesture, but it was “really warm and really lovely to feel part of the community,” she said.
Other small moments stayed with her. On an Islamic Center group trip to Mecca and Medina, Rizvi was nervous about outing herself as Shiite in Saudi Arabia. Sunni students from the Islamic Center would stand around Rizvi during prayer times so she could comfortably pray according to Shiite tradition. When a Shiite student was harassed on the trip—a stranger pulled his arms up into a Sunni prayer pose—Latif held a group conversation about what happened. “Hearing Imam Khalid talk about how we need to be unified, it really made us feel empowered—that we’re doing something different and we’re doing something better,” Rizvi said.
This sense of inclusion didn’t happen overnight. Melanie Mohsen, who graduated in 2020, arrived at NYU around the same time that Jaffer did. She said Shiite students have gotten more visible and more comfortable at the center since her older brother graduated in 2015. When he went to NYU, he checked out the center once or twice but ultimately opted to pray outside his chemistry lab. In contrast, Mohsen spent hours at the Islamic Center each week. She gets why her brother did what he did. In a Sunni-majority space, it’s easy to feel “separate,” she said, like “there’s no one there that understands you.”
Junior Rida Ali said Shiite felt like “kind of a bad word” in high school. She was one of two Shiite students at her school in Northern Virginia, and she felt marginalized among the Muslim community. When she heard about Jaffer’s college experience for the first time as a freshman, she teared up. “He had to go through all this, so he knows,” Ali said.
A year after the first fundraiser for Jaffer’s position, Shiite students in the NYU Muslim Student Association decided to host a joint Muharram service with the Rutgers’ Ahlul-Bayt Student Association and the MSAs at Yale and Columbia University. Jaffer spoke at the event, but it was initiated and run by students. To him, it was a sign that there’s broader demand for Shiite inclusion, and the Islamic Center can be a model for other schools.
Jaffer has hopes for the future. He’d love to add new elements to the Islamic Center’s Shiite programming: workshops, weekend retreats, and an intrafaith service trip. But for now, his main goal is just to get Shiite students through the door.
The pandemic hasn’t made it easy. He advertises his and his colleagues’ increasing online programs, hoping freshmen will find the center and see an inclusve “engaged community,” even amid Covid-19. He has asked students to keep an eye out for new Shiite students on social media. “It’s been awfully challenging, to be quite frank,” he said. “I’m certain that there are numerous Shia students who I’ve never spent time with, and I don’t know what their obstacles or what their hurdles or what their experiences are while they’ve been in New York City or while they’re studying remotely or however it may be.”
He’s connected with a couple of students, who came to NYU explicitly for the Shiite community he’s built. But he hopes to find more. There are around 3,000 Muslim students at NYU, and about 10 percent are bound to be Shiite, he said. He wants them to know all of the resources already available to them. And he wants them to know that he’s there for them too. “Often people just need mentorship,” he said. “I wish I had an Islamic Center when I was an undergrad more than anything.”
Sara Weissman is a staff writer for Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.