Twenty years ago, a former foreign-exchange trader on Park Avenue became the chaplain of Stony Brook University’s Muslim Student Association. When asked how such a transition could happen, Sister Sanaa Nadim, 56, paused for a moment and pointed up.
“Destiny,” she said. “Destiny prevails.”
Destiny put Nadim on the second floor of Stony Brook’s Student Union, among the offices of the Interfaith Center, as the first female Muslim chaplain for any Muslim Student Association in the country. It has been a departure from a “well-off” childhood spent in private school and her time in the private sector.
Nadim grew up in Cairo, Egypt, as the youngest of seven children of a father who was a poet and businessman and a mother who was “big on charity and family.” She spent summers at a home on the Mediterranean Sea, wearing shorts and mini-jupes, playing sports and never getting negative comments from men. Cairo was like any city around the world, except for traditional music, she said.
“It was the most amazing childhood, not simply because we were well-off, but just the time was beautiful, the world was beautiful,” she said. She called it a non-judgmental time when people did not think about appearance as a fundamental issue of faith.
Everything changed with start of the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Syria and Jordan, Nadim said. She recalled one day at her French private school when she was told that Egypt was at war. Life was not as happy as it was, she continued, because her family lost a lot of its wealth, people were suffering and it was a time of war, but she did not understand why.
“We were never taught anything about differences between us and other people,” Nadim said. “It was one world and people lived in it and that was it. And I think I took that with me forever.”
As Muslim chaplain, Nadim said she treats all students as if they are her own family.
Raheel Mohiuddin, a senior biology major, said, “She’s very protective.”
Nadim said she works to protect those in Muslim Student Association from getting their feelings hurt by those who paint Muslims with one brush because of “mishaps that are around the world.”
Joanne Buonocore, religious advisor for the university’s Roman Catholic ministry, said that there is a steady stream of students to Nadim’s office while working across the hall from Nadim.
Buonocore said that Nadim is “so much like a mother” to students, while being compassionate and understanding of the human condition and of the weaknesses of others.
“She sees the good in people,” Buonocore said.
“Maybe it’s because I didn’t have that when I went to college,” Nadim said of the “journey” to help students find a path they are comfortable and happy with.
It was while Nadim was in the private sector that she met Mrs. B, as she preferred to identify her, a “very elegant, very savoir-faire, very chic” woman who was studying more about Islam and asked her if she would like to learn more as well. Mrs. B affected a lot of her ideas, Nadim said.
From that point in 1984, Nadim began studying Islam more, along with different schools of thought. In 1991, when she had her third and youngest child, she left the foreign exchange trade and a few years later became chaplain.
“[It was] just a yearning for something that was much more meaningful than whatever fun I was having at the time,” she said, laughing. She called it “an epiphany of sorts.”
At a Sept. 17 Muslim Student Association meeting, Nadim shared her knowledge of Islam, speaking to misconceptions that Muslims face amid news coverage of extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, referred to as ISIS, ISIL or IS.
“Bloodshed in Islam is forbidden,” she said told a group of about 35 students, women on one side of the room, men on the other, many nodding in agreement. “Anything that negates mercy is not Islamic. What is an ISIS? It’s a cancer.”
She spoke in a sort of rhythm, her hands emphasizing each word, moving up, then down with different syllables.
“There is no such thing as the Islamic State,” she said. “There are Islamic countries who abide by Islam.”
The university’s Jewish chaplain and director of the Hillel Center for Jewish Life, Rabbi Joseph Topek, has known Nadim since her arrival at Stony Brook and said that her role as chaplain is not easy because the Muslim world has factions and that her students are ethnically different. Although it is something she must “juggle with in her own community,” she always made it work, he said.
“If you put somebody in a box because of their religion or background, you’re going to find out you are wrong,” he said.
Correction: November 11, 2014
A previous version of this article misquoted Nadim in the photo caption, saying that she said “Bloodshed in Island is forbidden.” The quote has been corrected.