SHAFAQNA | by Zahra Asadian – “It is a duty to introduce the importance of Imam Ali (A.S) to humanity. We should not isolate and limit Imam Ali (A.S) to the Shias. Imam Ali (AS) is a major figure in development of what we know as Islam, in all its dimensions,” the holder of Imam Ali Chair in Shia Studies at HIU said in an interview with Shafaqna English, expressing that we should aspire to present and represent Imam Ali (AS) ever more. “While a few studies about Imam Ali (A.S) exist in English, French, and German languages, there is room for more and need for more, both scholarly works and writings for the general public”.
Dr Hossein Kamaly holds the Imam Ali Chair in Shia Studies and Dialogue Among Islamic Schools of Thought at Hartford International University and is full professor of Islamic and interreligious studies there as well. He is currently completing a monograph entitled “Giving Voice to Scripture: Tafsir in the Imami Shia Tradition”.
In an interview with Shafaqna English, Hossein Kamaly talks about Imam Ali Chair in Shia Studies and the question of introducing personality and teachings of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (AS) to modern world.
Imam Ali Chair is the first academic chair in North America to foster Shia Studies
Here is the full text of Shafaqna English’s interview with the third holder of the Imam Ali Chair in Shia Studies and Dialogue Among Islamic Schools of Thought at Hartford International University.
Shafaqna: You are the holder of the Imam Ali Chair for Shia studies and Dialogue of Islamic Legal Schools at Hartford Seminary. Please introduce Imam Ali Chair and its goals.
Hossein Kamaly: The Imam Ali Chair in Shia Studies and Dialog Among Islamic Schools of Thought is an endowed chair at the Hartford International University for Religion and Peace. As the name indicates, this academic chair emphasizes both excellence in scholarship and substantive dialogue among various schools of thought and practice. Officially, the Imam Ali Chair is the first academic chair in North America which is endowed specifically to foster Shia Studies and dialogue with other schools of thought.
The founding of this academic chair came about through the efforts of the late Professor Mahmoud Ayoub (1935-2021), who passed away last October. He was a prominent Shia scholar who understood the importance of building robust institutions for the sustained advancement of this highly important, but often neglected, field of scholarship. In recognition of Professor Ayoub’s stature as an academic as well as a kind and caring individual, several Shia institutions and individuals made contributions and donations to launch this chair.
The home of the Imam Ali Chair in Shia Studies, that is the Hartford International University for Religion and Peace (HIU) was known as the Hartford Seminary until the October of last year. HIU is a leading institution in the United States that has stood at the forefronts of religious work and scholarship since 1834—almost two hundred years now.
This institution has pioneered several important initiatives. It was the first seminary in America to open its doors to women; the first nondenominational theological institution in North America to name a Muslim to its core faculty; as of 2001, it launched a Muslim chaplains training program; and, of course, it is home to an endowed chair in Shia Studies in North America. HIU is now an international university dedicated to interfaith or interreligious scholarship and to peace-building in today’s diverse world.
I should add that Shia Studies in North America in general, and in the United States in particular, has had distinguished pioneers, notably Professor Hossein Modarressi, Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor Hamid Dabashi, Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina, and the late Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub, whom I already mentioned earlier. I could name many other scholars beyond the United States, both inside and outside the academia worldwide. However, that may be left for another discussion. Of course, scholars may differ in their methods, outlooks, and findings. Such variation gives shape, structure, and depth to scholarship. Regardless of difference, it is essential to recognize, acknowledge, and appreciate the contributions made by each and every one of the scholars who have enriched the field over the past several decades.
A conference on Shia Studies to be held in 2023 around the life of Bahaʾ Al-Din Al-ʿAmili
Shafaqna: What are the activities and achievements of this chair so far?
Hossein Kamaly: Well, this endowed chair is part of the Hartford International University and is housed at the Duncan Black MacDonald Center of the university. The holder of the chair teaches courses, supervises student research, conducts research, holds conferences, participates in administrative decision-making, and a lot more.
