A Muslim Chaplain Uses Storytelling as A Tool, One Inspired By the Prophet Muhammad
February 21, 2022
From hospitals to corporations, chaplains across the nation provide religious spaces for the people they serve to offer comfort and spiritual guidance to navigate through diverse lived experiences – and storytelling is often a powerful tool for connection in this sacred work.
In a session titled ‘Storytelling: A Source of Healing and Connection’ Usama Malik, resident chaplain at Muslim Space, a community organization serving Muslims in Austin, Texas, joined a video call with over 25 Muslim chaplains to uplift how stories can be an opportunity to connect with those they provide care for, with their own selves, and with God.
“What is crucial about storytelling and stories in the chaplaincy setting is that in making space for these stories, we allow for people to be heard and be able to share if they haven’t previously been given that permission,” says Malik, who also serves as a program coordinator for the Office of Student Affairs and Vocation at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. “We are able to connect with them and their humanity regardless of what superficial assumptions we may have made of them.”
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Malik’s session was one of 40 held over a three-day-long conference hosted by the Association of Muslim Chaplains for its 200+ members across the nation from Feb 11-13. Sponsored by 30 interfaith and educational institutions, the event was their second annual conference and brought together keynote speakers like Dr. Omar Suleiman, Tahara Akmal, Dr. Walead Mosaad, and a series of workshops, seminars, and discussion groups to help Muslim chaplains enjoy a space dedicated solely to their professional and personal development. The sessions ranged from sports chaplaincy and educational chaplaincy to exploring the importance of storytelling in creating safe spaces for connection and healing.
“Across chaplaincy circles, Muslims are painfully absent,” says Sondos Kholaki, Vice President of Healthcare Chaplains for the chaplains’ association. “Through this virtual conference, we experience the richness of not only our tradition in terms of healing modalities but also of our colleagues whose work, research, wisdom, and experience often remain unnoticed and underutilized by the general spiritual care community.”
Malik’s storytelling session was one of the popular gatherings of the convening, where attendees like Seher Siddiqee, a pediatric chaplain at the University of California San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital, felt invited to rethink how to grow and refine her pastoral skills.
“I often use a description of chaplains by Kerry Egan as ‘story holders,’” Siddiqee says. “This session helped me imagine ways to use storytelling as a way to do pastoral care and invite others to lean into their own stories as sources of knowledge, strength, and hope for whatever they may be experiencing.”
At the end of his session, Malik shared a five-step guide on how to reflect and connect together as a group through storytelling:
1. LISTEN to the story being shared by a member of the group.
The person telling the story writes/shares a one-page slice-of-life/5 or10-minute story about an event that has stuck with them in some way – just something that happened one time. The story is not meant to set the stage for problem-solving, but simply to share an experience.
The storyteller distributes a copy of the story to everyone to view and read-only after the storyteller first tells the story.
The storyteller reads his or her story out loud. Everyone else just listens, turning over the page to read-only after the reading is finished.
2. Talk about the FEELINGS you felt when you heard the story.
When did you feel mad, sad, glad, anxious … or something else? With whom did you identify in the story?
What are you reminded of in your own experiences?
Take plenty of time for people to think about the questions and to talk about their feelings. Make space for everyone to speak. Remember, stay with the feelings and resist the urge to ask the storyteller to fill in facts. The story is like scripture or a poem with the potential to open us to something else.
3. GO FIND THE DIVINE/GOD/ALLAH/FAITH in this story.
Where are you reminded of Islamic/faith stories, verses of the Qur’an, the Prophetic example, or other incidents from the Islamic (or another religious) tradition? Which of the 99 Divine Names or Attributes of God/Allah does this bring to mind for you? How does this story remind you about the Divine, as well as other people in your life?
Here resist the temptation to tie the loose ends of the story up in a moral or theological lesson. Let the connections we can’t readily see emerge.
4. What AHA or ACTION does this story call forth in you?
Is there something about reflecting on this story that you want to take forward with you? Something you see or understand differently? Has something come clearer or been refreshed? Is there some simple action you want to take in response?
5. Reflection on CONNECTION
Reflect and if comfortable, share your thoughts on connections, previous and new, spiritual and interpersonal, that this story helped bring to light, whether of yourself, the storyteller, or others.
Malik’s own love for storytelling and its role in chaplaincy work is rooted in his Islamic beliefs.
“The Islamic tradition is one that is rooted in storytelling, foremost among them is the Seerah, or biography of the Prophet Muhammad,” says Malik. “The word Seerah comes from the root word connotating travel, journey, path, accompaniment, and invites us to walk alongside the Prophet in his story and to find ourselves in this story.”
He adds, “Similarly, whether we are sharing a story or listening, we provide a space that invites others to participate, to connect, and to be given that acknowledgment of sacred worth.”
He hopes chaplains will see themselves as walking stories and will help nurture stories to create healing and connecting moments.