Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, October 2, 2000

Moosa leads Stanford's Muslim community


He's named after two prophets and he's handy with his own teachings and verse. He has advised Nelson Mandela's government on Muslim issues. His scholarly pursuits include modern Islamic thought and medieval thought, Islamic law in sub-Saharan Africa, and Islamic family law and how it has undergone change.

He is Ebrahim Moosa, a visiting lecturer in the Religious Studies Department and a part-time associate dean for religious life at Stanford. And in his role as an Islamic imam, or community leader, his influence extends from California to Cape Town as he offers guidance on religious, social justice, gender and other matters.

photo: L.A. Cicero

"Professor Moosa is someone students know they can turn to for assistance," says Narjes Misherghi, a student member of the Islamic Society of Stanford University (ISSU). "This has proven to be crucial to many students who are away from home and still in the process of building their social foundation here at Stanford."

Moosa, 43, understands the nuances of making a home in a distant land. A fourth-generation South African of Indian heritage, he completed his undergraduate work in Islamic studies in India. Currently, Moosa is on a "special leave of absence" from the faculty of the University of Cape Town, an arrangement made in 1998 after his home there was bombed.

Finding an Islamic identity

Moosa was named after the prophets Abraham and Moses by his paternal great-grandfather, a fruit wholesaler from Gujarat in western India known in his adopted land as "Moosa Cape Town." He was the first of the family to immigrate to South Africa. To this day, visitors wishing to locate descendants of the produce merchant need only ask for "Moosa Cape Town," Moosa says, and they will be pointed in the right direction.

In the home, Moosa's family placed an emphasis on Indian culture, but outside of it, Moosa treaded in a different, sometimes violent world. Because there were so few Indians and no separate Indian schools in the Cape Province when he was growing up, Moosa attended schools for mixed race children who were classified as "colored" under the apartheid system. (Indians currently make up 2.2 percent of South Africa's population.) At the "colored" schools, Moosa was mocked for his culture and physical appearance -- his straight black hair and pointed nose were features markedly different from his classmates'.

During his teenage years Moosa began to draw on Islam as a source of identity. "Being alienated by politics and race -- religion and Islam gave me some substance for identity with millions of people elsewhere in Africa and in other parts of the world," Moosa says. Through his after-school job selling newspapers, he kept informed of developments such as the Arab oil embargo and the achievements of boxer Muhammad Ali and other important figures he was related to by faith. He began to appreciate that Islam was important in the world and that "Muslims stood for something."

Moosa's political awareness deepened when he left South Africa to study Islamic theology in India. "It was in India that I learned from the African National Congress -- which had an office in Delhi -- what the real plight of people in South Africa was," he recollects. "Of course, I witnessed racial segregation but did not know how to resist or fight it. Most blacks, coloreds and Indians over time learned how to live under harsh segregationist laws. We had learned how to survive."

When he returned to South Africa in 1984, Moosa said, he was "ready to take on every aspect of apartheid rule that I was capable of challenging. I recognized white authority had no moral grounds, and I constantly engaged in a battle with such authority at every front. In the workplace, at civic amenities, everywhere I felt compelled to defy."

Now, from the vantage point of his office in Building 70, Moosa reiterates his stand: "I was critical of the passivity and silent complicity of the Muslim clergy with racism." Such a position "did not endear me to some, but the struggle required defiance on all fronts."

Those he displeased are believed to include an organization called Pagad (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs), whom Moosa suspects may be responsible for the bomb that destroyed his Cape Town home in 1998. The blast left a massive hole in the family living room, tore off the bark from a nearby tree and was heard for several kilometers. Two years earlier, Moosa and Desmond Tutu, who at the time was the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, were among the first people to sign a statement critical of Pagad's "militancy and intolerance."

While neither Moosa, his wife, Nisa, or their two young children, now 13 and 8, were injured in the explosion, the vestiges of the trauma they experienced are with them today. And although some of the terrorists suspected in the bombing are in jail awaiting trial, Moosa has returned to South Africa for only brief periods. "One does feel anxious at times," he acknowledges.

From the front to the Farm

Moosa's path to Stanford began in 1997 in New Orleans, where Robert Gregg, then dean of the chapel at the university, heard him speak at a conference of the American Academy of Religion and was "very impressed" with his presentation. Gregg and Arnold Eisen, then chairman of the Religious Studies Department, invited Moosa to visit Stanford and give a lecture. Moosa was subsequently offered a position as a visiting faculty member in the department in Autumn Quarter 1997 to teach two courses on Islam.

