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Islamic studies scholar delivers baccalaureate address

STANFORD -- At times of political, social and economic upheaval, Islamic scholar Azim Nanji takes heart in a 12th-century poem in which the world's birds gather to search out a king.

When the birds of different feathers convene, a guide tells them they have a king -- the Simorgh -- who lives in a faraway place. They decide to embark on a journey across seven valleys and seven mountains to reach the mythical place where they hope to find their spiritual leader. Along the way, they begin to question their origins and common identities.

Not all are willing to undertake the difficult quest, however. The amorous nightingale can't part ways with his beloved. The boastful hawk prefers the company of earthly kings. The cowardly finch is afraid of the long flight.

Of the thousands of birds that do take to the skies, only 30 make it across the last valley and mountain. In the absence of a king, they turn to each other and realize that they are Simorgh. In the poem, this revelation comes in the form of a pun, because si when translated means 30 and morgh means bird(s).

"In that moment of silence, comes recognition," Nanji told the 3,200 graduates and their guests who gathered in front of Memorial Church on Saturday, June 17, for the multi-faith baccalaureate celebration.

Nanji is believed to be the first Muslim in the university's history to be the main speaker at the service, which also featured music and spiritual readings by students and ministers of major religious groups on campus. Born in Kenya, Nanji received his doctorate from McGill University in Canada in 1972. He is the Islamic studies chair in the Religious Studies Department of the University of Florida-Gainesville.

The title of Nanji's talk, "A Convocation of Birds," was taken from the celebrated Sufi classic by 12th-century Persian mystic Farid ud-Din Attar. The text is one that is often read in Stanford's Cultures, Ideas and Values courses. It touches upon themes of identity, openness to the new, learning and self- discovery -- themes that Stanford students have grappled with in their years on campus and will continue to confront upon graduating, Nanji said.

He said that Stanford's campus lends itself to the contemplation of common pursuits: The architecture -- a blend of Mediterranean, Moorish and Romanesque styles -- "creates a language that shows us the university is a place of unity."

"The university," he added, "acts to provide us this public space, in which we may debate, in which we may ask, in which we may search and . . . in which we can forge a community that might allow us not simply to ask common questions but perhaps come up with common answers."

In the past four years, as students have traveled on their journey from being freshmen to seniors, many events have occurred in the space outside the university that have threatened to tear apart humanity's common social fabric, Nanji said.

Eastern Europe, for example, has been ravaged by violence and "by a sort of ethnic chauvinism and a short-sightedness about self that has led to the debacle of Bosnia." The world has witnessed atrocities in Rwanda and Burundi. Here in the United States, the recent bombing in Oklahoma City has called into question the longstanding belief that America's heartland is safe from terrorism. And although the end of apartheid in South Africa has come about and there is a very real possibility that the conflict in Northern Ireland might be resolved, Nanji said there has been a splintering of identity in societies on the whole that needs to be addressed.

"Balkanization seems to be everywhere," he said. Part of the reason for this fragmentation has to do with the emphasis that society places on the self at the expense of common values, he said.

Returning to the birds in the 12th- century poem, Nanji said those who felt the journey was not a worthwhile undertaking were "driven by the moment." For them, he said, it was far more important to stay within the world in which they felt comfortable than to venture beyond their circumscribed areas. It was only the birds who were willing to travel together to new horizons who were able to achieve the quest for unity.

As the graduates in his audience prepared to leave Stanford's comforting environment, Nanji warned them to beware of the tendency in today's world to overemphasize a person's market value -- a quality he said that is driven in part by self-interest and the needs of the moment at the expense of the larger humanitarian goals of compassion and sharing.

The choices in life will not be easy, Nanji said. "You are all going to go out in a world where the economy is unstable. There is no guarantee that all of you will have jobs. There is even no guarantee that all of you may be able to work in the fields where you have been trained. In the scheme of things that may be much more relevant than thinking about the spiritual and architectural resources that are present in your midst. "

But at life's important junctures, he added, the experiences and knowledge gained by graduates during their four years at Stanford will prove to be an invaluable well of support.

"All throughout the journeys that you take, this place and these resources will come back to you because they provide that mediating language that enables you to navigate each phase of your life."



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