Former model follows spiritual path at Yale
After stepping off the runway and converting
to Islam, Dawood Yasin becomes chaplain, TA and local imam
BY AMANDA RUGGERI
At age 26, Dawood Yasin was almost
killed. Three times.
Back then, his name was not Dawood. He was not yet a teaching assistant in Yale's Arabic
Department, the imam of the Masjid Al-Islam mosque on George Street in New Haven, or the chaplain of the Muslim Student's Association of Yale.
was a nation-hopping male model, a man whose face and body splashed Paris
billboards and Vogue fashion spreads. His name was David and he was Roman Catholic.
But three near-death experiences
in the span of six months changed all that
In 1996 he was living in South
Africa modeling in photo shoots. One night, he said, he got into a heated discussion with
some South Africans vocalizing their unhappiness with the end of apartheid. Threats were issued. Tensions boiled. Then the
aggressors pulled out weapons.
Luckily, a member of the group talked them out of a fight. But just a few weeks later,
something else happened. Yasin was driving from Capetown to Johannesburg.
At one point the fog thickened dangerously. The car behind him began to pass him and, at the same time, a truck approached
from ahead. His own car narrowly avoided the horrific crash that followed.
Not long after, he witnessed another crash
-- one he might have been in had he arrived at the scene 30 seconds earlier.
Many 26-year-olds may have brushed off
the three incidences as merely unsettling. Not Yasin.
"Thinking that you could check out at any
time made me think about spirituality," he said, sitting in Au Bon Pain Oct. 27, a dark beard covering his once-famous face.
his cousin had converted to Islam two decades before and become a better person for it, he said, the religion was already
in the back of his mind. So when his brushes with death made him reconsider spirituality, he had no qualms about taking a
look at the Koran.
"It worked for me," he said. "I find there to be justice. In the prophetic tradition,
there's no preference of the Arab over the non-Arab, white over black, black over white."
But not everybody
sees that side of Islam. Twice since Sept. 11, 2001, Yasin and his wife, dressed in traditional Islamic garb, have been almost
run off the road, he said. Once, the driver shouted at them to "go back to your country."
my mother, my grandmother, they were born in America,"
he said, shaking his head.
Rather than let such ignorance get him down, though, Yasin said he focuses on raising
understanding of Islam. His Arabic students said he was always very open about his life and religion. They could ask him delicate
questions -- what the Koran says about homosexuality, for example -- and get a straightforward answer.
Yasin is American, students seem more receptive to what he has to say, said Bassam Frangieh, a professor in the Near Eastern
Languages and Civilizations Department.
"The students identify with him," Frangieh said. "He has
a very, very beautiful relationship with them."
Yasin has even welcomed his class into his mosque. Last year,
40 Arabic students took a class trip to George Street
during the month of Ramadan. They covered themselves appropriately, the women in head scarves. As they walked, they stopped
traffic, Frangieh said.
After attending services, which included a sermon by Yasin, the students ate a traditional
dinner in his home.
Teaching about Islam and the Koranic tradition is important, Frangieh said. After all, one requirement
of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations major is "Arabic and Islamic Studies."
Despite such glowing reports
from students and colleagues, Yasin was not always so focused on Yale. When he came back to America after studying Arabic for five years, teaching at Yale was not the job
he had in mind, he said.
Hardly the typical teaching assistant, Yasin does not even hold a college degree. He briefly
attended Southern Connecticut State University, but he was discovered by a Wilhelmina Models agent during one summer break
in Nantucket. At 19, his life turned into a whirlwind of runways in Milan
and Paris, photo shoots with Christy Turlington and Brooke
"It's like, 'Wow, do I shoot a Levi's campaign and make a lot of money, or do I go back to school and get
a degree?'" he said, chuckling. "You think about it for about three breaths."
And although he studied at a religious
seminary in Damascus for five years after "embracing Islam,"
the events of Sept. 11, 2001 interrupted his education. In America at the
time of the terrorist attacks, Yasin and his then-pregnant wife decided not to return to Syria.
A friend at the Yale
Divinity School told him there
was an opening in the Arabic department. At the time, Yasin said, he laughed off the suggestion, intimidated by the idea of
teaching Yale students in a language that was not his native tongue. But when a few weeks went by and the position remained
open, he decided to apply.
Rather than a one-on-one interview, Yasin presented himself to one of Frangieh's Arabic
classes. They loved him. Yasin was hired.
This year, though, Yasin is on leave. Recently appointed as imam of Masjid
Al-Islam, Yasin said he is now too busy to teach classes. As religious leader of the 300 people in the congregation, he has
more responsibilities than he had even expected.
"I'm dealing with everything from the jurisprudence of someone's marriage,
to someone asking you on the end-of-life decisions for their two-year-old child," he said.
And he has taken on a new
project, as well -- managing a fashion company geared toward traditional Muslim dress. The former model described the clothing
line as modest, but sophisticated and practical.
Running a clothing company is only the latest phase in his life. From
modeling, to studying, to being a TA, he said each experience has made him who he is today.
But if his now-2-year-old
daughter were to grow up and tell him she wanted to strut down the runways in Milan,
Yasin knows exactly what he would say:
"I'd say, Tell me when you want to go and we'll go together."
Asalamu Alaikum wrwb,
Alhamdulillah I know this Imam. During ramadan
he along with several brothers from the New Haven masjid, Norwalk, Bridgdeport masjids came to our masjid in Stamford
Connecticut for a over night for Itikahf. He delivered a khutbah and led fajr prayer the next morning. I highly
respect this Imam and he is highly spoken of by my Imam as well. I never knew his background and histrory before
reading this article. May Allah grant him the highest reward for all his efforts.
Brother Daniel from Stamford, Connecticut