In distant Hawaii an Arab cleric expels a Pakistani scientist
by S.K. Saksena, MeriNews.com, 21 August, 2017
It would gladden the heart of any first time Indian visitor, when one comes across an impressive statue of Mahatma Gandhi, along the world famous Waikiki beach.
Installed under a spreading banyan tree, it has become the rallying point for all peace marches. In fact, in Honolulu, all processions by seekers of peace and other noble causes start from this hallowed spot. One of the personalities who generally set the tone for the marches is Dr Saleem Ahmed, a scientist of Pakistani origin.
This narrative would possibly not have been penned, if our family friend Dr Ahmed, a soft spoken, scholarly, devout Muslimhad not been expelled by the Arab cleric of Honolulu's small mosque, funded by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The cleric also claims that Hawaii was not discovered by Captain Cook, but by Arabs. Much in the style of our own PN Oak who claims Taj Mahal to be of Hindu origin!
Saleem Ahmed came to do his doctorate at the East West Center, Honolulu on a fellowship in 1961, having done his MS in Geology in Karachi. In Honolulu, he got to know our family, which has had associations with East West Centre from its inception, a relationship which continues to date.
Back in Pakistan after obtaining his doctorate, working with Esso Pakistan Fertilizer Co, he was associated with the research and development which eventually led to Pakistan's Green Revolution. Thereafter he returned to Hawaii to lead Botanical Pest Control in Hawaii. One interesting feature was his fondness for the neem tree, which is well known for its herbal germicidal properties, which he introduced widely in Hawaii. He proudly showed us the neem tree planted in his garden.
In the meanwhile, 'dismayed by how some Muslims were maligning Islam' during the Iranian hostage crisis (1979-80), he intensely studied the issues involved. Consequently, he published his first book on Islam, 'Beyond Veil and Holy War: Islamic Teachings and Muslim Practices with Biblical Comparisons' in 2002.
A reviewer of the book in American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences wrote: "In the aftermath of 9/11, Muslims grappled with the shock of seeing the horrific attacks and their attribution to so-called Muslim fundamentalists. Some questioned whether indeed there was anything in the Qur'an that could condone such acts and whether negative portrayals were in any way indicative of their religion. Others struggled with accusations as non Muslims similarly groped for answers. 'Beyond Veil and Holy War' exemplifies one such struggle. Written in a question-and-answer format, the book answers many of these questions and calls for ijtihad, or objective soul-searching, in order to differentiate between behaviours that Islam preaches and the practices that some Muslims follow. The intended audience is non-Muslims looking for answers, as well as Muslims searching for reasons for the dubious behaviour of fellow Muslims. The book presents an Islam that celebrates religious pluralism and is compassionate toward human weaknesses".
In pursuit of making Islam more accessible to others and the success of his book prompted him to establish the Pacific Institute of Islamic Studies (PIIS). He also created a platform for interfaith dialogue, the 'All Believer's Network'.
In 2009, Saleem Ahmed had presented me a copy of his second book, 'Islam: A religion of peace'. Not familiar with the Koranic texts quoted, after reading the introduction and the last chapter, I gave it to others more knowledgeable. Uniformly, they praised the book.
In a lengthy forward, Professor Sohail Inayatullah, a professor in Australia wrote: "This toughness of thinking allows us to go through the mixed signals that the Quran gives and come through to the other side. Islam thus becomes an important personal and planetary resource a way forward. Ahmed's scholarship is not limited to textual analysis: as a member of the Hawaii based All-Believers Network, he seeks to practice and create the future he wishes for. We are fortunate to have Dr. Ahmed's book with us, as a guide to Islam and to our shared futures'.
Complementary, as all the above quoted reviews may sound, it has not been easy going for Saleem Ahmed. Possibly, his books and his inter-faith dialogues have not gone down well among the 'believers'. A local Arab cleric expelled him from the mosque, and he is shunned by the small number of co-religionists. Ironically for our family, one of those who have taken exception to Dr Ahmed is also our long time friend! They were contemporaries of my siblings at the university.
Not understanding the nuances of any religion, I would not venture to pass judgment. I leave it to Akbar S Ahmed, of Brookings Institution: '…Some Muslims have moved away from their own identity perhaps because of the controversy surrounding Islam. We came upon an example in Honolulu, that most pluralist of American cities. Hawaii has a small Muslim community of between 3,000 and 4,000, which I was asked to address after Friday prayers at the main mosque. Hakim Ouansafi, the Arab head of the mosque committee, and the president of the Muslim Association of Hawaii, welcomed us but warned us not to be in touch with Saleem Ahmed, someone we were anxious to meet. Hakim said irately that Saleem reputedly gave interviews in the media and talked to interfaith communities claiming to represent Islam, which he did not. Indeed, according to Hakim, Saleem was not even a true Muslim.'
With the return of protectionism and extremism, not only Islam but the world is splitting apart. The way Trump is splitting the American society was unthinkable, even a few years ago. Is it utopian day-dreaming, to fondly hope for the return of statesmanship?
Professor Maqsood Jafri - 'Islam has two fundamental principles, jihad and ijtehad. Jihad means physical struggle or endeavour against suppression and aggression. It is a defensive war. It is not aggression. Ijtehad means intellectual endeavour to seek the solutions of day to day matters. Dr Allama Iqbal, in his book entitled "The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam," stresses the need for rational analysis through Ijtehad, as well as the need for those called upon to do this analysis to be men of piety, knowledge and truth.'
(Photo: Gandhi statue, Waikiki Beach, Honolulu.)