A Candid Conversation with Amjad Tarsin

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Conducted by Asmaa Elhayek & Aiman Batool. Special appearance: Ali Saeed & Ruqayyah Ahdab.

Asmaa: What (exactly) were you doing when you received news that you would be our Chaplain?
Amjad: I’m drawing like a complete blank.
I was actually working at an Islamic school at the time and it was sort of a really different environment than what I was expecting, so I was praying that the University of Toronto Chaplaincy would work out. I got an email in between classes that I was teaching and I got really, really excited and I called my wife and let her know that I got the job, alhamdulillah.

Asmaa: What do you hope to achieve by being Chaplain at the University of Toronto?
Amjad: Inshallah my hope being the Chaplain at the University of Toronto is along the lines of empowerment, is really empowering students to recognize the goodness that’s within themselves inshallah and cultivate that. And hopefully recognize the value within their own faith, tradition and how that can really help them grow as human beings.. .and help them intellectually…help them spiritually… coming out of the University of Toronto realizing and actualizing their faith through their actions in society. Being contributors to society… Contributors to culture… Contributors in whatever they choose to do. I hope that makes sense. (chuckles)

Asmaa: What do you miss most about your law school life?
Amjad: (laughs) What do I miss most about my law school life? I don’t want to say nothing because that just sounds so bleak. But I actually made some really good friends when I was in law school so I really miss the company of some of the people I was able to get to know through law school. I’m actually still very close with one of my friends from law school, alhamdulilah.

Asmaa: What does being Chaplain mean to you?
Amjad: Being chaplain…I see it as a very important responsibility. I really feel like I have a duty to serve the students, to make sure that their needs are met in whatever way that I am able to do so…to provide positive support for them… to really be there.

College can be really crazy, anything can happen. I remember when I was in college, oh sorry university, not college, those are synonymous in America; they’re not synonymous in Canada. So university, it can be really challenging, and I know in Canada there are a lot of people who might be international students or people who are commuting or whatever it may be. Sometimes when you’re far away from your support system and you have academic pressures, all kinds of pressures, it can be really difficult at times. I want to be there for students and help them grow from whatever challenges that they may face through tools that we have through our own faith. As a chaplain, I will come and use tools within our religion to face those challenges.
It’s really being a support system for the students, being there to serve them in the best way possible, and really being able to provide a healthy, robust and relevant toolset found within their religion inshallah.

Asmaa: What is the philosophy you live by in life?
Amjad: When in doubt, drink coffee. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a philosophy or an addiction. (laughs) Cool.

Asmaa: Have you had any recent travels that were particularly enlightening or adventurous? What have you learned from your past travels?
Amjad: So actually 2 years ago I was fortunate to go visit Libya for the first time in my life. That’s where my parents are from. It was the first time I had ever gone there and it was really eye-opening for me because I was – first of all – able to meet all my extended family who lives in Libya. I don’t have one cousin, uncle, aunt who lives outside Libya, actually. They’re all there. So I got to meet relatives. I got to meet my parents’ siblings whom I had never met in my entire life. I was able to see my grandparents alhamdulillah. It helped me feel really connected to my parents. I was able to visit my grandmother’s grave, which really makes the stories of your parent’s all the more real. It was also really meaningful to me because I was able to visit places that had religious historical significance. I got to visit mosques that were hundreds of years old, learn about some Libyan scholars who contributed to Islamic intellectualist and spiritual tradition. I felt really connected to my homeland in a way that I had never been before.

Asmaa: The spiritual journey on the road of the Islamic faith is different for everyone. How and when did yours begin?
Amjad: When it began, Allah knows best. I have certain things in life…there’s so many forks in the road. You sort of feel like, when I was five years old and I scraped my knee that could’ve been like a spiritual experience. But where it really became super obvious for me was my first year of university. I had grown up, spent the previous nine years of my life in Saudi Arabia, so it was my first time back in America, living there, independent, away from my family, and it was really challenging. It was challenging academically, it was a huge difference academically. But it was more challenging socially, because my close friends whom I had been friends with since I was a little kid were getting involved in stuff that really made me uncomfortable even though I wasn’t necessarily praying 5 times a day, but just my own sensibilities, the way that I was raised, it wasn’t cool. So I started reflecting. OK, what’s going on? Where am I going in life? What kind of person am I becoming? So it was later on in my first year of university, and I sort of made a promise. I always wanted to be more connected to Allah subhana wata’ala and I wanted to pray. And I was wanted to do those kinds of things. I never had an aversion or anything. But I was kind of just like, ‘Later. I’ll be older…’ Stuff like that. But I actually sat down and I was just like, ‘Khalas. I’m going to commit to being this kind of person, and I’m going to take serious steps to that commitment.’ And subhanallah around the same time that I made that commitment… There’s so many factors, I can’t get into all of them, it’s going to take too long. But there was a halaqa going on at the masjid…
(Ali walks in, salaams exchanged)
So there was a halaqa going on at the masjid and my brother who was always a positive influence, he’s like, ‘you should come, check it out.’ And I was like, ‘nah, everyone’s going to judge me, and only nerdy people go to halaqas.’ That was my take back then. So I finally went, and subhanallah I really can’t explain the feeling, but as soon as he started talking—he was teaching from a particular book—but as soon as he started talking, I just started crying. It really just hit me and I felt like, and it sounds cliché, but I really felt like a sense of peace that I had been looking for in a lot of ways. So alhamdulilah I started attending that class regularly and I would think about it all week and look forward to it. I would say that was the time and the catalyst that really sparked my spiritual journey. Alhamdulilah.

