Introducing Islam to the West

By Azmat Abbas

The September 11 attacks have been termed as the single most important factor for increased interest among students and academics in Islam and the Islamic world. It was to meet this demand that an Islamic studies program and a professorship have been initiated at the prestigious Stanford University, California, with an endowment of US $9 million. A significant aspect of the program is the generous donation of 2.5 million dollars by a Pakistani couple, Sara and Shoaib Abbasi.

The support provided by the couple for the program -- Shoaib and Sara Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies -- includes graduate fellowships, research, new library, strengthened language courses at advanced levels and regular public programs such as lecture series by eminent scholars. At the same time Stanford alumni Lysbeth Warren made a gift of two million dollars for a new professorship on Islam. Both the gifts were matched by the Stanford University with a grant from William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, taking the total amount of endowment for the program and professorship to nine million dollars.

Shoaib Abbasi, a former executive of computer giant, Oracle, was born in Lahore and moved to various cities with his father, an air force official, before reaching the US in 1974. Abbasi earned a Bachelors and later a Masters degree in computer science from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He joined Oracle in 1982 when it had only 30 employees and the revenue was about four million dollars a year. When he retired from the company in March 2003, Oracle had more than 42,000 employees and annual revenues of US $9.5 billion.

Talking to TNS, Abbasi said, a member of Stanford Board approached the couple in early 2002 explaining that Stanford was deeply interested in developing an Islamic studies program because of the increased interest following the events of 9/11. He asked if the couple could help them reach out to the community to see if there are some people interested in contributing to it.

The Abbasis brought together their friends from the community to meet the dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences and discuss the proposed idea: “While returning from the lunch we decided that it was something we wanted to do but there were some questions: was Stanford committed to it in the long-term or was it just a passing interest? Stanford expressed its commitment by stating that whatever amount we would contribute, they would match it.”

To a question why Stanford and not any other institution, he said: “Harvard and Stanford are two institutions that have an enormous influence on US policies and a number of their graduates join the government and set and influence state polices. We thought that if Stanford was to start an Islamic studies program it would have a positive impact on the US policies, not in the short-term but in the long-term. If the students were to be the next generation of leaders in government and private sector through this program, they would have a better sense of Islamic culture and Muslims and would help them in making better informed decisions.”

The Abbasis were also engaged in the process of designing the program which enabled them to ensure that the focus of the program was not limited to Middle East. “It was our concern that whenever Islam is studied in the context of Middle East, it becomes a narrow subject focusing mainly on the Middle East conflict. We did not want Islam to be taught in the context of a clash of civilizations or some conflict. It is important enough to be taught independently. We highlighted the fact that two-thirds of Muslims live outside the Middle-East. The university agreed that the program would not be in a regional context but a global one.”

The benefit of our program, he said, is that it would stay as an Islamic studies program unlike endowing a professorship, which a university could redirect to focus on a different area. The program has already generated a lot of interest among the students and academics and the university has so far interviewed more than 65 people for the professorship.

This is not the first time the Abbasis have donated money to an educational institution. “The first donation we made was to the University of Illinois. We wanted to endow a professorship to contribute to the institution and profession I owe a lot. We held discussions with the University of Illinois about starting an academic institution in Pakistan, as we would like some way to contribute to Pakistan’s advancement in the field of technology. The university policy did not allow that,” he said. However, the university agreed to the Abbasi demand that the fellowship they wanted to set up be awarded on merit to someone of Pakistani origin. At present the University of Illinois is in the process of selecting the second recipient of the fellowship.

In another initiative, a few years ago, Sara Abbasi joined a US-based non-government organization established by expatriates for the promotion of literacy in rural areas of Pakistan. She started the San Francisco chapter for the organization. The organization works with community based organizations in Pakistan and has helped in establishing and running of more than 200 home schools across the country.

The Abbasis have also tried to support educational institutions in Pakistan. “I went to Pakistan last summer,” said Abbasi, “and met with representatives of all the major academic institutions that have a computer science department. I wanted to find out general statistics like how many students graduate from these institutions, how many graduates get job or are accepted in higher education, how many scholarship they offer, about curriculum, about the cost etc and about the cost associated with the faculty and faculty information. It took me about five months to get this information and it’s still not complete and reliable.”

Moreover, the Pakistani institutions or government are not ready to contribute to the cause. At Illinois and Stanford, the money is endowed and will be there forever, and they can hold the universities’ accountable for managing it and that endowment would generate the money to run the fellowship and the program. “Most of the Pakistani institutions do not have the transparency that is required to give them the funds and have them manage it and provide proper reporting,” the couple said.

“I also met with Federal Minister Dr Attaur Rehman and the governor of Sindh and in both meetings I asked if we were to make a contribution, will that be matched with the same amount? The response was that I should make a formal written request and would receive formal response. In Stanford, we did get a verbal commitment. I understand that there is no history of people making endowments. But we would like very much to help, especially in the field of developing technology fields,” said Abbasi.

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