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Obituary: Professor Syed Ali Ashraf

THE MUSLIMS most prominent in the British media are known because of the noise they make and the heat they generate. They fit into preconceived ideas of Muslim fanatics and extremists. It is natural therefore that Syed Ali Ashraf is virtually unknown in the media. This is a pity, as Ashraf was one of the half-dozen most important Muslim scholars of the last few decades.

His early years were spent in a provincial university teaching English in what was East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. He then moved to Karachi University, where he remained Professor and Head of the Department of English from 1956 to 1973. He belonged to that generation of south Asians who not only wrote in English but spoke the language with perfect diction - the Queen's English.

He made an international impact as the organising secretary of the First World Conference on Muslim Education held in Mecca in 1977. He then helped organise five follow-up World Conferences in different capitals of the Muslim world. In 1980 he was appointed the first Director-General of the World Centre for Islamic Education, set up by the Organisation of Islamic Conferences in Mecca.

In the 1970s Ashraf had moved to Cambridge, which he had loved from the time he completed his PhD there. The Islamic Academy was set up in Cambridge in 1983 in order to further Islamic studies in Britain, and Ashraf became its Director-General. Aided by his trusty deputy, the indefatigable Abdul Mabud, also from Bangladesh, he produced a stream of books and organised seminars. The journal he edited, Muslim Education Quarterly, was also begun in 1983.

In the last decade of his life Ashraf made a significant contribution to education in Britain. Collaborating with Cambridge University, a series of seminars and books resulted. His approach, which found an echo in British educationists, may be summed up in his own words in the book Religion and Education: Islamic and Christian approaches (co-edited with Paul H. Hirst, 1992):

I hope the recent faith-based seminar will extend our area of co-operation and

help the authorities not merely of the United Kingdom but also of the rest of the world to formulate an education system which will be based on a philosophical framework of values derived from all the major religions of the world and allow faiths to play their necessary role in supporting that framework. This will help the liberal humanists also in finding for pupils a framework of certainties which extreme secularism is destroying today.

Ashraf's high standard of academic work, his impact outside his discipline and his contribution to the debate on education in our times made him a key player in the field of Muslim education. His 1991 book Islam is now part of the GCSE course on World Religions. During his last years he struggled successfully to set up a university in Dhaka, which opened in 1997. As Vice-Chancellor he divided his time between Dhaka and Cambridge.

His soft way of speaking, affectionate manner and hospitable nature made him a much-loved figure. Because of his erudition most people who came in contact with him thought of him as a teacher; many saw him as a spiritual mentor. With his ordinary clothes and humble appearance it was easy to mistake him for a country bumpkin. But this professor rubbed shoulders with presidents and prime ministers.

Ashraf was a committed Muslim but his tolerance did not sit easily with many of his co-religionists. His personal religious philosophy is contained in these lines:

I am trying to bring together all the important religions recognised in this country in order to maintain both unity and diversity. Unity lies in the concept of One Unique Supreme and Transcendental Reality which is the Deity or God in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism and the Transcendental Reality in Buddhism, in the concept of the presence of a spirit in each individual which is endowed with eternal values in potentiality and in the recognition of some form of divine guidance.

Ashraf's last years were a trial; his health collapsed and his beloved wife, the devoted companion of many campaigns, underwent a series of operations that failed. She exists in a state of coma. In spite of these misfortunes his good cheer and faith never left him.

I first met Ashraf in 1962 when he was head of the English department at Karachi University. Over the last two decades we became friends and I respected him for his learning and genuine commitment to understanding between different faiths. He always had time for me, however busy his schedule, was always supportive of my endeavours. One of his last acts was to agree to preside over a special lecture I was to give in Cambridge based on a book I am working on - both tentatively titled Islam in the 21st Century: rethinking a post-honour world. Now it will be delivered as a memorial lecture in his honour.

Syed Ali Ashraf, Islamic scholar:

born Dhaka, India 1 January 1925; Professor of English and Head of the Department of English, Karachi University 1956-73; Director-General, World Centre for Islamic Education 1980-98; Director-General, Islamic Academy, Cambridge 1983-98; Vice-Chancellor, University of Dhaka 1997- 98; married; died Cambridge 7 August 1998.