A college professor can only do so much, says Mashhad Al-Allaf. The rest is up to his or her students.
"We cannot do everything. Our students are ambassadors. They go back and talk to families and friends about what they learn," Mr. Al-Allaf said in an interview this week at the University of Toledo.
The professor of philosophy joined UT's faculty this semester as the first person appointed to the Imam Khattab Endowed Chair of Islamic Studies.
The chair, funded by a $1 million endowment raised through donations, is named after Imam Abdelmoneim Mahmoud Khattab, who led the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo from 1980-1998. Imam Khattab died of cancer at age 69 in September, 2001.
The creation of the Islamic Studies chair has been anxiously awaited by many local Muslims.
"We as a Muslim community need a representative at the highest academic levels here in Toledo," said Dr. S. Zaheer Hasan, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo. "We need to foster intellectual dialogue and we are delighted with Dr. Al-Allaf's presence. We hope he will represent us appropriately and dispel certain misinformation about Islam."
Mr. Al-Allaf envisions his job at UT as going beyond academic lessons on Islamic philosophy and culture, helping to improve the quality of life in the Toledo-area by putting the principles taught in class to application in real life.
"Knowledge itself is not enough. We learn from certain goals or purposes," he said in his sun-drenched second-floor office in the university's Scott Hall.
The professor's brown eyes sparkle when he talks of Cordoba, Spain, in the 12th and 13th centuries, a time and place where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in peace and harmony.
"They lived in almost the same neighborhood. It was a living example of religious tolerance," Mr. Al-Allaf said.
The Spanish city flourished, intellectually and economically, with paved roads and streetlights in an era when such public amenities were rare. Cordoba's thriving culture led to other life "embellishments," he said, from artistic pursuits to public baths.
He is excited about the opportunity to build an Islamic studies curriculum from the ground floor at UT, and considers the task vital in improving the quality of life of the university as well as the community in general.
In fact, Mr. Al-Allaf turned down five previous offers to teach Islamic studies at other American colleges before accepting the Toledo position. He found it appealing because he likes the challenge of creating a program from the start.
"There are different kinds of creativity," he said. "You can be creative without being an artist."
With the Islamic holy month of Ramadan having commenced Sunday, Mr. Al-Allaf joins the world's 1.2 billion Muslims in abstaining from food, drink, and sensual pleasures from dawn until dusk.
Ramadan's requirements for self-discipline complement the professor's personal philosophy.
"Your intellect must control your desires. If not, they will demand more. If you do not control your desire for food, you will eat too much food. This is true for sexual desires, and the desire for control over other people - power," Mr. Al-Allaf said.
The soft-spoken, 49-year-old professor grew up in the city of Ninevah, Iraq. It is the city described in the biblical Book of Jonah, where the prophet Jonah went to preach after being swallowed by a whale. Muslims call the prophet Eunice.
Like ancient Cordoba, the Ninevah of Mr. Al-Allaf's youth was a place of religious tolerance and intellectual exchange. His parents would invite their Jewish and Christian neighbors to join them for coffee, and as a child he played with neighborhood youths of diverse faiths.
"There was no negativity. All religions were respected," he said.
While he was in high school, Mr. Al-Allaf decided to pursue a career in philosophy.
"My friends and family told me it will not get you a job, it is not rewarding in money. But I still decided to do it," he said. "And I studied with love and sincerity."
Mr. Al-Allaf said he was so caught up in his studies and the pursuit of knowledge that he never even gave a thought to his grades.
"One day, suddenly, I was told that I was first in my class, because of good grades," he said with a smile. "I did not even realize it."
He went to the University of Baghdad - at the time the only university in Iraq with a philosophy department - where he earned his bachelor's and masters degrees.
He immigrated to the United States 17 years ago with his wife, Majeda, whom he married in 1982, and is a naturalized citizen. The couple have two children, a daughter studying psychology at UT and a son in high school.
Mr. Al-Allaf received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and taught at St. Louis University, Washington University, and Webster University before joining the faculty at the University of Toledo.
He has written several books, including Islamic Biomedical Ethics; The Essential ideas of Islamic Philosophy, and Mirror or Realization.
He hopes to inspire his students to have the same enthusiasm he has for acquiring knowledge, and added that all religions put a high value on wisdom.
"Studying is a wonderful thing. There is no end to it. You can always learn," Mr. Al-Allaf said.
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