SHAWNEE MISSION, Kansas: Praising Ambassador Akbar Ahmed’s new book of poetry, “Suspended Somewhere Between: A Book of Verse,” Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea,” opined, “Anyone wanting to understand Islam today must read Akbar Ahmed’s collection. We are given rare glimpses into the dilemmas, pain and despair but ultimately love and hope of Muslims through the verses of this true renaissance man.” In a world that all too often seems fractured along religious and cultural lines, Ahmed’s work provides an important model of what can be accomplished through interfaith understanding.
At a recent tour stop at the University of Missouri-Kansas City promoting his book, Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC and former Pakistan Ambassador to the UK, explained that his life experiences, given artistic expression in this poetry collection, “…reflect our situation today as we increasingly appear suspended somewhere between cultures, places, peoples, and periods in time.” One of humankind’s greatest challenges moving forward will be the quest for tolerance and mutual accommodation amongst all peoples and nations. And Ahmed reiterated his long-term commitment to that quest by promoting interfaith dialogue and bridge building among peoples of differing ethnicities and religious beliefs.
Described by the BBC as “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam,” Ahmed is also the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, DC. These positions stand as a testament to his dedication in joining with leaders of other faiths to promote cooperative efforts and ventures in religious harmony and interfaith understanding.
In his 2007 book “Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization,” Ahmed chronicles his experiences leading a team of young Americans on a tour of the three major regions of the Muslim world: the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia. They administered detailed questionnaires to Muslims in each nation and sat through seminars, luncheons and casual conversations, engaging in candid exchanges about religious, political and cultural differences as well as discussing areas where they could potentially find common ground.
That effort led to a similar project with young Americans called Journey into America in which his team travelled to more than 75 cities and 100 mosques seeking to understand the largely unexamined Muslim community in the United States. The study produced a film which has been shown at campuses and film festivals worldwide, as well as a book, “Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam,” published by Brookings Institution Press in 2010. As summarized on the Journey Into America website, the study “explores and documents how Muslims are fitting into US society, seeking to place the Muslim experience in the US within the larger context of American identity. In doing so, it is a major contribution to the study of American history and culture.”
Employing different media to explore his message of peaceful coexistence, Ahmed has also ventured into drama and had his play Noor, which was described in the Washington Post as “a paean to religious tolerance,” performed on numerous stages. The story line relates the abduction of a young woman named Noor and her three brothers — a Sufi, a secular government bureaucrat, and a fundamentalist — who represent currents inside modern Muslim communities as Ahmed perceives them.
In the preface to his poetry collection Ahmed declares, “I have travelled much, seen much, suffered much and much have I enjoyed the people I met and the places I visited.” In the closing poem, titled “What is it that I seek?”, we are offered a compelling summary in verse as to what leads to interfaith understanding and acceptance among those people encountered in his life’s travels:
“It is God’s greatest gift
It raises us high above
It is the bridge over the rift
It is love, love, love”
Mark Scheel is a writer and former editor based in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. He is presently writing a novel dealing with interfaith themes. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), www.commongroundnews.org.