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May 3-9, 2006

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Sara and Sohaib Abbasi

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
It's Better to Give Than to Receive: Sara Abbasi and former Oracle executive Sohaib Abbasi donated millions to a Stanford Islamic studies program that has yet to materialize, but they haven't given up.

Required Pleading

Stanford officials have been sitting on $9 million while constantly stalling their promised Islamic studies program. Why can't they face Mecca?

By Sajid Farooq

THREE YEARS ago, the green hills of the Stanford farm turned gold for cultural crossover.

Students had been pushing for an Islamic studies program for years, tangling with the administration in op-eds and formal demands. After promises dating back to the 1990s about establishing such a program, both university officials and donors were talking seriously about the need for a better understanding of Islam in post-9/11 America.

And suddenly, they had $9 million to burn finding it.

Former Oracle executive Sohaib Abbasi and his wife, Sara, donated $2.5 million. An additional $2 million was donated to hire a full professor to direct the program from an alumni grant, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation matched both donations.

But even with a wallet fat enough to attract some of the world's leading thinkers on Islam, the university is barely any closer to establishing the promised program then it was back then. With overflowing Arabic classes and still a limited selection of Islamic courses offered, Stanford students are angry that supply is not meeting demand. Those who envisioned Stanford leading the way as it has so often in emerging areas of academia can't understand what went wrong, while others close to the program are wondering if the university really wants it at all.

Most of all, everyone's wondering about the money, which one professor working on building an Islamic studies department at his own state university said enviously should be enough to establish a strong base for such a program.

Money Changes Nothing

Certainly the Abbasis thought Stanford could get the job done. Their money was earmarked to fund public lectures, bring in visiting scholars, expand language instruction, provide materials for a library and fund faculty and student research. Sarah Abbasi said the donation could also be used to hire a tenured professor to guide the program, but university press releases said it was not for professors. Part of the Abbasis' motivation to support the program was because of Stanford's powerful name.

"Stanford as you know has such a great reputation of educating the world's leaders and hopefully with Stanford and Islam it will help shape a better understanding," she says.

Abbasi and the other donors were approached for their support by the university. In 2002, Robert Gregg, a professor of religious studies and the Islamic studies program's inaugural director, acknowledged to the Stanford Daily that the Sept. 11 attacks played a role in the university's increased interest.

"This initiative has been under way and has been helped, in a perverse and tragic way, by Sept. 11," he told the paper.

Things were looking good for the program early on. That year, Stanford began a search for its "senior scholar in Islam" and also began looking for ways to secure additional funding to hire a second professor. Students were happy with the initial direction and their perception of Stanford's newfound outward commitment to teaching about Islam on campus.

But the grant money has barely been touched; mostly, students say, it's been used for the occasional lecture. And however informative these may have been, they barely scratch the surface of what the university has promised, according to Omar Shakir, a third year international relations major and the former president of the Stanford Muslim Student's Awareness Network, a campus organization that promotes social and political awareness about Islam.

"There's such a demand from the students," he says. According to Shakir, students are "very excited to see more happen and frustrated that it hasn't happened yet."

And they need it, says visiting assistant professor Ellen McLarney, who is on leave from Duke University to teach classes on the Koran and other subjects for two years.

"Stanford students in general have zero background in the Middle East and Islam because there is not a tradition of those studies," says McLarney. "A lot of students have self-educated themselves and a lot of Muslim students ... have been doing all they can. They do academic stuff but they need [help] from the University."

Over Before They Began

The frustration has also trickled over into the teaching ranks as well. Well-respected history professor Joel Beinin, who teaches classes focusing on the modern Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Stanford, is reportedly taking a two-year sabbatical to take a break from the formation of the program. He declined to be interviewed for this story, referring questions to Gregg, who was not available for comment.

Even so, just last winter students thought they were getting the break they had hoped for. With plenty of fanfare, Stanford officials announced the hiring of Dr. Sherman Jackson, a well-known professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Michigan, to chair the new program. The imminent involvement of Jackson, a Muslim who studied traditional Islam in Cairo and who is considered to be an expert on Islam in both academic and Muslim circles alike, was well received by the Muslim community on campus.

"We were very excited," said Ibraim Almojel, a native of Saudi Arabia who is completing his Ph.D. in division analysis at Stanford. Almojel had heard of Jackson in his homeland and began reading his books when he was told Stanford was bringing him to campus to direct the program.

"When I first heard the name and I told people around here, they were excited," he said. "I remember when we first heard he was confirmed we had a dinner and everyone was saying 'takbir' [Arabic for God is great] and 'allhumdulilah' [thank God]."

Just as quickly, however, came the news that Jackson would not be coming to Stanford after all. The reasons for the professor's sudden decision, after he had already agreed to a contract, and reportedly a month before he was scheduled to begin teaching, were mysterious.

"We were all on summer vacation. ... As soon as we got back to campus we immediately met with Bob Gregg to see what had happened and he said that the housing costs were too much for [Jackson] to move out here," says Shakir.

A group of concerned students have continued meeting with Gregg and other administrators about the progress of the program. But the failure to land Jackson changed the whole direction of the planned program, according to Shakir. Initially Stanford wanted to hire an experienced tenured professor to guide the program followed by an assistant professor. The other classes would be taught by a diverse group of teachers from different departments to help broaden the scope of Islam being studied.

But now the university has reversed its thinking, and instead of hiring from the top down, it is hiring from the bottom up according to Shakir. The program's first full-time staff member is scheduled begin teaching next fall.

Thirty-six-year-old Behnam Sadeki, a Ph.D. student at Princeton University with a focus on pre-modern Islam and Islamic law, is scheduled to teach four classes at Stanford, including a course on classical Islamic theology, another course on classical Islamic law and a course on the Koran. Sadeki said the program is expected to hire one more professor within the next year.

University officials declined to be interviewed for this article, but they no doubt would point to Sadeki's hiring as a sign of progress. And those who initially made the program possible have not given up hope.

"The institution moves at its own pace," Abbasi said.

Despite their frustrations, students like Almojel say they just want a chance to be more involved with the future development of the program.

"We just wanted them to hear what we want," he said. "We don't need to have a say on what goes and what doesn't go, but just to have a better understanding on what we want. I don't think we were asking for too much."

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