Relative Values: Akbar Ahmed and His Daughter Amineh
Akbar Ahmed, 65, the leading authority on contemporary Islam, has advised Prince Charles and President Bush. He has written many award-winning books and is a professor at the American University in Washington, DC, where he lives with his wife, Zeenat. They have four children. The eldest, Dr Amineh Hoti, 36, heads the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations in Cambridge, and the Society for (Inter-Faith) Dialogue and Action. In 2006 she published a book, Sorrow and Joy among Muslim Women. She lives in Cambridge with her husband, Arsallah, and their children, Ibrahim and Mina
AKBAR: My daughter’s name, Amineh, means “mother of the prophet of Islam”. I consider her a lucky child. I deeply love my four children — each, in their own way, doing remarkable things — but Amineh’s always been special. She’s not much older than her brothers and sister, but they have always looked up to her.
Apart from the joy of having our first child, her birth was responsible for my physical salvation. In 1971 I was posted as a young civil-service officer to what was then East Pakistan. It was an important job — deputy secretary to the chief secretary, who ran the province. There was a crisis between West and East Pakistan, which meant that West Pakistanis posted in East Pakistan were targets of the uprising. Three of my closest friends were brutally killed.
I could have been one of them. But Amineh was to be born and I went home to Karachi. Officially, all leave had been cancelled. I couldn’t imagine staying away for the birth of our first child and assured everyone I would be back within one week. But Amineh refused to be born. She delayed appearing until all flights between East and West Pakistan were suspended. War broke out between India and Pakistan, but Amineh was born in great leisure on November 22. And her dad was not slaughtered or taken prisoner.
Even when she was tiny, we didn’t treat Amineh as a baby because we were struck by this small, poised, contented person. She seemed a natural leader.
I had a parallel career as both a commissioned civil servant and an academic. Whenever I needed to preserve my sanity from the suffocating environment of the civil service, I spent time in a western university. We traveled everywhere as a family, which meant taking Amineh, and later her siblings, out of school in Pakistan.
In 1980 we lived in North America, where I studied at Princeton and Harvard. Professor Lawrence Rosen, one of America’s greatest professors of anthropology, talked then about Amineh’s quiet confidence when she was just eight years old. When her book was published, in 2006, Larry’s blurb was on the cover.
It’s always a pleasure to talk with my daughter because she has the ability to understand and communicate difficult concepts. One of my proudest moments was when I was invited to a prize-giving at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Murree, considered the best girls’ boarding school in Pakistan. Amineh was head girl. She passed her final exams with merit, so prize-giving was a big deal for both of us.
We moved to Cambridge, where Amineh studied for her A-levels, going on to do a degree at the London School of Economics. Then she married, had two children and continued her studies. In our culture it is usual for married women to disappear from academic life. I didn’t want that for Amineh, and I encouraged her to do a PhD with fieldwork in Pakistan. For a mother of two young children it was sheer, sustained slog. Luckily my daughter has a sense of humor. She would joke: “Why can’t you be a typical Muslim father and tell me to stay home and look after my children!” I replied: “Amineh, please, do your PhD for me. That’s all I’ll ever ask you. Just think, you’ll be the only woman anthropologist from your field. If you leave, how will you change Muslim society?” Completing her PhD was an incredible achievement — a sustained act of courage from someone who reflects the very best of what it means to be Muslim. As a father and as a Muslim I know what having her in the field means to our turbulent world. I am so proud of the work she is doing.
Towards the end of his life my father kept asking me to write a book on Islam. I refused, saying I was an anthropologist, not a scholar of Islam. But he insisted: “You have to write a message of peace and compassion within Islam. It is your destiny to do this.” At heart, my father was a Sufi [Sufism is a mystical tradition within Islam], and within Sufism the father passes on the flame of knowledge to the next generation.
When my father was dying, I wrote Discovering Islam, which became a television series and well known in the West. All because of my father. Eventually I realized what he had done, without ever saying. He had taught me that I was part of a chain. Amineh is now the critical member of the chain of the next generation. She has to pick up the flame and carry her knowledge of Islam and compassion to the world.
I have this joke with her — which is slightly blasphemous. When I die and am up in heaven trying to enter the gates, a divine figure says: “Where do you think you’re heading for? I’m sorry, but your list of sins and crimes is so long, you’ll have to go down there to the other place.” But I say: “Wait. I have an ace up my sleeve. I’m Amineh’s dad.” And the divine figure answers: “Okay. That’s fine. If you’re Amineh’s dad, you can go to heaven.”
