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Opinion

September 23, 2015

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Shahab Ahmed: a brilliant scholar

Prominent Islamic scholar Shahab Ahmed, originally from Pakistan, was laid to rest last Saturday morning at the Mt Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, his adopted home. Born in Singapore on Dec 11, 1966, he passed away on Sept 17, 2015 in Boston. Dr Ahmed’s former student Suheil Laher, currently a lecturer on Arabic at Harvard University, led the final prayers at the graveside.
The scholars, students, friends and family who participated in the final rites included men and women, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews, and atheists – appropriate, given Dr Ahmed’s inter-faith work and inclusive outlook. Diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia in June, doctors had planned a transplant for him. The potential donor was his sister Dr Shahla Ahmed, a gynaecologist in London who had flown in for this purpose. However, the transplant option had to be ruled out as his condition deteriorated.
Dr Ahmed’s parents, Razia and Mohammed Mumtazuddin Ahmed, both medical professionals, had been with him for some days. They had returned to Pakistan a week ago, hoping for a miracle.
Also bereaved is his wife Nora Lessersohn, a PhD candidate in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University who was at the funeral along with her parents and Shahab’s sister and other relatives. The couple tied the knot on August 1 this year.
“I am dumbfounded,” said Prof. Shahla Haeri, an anthropologist at Boston University who has lived and worked in Pakistan. “How could a young intelligent energetic and exciting man like Shahab be dead? I am so sorry to hear that and want to extend my deepest sympathy to his wife, his family, and his friends.”
“Shahab was one of a kind, and we will be learning from his work for years to come”, said Martha Minow, a professor at Harvard Law School who was among the dozens of prominent scholars and students at the funeral.
Fluent in several languages, Dr Ahmed was considered one of the world’s most promising and

exciting new scholars in Islamic studies. Growing up in different countries, he attended primary school in Singapore, and did his GCE ‘A’ and ‘O’ Levels in Surrey, UK.
He obtained a law degree from the International Islamic University, Malaysia and then went to the American University in Cairo, where he did his Bachelors and Masters in Arabic Studies. He also taught there for a couple of years, 1998-2000.
It was during his undergraduate years in Cairo that he first met anthropologist Kamran Asdar Ali who was in Egypt for his fieldwork and became a mentor to Ahmed – “more like an older brother really”. Dr Ali was among many who came to Cambridge from different places for the funeral.
In 1999, the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University, awarded Shahab Ahmed a PhD. “He was a brilliant scholar with immense promise, tragically cut short”, says Michael Cook, a historian of the Islamic world, and Shahab’s dissertation adviser at Princeton.
Dr Ahmed was a Junior Fellow, Society of Fellows at Harvard University (2000-2003) then returned to Princeton as a visiting lecturer and research fellow (2004-2005). He was an associate professor of Islamic Studies at Harvard from 2005 onwards and also served on the University’s Committee on the Study of Religion. His last academic appointment at Harvard was at the Law School, where he was a lecturer on Law, and research fellow in Islamic Legal Studies.
During this time, on leave from on leave from Harvard in 2007-2008, he also taught in Pakistan at the Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University. He had been planning to return to Pakistan to teach.
A recipient of several awards, distinctions and fellowships, Dr Ahmed was looking forward to rejoining Princeton University in the coming academic year.
His much anticipated first book What is ‘Islam’? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press) being published in December this year, has garnered critical acclaim from respected scholars in the fields of law and Islamic scholarship and history.
The book is “not merely field changing, but the boldest and best thing I have read in any field in years”, says Noah Feldman, Dr Ahmed’s friend and a professor at Harvard Law School.
Engseng Ho, professor of Cultural Anthropology and professor of History, Duke University has called the work “strikingly original, wide-ranging in its engagement, subtle in its interpretations, and hard-hitting in its conclusions”. He predicts that the book will “provoke debate for a number of years”. Sadly, Shahab Ahmed is no longer around to participate in that debate.

The writer is a senior journalist.
Blog: www.beenasarwar.wordpress.com
Twitter: @beenasarwar

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