A winding road brought Sughra Ahmed, associate dean for religious life, to Stanford

Sughra Ahmed, who has spent most of her adult life building cross-faith and cross-cultural bridges between individuals and communities in the United Kingdom, joined the Stanford community as associate dean for religious life in November 2017.

After accepting the position of associate dean for religious life at Stanford last year, Sughra Ahmed and her family decided to perform the hajj before bidding farewell to each other – making their way from their home in England to Mecca, the holiest city of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

Sughra Ahmed, associate dean for religious life

Sughra Ahmed, associate dean for religious life, says the Office of Religious Life provides a safe space for students to talk about whatever is on their minds. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“Circumambulating the ka’ba was one of the most surreal moments of my life,” Ahmed said.

“I’d listened to elders talk about their experiences, studied religious history and dreamt of visiting for many years. To be right there where the greatest of people in Abrahamic history had lived, walked, breathed was not only a gift, but an opportunity to reflect on how intricately our lives can connect over the ages. I stood in their footsteps.”

During a recent interview in her office in the Center for Inter-Religious Community, Learning and Experiences (CIRCLE) in Old Union, Sughra – the “h” is silent – Ahmed described the pilgrimage as one of several “once-in-a-lifetime opportunities” that had enriched her life in recent years.

She said those opportunities began in the summer of 2016, when she became a Yale Greenberg World Fellow, one of 16 accomplished, mid-career global leaders invited to step back from the intensity of their work for four months to reflect and learn, and to embrace new academic and personal challenges within the university community.

When it ended, Ahmed, who had two months left on her U.S. visa, decided to visit evangelical, Pentecostal, Mormon and Southern Baptist congregations to explore what propelled people whose religious views were so different from her own. The itinerary she created took her to Utah, Texas and New Mexico, followed by Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia.

“I’ve been involved in interfaith work for a long, long time, so I am comfortable talking to people in different religious traditions and communities,” said Ahmed, who served as a trustee of the Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom for eight years.

Ahmed is the former director of the Islamic Society of Britain, which promotes greater understanding and awareness of Islam among British Muslims.

She has spent most of her adult life building cross-faith and cross-cultural bridges between individuals and communities in the United Kingdom, including teaching global faith relations to senior civil servants and spirituality in end-of life-care to people working in the National Health Service, the national health care system in England.

Her six-month American sojourn also included a visit to Stanford – at the invitation of the Rev. Jane Shaw, dean for religious life and a professor of religious studies. Shaw simply wouldn’t take no for an answer when Ahmed offered to provide names of other colleagues who might be available to preach on the Farm.

“I don’t know who or what I’m going to encounter on my road trip,” she recalled telling Shaw. “If I am going to be genuine in my engagement I will have to be open to change. I don’t know who I’ll be at the end of this journey and I want to try to be true to that possible change. When Jane, in her wisdom, said, ‘We’ll take you whoever you are,’ I accepted.”

Getting to know the Stanford community

During her Stanford visit in January 2017, Ahmed spoke to Muslim students about religious pluralism in Islam during a Friday afternoon gathering in the CIRCLE. The next day, she joined more than 50,000 people in the Women’s March in San Francisco.

On Sunday, she preached during University Public Worship in Stanford Memorial Church – the service is open to anyone, wherever they may be on their spiritual journey – about the importance of standing strong and together in times of difficulty. Then she flew home.

“I want people to appreciate that who they are and the way that they choose to live is the way that God would want them to live, and that their lived reality is meaningful and important.”

—Sughra Ahmed

Associate Dean for Religious Life

“I’d had six months of breathing space, thinking space, head space and heart space in the United States,” she said. “Now it was time to figure out how I was going to take my next steps – and where my voice belonged.”

Her next steps turned out to be returning to Stanford for an intensive three-day interview process, followed by the job offer. Ahmed said in considering the position, she thought about the fast-changing world around her and critically assessed where her voice not only belonged but was needed.

“Dean Shaw and I discussed, at length, some of the complex needs of all students on campus,” said Ahmed, who has a long track record of working in interfaith and British Muslim communities. “The realism of this convinced me that I could have a positive impact in a way that would help people go into the world stronger, more confident and sure of themselves – no matter who they are.”

Ahmed, who holds a master’s degree in Islamic studies from Loughborough University in England, and has studied Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic law, joined the Office for Religious Life in November 2017.

Her office is just down the hall from Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, senior associate dean for religious life, and the Rev. Joanne Sanders, associate dean for religious life.

Offering person-centered care

At Stanford, associate deans for religious life provide person-centered care for students and staff of all or no religious backgrounds. They create and facilitate conversations between different religious, spiritual and secular communities.

In addition to offering University Public Worship in Memorial Church, they provide meditation sessions at Windhover, a spiritual refuge on the west side of campus meant to both inspire and promote personal renewal. They nurture faith and spirituality at the CIRCLE and help organize Baccalaureate, a multifaith celebration led by graduating students, and offer stirring invocations during Opening Convocation and at Commencement.

Ahmed will preach on Sunday, April 8, during University Public Workshop.

Ahmed said the Office for Religious Life is concerned with “the whole” of a person’s identity, including their cultural, religious and spiritual experiences.

“I want people to appreciate that who they are and the way that they choose to live is the way that God would want them to live, and that their lived reality is meaningful and important,” she said.

“If you’re a member of a sexual minority in a religious tradition that is very conservative, you might feel that your family or your friends or your community don’t necessarily appreciate or understand who you are. My message is who you are is joy, is happiness.”

Ahmed said it is uplifting to see people live their lives as honestly and as openly as they possibly can, in a way they feel safe and fulfilled here on the Farm.

“There are far too many spaces in this world where people cannot be the whole of themselves,” she said. “There has to be a space on campus where you can be yourself, come what may. I fervently believe that the Office for Religious Life can help people on that journey – in whatever way they need us to help.”

Engaging with students

Ahmed said the Office for Religious Life provides a safe space for students to talk about whatever is on their minds.

“Students who come to my office might talk about how they’re having anxiety issues related to some of the academic challenges they’re facing,” she said.

“Or they might talk about how they feel if they’re having a personal or spiritual crisis, or how vulnerable they feel because of an event that happened in America or elsewhere leading to attacks against people like them or other communities through, for example, social media.”

Currently, Ahmed is working with the Muslim Student Union on preparations for a Refugee Benefit Concert at Memorial Church, which will take place Saturday, April 7. She is also working with students to celebrate Ramadan – the Islamic holy month of fasting – and Eid al-Fitr,  the religious festival that marks the end of Ramadan.

“For the first time in many years, Ramadan and Eid will take place during the academic year,” Ahmed said. “With this in mind, I’m working with students to ensure we are prepared to serve food for the soul – and for the stomach – which everyone is welcome to join in every evening at the CIRCLE. We’re also in the throes of planning an Eid Festival in White Plaza on Friday, June 15. Please join us!”