By Ty Crowe
Chaplains sometimes attempt to find common ground with patients to build rapport in the first few minutes. But many patients either do not need to have something in common in order to trust the chaplain, or don’t feel like small talk. And in many cases, chaplains who visit patients of different faith backgrounds are more nervous about making a mistake or saying the wrong thing. This, of course, makes those visits more likely to increase the chaplain’s anxiety and cautiousness, especially early in a visit.
However, most Muslims appreciate and respect the focus on a shared theological connection that indicates that, “God is the direction for all my prayers.” This simple understanding is both unifying and gratifying, especially when clergy from the Jewish or Christian faiths arrive for a visit.
As a Sufi, and as a person who provides ministry in an urban medical center, my perspective is informed by my experience and my context. As we know, religious differences can lead to lengthy debates. Also, I can only skim the surface of culture, which is often embedded within religious frameworks and is an important influence on how patients perceive their situation and care.
However, I’d like to focus on three specific points that may be helpful to Catholic chaplains as they work to reach and support Muslim patients. I hope that these points will lessen anxiety and cautiousness when these visits occur.
1. World news takes its toll.
As small talk emerges and anxiety is managed, keep in mind that much of the world news that is shown in the United States contains negative impressions of Islam and focuses on radicalized people and terror. We cannot say enough that terror of any kind does not belong in Islam, nor does it represent the millions of faithful followers. But it is also a touchy topic, especially to a patient who is already suffering with a medical condition.
Do not assume that patients and family members have an interest in talking about world events. Only a few will want to, and, if so, they will initiate that kind of discussion. More often, the present experience of suffering and faith exploration will provide enough conversation for a meaningful chaplain visit.
Many practicing Muslims are noticing an increase of Islamophobia. Because Muslims are often recognizable, given their clothing or head coverings, they may feel guarded, especially around those who could pose a threat to them. You will find this dilemma present for patients, and also for medical staff who notice subtle mistrust and, sometimes, overt prejudice. Such prejudice needs to be discussed and explored. Without acknowledgment, the work environment for Muslim medical (and other) staff will feel at best unsupportive, and at worst unsafe. It is within the chaplain’s role to bring up issues of injustice and religious prejudice so they can be acknowledged and addressed appropriately, often with support from diversity officers and HR experts.
2. Theological differences matter, too.
Many chaplains explore the inner, perhaps unacknowledged feelings that patients have about God, especially in light of both negative events that have occurred in their lives and their current hospitalization. It is somewhat common for chaplains to pursue this line of questioning, and as patients are willing, deeper feelings can be touched, shared, and explored.
But theologically, this line of questioning will not make any sense to a Muslim. In fact, it is likely that a chaplain will get a blank look followed by a defensive response, something along the lines of, “Why would I do that?” It doesn’t make sense to question God’s plan, even if it has led to suffering. Suffering is not something to be avoided, but rather embraced as part of a larger, more sophisticated and mysterious plan. A more specific question from the chaplain could be, “How are you working with God’s plan for you?”
While God has a plan for every Muslim, every Muslim may not understand it or follow it. It could be interpreted that each time a deviation from God’s plan occurs, it is a sin. Muslims believe that they were born pure and later develop the ability to choose right or wrong, to sin or not. When visiting adult patients in the hospital, many may reflect on their choices and their desire to return to God’s path. Some Muslims will equate their suffering with poor choices and others will not, acknowledging the mystery of the unknown as the cause. Chaplains can be very helpful in unearthing this understanding of suffering from their Muslim patients in the hopes that healthy coping is occurring and adequate support is derived from their faith.
3. Expect to be invited in.
Begin each visit with the expectation that you will be invited in. While no one can guarantee this will occur, the way the chaplain enters the room often does make a difference. A Catholic chaplain can wear a cross or collar, which should not be a cause of anxiety or cautiousness. Most Muslims will automatically welcome a visit from clergy from the Abrahamic faiths.
Any attempt to connect using Arabic when you enter a room will likely be met with appreciation, although it is not required. To say, “As-Salam Alaykum” (Peace be upon you), a common Muslim greeting, would likely give a Catholic chaplain instant credibility and trust. Also, referring to God in Arabic as “Allah” would also help build rapport quickly. Again, this is not required.
Prayer is also most welcome and should be offered. Prayers concluding “In Jesus’ name” will not land well, obviously. However, a prayer concluding in the name of God will be perfect. Be prepared for more observant Muslims to begin some recitation of the Qu’ran after the chaplain’s prayer. It would be appropriate to stay in prayerful posture until the recitation concludes.
In conclusion, be mindful of the toll that prejudice takes on today’s Muslims in the United States. An awareness of the theological differences around God’s plan will help Catholic chaplains navigate conversations with those they visit. And chaplains should enter the rooms of Muslims with the expectation that they will be welcomed and that any use of general Arabic terms will be well received.
Ty Crowe, BCC, is an ACPE supervisor and director of spiritual care and chaplaincy at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.