Army Reservist, Muslim Chaplain Shareda Hosein Debunks Myths About Jihad

The main reason Lt. Col. Shareda Hosein joined the United States military was so she could go to college.

A daughter of immigrants, Hosein couldn’t afford tuition. She and her family didn’t fully understand the college loans system and Hosein’s grades weren’t high enough for a scholarship. When a military recruiter said she could get money for college and travel to Germany, one of her favorite places, she said: “Sign me up.”

But Hosein didn’t expect the military to become so important to her, or for it to bring her closer to God. Hosein became the first female Muslim chaplain in the U.S. military and has now served in the U.S. Army Reserve for around 35 years.

At 2 p.m. Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy, Hosein will give a lecture titled “The Compassionate Side of Jihad: Strengthening the Soul,” where she will share her experiences with war and moral injury as a Muslim woman. Hosein will explain what “jihad” means within Islam and how terror groups have misrepresented the faith.

On Hosein’s first Sunday while in military training, her superiors asked if anyone wanted to attend a church service.

Hosein said no, “because Muslims don’t go to church,” but when the next Sunday rolled around, she decided it would be an easy way to get out of extra work.

Hosein didn’t grow up intensely religious, and wasn’t expecting much from the experience. But suddenly she found herself face-to-face with another Muslim soldier, reciting a passage from the Quran, feeling a meaningful connection.

I had this amazing, internal, spiritual conversion. I was moved — I was just moved and transformed to sing,” Hosein said. “It was so great to meet another human being and I didn’t realize how isolated I felt as a Muslim. I saw myself as an American, but when faith came in it was like: Here’s another human being and we’re in unison, in uniform, reciting the Quran.”

And things escalated from there. Hosein became a religious, and not just cultural, Muslim. She found a mosque or Muslim community wherever the U.S. Army assigned her. During the month of Ramadan, she was allowed to take a break from the physical fitness part of training so she could fast and still stay healthy.

In addition to helping other Muslim soldiers practice their faith as a chaplain, Hosein also worked as a cultural engagement officer where she helped educate American troops on religion and culture in Middle Eastern countries.

“In the regions that we fought, and we’re still fighting in, religion plays a huge part in these individuals’ lives — I was able through more of a cultural lens to engage in information with my colleagues about Islam and the cultural nuances,” Hosein said. “Many of the military chaplains … assigned overseas were [also] able to engage with local religious leaders to build better relationships with the local population and the U.S. military.”

In her lecture today, Hosein will educate Chautauquans on those issues as well, focusing the concept of jihad.

According to the Islamic Supreme Council of America, the word jihad has many meanings: “It can refer to internal as well as external efforts to be a good Muslims or believers, as well as working to inform people about the faith of Islam,” she said.

Hosein will “debunk” what jihad means through the lens of Islam versus through the lens of terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida. She said the essence of jihad has become misrepresented.

“I want to show some Islamic definitions and give some examples of jihad and its original inception, [and] throughout more so in the 21st century with the war on terror,” Hosein said. “[I will] look at what jihad is not, and what jihad is not is killing people, women, children and elders, damaging crops and blowing up mosques and churches.”

Hosein’s lecture will also touch on some personal experiences working with Muslim soldiers. Monday’s speaker, the Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock, discussed moral injury. Hosein also plans to address this by telling stories of her experience witnessing moral injury in other U.S. soldiers.

When she isn’t serving as part of the U.S. Army Reserve, Hosein currently serves as the Muslim chaplain to the Greater Boston area in association with the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.

Hosein is a proponent of interfaith relations and religious “pluralism,” who views the interfaith community as a way of accepting everyone at face value for who they are. As a Muslim, Hosein believes that God brought religion for all of humanity, and people should be allowed to practice faith, or not practice, however they see fit.

“I like to bring in this concept of loving-kindness. I like to give out loving-kindness and receive loving-kindness, and I feel I am more open-minded [because of it],” Hosein said. “I feel like God is not so concerned with the dogmatic religious practices, … he’s more concerned that we worship God, and we do right by his people [and] by the planet that we take care of, that we’re good sovereigns to the universe that he gave us.”

Madison Rossi

The author Madison Rossi

Hailing from Chicago, Madison Rossi is the 2016 Interfaith Lecture preview reporter. She is a class of 2018 journalism major at Northwestern University with minors in marketing and religious studies.