Also that fall, Moosa engaged in a dialogue with Gregg on "Jesus and Mary in the New Testament and in the Qur'an," in which they discussed differing views from Islamic and Christian traditions. He also presented a sermon on sacrifice in Islam and fashioned another on freedom that paralleled themes expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "Freedom is neither a metaphor nor a slogan," Moosa declared. "Freedom means to be engaged in a spiritual and ethical liberation."

It had been a long time since Islamic courses or specialists in that field had been available at Stanford, Gregg explains.

Moosa returned to South Africa when the quarter ended, but after the bomb attack, Eisen and Professor David Holloway, director of the Institute for International Studies, "quickly moved" to arrange for Moosa and his family to return to Stanford, Gregg says.

"Professor Ebrahim Moosa brings to the Office for Religious Life a unique blend of religious commitment, academic rigor, interest in exploring a variety of different religious traditions, the courage of his deeply rooted religious convictions as well as an openness to challenging his tradition when necessary," says Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, Moosa's colleague. "He provides guidance and presence to the fast-growing Muslim community at Stanford and is well-respected and appreciated by faculty, students, alumni and staff. His humor and humanity enrich our community and enable us to learn a great deal about Islam and its influence in the world."

Moosa says he aims to cultivate international sensibilities and sensitivities at Stanford, where he reaches a more diverse audience than in previous assignments. "That poses different challenges," he says. While back home distribution of economic resources and social justice were front-burner issues, here in this more affluent environment, he'd like to advance broader human goals. He wants the Stanford community to be aware of its responsibility to the rest of the planet. "America is a world player in world politics," he says.

And he wonders: "How do we humanize ourselves when things are going so well around us?"

When he preaches, Moosa admits an element of indignation is evident in his tone. "I believe so strongly and passionately about these issues," he says. He acknowledges that his views might make some people uncomfortable.

"We don't all see the world in the same way," he says.

Moosa says his experiences in South Africa prepared him well for the cosmopolitan culture of Northern California by making him sensitive to questions about race and diversity and the difficulties -- the frustrations and anger -- minorities face in white society. "We are made to feel inferior by the dominant system," he says. That inferiority, he adds, is reinforced through advertising and the entertainment industry. In academia, he wants to give support to minorities to help them advance and be achievers.

"The university is a place where diversity must be nurtured," he says. To that end, Moosa participates in university multifaith services, serves as adviser to the ISSU and occasionally leads the congregational prayer service held each Friday at Old Union and other locations.

Abdul Rahman, a member of the congregation for 12 years, is glad to have Moosa's steady presence. "It's very important to have someone who will talk our language -- who will put something in your heart," says Rahman, a library worker at the Hoover Institution. "He can play a lot of roles," Rahman says.

The issue of gender justice figures prominently with Moosa as well. Female students seek his counsel on Islamic traditions. They'll hear something said in the mosque that conflicts with what they might be reading. "Women are grappling with questions of identity," Moosa says, recalling that in South Africa, his community duties ranged from counseling women with marital problems to serving as an expert witness in family law cases in the High Court.

"If the God of Islam we were discovering was anti-discriminatory on matters of race, the divine could not justify sexual discrimination either," he reasons.

Some of these issues are being addressed this year as Moosa convenes a series of three summits funded by the Ford Foundation on the topic of Islamic family law. The first conference, a gathering of 30 academics, mostly from South Africa, was held this past summer in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. A symposium is scheduled for next April in Dakar, Senegal, and the capstone -- a conference in Cape Town -- is set for November 2001.

Moosa's Stanford appointments, which also are supported by the Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Institute for International Studies, will continue for two more years.

Moosa is completing his newest book on the life and teachings of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, a 12th-century Islamic philosopher and theologian, that will be released by Oneworld Publications in February. In 1999, he edited Revival and Reform, a book by the late Fazlur Rahman, a Pakistani scholar of Islam whose manuscript had been left incomplete at the time of 1988 death.

This fall, as part of a course in world religions that is being offered through the Continuing Studies Program, Moosa will lecture on the Islamic tradition.

Moosa, who keeps fit by running in the foothills and swimming, wants members of the Stanford community to develop the independent thought muscle that will inspire them to confront their world. The way he sees it, "truth is something you discover for yourself that makes you understand reality."