Asmaa: Can you describe your relationship to your faith in one word?
Amjad: *sighs* Wow. Ok, repeat the question and maybe give me a little more to work with?
Aiman: What’s one thing you feel most connected to?
Amjad: (asks for 10 seconds) I have a word in mind but I don’t know if using it will give the connotation.
Asmaa: It can be one word and an explanation.
Amjad: Connectedness. It’s not really an exciting word, which is why I am hesitant to go with that one, but connectedness. I feel, without sounding too weird, that through my faith I am able to connect to Allah subhana wata’ala. I feel like I can connect to the Prophet salallahu alayhi wasalaam. And really actually feel like that connectedness, when cultivating it, that I actually have a relationship with Allah, the Prophet (saws), different people in history, with the ummah. We’re an ummah of connectedness, we’re connected like one body, we’re connected to each other. We’re even connected to previous generations, we’re connected to the Prophets, we’re connected to our forefathers, we’re connected to revelation. So I feel like that connectedness brings a lot of meaning, brings a lot of purpose, brings a lot of comfort. I feel like sort of supported through that connectedness. I don’t know, I don’t think I ever used that specific word, but that’s what I’m feeling right now.

Asmaa: You mentioned that your brother played a role in your going to the halaqa. How big of a role did your family play in becoming the person you are today?
Amjad: I am very grateful to my parents, to my brothers. I have 4 older brothers, so I sometimes like to say I have 5 dads. My dad and then 4 older brothers. Honestly I feel like my parents are my best friends, really. I feel like I can talk to them, especially issues of faith, I am so comfortable talking to them about it, and they definitely set the framework for who I was – am, and who I will become through the kindness they showed me, the support. They were always there for me. I messed up a bunch of times in my life, but they were always there for me alhamdulilah. My brothers were also. Your family is sort of microcosm of the world. Family can be the best of times and they can also be the most challenging. But I think that really, time and time again, being both people who support me all the time unconditionally but also who help me continue to refine myself. My family will also point out some things that I can improve on quite regularly. But that’s also really helpful because it lets me know what areas I need to work on within myself, I am completely, completely indebted, especially to my parents but also my brothers, every single one of them has been able to teach me something at a particular time in a particular way, so I really feel lucky because my brothers have very similar personalities but also very different personalities so I am able to gain from each one of them.

Asmaa: What do you do when you’re not ‘chaplain-ing’ around?
Amjad: So I really enjoy spending time with my wife and family. Hanging out with my wife, playing scrabble, watching movies… I like to read books. Oh yeah (after a reminder from Ruqqayah) I’m really into photography, I would say my most serious hobby is photography.

Asmaa: What is your favorite book?
Amjad: My favorite book is Lord of the Rings. Before the movies came out, movies didn’t influence my love of the books. The books were really profound. They’re really, really deep.

Asmaa: Name 3 things about Toronto that you love so far.
Amjad: Three things that I love about Toronto so far?
The students at the University of Toronto. Everyone here has been really kind. Everyone I met is super talented. I can see in almost everyone that I met inshallah they have a really bright future and I know that everyone will have something really valuable to contribute inshallah. I’ll walk down Spadina, I’ll walk down Chinatown, I see all kinds of people. You get to campus, it’s a different vibe. You walk a couple blocks, it’s a completely different vibe. So really I appreciate fact that there’s a commitment to diversity in Toronto. It’s really nice. And the third thing, let me think…
Ali: Is Second Cup…
Amjad: Second cup. Dude, you totally hit it. That should be number one, but we’ll just put it as number three for now. It’s one of those things that’s so obvious, you forget. I love [Second Cup]. I told my wife when I was leaving today, I said, ‘When I come back home today I’ll get you ‘Second Cup,’ and her eyes just lit up! So both my wife and I are big fans of Second Cup.

Asmaa: Do you have a favorite joke?
Amjad: Man, I’d have to think about that one. I appreciate jokes and I love to laugh, but I can’t think of a joke at the top of my head. I’m blanking out right now. This is all because I haven’t had enough coffee today. When in doubt, drink coffee, like I said. I like Jon Stewart. I really feel like, as a comedian, I feel like Jon Stewart, even though a lot of the stuff is sometimes kind of crass, but he’s really intelligent in conveying complex political situations through humour.

Asmaa: Is there anything else you’d like to say to The Muslim Voice audience?
Amjad: I’m really excited to be a part of the University of Toronto and The Muslim Voice Magazine and I really want the readers to know that I am here for them if ever they need anything, even if people just want to socialize and have coffee and muffins like at Muffin Madness or something. I’d love to meet everyone and that I am committed inshallah to their well-being and their growth and that they find strength through their faith inshallah.

Asmaa: What do you think came first: the chicken or the egg?
Amjad: Oh no, you guys took it there. I would say the chicken. Allah subhana wata’ala created Adam alayhi salaam. I don’t know, I would say the chicken. Kun fiyakun…. ‘alam il amr is different. Maybe, we’ll never know. My hair is getting gray just contemplating this conundrum.

  • Mq

    excellent piece, very different from the many chaplain interviews out there….my favourite question: “What do you think came first: the chicken or the egg?”!!!