University mourns loss of 'great connector'

(Edmonton) Ibrahim Abu-Rabi, a world-renowned expert on contemporary Muslim thought, a voice of moderation and great University of Alberta ambassador, died suddenly and unexpectedly during a visit to Jordan July 2. He was 55.

Born in Palestine in 1956, Abu-Rabi, who held dual citizenship in the United States and Israel, received a bachelor of arts degree from the Birzeit University in Palestine in 1980. He went on to get a master of arts in political science degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1982 before attending Temple University in Pennsylvania, where he completed a second master’s degree, this time in religious studies, and a PhD in Islamic studies in 1987.

Abu-Rabi left from Temple University for stops at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Texas at Austin, before taking a post at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, where he was professor at the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, beginning in 1991. He had a special interest in the study and practice of interfaith dialogue between the Islamic and Christian religious traditions, and specialized in issues of contemporary Islamic thought, particularly on religion and society, and mysticism.

In 2006, he was the Senior Fulbright Scholar in Singapore and Indonesia at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He was also the senior editor of The Muslim World.

In 2008, Abu-Rabi came to the U of A as the first holder of the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities Chair in Islamic Studies, the first teaching and research chair of its kind in Canada.

“I am greatly saddened to learn of the sudden loss of one of our own, professor Ibrahim Abu-Rabi, chair of Islamic studies,” said President Indira Samarasekera. “As a mentor and a teacher, he was well known for his passion for teaching and his dedication to building understanding between people of various faiths.

“He will be remembered for his enthusiasm for his work, his unwavering support of his colleagues and students, and his care and compassion for all.”

Abu-Rabi was also a devoted researcher and a prolific writer, with dozens of titles to his credit, including his latest work, The Contemporary Arab Reader on Political Islam (University of Alberta Press, 2010), which is a collection of the writings of highly influential figures in the field of Islamism that attempts to address misunderstood notions of contemporary Islam.

In an interview done in the spring 2011 edition of WOA (Work of Arts), the Faculty of Arts alumni magazine, about his latest work, Abu-Rabi said that, while there have been many books written in the West that purport to explain Islamism, virtually all have been written by westerners, and Islamist voices have remained largely absent.

“Most Islamist groups are pro-democracy and anti-violence, but you’d never know this from what’s reported in the press,” he said. “I wanted to give Islamists the chance to speak for themselves.”

Abu-Rabi believed that education or “soft power” is the key to a better dialogue between the Muslim world and the West, and that the West needs to appreciate the diversity of contemporary Muslim cultural and linguistic practices, as well as the contemporary Muslim search for democracy.

Commonality and understanding were not just ideas that Abu-Rabi taught, researched and wrote about, but how he lived his life, says Michael Frishkopf, a professor in the Department of Music and friend of Abu-Rabi.

“He had so much appreciation from his colleagues and his students because he made every effort to connect with people at every level,” said Frishkopf, adding that Abu-Rabi’s web of relationships extended around the globe. “He was really warm and a wonderful man who was always trying to pull people together—he was a great connector. That’s the kind of man he was; he was very much a public intellectual but he was interested in real-world applications.

“I think that’s why [his death] has been such a devastating loss for so many people.”

U of A undergraduate student Mustafa Farooq wrote in a letter how he was struck by Abu-Rabi’s “genial nature, his bearing, and his wisdom.”

“He could meet anyone and instantaneously connect with them, and make them feel at ease.”

In addition, Farooq’s letter talked about his mentor’s devotion to both his research and his teaching.

“[Dr. Abu-Rabi] taught me that university research and involvement was about a struggle to make the world a better place, and that the struggle had to permeate every pore of your existence; and that included bringing the struggle to home.”