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(This is an interview with Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina which I did many years ago. Since Dr. Sachedina is giving lectures for Muharram 1434 at Taj Banquet Hall, I thought it would be nice to revisit the story of this special person who has been both a mentor and educator for my family and I personally owe him a lot for setting me on the path to knowledge. Since the publication of this article, Dr. Sachedina has written other books and papers)
At a time in the history of the world, when religious intolerance is at an all time high, it’s rare and refreshing to find a religious scholar who actively and consistently promotes peace and harmony. Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina cherishes inclusiveness of all faiths. “The more I study other faiths, new traditions and various schools of thought, the more I understand my own faith” says Sachedina. Professor of Religious Studies at University of Virginia in Charlottesville he is a recognized expert in Islamic theology, law, and ethics in U.S.A. He sits with the US congress and senate on a range of issues from cloning to biological research and is available to give advise on matters such as dietary laws in prison to wearing a beard in the police force. Apart from academia, Sachedina is an icon among Muslims of North America for his work in bringing the community together.
Sachedina’s love for learning and imparting knowledge stems from his childhood. Born in Tanzania where he completed high school in Dar-es-Salaam, he says “Although my father died when I was 12, I recall growing up in an atmosphere that was scholarly and intellectual, where reading was a tradition. I was drawn to a study of religion, and had a penchant for teaching and lecturing at a young age.” Influenced strongly by his mother, Sachedina says, “my mother was a teacher, public speaker and advocate for women’s rights and following her footsteps, I taught math, English and religion at age 13 to children younger than I.” Well on his way to becoming the powerful orator he is now, at age 17 Sachedina had his first experience in public speaking when he addressed over a thousand people about the Prophet of Islam and his teachings. He was a confident young man – too confident he explains “along with the religious influences I also inherited certain unhelpful attitudes – a defensiveness and narrow view of human religiosity so I used to argue about religion constantly when I was a youth.”
All this changed in 1967 when Sachedina went to Iran to do his B.A. Honors in Persian language and literature. In Iran he also took private lessons to learn Arabic and Islamic Sciences i.e. law, jurisprudence, theology, tradition and history. “One of the greatest influences in my life and work is that of my teacher, Dr. Ali Shariati, well known sociologist, historian and philosopher. Dr. Shariati saw history as an instrument of recording human experience as it goes through self-development and my analysis of history is influenced by his teachings. Dr. Shariati taught us to look at history as a whole, about inclusiveness and how to strengthen religious knowledge without sectarianism.”
Commenting on religious violence, Sachedina laments, “I’m extremely saddened by people fighting in the name of religion. We can’t use history to relive our differences – we need to use history to move on and resolve those differences through dialogue – not to make the same mistakes. And dialogue is between equals . We have no right to control the showering of divine mercy on humanity.” Sachedina’s immense passion for peace shows on the contours of his face and the sadness in his eyes when he talks about sectarian violence. “Religion becomes a weakness when used for violence by self righteous and ignorant people and ignorance can only be erased through reading and reflection. “
In his fervent pursuit of peace and understanding between communities, Sachedina cites a quotation from the Quran which he used as an introduction to a recent series of lectures. “…and had God not checked the evil oppressors among the people …. a great number of monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques where God’s names is mentioned frequently would have been by now destroyed.” Attended largely by Muslim youth and non-Muslims, the purpose of these lectures was to remove barriers and bring people together. He moves easily from Arabic to Persian and back to English, equally comfortable in Swahili, Gujrati, Urdu, Hindi or French and German.
Author of numerous books and papers, Sachedina 58, has a soft spot for Toronto. “I share a special connection with Toronto for many reasons” and he proves this by coming to Toronto whenever he can, to share his knowledge and findings. From 1971 to 1976 Sachedina was a student at the University of Toronto where he completed his Masters and PH.D. in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. “Toronto was my first stint at studying Islam in the West and it was an eye opener. My teachers constantly challenged me to look in from the outside. I had already studied Islam from a religious perspective but Toronto was an opportunity to study Islam from a historical and intellectual perspective, a methodology which forced me to be objective.” He smiles as he recalls, “when I presented my first dissertation proposal, my professor threw it back at me calling it defensive and subjective. Fact is, I was defensive about my faith and I’m grateful to my professors who forced me to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of my own belief system, as an outsider.”
Sachedina doesn’t downplay the effort his U of T professors to take him through this journey without hurting his faith. “It was a transition from believer to observer and it helped me see the beauty of Islam as an outsider. Contours and landscape are always sharper and more attractive from a distance.” Sachedina’s first job in 1976 was teaching Islam at University of Waterloo and part-time at Wilfred Laurier University. “This was a time when Islamic History was a relative stranger to North American culture – it was considered history of “the other”. The approach was patronizing and the methodology, orientalist, but thanks to my professors, I was prepared for the challenges.”
In forty years of teaching at various academic institutions all over the world, and lecturing his own community, Sachedina stresses the importance of reading and research. “Our community in general is not a reading community – we tend to read only that with which we agree and have a comfort level – not anything that makes us think. This is detrimental to religion.” The Muslim community, which like many others, is victim of sectarianism, is not wholly comfortable with Sachedina’s push for unity and minimizing differences. And Sachedina has been hurt by the implications. “The community has difficulty choosing between academic language and the emotional rhetoric of the mosque. But I am an academic and have a responsibility towards history and to the community. In Islam there is freedom to develop scholarship freely and this means that there is something to be learnt from all scholarly works – irrespective of faith or sectarian leanings.”
Do the challenges ever deter him? “I believe in the power of divine guidance. When you enjoy what you do, you find a spiritual reward. I’m exhilarated when I read books, learn something new, or write a paper and I believe that from the Islamic perspective, if I stay within the sphere of what the Quran teaches, I’m blessed.”
Without missing a beat, Sachedina explains that he sits on more than a dozen advisory and editorial boards including the Encyclopedia of Ethics, Oxford Dictionary of Islam, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Journal of American Academy of Religion and Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding to name a few.
To quench his ongoing thirst for knowledge and to keep himself up to par on current issues as well as spirituality, Sachedina talks animatedly about his three current challenges. “I’m working on a web site course on the mystical dimension of Islamic tradition which deals with Islamic Art and Architecture as an expression of Islamic Spirituality. I’m also working on a project on Islamic law for Muslim Physicians, which undertakes to investigate judicial rulings in the section of Islamic law that deals with issues of bioethics. Another project is a comparative Study of Legal Methodology in Islamic Schools of Legal Thought.” In the latter project Sachedina is developing the work of Muslims jurists from five schools of Islamic law – four Sunni and one, Shiite.
Sachedina has a wife and two children and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. His latest publication is The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) and his website at University of Virginia is: www.people.virginia.edu/`aas/home.htm