Dr. Abidullah Ghazi: A visionary with a mission

The death of Dr. Abidullah Al-Ansari Ghazi, founder and the Chairman of the Iqra International Educational Foundation in Chicago on Sunday has cast a pall of gloom in the community of Islamic scholars. He was 85.

Dr. Ghazi devoted at least fifty years of his life to fashioning a school curriculum on Islam for children in English. The Foundation set up by him produced nearly 150 books on various aspects of Islam and graded them for varying levels in school. Though initially he and his wife Dr. Tasnima Ghazi conceived the idea of transferring the textual Islam into textbook Islam for the children of the nascent Islamic community in the United States (and by extension in the entire Western hemisphere), they brought together and groomed a team of writers, editors, translators and illustrators to produce a variety of literature presenting Islam for a society where faiths, dogmas and doctrines constantly face the onslaught of rationality.

Not merely production, he would roam around the world and tap every single source to get the books prescribed for the State school curriculum. Coming from the illustrious family of Islamic scholars from Uttar Pradesh, Dr. Ghazi was MA in Political Science and Bachelor of Theology (B.Th.) from the Aligarh Muslim University where, according to family sources, he was a classmate of Mohammad Hamid Ansari, former Vice President of India. He acquired MA in Economics from the London School of Economics and went on to earn a Ph.D. from the prestigious Harvard University.

It is quite natural for migrants or new settlers to accord topmost priority to livelihood concerns. But Dr. Ghazi and his wife were more worried about nurturing the next generation with an Islam that could withstand the onslaught of Western materialism. At a time when people were looking for pastures for self-enrichment, the duo invested all their time, talent, energy, insight, zeal and perhaps resources into fashioning an Islamic syllabus neatly graded—both in terms of language and content—as per the age and level of classes. This was no small feat for scholars of their standing to come down notches below their eminence and figure out the lexical capacity of the kids for whom they were meant. By 1990, they had prepared the basic textbooks with content comprising the basic doctrine, integral nature of the teachings of the Holy Prophet and essential practices.

He and wife Tasnima produced over the last (probably) 40 years around 150 books, all scientifically designed for children growing away from the traditional trappings of Islam or Muslims. He was a live dynamo spewing energy every moment to propel forward the mission of salvaging the next generation of Muslims in the West. They together gathered talents, welded them together for a cause and imparted them a direction. 

The textbooks the Foundation produced under the couple’s stewardship were meticulously field-tested by expert educators, evaluators and scholars. The coverage was comprehensive, embracing aspects of faith, practices, culture and other manifestation of religion in human lives. Alive to the stranglehold of orthodoxy and possibly criticism, the visuals were minimal in the early stages but got bigger, better and more appealing to the children’s taste in later stages.  Workbooks accompanied Textbooks as the serious academics ought to have. Stories about the Prophets, Sahabis, others based on Islamic culture, architecture added more flavour to the curriculum as the work of the Foundation proceeded. 

I met Dr. Abidullah Ghazi in Delhi in 1991 in Zakir Bagh from where we ran a news and feature agency called FANA for eight years (1988-1996). He was visiting Delhi and staying with some relatives in an apartment in the twin-towers of colony. He came off as a whiff of fresh breeze, not burdened with any despondency as is the wont of Muslims in the Gangetic plains.  He carried the spark of new enlightenment and a promise to keep the torch of faith burning against the gusts of hostile winds. Children and the next generation was central to his scheme and what better promise than passing on the baton to the next generation. 

Following my return to Bangalore, he visited the city twice in 2000 and (not very sure) 2014. The first visit coincided with kidnapping of Kannada matinee idol Rajkumar (regional cinema’s most popular icon) on July 28, 2000 by forest brigand Veerappan. The city was in throes of chaos and confusion with regional sentiments on boil and shops downing the shutters. Yet we were successful in arranging an interaction with leading lights of the city to introduce the work and textbooks of Dr. Ghazi. He was accompanied by Dr. Tasnima, brother Salman Ghazi and his wife Uzma Naheed, the regional director of Iqra programme in India. We took up their distribution in the State which by then had a vast retinue of English medium schools run by Muslims.

Second time, it was in 2014 when he was here for business contacts with an IT firm which was digitizing the entire curriculum so assiduously prepared by the couple and the team. Between the twin visits to our city, I had a chance meeting with him in Chicago at the ISNA annual conference July 1st  to 4th , 2011 where the Iqra.org had put up its bookstall. He put me across several prominent people working under him and those interested in promoting his work. 

In his death, we have lost a legendary figure who single-mindedly devoted his life for a cause, something most desis in the West may not afford to pursue. Writing for children for an eminent scholar is no simple task. One has to abjure the verbal embellishments and come down to figure out the child’s psyche, needs and capacity to absorb. In an interview with me, he had observed: “It is not easy for one to relate the story of Prophet Hazrath Yusuf alayhis salam to a child. A part of the story (Zulaikha’s temptress role) has to be essentially set aside for a stage when they grow up.” He had several such instances to amplify the nuances of the work for a Muslim child in the West. 

In his passing away, the community has been deprived of a scholar who knew the urges of the age, the society and the vast challenges the Muslim face in both retaining their faith and explaining it to others.

M A Siraj is Bengaluru based seasoned journalist who writes for a variety of newspapers including The Hindu, and news portals.

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