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Divine Intervention

The Miraculous Journey of Abdullah Antepli
Although Islamic clergy are becoming more commonplace on college campuses, Abdullah Antepli remains among a handful who serve as full-time chaplains in American higher education.

shunned, or judged based on [your religion] but on what you did. There was no government-sanctioned religion. The United States was one of the most successful attempts to understand the pluralistic creation of God that I had ever seen.”

At the end of his six-month visit, Antepli flew back to Myanmar and resumed his work there. It was nearly four years before he was able to return and enroll in Hartford Seminary’s Islamic chaplaincy program, the only U.S. program accredited by the Association of Theological Schools.

Soon after his arrival in 2003, Antepli realized that the United States was no longer the same country. It became clear that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had diminished much of the tolerance of religious diversity he had so admired, leaving Islam as a religion—and Muslims as people—open to suspicion. Despite his own concerns about this radical change, and to his Turkish family’s dismay, Antepli agreed to stay at the urging of his wife, Asuman. “She believed that God was calling us to America to help explain what Islam is,” Antepli says. “And more importantly, what it is not.”

The moment he stepped on the Duke University campus, says Antepli, he felt a connection to everyone he encountered. “There immediately was a strong attachment—a combination of being called and of being at home.”

Antepli had been offered the position of Muslim chaplain at Princeton, but before accepting was urged by a friend to visit Duke, which was also interested in hiring a full-time chaplain. Once here, he was attracted to the wider role Duke offered him.

He would be the Muslim chaplain for all students, not just the nearly 500 Muslim undergraduate and graduate/professional students. Those students—half second-generation Americans and half international students—reflect the “fingerprints of God” that Antepli is forever seeking. With ancestral origins from many parts of the world—Pakistan, China, Indonesia, Turkey, Great Britain, France, Germany—they encompass the wide range of ethical, theological, and linguistic diversity among the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims. 

He would also be called upon to promote interfaith dialogue across the campus, in the local community, and nationally. And, even better, he would teach about Islam as an adjunct faculty member in Islamic studies at the Divinity School and at the Duke Center for Islamic Studies.

Duke’s decision to hire a full-time Muslim chaplain reflects the university’s status as a leading international university in an increasingly cosmopolitan social and religious culture, says Sam Wells, dean of Duke University Chapel and research professor of Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School.

“Duke wanted to send a signal to the Muslim world that Duke is a hospitable and intellectually rich environment for the growing of the next generation of international Muslim leadership.”

Wells welcomed Antepli as a colleague who could speak “in a compelling way about the troubling issue of terrorism by extremist Muslim factions. Many Muslims believe what Christians believe: love God, love your neighbor, and live in peace.”

Despite opposition from some alumni and other Christians, the Divinity School faculty and administration, led by then Dean L. Gregory Jones, agreed to add Antepli to the adjunct faculty of the historically ecumenical Methodist seminary.

“They recognized that it was their inescapable responsibility to prepare divinity students for Christian leadership within the realities of their future ministerial contexts,” said Wells.

This semester nearly 20 students, most from the master of divinity program, are enrolled in “Listening Together: Christians and Muslims Reading Scriptures,” a new course that Antepli is co-teaching with Ellen Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns Professor of Bible and Practical Theology.

“Most Jews and Muslims in North America know more about Christianity than Christians know about Judaism and Islam,” says Davis. “This puts a special burden upon Christians for intellectual growth and generosity.”

She and Antepli agree that any 21st-century graduate of a divinity school or seminary should have some knowledge of another faith, as well as some degree of comfort and ability to lead or participate in interfaith conversations and study.

“The people our students will serve will have members of other faiths as their nearby neighbors, and sometimes as family members, and we are commanded to love and serve our neighbors,” says Davis, Duke’s 2010 University Scholar/Teacher of the Year. 

“We cannot do so in total ignorance of the ways they themselves strive to know, love, and serve God. Growing in this knowledge is the only way to cast out the fear that often characterizes relations among people of different faiths.”

Last October Antepli and Stephen Gunter, associate