In many ways, the late AbdulHamid AbuSulayman was a living example of his global view on the world and Islamic studies. Now, with a multi-million dollar commitment secured through the Mirza Family Foundation, the newly unveiled AbuSulayman Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University is a powerful, and serendipitous, tribute that will create a lasting and impactful legacy.
AbuSulayman sought the recognition of Islam as a global religion. After all, more than a quarter of the world’s population is Muslim, and they live in locations far from the Middle East where the religion originated. Today, most Muslims live in Asia (Indonesia has the largest Muslim population with more than 230 million). Mason’s Center for Global Islamic Studies had already worked in that vein for 13 years, from helping K-12 teachers integrate Islam into world history and social studies curricula to supporting the creation of the world’s first study Qur’an.
|Dr. AbdulHamid AbuSulayman, 1936 - 2021|
When AbuSulayman passed in August of 2021, and the family looked for ways to honor his legacy, Mason seemed a perfect fit, if not also perfect timing, as the previous term of funding for the center was coming to an end.
Mason’s Center for Global Islamic Studies is the place to “fulfill the legacy of your father,” Yaqub Mirza told AbuSulayman’s family. Mirza, a longtime supporter and friend of the university, formerly serving on the George Mason University Foundation’s Board of Trustees and current member of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) Dean’s Advisory Board, helped facilitate the center’s naming recognition in honor and memory of Abdulhamid AbuSulayman.
The gift will allow the center to renew old programs and build new initiatives, including creating new international partnerships that realize AbuSulayman’s global vision. Mason students and faculty will now carry out this vision and benefit from more robust scholarship and research support.
“This transformative gift represents the ideals of what a philanthropic partnership can accomplish for a research center—supporting students and programs as well as faculty research—all of which help to undergird our college’s commitment to excellence in teaching and research. This partnership with the Mirza and AbuSulayman families will propel and expand the impact of the center’s work, and we are immensely grateful for this new philanthropic collaboration,” noted College of Humanities and Social Sciences dean Ann Ardis.
“What this new gift will do is give the center the financial security to think big and get creative,” added Peter Mandaville, outgoing center director and professor of international affairs. Mandaville recently accepted a two-year appointment at the United States Institute of Peace and will be taking a leave of absence from Mason.
“We are going to be able to build on the center’s success and address global issues facing Islamic communities,” said Maria Dakake, associate professor of religious studies and interim director. Dakake has been closely involved with the development of Islamic Studies at Mason for two decades, having served previously as one of the center’s directors.
THE GLOBAL LEGACY OF ABUSULAYMAN
To AbuSulayman, Islam is a global religion, and studying a global religion calls for a global perspective.
“Dr. AbuSulayman is someone whose life story and biography reflect his global approach,” said Mandaville. AbuSulayman was from Saudi Arabia by birth, went to Egypt for college, and then came to the United States to earn his PhD, “where he was an important figure in the early formation of American-Muslim communities and organizations,” noted Mandaville. AbuSulayman then went to Malaysia to become the rector of its International Islamic University, among other notable accomplishments.
“He was very creative, a contemporary scholar, and he came up with ideas to interpret the scripture,” said Mirza, a longtime friend of AbuSulayman and his family. “He was unique.”
So unique, he was the first to consider international relations from the perspective of the Muslim world. Towards an Islamic Theory of International Relations, AbuSulayman’s doctoral thesis, published in 1993, was revolutionary in its counter to a traditional, Eurocentric view of the field, which had often overlooked the impact of Muslim countries and cultures.
But AbuSulayman was not just interested in giving voice to the Muslim perspective. He also wanted to embed a global viewpoint into education—reforming how Islamic issues, and indeed all issues, are studied and taught. Islamic studies should not simply be focused on religious views or geography, but should have interdisciplinary reach across various social and political sciences.
“Dr. AbuSulayman reached the conclusion that human development and progress, particularly in the Muslim world, would be best served…through the creation of pedagogical environments in which diverse traditions of knowledge could coexist and cross-fertilize in pursuit of a more holistic conception of education,” said Mandaville.
AbuSulayman’s work at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), where he was chairman, is part of that legacy. Founded in Pennsylvania and now headquartered in Herndon, Virginia, the organization is a hub for scholarship and research that advances education in Muslim societies.
But in looking for a place to enshrine AbuSulayman’s global legacy, the family would have to look no further than Mason, which has always focused on a world perspective.
