Islamic World Loses Its Expert on Muslim-Christian Relationship in Europe
Dr Ataullah Siddiqui(1954-2020) was an academic par excellence and a votary of interfaith dialogue
By Kashif Ahmad Faraz
With the passing away of the UK-based Dr. Ataullah Siddiqui on November 8, 2020, the Islamic world has lost one of its leading intellectuals and an authority on Muslim-Christian relationships in Europe.
Dr. Siddiqui, who was born in India in 1954 and went to the United Kingdom in 1982 for higher studies, worked for about 40 years for the Islamic Foundation in Leicester and its sister organisation, the Markfield Institute of Higher Education (MIHE). He was suffering from cancer that became the cause of his death.
At the Islamic Foundation, an educational institution based in Markfield, Leicestershire, he became a research fellow in interfaith relations, and subsequently, served as its director from 2001 to 2008. He did his PhD from the University of Birmingham on interfaith dialogue and also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Gloucestershire. After having specialised in Christian-Muslim relations, and Islam and pluralism, he founded the Muslim chaplaincy programme at MIHE and led it.
At a condolence meet held at Al Jamia Al Islamia, Santhapuram (Kerala), Dr. Abdussalam Ahmad, the rector of the institute, described Dr Siddiqui’s demise as a great loss to the Muslim community and the academic world. Recalling his last visit to the UK, Dr Ahmad said he had met Dr Siddiqui at the Markfield institute of London. “He was determined to support Al Jamia Islamia in its efforts to collaborate with reputable universities in the world and offered all support from Markfield,” he said and reminisced about his last conversation on the collaboration between Al-Jamia Islamia and Markfield collaboration on student exchange. Al Jamia welcomed Dr. Siddiqui in 2019, and he delivered a series of thought-provoking lectures.
“Dr. Siddiqui was among the few leaders who represented intellectual activism in the Islamic world,” Dr. Ahmad said.
Prof. Mohammad Ahmadullah Siddiqui, Professor and Director of Journalism Program at Western Illinois University, US, recalled that soon after joining the Islamic Foundation, UK, in 1982, as a research fellow, he focused on interfaith relations as well as interfaith understanding. He started publishing a small newsletter called “Focus” that gave a lot of information on missionary work, especially in Sudan, Nigeria and West Africa. “He provided an in-depth information on how missionaries prepared themselves and what was their focus. His writing and speech were non-confrontational; he wanted to establish dialogue, an effort to engage, to understand,” Dr Ahmadullah said.
Dr Ataullah grew up and became a specialist in interfaith work not only in the UK but throughout Europe.
While working with the Islamic Foundation, Dr Ataullah enrolled at the University of Birmingham in 1994 for his PhD on Muslim-Christian relationship. “Whenever I visited the Islamic Foundation, I always found him immersed in his work, surrounded by books and journals, working and producing”, Dr Ahmadullah added.
Dr. Ahmadullah said that when his teacher, the late Irfan Ahmed Khan, planned an international conference in 2001 to establish a Muslim body for interfaith relations, he thought about Dr Ataullah and put him in charge. The conference was held in June 2001 where more than 60 Muslim interfaith leaders and activists from across the world participated, and the World Council of Muslims for Interfaith Relations (WCMIR) was established. “Dr Ataullah’s contribution was integral to the organization and without him the organization could not have flourished,” he said.
During this time, Dr Ataullah developed close relations with interfaith leaders of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Budhhist, Jains and other religions throughout Europe. He became an authority on interfaith relations, especially on the Christian-Muslim relationship. So much so that the British government commissioned him to study, research and write about the status of Islamic studies education in British universities. His work was eventually published in the form of a book.
When the Markfield Institute of Higher Learning was established, Dr Ataullah immediately associated himself with it, became its director and developed its curriculum, from certification to bachelor’s and master’s to PhD programmes. He was the director of the graduate programme from 2000 to 2008. He also published a journal called “Encounter”. It was the only journal that focuses on interfaith work, especially in the UK and Europe.
“For me, it is a personal loss of a friend whom I consulted not only in the area of interfaith but also in the general understanding of Islam, its development in the West, its challenges and issues. I always benefitted from his knowledge, wisdom and expertise,” Dr Ahmadullah explained.
According to him, Dr Ataullah was a decent human being. “Simplicity was his motto. He will be remembered through his work,” he said and called for continuing his legacy of interfaith dialogues, engagement with fellow human beings, and providing them with space where they can understand Islam.
H. Abdul Raqeeb, General Secretary, Indian Institute of Islamic Finance, described Dr. Ataullah Siddiqui as “a simple, humble and workaholic person who had an immense love for the country and the human beings, which made him “my ideal personality in the UK and I never missed to meet and interact with him whenever I visited the UK”.
“He was a man of dialogue,” Mr Raqeeb said and described the journal “Encounter” as impressive. “It was a journal with an intercultural perspective. It published articles with a new dimension on research and contemporary issues but unfortunately due to financial constraints, its publication was stopped,” he said and called for reviving it and bridging the gap between the communities through it.
“Dr. Siddiqui emphasized the requirement of Muslim chaplains in prisons, hospitals and other places and also prepared the course ‘Muslim Chaplainship in the UK’ and believed that the same is needed in India,” he added.
He continued: “H also emphasized that all interfaith scholars should know the customs and traditional practices of other communities across the world. One has to understand Christian and Jewish cultural and custom norms if one is willing to have interfaith dialogues in the UK. The same applies to India if one wants to work among Hindus, Buddhist, Jains, Sikhs etc.”
Engineer Muhammad Salim, Vice President, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH), recalled that when he visited the UK in 1995 for a research assignment at the University of Sheffield, he spent the nine months of his stay visiting the Islamic Foundation on weekends and interacting with Dr. Siddiqui. “He impressed me with his intellect, wisdom and the work for interfaith dialogues.”
Dr Siddiqui once visited the JIH headquarters in Delhi. “We met to discuss and plan the work in the fields of education and interfaith dialogue in India,” Engineer Salim said, conveying his condolences to Dr Siddiqui’s family and praying that Allah Almighty grant him the best in Jannah.
Dr. Farooq Murad, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, remembered Dr. Siddiqui as a quiet person who would not get argumentative but always contributed deeply. “The real interfaith is between Christians and Muslims because strategically and geopolitically, we are the largest community in the world and we haven’t got an expert of the calibre of Dr. Ataullah Siddiqui in this field and that’s why it is a major loss to the community,” he explained.
At Dr Siddiqui’s funeral, people from diverse backgrounds described him as “an abs olute role model for a Muslim Daee, one of the best that we received in the UK. A decent person who dedicated his whole to the service of Islam.”
May Allah Almighty reward him the best for his deeds and accept him in His Grace.