Full Interview with Chaplain Taymullah

For our Fall 2015 Newsletter, the HUMA board interviewed our new chaplain, Taymullah Abdur-Rahman. This is an extended version of that interview, with some content included that had to be cut from the newsletter due to length. We hope it gives you a better insight into Harvard's new chaplain!

What did you want to grow up to be when you were a child?

Originally, I wanted to be a lawyer. I’ve always loved to read and I’ve been into social justice so I figured it would be a good fit. I was accepted to Buckingham, Browne, and Nichols and thought that would be the thing for me but I took a different route.

What was your path in becoming a chaplain?

I had an interesting childhood in that I was a performer for many years. I was signed to Columbia Records and toured the world but, once we were dropped from the label, I began running around the streets of Roxbury. I was a ghost writer for Dr. Dre and lived that lifestyle for a few years then came back and saw that wasn’t what I wanted.

My good friend from when I was growing up called me to Islam from prison. I didn’t know he had been born Muslim and he ended up instructing me to read the Quran. I took my Shihada on December 8th, 1999, the first day of Ramadan. That’s when I really found my mission in life – to use my personal blessings to help those around me to achieve as close to perfection as possible.

What drove me to go from a practicing Muslim to trying to help those around me explore the possibilities of achievement is my wife – she is a great model and influence on how to perfect your worship and improve your practice. Between her modeling what Islam should look like and me reading on my own, it really got me into Arabic and chasing people down to teach me different things and applying for scholarships, which led me to apply to Al-Azhar. I was awarded a scholarship at the time but decided not to go through with it because they wouldn’t let me take my son.

I started tracking down local Imams and got acquainted with people who were studying at Mecca and Medina, which led me to an opportunity with Al baseerah to participate in their satellite program. We would learn from the scholars and from sitting with the students, chest to chest. And after studying with many of the ulema and their students; I traveled to Saudi Arabia and completed the program in 2006 with a degree in Islamic Studies.

I returned to Roxbury and became the assistant Imam. I was asked to volunteer as a chaplain in the prison system and, while I was reluctant at first, I volunteered for a year and really liked it and was offered a position. I served as chaplain in Concord for six more years, working between three institutions.

In 2011, you received the St. Elizabeth Episcopal Church’s award for interfaith understanding for your concept of “fearless fellowship”. Can you describe this idea, and how you see it taking shape at Harvard?

At the time they were burning Qurans down in Florida, my friend, Episcopal deacon Bruce Nicolson, would share the same chapel in the Concord correctional facility. We would see each other’s denominations going in and out and we started connecting. Sometimes they would eat in his office and Bruce would pull out a ham sandwich and they would crack up about that. In some relationships, you can’t do that.

We wanted to do something to show the unity between our faiths. We did a four part series about the Prophet Mohamed, the Quran, Islam and the misconceptions around it. We’d hold it every few weeks and present from the church pulpit about the Prophet, about Islam (does to don’ts), the Quran. The attendance ballooned. Afterwards, we’d all go to the basement and break bread. This kind of fellowship hadn’t been done before. Bruce and I came up with “Fearless fellowship” to be truthful with your own convictions while respecting others.

As for bringing it to Harvard, it starts with building relationships organically, not something that’s superficial. I had a great meeting with Rabbi Getzel and I’d like to sit down and talk and be real with one another, to study Islam and Judaism and our similarities. Civility and humanity are embedded in all our faiths. Some people say they’re colorblind but people shouldn’t be color or faith blind, otherwise you can’t see people for who they are. We should acknowledge our differences and be civil.

What are you most excited about as you begin your chaplaincy at Harvard?

At the department of corrections, we were trying to show people how to cope with being prisoners and how to practice Islam. At Harvard, I’m able to connect and collaborate with the future world leaders, whether it’s in business, politics, or social activity. Whatever I can help them to gain understanding in, it is actually making a dent in the future. They will go on to do incredible things and I will hopefully share a small little slice of their pie.

From your role as chaplain for Northeastern, are there any programs or community events you’d like to bring with you for the Harvard Community?

I’m sure there are some great Islamic activities that are going on at Harvard already but I’m excited for a Meeting the Prophets series. A Rabbi, Pastor, and me sit down with our three books, the Torah, Bible, and Quran, and read and explain some of the controversial issues. This is not about coming to an agreement but we will come to an understanding. Let’s create a social environment where people can bring their books and the Priest, Pastor, Rabbi, and I can bring up the questions as a catalyst for conversation.

You’re writing a new essay called 44 Ways to Manhood. Can you tell us more about it and what inspired you?

It’s a short treatise I wrote for people transitioning into adulthood. It has 44 principles, based on Quranic ayahs, anecdotes from the Prophet, and anecdotes from my own life.

It is one of my greatest accomplishments to get picked up by the second largest Islamic publishing house, IIPH, and produce something they thought was useful for college students. It comes out in 2016 and we hope that it brings some benefit, inshallah.

You mentioned your wife earlier. What does your family look like?

I have seven children. My oldest son is at Wentworth studying engineering and my youngest, Zachariah, is being born today, inshallah [8/29]. We all live here in Boston. My wife is second generation Muslim, born and raised, and the most profound teacher I’ve ever learned from. She taught me it’s not about lip service, it’s about action. That’s what Allah respects and what Muslims respect – it’s what you do.

One time, my wife and I were driving to Buffalo during a winter storm and she was saying that Asr time was coming to a close. I was still young in Islam and didn’t really understand the impact of salah. I hadn’t begun to study and had barely understood the faith. I wanted to keep going but she told me to pull over and let her out and she’d meet me in Buffalo. So we stopped and I stayed in the car stubbornly at first but she just put a coat out on the snow and combined the prayer and I joined her. That’s when I really knew that some people take this very seriously

What’s your favorite place to eat in Harvard Square?

My family and I used to spend a lot of time at the Coop, spending all day reading the books. There’s also a children’s book store in the square and we’d spend all day there with our kids. We’d go to the Falafel Palace on Mass Ave in Central Square

Between your family, studies, and work, what do you like to do in your few moments of down time?

I’d like to say that the biggest misconception for people who have a lot of kids or work obligations is that they don’t have time. People say ‘I’m too busy’ but it’s kind of rude – Allah has given us enough time to eat, sleep, find education, find recreation, work, connect and so on. Imam Al-Nawawy had enough time and he studied 12 subjects with 12 sheikhs for an hour each and also reviewed each subject for an hour each. That’s 24 hours - when did he find time to do all of his work and writing? When did he sleep? If he had enough time to do all that, we certainly have enough time.

Alhamdulilah, I’ve never had issues with not having enough time. I enjoy dancing with my kids and physical fitness. We also are interested in documentaries.

Another article mentioned you like watching Shark Tank. Do you have any inventions you’d want to present to the judges?

We have a honey water drink called Honey Rain. My wife gives it to me and the kids when we’re sick. It’s delicious and healthy and we’re close to a small commercial production run now. We have an FDA approved formula and bar codes. We’ll see how it goes. I try to always keep something boiling that keeps me creative.

What we’re missing from the Imamate is this entrepreneurship spirit of independence. Shaikh Al-Azani was a watch repairman, some were clothing salesmen, bell hops, and such. It prevented them from being held hostage in their opinions – they could speak the truth at all times due to their financial independence. It should not necessarily be an objective to be an Imam, we should be engineers and scientists and people who are hafiz of the Quran on the side.

As a counterpoint, Imams need to try to be leaders in more ways than words that have been memorized. We should be leaders in everything, the sciences, business, and so on. Imam Malik, Ibn Taymiyya, Osman Ibn Afan – they were all businessmen.