KARACHI: The Faculty of Islamic Studies of the University of Karachi's popular teacher, friend, and guide to many students was assassinated on September 18, 2014. I am not there [at KU] but I am sure that the faculty must still feel deserted without his loving personality. What made him different from other teachers was indeed not only his intellectual achievements and principled personality, but his undifferentiated love for all.
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As his moderate and pluralist stance and his unbiased principles were not appreciated by many, he had to face criticism and threats. Gradually, high officials and media persons started appreciating his hard work, and resilience. Yet at the same time, the enmities accelerated as well.
Dr Shakil Auj - the 54-year-old dean of Islamic Studies Faculty at the University of Karachi was silenced by a single bullet in Gulshan-e-Iqbal on September 18, 2014. He was known for his liberal views. He was shot dead while driving to an Iranian Cultural Center where he had been invited as a guest of honor.
Dr Auj was amused by my intense liking for his writings and markings (he had the habit of marking his writings and inscribing notes on them). I never thought there would be a time that I won't even be able to contact him.
Professor Dr Shakil Auj was a living example of rationalism and humane behaviour. He was always there to answer his students' questions. He was one of the most humble men I met. While he would dictate notes to me as my research supervisor, first year students would often enter his room unannounced and ask very basic questions. Despite being the dean of a faculty, he would give detailed answers to their queries. I, on the other hand, would grit my teeth and curse my luck because such distractions would eat up a lot of precious time. His smile used to welcome everyone with such warmth that everyone really thought they were the closest to him.
Interestingly, Dr Auj was one of those few who respected criticism. He valued those who criticised him; he was known for enjoying his critics' comments. He used to write answers to the points they raised. This made him popular in both Indian and Pakistani scholars' circles. Once he laughingly said that an honorable senior scholar, Allama Ghulam Rasool Saeedi, a former member of the Council of Islamic Ideology, called him and asked to send all his books to him, because his illness made it impossible for him to come in person. He wanted to write a traditionalist's response to Dr Auj's arguments.
Dr Auj went to meet him in person and not only gave him all his books but also marked where he had written arguments that differed from the traditional interpretations.
I do not hold a grudge against the young man who killed him, because he was used as a tool. It was the idea behind that tool that killed him. The man who did this heinous act of killing did it as a good deed!
The entrenchment of sectarian hatred and restriction on thoughts, are the result of ultra-conservatives' influence on Pakistani society. Yet everyone, whether ultra-conservative or progressive, agrees that the society desperately needs change. Change is inevitable, God's blessing, and time's need, but the Holy Quran has stipulated that it only comes about with society's effort. Indeed, God will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. (13:11)
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Pakistani society currently is dominated by ultra-conservatives' ideas. The entrenchment of sectarian hatred and the restriction of thought are the results of their influence on Pakistani society. They have created boundaries; thoughts that do not fit within those boundaries are considered as heretical.
Prof Dr Shakil Auj believed in freedom of thought and objective learning. He was left alone in his struggle. He was one of those scholars who extend the limits of knowledge and will be remembered in history as a milestone in the effort to bring imperatively needed change to society. Through his works in Urdu, Prof Auj greatly fostered the holistic study of the Holy Quran, an achievement which cannot be diminished, as he is alive in the hearts of his students.
The possibility of immediate change in the prevailing ideology appears improbable. However, I want to emphasize that Pakistani society suffers from a lack of critical thinking and objectivity. Silencing the voices of scholars is not a characteristic of the Islamic faith. Society should have respect for scholars, even if their research findings are in conflict with prevailing traditions. This is the only way out of the current stagnant and regressive milieu in Pakistani society.
Dr Amna Afreen is a former student of Prof Dr Shakil Auj and is currently a visiting scholar at Georgetown University. She was with Dr Auj at the time he was shot dead.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2018.
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