THE PERFECT FIT
The AbuSulayman Center for Global Islamic Studies may seem like it was destined to exist.
First, start with the connections. AbuSulayman’s daughter, Muna AbuSulayman, graduated from Mason in 1996. During the George Mason University Alumni Association’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2018, she was honored as one of 50 high-achieving Alumni Exemplars who embody and exude what it means to be a Mason Graduate. Several other AbuSulayman family members over two generations are studying at, or have graduated from, Mason.
Yaqub Mirza not only has a long history with Mason, but with the center since its inception. It was an initial first gift from IIIT (where Mirza was working at the time) that endowed Mason’s first-ever professorship in Islamic Studies, which led to the naming gift from Ali Vural Ak and the establishment of the center itself.
But the pieces really start to fall into place when you consider the global perspective of the center and how well it aligns with AbuSulayman’s life and vision.
The center was always unique in that it did not subscribe to the philosophy of many other U.S. Islamic centers that tended to study Islam and Muslim societies as corollaries of the Middle East, noted Mandaville. Mason’s center, housed within CHSS, benefits from a multidisciplinary faculty and is focused on Muslim communities and their interconnectedness across the globe.
“A lot of the projects that I have been involved in since the center was set up 13 years ago have been focused on understanding the exchange in cross-fertilization of ideas, peoples, goods, and culture between different regions in which Muslims are present,” he said.
Upon the center's founding in 2009, it was not an accident that global was in the title—the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies.
“It was a very conscious desire to foreground the global paradigm in Islamic studies,” added Mandaville. “And it became the defining focus of our work.”
That focus has earned Mason a worldwide reputation for global Islamic studies. Its work has attracted support from a diverse range of sources, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Social Science Research Council, the El-Hibri Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John Templeton Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, and, of course, the Mirza Family Foundation.
THE LASTING IMPACT
Mason’s center has been at the forefront of Islamic studies for over a decade, and this new gift will cement that position and firmly fulfill AbuSulayman’s vision.
The gift will first reinforce the center’s current work, which includes supporting undergraduate and graduate students in Islamic studies (including scholarships), creating community resources, and producing broad and impactful research. Examples of the center’s work and research include:
• Maydan (themaydan.com), a site offering expert analysis and multidisciplinary perspectives on the historical, intellectual, and global patterns and developments influencing the Muslim world.
• Muslim Journeys Bookshelf, a set of more than 25 books and documentaries distributed to 1,000 public libraries, academic libraries, and state humanities councils nationwide to familiarize the public with the diversity of Muslims across the globe.
• After Malcolm: Islam and the Black Freedom Struggle (aftermalcolm.com), a digital archive that documents African American Muslim contributions to the struggle for justice in the United States.
• Islamic Moral Theology in Conversation with the Future, an initiative that brings together Muslim scholars and thinkers from around the world to explore the relevance of Islamic moral theology to issues facing the Muslim community and humankind globally.
Going forward, Mandaville says the center is looking at new initiatives that fully realize AbuSulayman’s global vision.
“We want to begin trying to reflect this global Islamic studies paradigm in new international, institutional partnerships,” said Mandaville, “where we begin connecting ourselves with similar centers that do Islamic studies research with a common approach in other countries around the world, including the Muslim-majority ones.”
“These new international partnerships, which will enable things like exchanging faculty, students, and researchers, are something we will be prioritizing.”
To start, the center is exploring connections with existing centers in Malaysia, Indonesia, Bosnia, and South Africa.
“We are excited about the opportunities these new partnerships will bring,” added Dakake, “not just for our faculty and students, but for the advancement of Islamic studies as a discipline that studies Islam from a global perspective.”
The work of the center, supporting a broader understanding of the global legacy and future of Islamic and Muslim societies, is critical in its own right. This task is even more daunting when placed in today’s ever-changing social and political environment, where rising anti-Muslim sentiment, ongoing social turmoil, and war and genocide sometimes seemingly work against the center’s efforts.
Encouragement, perhaps, can be found in how AbuSulayman viewed scripture.
“Times have changed,” said Mirza, recounting some of AbuSulayman’s philosophy. “And the beauty of the scripture is that it provides solutions to changing times.” This challenge of exploring the dynamic nature of religion—and the ongoing effort to understand texts in ever-changing global contexts—will be the heart of the AbuSulayman Center’s mission.
November 10, 2022