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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.

On Fridays at noon, members of the Duke Muslim community quietly enter the Divinity School’s York Room for Jummu’ah. By ones, twos, and threes, they slip off their shoes and take a place on a makeshift prayer rug—eight white sheets spread across the floor—facing Mecca. The men line up in the front and middle rows, while women wearing traditional hijab head covers above their blue jeans form a row in the back. They bow, kneel, and prostrate themselves in Islam’s ritualized sign of humility.
 Among the worshippers is Abdullah Antepli, who in 2008 became Duke University’s first Muslim chaplain. Although Islamic clergy are becoming more commonplace on college campuses, Antepli remains among a handful who serve as full-time chaplains in American higher education.
 Antepli has invited Imam Abdul H. Waheed of the Muslim Society of America, who volunteered for many years as Duke’s part-time chaplain, to preach this particular Friday, and a Duke undergraduate to lead prayers. Antepli leads the weekly service twice a month and encourages members of Duke’s Muslim community—students, staff, and faculty—to participate, an experience he considers essential to their formation as leaders of the faith.

On the wall are portraits of two Methodist patriarchs: the Rev. George Washington Ivey, whose family endowed the chair now held by Dean Richard B. Hays, and Bishop John Carlisle Kilgo, president of Trinity College from 1894–1910. York was named for the Rev. Brantley York, founder  of the rural school that evolved into Trinity College and then Duke University, and was the center of community worship at the Divinity School from 1930 until 2005, when the new Goodson Chapel opened. The York Room now serves as a reading room available for special events, including services such as Jummu’ah.

Once the service ends, many students rush off to classes, but other worshippers linger to visit with Antepli and one another. The sense of community is palpable.

“Abdullah Antepli has completely revitalized Muslim life on campus by greatly increasing the number of Muslim students participating, and by building relationships with people of different backgrounds,” says Sobia Shariff, a Duke University senior and former co-president of the Muslim Student Association. 

Duke’s Center for Muslim Life, dedicated in 2009, is not just a place where Muslims can gather and feel at home, she adds. “It’s a place where anyone can learn about Islam and spend time with Muslims.”

The soft-spoken Antepli’s sense of humor surfaces with quicksilver speed, his tone shifting from gentle solemnity to bemused wordplay. He describes himself as an enthusiastic fan of Duke basketball and the only imam who “prays for the Devils”—a reference to the university’s Blue Devil mascot. The men’s 2010 national NCAA basketball championship is proof, he quips, “of the power of prayer.”

He was born three weeks premature, says Antepli, 37,  because of his eagerness “to see God’s manifestation in all of creation. I couldn’t wait any longer.”

That curiosity, he says with a more serious tone, is a manifestation of the divine, leading him from his native Turkey across the world “in search of God’s unique fingerprints. I see them in the many different shapes, textures, and colors of diversity.”

One of six children, Antepli was born March 6, 1973, to a privileged family in Maras, very near Antioch, the city in southeastern Turkey where the apostle Paul based his ministry. The senior Antepli owned a small business selling auto parts; his wife cared for the family in their comfortably secular neighborhood. Soon after the end of World War I, the Turkish government had begun a campaign to propel the country from its traditional Islamic roots toward European-style modernization. Muslim clothing was replaced by Western-style dress; centuries of Islamic faith practices were supplanted by secular priorities. During Antepli’s childhood, as still today, the country’s 120,000 imams were made civil servants of the government. Imams are issued the same sermon to preach at weekly worship.

As a boy of 8, Antepli recalls a sense of discovering God. But he lacked the language to articulate that experience, and knew no one in whom he could safely confide. During his teens, he became increasingly fascinated by Islam, which he learned about through Muslim friends at school, a few teachers, and books. He began to study holy texts, and to pray, hiding his growing faith from his parents and siblings.
Into this unlikely household, says Antepli, “God came and filled a huge gap in my heart when I was 13 years old. God entering my heart provided an amazing