There are about 1,300 chaplains in the U.S. Army, and of those, only five are Muslim. One of them, Maj. Khalid Shabazz, serves at Fort Hood in Texas and is getting ready to retire from his post to study ethics.
For three years, Shabazz has been the Muslim chaplain for the 1-227 Aviation Attack Battalion at Fort Hood. He’s a big part of the religious life of the Muslim soldiers on base, and he offers them a very American brand of Islam.
His office is full of citations and awards thanking him for his service. But it was a different story when he first discovered Islam as an artilleryman 16 years ago.
For Shabazz, it hasn’t always been easy to be a Muslim in the U.S. Army.
‘A Gift From God’
He wasn’t an officer when he joined the Army. He wasn’t even a Muslim, and his name wasn’t Khalid Shabazz. Once upon a time, a 23-year-old named Michael Barnes enlisted and was studying to become a Lutheran minister. When he changed his name after converting to Islam, not long after he enlisted, the howitzer unit he was serving with at the time went nuts.
“All [of a] sudden, it was almost like I switched sides to them,” Shabazz says. “They were hurt because I converted. [They] thought maybe I was joining on to the enemy.”
There are anywhere between 6,000 and 15,000 Muslim soldiers in the U.S. military, depending on whom you talk to. No one knows the numbers for sure because some Muslims in the military don’t want to advertise their religion.
Shabazz says it’s tough trying to be a good Muslim and a good soldier.
“Going to service on Friday when everyone else is at work, going to the field where all they were serving was pork, for 30 days, so most of the time I’d have to fast. It was getting tough for me,” he says.
He was ready to quit. Then a Christian chaplain pointed him toward a different military career — becoming a Muslim chaplain.
He says that when the chaplain presented the idea, it was like “a gift from God.”