Many students may not be familiar with Sheikh Samer Alraey, the imam and chaplain for Muslim students at Manhattan College. But those who have not gotten to know him are truly missing out.
Becoming a sheikh is a very long and difficult process for anyone, as it involves more than the duties of an imam, which is to lead a community in Friday jummah prayers.
“A sheikh is one that studies the religion and develops the authenticity of understanding the religion. Anybody could be an imam, as a chaplain in a school or hospital or university or military or any house of worship like a mosque,” Alraey said. “A sheikh is usually a learned one, one who has higher education, higher authority and higher qualification than an imam.”
Alraey’s personal walk with God began in his youth in Damascus, Syria. At the urging of his mother, he would go to the mosque and learn about Islam to study the religion and improve his character.
Originally, he was reluctant, as his mother mainly sent him to study to keep him out of trouble. But as time went on, his understanding of Islam grew richer and deeper. He began to see Islam as a religion of love and mercy. And with that realization, he fell in love with the religion and its teachings.
“I fell in love with the style of teaching, which opened up my heart, my mind, and my soul to see people who really devoted their lives for the cause of higher ethical and character standards. I did not see that at the public school at that time,” he said.
During his time in Damascus, Alraey also learned about the more intellectual side of the religion. He studied the classical Arabic language, as well as the Quran. He studied from the age of 11 to the age of 25. According to him, the most serious commitment during this span was from the ages of 13 to 23.
While he was learning about Islam, Alraey found a second passion: technology. At this time, the computer was a fairly new development in Syria and its complexities absolutely fascinated him.
Alraey subsequently attended Damascus University and studied economics, finance and trade. Still, he wanted to pursue something more with computer science and programming.
While Damascus was a city rich in culture and history, Alraey realized that he would have to travel outside of Syria in order to study more advanced technology concepts.
He looked to Germany and England, as well as the United States, in order to further his education. Ultimately, he decided upon the US, and entered university in California as a computer science major.
Upon his arrival, he discovered the need for religious teaching among the students, more than advice relating to their studies.
“They used to come to me because I was older. They used to come to me for advice and from then I noted that I need to become more focused on helping the community. So I started to teach the college students and the high school students at weekend school and after that I started to deliver sermons at the mosque.”
In addition to Alraey being older than his classmates, they trusted him for other reasons, such as his relatability and understanding of different cultures.
“It seemed a lot of youth related to me because I had the religious and secular education and I grew up in two different cultures so it was almost a link between both cultures,” he said.
Eventually, Alraey decided to commit to religious life full-time. This new form of employment sent him across the country, and in 2001, he settled in New York City, shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
“[Sept. 11] really made me more encouraged to help the youth of understanding their religion. I know I studied and I learned that Islam is a religion of love, a religion of peace, mercy, compassion, help, support and at the same time a religion of knowledge, a religion of intellect, a religion of reaching out, where you respect your fellow humans,” he said.
In the wake of a tragedy such as the Sept. 11 attacks, Alraey was reinvigorated by other religious leaders in New York City, who wanted to develop a deeper understanding of Islam.
“[Sept. 11] has called other religious people to open their hearts and to reach out to others. So for the first time, I used to see a house of worship of other faiths knocking on the door of the mosque and saying, ‘We need to know you. Come to know us. Let’s have a meal together. Let’s pray together. Let’s have activities together,’” he said.
Though this continued encouragement from people of other faiths, Alraey remained committed and devout. He became an imam at the Islamic Cultural Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, as well as the Muslim chaplain at Baruch College.
Alraey was also involved in teaching classes and delivering Friday sermons at Columbia University. This was where he was introduced to Manhattan College.
Some of the college’s Muslim students would attend the Friday prayers at Columbia because it was not provided for them on their campus.
“They approached me by saying, ‘Here at Manhattan College, we have no imam, we have no chaplain, we have no Muslim Student Association and we have no Friday prayer. How can you help us?” Alraey said.
After Alraey agreed to help the students, they then spoke to Lois Harr, director of campus ministry and social action. She wanted to accommodate the Muslim students on campus, and so the Muslim Student Association (MSA) was created.
The students also asked if Alraey could come to the school to deliver Friday sermons for them. She agreed to this petition, but his position had to be as a volunteer rather than as an employee.
Through his time at MC, Alraey has desired for his students to remember two things: the big picture of Islam, and the balance between the secular and the spiritual.
“There should be a balance where you nourish your soul, your heart and your intellect,” Alraey said. “So you nourish your intellect by education, you nourish your soul by understanding religion in a truthful way and you nourish your heart by being active and doing something good to society. When you do that, as a young person, you have the balance between nourishing your mind, soul and your heart.”
“We are responsible here to do the best for ourselves, for our neighbors, and for our fellow humans,” he said. “That’s the big picture of the religion. How do we do that? With love and compassion and mercy.”