I have held this position since 2019, following two other respected colleagues who had served previously, since 2014 when the chair was launched. Since the beginning, a course is taught to introduce the Imami Shia tradition, its history and rich contents, to the students. However, instruction work is not limited to Shia-specific topics, mainly because the chair aims to foster dialogue and goes beyond isolating Shia studies from the broader fields of Islamic studies and religious scholarship.
A series of book presentations, entitled Ghadir Book Talks, has started. An annual conference on Shia Studies is being planned, the first of which is to be held next year (2023) around the life and times of the 16th-17th century Shia polymath Bahaʾ al-Din al-ʿAmili.
“It is a duty for us, all of us, to introduce Imam Ali (A.S) to humanity—not just Shias, not just Muslims, but all humans globally. Justice, truth, and ethical courage, which are inseparably bound with the legacy of Imam Ali (A.S), are urgently needed in our world.”
Shafaqna: What does Shia Islam present to the world today?
Hossein Kamaly: As an integral part of the bigger Muslim communities worldwide, Shias have enriched Islamic culture historically, and they continue to do so today—everywhere and not least in the North America.
Shafaqna: What is the best way to hold religious ceremonies such as Eid Al-Ghadir and Ashura in western countries and how can pure Islamic beliefs be introduced to young people?
Hossein Kamaly: The Hartford International University for Religion and Peace recognizes Eid Al-Ghadir on its academic calendar. This is a time to remember and to celebrate the Prophet’s (PBUH) legacy, and to share this with everyone else, Muslims and non-Muslims. Several Shia organizations run blood-donation drives, which has been quite effective and a great service to various communities.
Shafaqna: Please explain about your activities in the field of religious dialogue. How can Islamic Schools of Thought bridge ideological differences to have a more lasting unity among true Muslims and avoid extremism?
Hossein Kamaly: I suggest that more than building bridges, which may be a nice metaphor in its own right, we should encourage and foster substantive dialogue and engagement in knowledgeable discourse that raises the standard of understanding and cooperation intellectually as well as in social practice. Differences are there as indicators of continuous change and of a plurality of outlooks as well as a diversity of priorities. The point is to recognize and acknowledge difference —as deep-seated as it may be—but at the same time to commit our resources and ourselves to peace, justice, and to serving the Truth—first and foremost. Such commitments shape the inner core and the inalienable ethos of our various faith traditions. We need to foreground this kind commitment to truth, justice, and service, among all schools of thought and practice, Islamic and otherwise.
Imam Ali Chair at HIU celebrates the historic meeting between the Grand Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis as an endorsement of its mission to foster interreligious dialogue
Shafaqna: In 2021, we witnessed the historic meeting between the Grand Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis. How do you evaluate the impact of this meeting on strengthening peace, mutual understanding, and interfaith relations?
Hossein Kamaly: In fact, Hartford International University —which was still called the Hartford Seminary until last year— issued a statement to highlight this momentous meeting between two exalted religious leaders in our time. As the statement mentions, the ethos of the meeting was reflected in the welcome message, from a saying by Imam Ali (A.S): “All people either share your faith or are like you in being created by God.” The Imam Ali Chair at the Hartford University celebrates this meeting as an endorsement of its mission along with that of the Hartford University to advance academic knowledge, to foster interreligious dialogue, and to galvanize cooperation of all peoples toward peace and justice worldwide.
Shafaqna: How well is Imam Ali (A.S) known among the religious and academic circles in North America?
Hossein Kamaly: In short, I have to say, “regrettably not enough.” It is our academic duty to remedy this shortcoming. It is difficult to find books that address related topics adequately. I should say that as recently as 2018 Dr. Hassan Abbas published a good book entitled The Prophet’s (PBUH) Heir: The Life of ʿAlī ibī Ṭālib with Yale University Press, and Mr. Reza Shahkazemi published another inspiring and enlightening book, entitled Justice & Remembrance: Introducing the Spirituality of Imam Ali, back in 2006. These are relatively recent publications.
