The army’s highest-ranking Muslim soldier is also a TikTok star
(RNS) – About half of content creators on social media platform TikTok are under 28. This is just one of the reasons why the popularity of Army Colonel Khalid Shabazz, who has some 43,000 followers on the social media platform, is so surprising.
Most TikTok users weren’t even born when Shabazz joined the military 28 years ago and come from a generation with little connection to military service – around 71% of young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 would be ineligible for health or other reasons, according to a recent report.
Shabazz’s TikTok account includes a medley of his weightlifting exploits peppered with Quranic and Biblical messages. Aphorisms abound. “If your ship doesn’t arrive, swim to meet it” seems to be one of his favorites. As a chaplain, Shabazz has a habit of doling out nuggets of advice and wisdom to soldiers in trouble – the kind of advice a younger, more troubled Shabazz might have benefited from.
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Shortly after converting to Islam — facing discrimination from fellow soldiers, disappointment from his Lutheran family and with more than one citation for insubordination on his record — Shabazz was ready to leave the military.
But a chance encounter with a Christian army chaplain not only convinced him to stay in the army, but also to pursue chaplaincy himself.
“Honestly, it was like a revelation from God,” Shabazz told Army News Service. “When it hit my ears, I knew this was what I was going to do for a living. It was amazing.”
Almost three decades later, with his promotion to colonel in 2018, Shabazz is the highest-ranking Muslim chaplain in the US military. He is command chaplain at US Army Central, the three-star command responsible for ground operations in the Middle East, according to Army Times.
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As a child, Shabazz was molested by a family friend – an experience, he said, that put him in an emotional bind and left him an angry young man. He spent 8th grade in special education. He failed grades 9 and 12.
After completing his summer school, he enrolled at Jarvis Christian College in Texas, a historically black school affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. There he played on the basketball team and studied to become a minister. But he fell into the wrong crowd, he said, started drinking and partying and often got into violent altercations. It was during one of these drunken brawls that he was assaulted, beaten with a shovel and shot in the back.
He survived through medical evacuation but decided to postpone his studies. He returned to Louisiana, his country of origin. The only job he could find was as a janitor at K-mart. With few options, like many young men before him, Shabazz joined the military.
It was there that he first read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, also absorbing the film starring Denzel Washington when it was released in 1992.
“I never thought of myself as an intelligent person and found a lot of inspiration in his story; Malcolm X had an 8th grade education but educated himself by reading the dictionary,” Shabazz said, “I hadn’t seen a strong African-American man like that in my community. I wanted to be educated and stand up for something bigger than myself. So I decided to become like Malcolm and even took the last name Shabazz by imitating him.
But his conversion made him the object of discrimination in the army. It was a lot to handle for a young soldier in the 1990s, and he fell into old habits. He faced disciplinary action for insubordination. He contemplated suicide.
It was at this time that he met the Christian chaplain.
“I was getting ready to deploy, maybe to war, and I was crying, and I saw the chaplain, and I was like, ‘If there is a God, please don’t don’t ask the chaplain to come talk to me,'” Shabazz recalled. “But God had other plans.”
It was this chaplain who, after talking to Shabazz, encouraged him to pursue a role as a Muslim chaplain. He earned a master’s degree in theology from Hartford Seminary, now Hartford University for Religion and Peace, one of the few places offering Islamic chaplaincy programs. Shabazz was appointed chaplain in 1998, having studied Arabic in Jordan along the way. Later, he also earned a master’s degree in interfaith dialogue from Claremont Lincoln University.
With his seniority as a colonel, Shabazz is now in charge of tens of thousands of troops and oversees more junior chaplains. Whether a chaplain wears a Christian cross, a Muslim crescent, a Jewish Star of David or another symbol on his uniform, he must be prepared to serve soldiers of all faiths.
“The majority of my work involves counseling on domestic issues or critical incident debriefings, and only 1% of my work is actual religious counseling.”
Yet, in order to better understand the Christian soldiers who make up the majority of the army, Shabazz has also continued his study of this faith. He eventually earned a doctorate in Christian theology and religious vocations from North Texas Theological Seminary. He believes his experience as a practicing member of both religions has helped make him a better chaplain.
“It’s easier today to be a Muslim soldier in the army than when I started. There are many more Muslims represented in the military. Beards are now allowed in the army, as is the hijab. Arabic lessons are now available. The Friday service is more of an established thing. Some bases have mosques and even more have makeshift musalahs for prayer,” he said, using the Arabic term for a pop-up prayer area.
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Shabazz’s unlikely success on social media shows how times have changed. The former college basketball player spends long hours in the gym, allowing him to meet soldiers and inspire them in an informal setting.
It was in a gymnasium where other soldiers, surprised to find their chaplain in the gymnasium, encouraged him to join TikTok.
“Last year when I was transferred from the Air Force Reserve to active duty in the army, I felt overwhelmed and scared,” said Private Amdy M Niang, “j So reached out to Col. Shabazz, and his words of encouragement and his prayers followed army basic training like a beast. I dropped from 227 lbs. to 189 lbs. in weight and ended up graduating. of honor.
According to Shabazz, there are five Muslim chaplains in the army, three in the air force and one in the navy. Shabazz said there was still work to be done. Unlike other religions, Shabazz said, he hasn’t encountered any Muslim chaplain assistants — the non-commissioned officers who assist chaplains in their work.
He thinks it will probably be 25 years before there is a Muslim general in the US military.
He says it will take someone special who has a good relationship with the top brass – like the one between former Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, which led to Robinson becoming the first African-American player. American in Major League Baseball for decades.
“I love ’42’, the Jackie Robinson movie. I watch it sometimes when I need inspiration when I face obstacles or discrimination because of my faith,” Shabazz said.