AMINEH: When my parents told me I had a place at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Murree — Benazir Bhutto went there — I was really excited. My father took me to the school, which was very far away. We had a driver. It was so nice for me to have the comfort of my father next to me. I sat in the car with my head on his shoulder. For a seven-year-old, the magnificent school building on a hilltop was imposing. Before leaving, he’d given me a huge box of chocolate bars. It was reflective of his generous nature that he’d bought the entire carton. Then he said goodbye, leaving me with the nuns. And at 7pm, the impact of what had happened hit me. We were high up in Northern Pakistan, where nights are very cold. Suddenly I was a child wanting the comfort and warmth of my mother and father.
I wanted my home. Girls younger than me were sobbing too. But in time I learnt to deal with being homesick. School was regimented, with study periods at 6am, before breakfast. That discipline gave me the tools to cope with anything.
Apart from occasional visits and periods when I went to live with my parents in America, they had to guide me from a distance. Schools in Princeton and Boston were completely different. I made friends from different countries and saw my parents with their colleagues and friends. I learnt to value the plurality and otherness of the world.
Many girls at the convent had far more potential than me. They were so bright but, as is normal in our culture, they married and gave up their studies. When my father was invited to speak at prize day, he gave a speech which made me so proud. But part of me wished that I was just an “ordinary” pupil.
I studied in Cambridge, where again the family had moved for my father’s work. During my A-levels I became much closer to him. He loved walking to keep himself fit. If my mother was busy in the house he would say: “Come, let’s go for a walk.” On the way we would discuss his ideas and my studies. My journey home from school was long, but I would often walk a few bus stops and, inevitably, my father would meet me to walk and talk the rest of the way.
At 18 I had a dilemma — should I go to my father’s book launch in Islamabad or the wedding of a close friend in another part of Pakistan? I’d been to every other book launch. As he wrote a book each year, and because, hopefully, my friend would only get married once, I decided I could always go to his next book launch. At the wedding I saw Arsallah, who was to become my husband. He was very striking, with bright-blue eyes. People in the frontier region are known for their beauty. I was shy and didn’t talk to him directly, which is the way of our culture. But his family sent us a proposal via my aunt, to find out if we were interested. Arsallah was from a very good family, he was 10 years older than me and had studied in America and Switzerland. My mother, too, was 10 years younger than my father. The proposal was accepted.
We were engaged for three years so that I could finish my degree at LSE. We married and my husband was incredibly supportive. Breaking all conventions, I went back to do post-graduate work.
It was a tough year. By then I was pregnant. In Pakistan I would have had servants and an easy life. Instead, I was working so hard, living with my husband in the International Students House. Then my father encouraged me to apply to Cambridge to do my PhD. I feel I should award my husband a medal for allowing me to study. I really respect him for everything he did to help me.
Apart from the academic work, I had two young children to care for. Then we found out my mother-in-law had cancer. Even with my parents in Cambridge, it was hard. Many times I thought of giving up, asking myself why couldn’t I just be a normal wife and mother? Why was I killing myself? But in my heart — not just because of my father — I knew how important it was to finish my PhD.
I thought of Rabbi Hillel who said: “If not me, who? If not now, when?”
After my PhD I started inter-faith dialogue at my college, Lucy Cavendish. I had huge support from the mayor of Cambridge and many of my father’s colleagues. Sir Sigmund Sternberg, the father figure of inter-faith work, came to Cambridge for our first meeting. I’m sure he came out of respect for my father. When I was asked to become director of the Centre for Muslim-Jewish Relations, to which Prince Hassan of Jordan has given his support, my father said that if the post had been offered to him, he would have taken it right away. He talks about passing on the flame.
But I’m not even sure I’m the right one yet. I just know I have to do it.
Muslim women are key players in the home and family, which are the core of our society. My mother is my father’s rock. She has always been there for him, making his life possible in so many ways. They are a brilliant team. He gets up at 3 or 4am to record the words for his speeches and books. My mother types everything up. She could have had a comfortable life with servants, but she chose to be the greatest support to my father. People like my parents, with their shared sense of what is right, and their positive vision of the world, should be treasured. The word “jihad” means a struggle but it doesn’t mean a fight. It means a struggle in the most positive way — working towards a shared world of plurality and respect. My father has dedicated his life to that struggle.
He is a wonderful person in my life — a confidante and friend as well as my dad — someone with whom I can share ideas. If I phone him about the smallest thing, he never says he’s too busy. As a woman, I see him as having both the gentlest touch and the strength of his beliefs. His spirituality is internal and peaceful — rituals are not the things that make a man, it’s what you give to your fellow human beings and to the world that matter. For me, our bond of father and daughter reflects the Prophet Muhammad and his daughter Fatima.
I am truly inspired by him.