Honoring the Life, Faith, and Death of Imam Sohaib Sultan
April 19, 2021
Imam Sohaib Nazeer Sultan, Princeton University’s Muslim Chaplain and beloved interfaith leader, died Friday at sunset after a year-long battle with a rare and aggressive form of cancer at age 40. He was surrounded by his family while hearing recitations of the Quran and prayers offered in his honor.
In a Facebook post, his wife, Arshe Ahmed, shared the news of her husband’s death: “Sohaib Sultan has passed away peacefully on this beautiful, blessed Friday Jummah day around maghrib time in this most beautiful month of Ramadan. The month of the Qur’an…Sohaib LOVED the Qur’an. He has returned to his Creator.”
She went on to invite all who could join to a Janaza ceremony the following day – a traditional Islamic prayer performed in a congregation to seek pardon for the deceased and all dead Muslims.
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Princeton’s Office of Religious Life live-streamed a virtual prayer service and talking circle on Sunday to honor his memory, and was joined by his colleagues, students, and other members of the community.
A public lecturer and writer on Islam, Imam Sultan was greatly revered for his compassionate outlook on life inspired by his faith. He was known for his interfaith leadership in the higher education field, and as an active bridge-builder between Muslims and other faith communities.
“I had the singular honor of hiring Imam Sultan to his position at Princeton,” said Rev. Paul Raushenbush, who at that time was the Associate Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University and now serves at IFYC. “Sohaib brought his kind heart, deep spirit, and welcoming smile into every room, and made life better at Princeton not only for Muslims but for every student, staff, and faculty member. His presence in my life was a gift that I am forever grateful for.”
Sultan was a graduate of Hartford Theological Seminary, and the first Muslim chaplain at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He was one of eight people profiled in the PBS documentary series “The Calling,” about the spiritual journey of people from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths who chose a life in the clergy. He wrote “The Koran for Dummies,” which was published in 2004, and “The Qur’an and Sayings of Prophet Muhammad: Selection Annotated and Explained,” which was published in 2007.
Donna Auston, a Muslim, anthropologist, and frequent conversation partner with Imam Sultan attended the Janaza ceremony on Saturday, and remembered her friend in a Facebook post:
“Yesterday I prayed with a (very large) group of Muslims for the first time in over a year. We all gathered to say goodbye and to petition the Divine for mercy on behalf of our dearly departed brother, Imam Sohaib Sultan. Over the course of his tenure at Princeton University, he built a beautiful, extended community and demonstrated in so many ways every day what spiritual leadership is supposed to look like: kind, smiling, soft, loving—but also humble, curious, deeply sensitive and always nudging all of us towards intellectual and emotional growth.”
Less than a month before his death, Imam Sultan joined Vineet Chander, Coordinator for Hindu Life and Hindu Chaplain at Princeton University, for a conversation titled ‘Living and Dying with Grace’ — on the philosophies of living life and approaching death from their individual faiths. The talk was co-sponsored by the Princeton University Hindu Life and Muslim Life Programs, the Princeton Muslim Students Association, and the Princeton Hindu Satsangam, and has over 2,300 views on YouTube.
“Since April 2020, Sohaib and I had been having fortnightly (or however regularly his strength allowed) phone conversations. These were unscripted and informal conversations without an agenda— just friend to friend, colleague to colleague,” says Chander. “But because we both are so informed by our theologies and enjoy discussing theology, the conversations organically became very theological in flavor. Soon I started to feel a little selfish hoarding all this wisdom and beautiful realization I was hearing from Sohaib to myself.”
He adds, “As it became clear that Sohaib was entering into the final stages of his transition beyond this world, my desire to have one final opportunity to join as spiritual brothers and colleagues became stronger and stronger. I was hesitant to impose on Sohaib’s precious time, but I also didn’t want to be stuck with regret…so I eventually asked Sohaib if he’d be open to such a program — and to my great delight, he enthusiastically agreed.”
During the conversation, Imam Sultan shared that there is a ‘rahmat’ (grace/mercy) in accepting death: “Nobody wants to leave this world, there are too many attachments…whether you’re 40, or 80, or 120, you never want to leave, but at some point, you’ve to leave…that is the way God has decreed the world to be.”
Later, he raised his hands in prayer and recited, “O God, Guide us at this moment that is upon us, a moment of darkness for humanity, a moment of great injustice and wickedness and oppression that humanity faces from the ways in which we engage in race wars and poverty and homelessness, O God, protect from us that, O God, protect us from that, O God, protect us from that, remove us from that, and show us the better way, show us the way of peace, show us the way of tolerance.”
You can watch the full conversation here:
“I hope viewers will take away that it is possible to approach life and even death with the type of grace, faith, and non-attachment that Sohaib has come to exemplify for me and for so many others,” shares Chander. “I hope that viewers of all faiths (or no faith tradition in particular) will be able to resonate with this wisdom and that it brings them some solace or perspective.”
He adds “Working with Sohaib has been transformative for me. He inspired me to be a better Hindu, a better devotee of God, a better human being. His friendship has been a blessing in my life that is indescribable and incalculable.”