Other studies have appeared as well. However, if you look at encyclopedia articles that have appeared in a major reference works such as Encyclopedia of Islam, the first and second editions, the entries on Imam Ali (AS) fall short of being adequate.
So, it is necessary to do more. Imam Ali (AS) is a major figure in development of what we know as Islam and a lot more remains to be done to better present his teachings to audiences in the English-speaking world—academically and to the general public.
Given the centrality of Imam Ali (AS) in general, as you know, there are important works in Arabic, in Persian, and sometimes in Urdu and Turkish that need to be translated into English, French, German, and other. Multiple translations of Nahjul-Balāgha exist, but still a definitive translation remains to be made. It is not just the biography, or the words of wisdom, but the whole ethos needs to be presented.
“A few books about Imam Ali (A.S) exist in English, French, and German, but there is need for more.”
Shafaqna: As we know, Imam Ali (AS) has a multi-dimensional personality. How and with which of his characters should we introduce Imam Ali (AS) to Western or modern people in this era?
Hossein Kamaly: I agree. It is not the Western audience primarily or exclusively but the modern audience in the broad sense, whether they are Muslim, Shia or not. Regardless of the place of their birth and growth, whether in the North America, Europe, or elsewhere. The ethos that we learn from Imam Ali (A.S), including the centrality of justice—in thought and action—the idea of standing up for truth, the ethical ideal of taqwā, all of this and a lot more need to be introduced and emphasized in a world that urgently needs such ideals.
Shia media efforts ought to be directed toward aspiring for the highest standards possible
Shafaqna: From your point of view, how should the Shia media act in this regard?
Hossein Kamaly: All media including Shia media, need to speak in the vernacular of their audiences in the contemporary world. It does not suffice to use the language of previous centuries without incorporating updates and caveats. Such a limitation would fail the current and future generations. In particular, today’s educated public, not least the youth, are neither persuaded nor convinced by monologue. Rather, they expect dialog, conversation, and respectful discourse. They are interested in hearing multiple ideas, learning about different points of view.
No doubt, such an openness to plurality is important to foster for Shia media as well. Of course, Shia media ought to use modern techniques, modern instruments. They do. More significantly, they should give more weight to communicating through aesthetic form, substantive content, and the hermeneutics of contemporary discourse. All of these have been reflected in Shia culture historically, whether it is in prose, poetry, tafsīr, architecture, philosophy, and more. Now, that mediums have changed, now we have film, animation, and more, efforts ought to be directed toward raising the standard, and indeed to toward aspiring for the highest standards possible.
Shafaqna: How do you evaluate current media activities?
Hossein Kamaly: As far as I am familiar with them, their activities are necessary. Of course, there needs to be more substance: in form and content, both. Most centrally, in my view, is that the sowing of sectarian strife is like spreading poison. Moreover, I am not so much concerned with quantity but with quality of presentation—in form and content. Of course, quality needs to be improved, consistently and constantly. You know there is a saying by Imam Ali’s son, Imam Hussain (AS) who said: “Aspire to achieve the highest in your endeavors.”
And then in a Hadith from Imam Sadiq (AS) we have that “Tell our Shias that wherever you are be the best at what they do”. This is a responsibility for the Shia to be good at what they do. So, Shia media carry the responsibility of seeking and conveying the highest and noblest ideals expressed by Imam Ali (AS) and the Ahlul-Bayt (AS) of the Prophet (PBUH)—truth, justice, beauty, compassion, knowledge, excellence. Of course, in keeping with the highest teachings of Imam Ali (AS), all Shias, including those who work in Shia media organizations, must dedicate themselves to presenting the truth and to abiding by the overarching ethos of justice and Taqwā.
Shafaqna: Thank you very much for participating in this interview.
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