Rest in peace, Shahab Ahmed, prominent Islamic scholar from Pakistan

A beautiful sunny day…  and Shahab Ahmed’s funeral. His friends, including prominent scholars some of whom had known him for decades and traveled long distances to be there, like Kamran Ali Asdar and Shahnaz Rouse; many from Harvard like Homi Bhabha, Parimal Patil, Asad Ali Ahmed, Martha Minnow, Asim Khwaja; students and former students now themselves teachers; family members; all devastated and in shock. We were together in this panel at Harvard on the ‘blasphemy’ issue a few years back. I had last heard from him in July when his then fiancé Nora replied on his behalf to an email I’d sent. That’s when I learnt he was ill in hospital. My report today, basically just getting the facts out for now. Thanks to Nora for sharing his biographical details and photo at her time of grief. (NOTE: Updated below with comments from Michael Cook, his dissertation advisor, and others):

Prominent Islamic scholar Shahab Ahmed laid to rest

Shahab Ahmed-Photo by Rehan Lashari

Shahab Ahmed in Pakistan. Photo by Rehan Lashari, courtesy Nora Lessersohn

Prominent Islamic scholar Shahab Ahmed, originally from Pakistan, was laid to rest on Saturday morning at the historic Mt. Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, his adopted home. Born in Singapore on Dec 11, 1966, he passed away on Sept 17, 2015 in Boston.

Dr. Ahmed’s former student Suheil Laher, currently a lecturer on Arabic at Harvard University, led the final prayers at the graveside. The scholars and students who participated in his final rites included men and women, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews, and atheists — appropriate, given Dr. Ahmed’s inter-faith work and inclusive outlook.

Diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia in June, doctors had planned a transplant for him that his sister Dr. Shahla Ahmed, a gynecologist in London flew in as a potential donor for. However, the transplant option had to be ruled out as his condition deteriorated.

Dr. Ahmed’s parents, Razia and Mohammed Mumtazuddin Ahmed, both doctors, had been with him for some days. They returned to Pakistan a week ago, hoping for a miracle.

Also bereaved is his wife Nora Lessersohn, a Ph.D. candidate in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. The couple tied the knot on Aug. 1 this year.

“I am dumbfounded,” said Prof. Shahla Haeri, an anthropologist at Boston University who has lived and worked in Pakistan. “How could a young intelligent energetic and exciting man like Shahab be dead? I am so sorry to hear that and want to extend my deepest sympathy to his wife, his family, and his friends.”

Shahab Ahmed was considered one of the world’s most promising and exciting new scholars in Islamic studies. Growing up in different countries, he attended primary school in Singapore, and did his GCE “A” and “O” Levels in Surrey, UK.

After obtaining a law degree from the International Islamic University, Malaysia he obtained his Bachelors and Masters degrees in Arabic Studies, both from American University in Cairo. He also taught there for a couple of years, 1998-2000.

In 1999, the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University, awarded him Ph.D. He was a Junior Fellow, Society of Fellows at Harvard University (2000-2003) then returned to Princeton as a Visiting Lecturer and Research Fellow (2004-2005).

In 2005, he returned to Harvard as Associate Professor of Islamic Studies. He also served on the University’s Committee on the Study of Religion. His last academic appointment at Harvard was at the Law School, where he was a Lecturer on Law, and Research Fellow in Islamic Legal Studies (2014-15).

Shahab Ahmed also taught in Pakistan at the Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University in 2007-2008, on leave from Harvard, and planned to return to Pakistan to teach again.

A recipient of several awards, distinctions and fellowships, Prof. Ahmed was looking forward to re-joining Princeton University in the coming academic year.

Islam book-Shahab AhmedHis much anticipated first book What is ‘Islam’? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press) to be published in December this year, has garnered critical acclaim from respected scholars in the fields of law and Islamic scholarship and history.

It offers “a new way of looking at Islam,” says Prof. Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton University. Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman terms the book as “not merely field changing, but the boldest and best thing I have read in any field in years.”

Engseng Ho, Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Professor of History, Duke University has called the work “Strikingly original, wide-ranging in its engagement, subtle in its interpretations, and hard-hitting in its conclusions”, predicting that it will “provoke debate for a number of years”.

Sadly, Shahab Ahmed is no longer around to participate in that debate.

Note: I had reached out to some of Shahab’s friends and colleagues for their comments – always hard when people are in a state of shock and mourning to begin with. Some views below.

“He was a brilliant scholar with immense promise, tragically cut short”

Michael Cook, a historian of the Islamic world, and Shahab’s dissertation adviser at Princeton.
“With a command of numerous Western and Eastern languages, a sharp mind and fine eye for detail, Shahab was a gifted researcher. He was, moreover, earnest in pursuit of learning and helping others to learn. He was not only well-grounded in Western academia but also well-acquainted with (and respectful of) the Islamic tradition of scholarship”
– Suheil Laher, PhD., Lecturer on Arabic, Harvard University, Dean of Academics and Senior Instructor, Fawakih Institute
“Shahab was one of a kind, and we will be learning from his work for years to come.”
Martha Minow, Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor, Harvard Law School

“… the most brilliant and creative scholar of Islam in his generation…” 

– Noah Feldman, Professor of Law at Harvard University, in a tribute published in Bloomberg

9 Responses

  1. Are you affiliated with Harvard? What degrees do you have from there? Just curious.


    • I was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard 2006, Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School 2007, and Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance 2013. I’m currently affiliated with the Harvard South Asia Institute as a media consultant.


  2. Saddened to learn the sad news of demise of a great scholar at Harvard. Join you all to mourn this loss. Offer heartfelt condolencs to his wife Nora, family members, friends and admirers.


  3. Just heard about this. I already pre-ordered his book and look forward to reading it. But I only learned about him through his death. Funny how life works.


  4. […] true historical fact.”  Ahmed, a brilliant scholar at Harvard, passed away in 2015, here is a short appreciation.  If they wrote books for me, someone would be working on “Islam and Strauss” right […]


  5. Too late I know about Shahab Ahmed who passed away in 2015. I just read his balanced and sharp comment on the destructive Wahhabism in his “What is Islam?” He is a brilliant thinker and scholar. Ahmad Syafii Maarif, Indonesia


  6. WHAT IS ISLAM has been the answer for all that I was seeking to clarify in Islam, as a new arrival to this culture, confirming it’s essential importance to the future of the world. Shahab Ahmed’s disappearance has been a blow.
    My wish would be to be able to have his book translated into Italian, my culture of birth.
    Brandino R.M.


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