Maybe for this reason, news of untimely deaths upsets us. This was the case with Ibrahims death, which was upsetting not only for me but also for all his Christian, Muslim and Jewish friends. We all agreed that his death was too soon.
I met Ibrahim on a fine day in May in 1998. During my service as a visiting professor at Harvard University, Turkish students enrolled in the universities in the Hartford region invited me over. On my way from Boston to Hartford, we passed through a sea of green life rejuvenated after a harsh winter. Amongst this beauty, we discussed the issues and overall state of Muslims and Muslims students in the United States.
We continued this discussion and conversation with other friends over breakfast. I asked the audience whether there was a Muslim academic there and they mentioned with praise a Palestinian professor who had been of great help to them. They said: He pays attention to us and our problems, he invites us to his home and everybody knows him here. I asked them if we could pay him a visit, but they did not have his phone number. I asked if we could head to Hartford Seminary, but they told me that because it was Sunday, there was no way that we would find anybody there. I replied: It doesnt matter, lets do our job. Besides, Hartford Seminary is an important institution and I would like to see it.
So we took off. The white building of Hartford Seminary was indeed closed. There was nobody there except the people passing by on their way to church. I walked around the building and, at that moment, I saw somebody coming out with a book in his hand. I approached him and asked if he knew Ibrahim Abu Rabi. He said: He is a friend of mine. I will call him up if you want me to.
I noticed that my friends were a little embarrassed but I was really happy. They quite rightly told me that it was Sunday and that even American Muslims did not want to be bothered on that day but I was determined to meet this guy and I would take my chances. On the phone, I told him I was a professor and would like to meet him, saying: I know it is Sunday, but I would like to meet you and I am here now. It is a custom for me to pay visits to Muslim scholars.
Ibrahim took the offer without hesitation, replying: Wait for me there, I am coming. He was there in 15 minutes and thus our friendship started. On the very same day, Ibrahim proved his generosity, his most prominent feature. He invited me and my friends over to dinner. Afterwards, I asked my friends permission to walk with him alone. To talk more comfortably, we headed to a nice place by a lake. It was like heaven. During my stay in Hartford in the years to come, I realized that Ibrahim came here often and, most of the time, we would come together.
An autographed book
We loved each other by the end of that day. Before we parted, he gave me an autographed copy of his book, The Intellectual Roots of Islamic Movement, which was later translated into Turkish. I started reading it that night. There was inconsistency between the title and the content of the book, which focused on the Islamic movements in the Arab world, leaving the others aside. This was odd to me and I decided to let him know. I wrote to him: Your book is great, but I think something is missing. No Islamic movements from Turkey were included. Said Nursi, M. Zahit Kotku, Süleyman Hilmi Tunahan and even Fethullah Gülen, none of them are mentioned in the book. What do you mean by Islamic movements? Only political ones? If so, the Islamic movements in Turkey cannot be analyzed and understood.
From his response, I realized that he was indeed a serious scholar. He said he agreed with most of my criticism and humbly told me that he did not know Turkey well. This was a turning point in our friendship. I would help him better understand Turkey and the Islamic movements in Turkey, a duty I tried to perform with impartiality. Ibrahim frequently invited me to the US and he played a key role in my assignment as visiting professor at Hartford Seminary. I referred to Ibrahim as my mentor. Thats right; it is not easy to give lectures and become successful in a different place. I watched him closely, attending many seminars, conferences and other events with him. His fluency in English made even Americans admire him. To prove himself as a Palestinian in the US he taught in English. This was the primary reason for his assignment as the editor-in-chief of The Muslim World journal. He taught me about the English language and academic writing. Actually, he did more.
He made sure that I attended seminars and lectures on these subjects in nearby universities. He also welcomed me into his home and he offered me a place to stay. I was hesitant at the beginning, but I took the offer upon his insistence. We stayed together for six months, during which our friendship turned into brotherhood. I became part of his family.
During this period, I became familiar with him, his family and his friends. He had many friends from different backgrounds; Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and even those who worship goddesses. Vicky was of the latter group. I better understood the pluralistic composition of the American society through conversations and discussions with her.
I became acquainted with different colors of the Islamic world through Ibrahim. He welcomed all, ranging from radical groups to Sufis. However, he was able to embrace all these different and diverse colors through his critical approach. But for Ibrahim, Turkey and the Turks were different. He had a special interest in Turks. He loved saying: My grandma was an Ottoman. My grandpa met her on his way back to Palestine from the Sarıkamış Battle and then they got married. For this reason, I can be partly considered an Ottoman. One of his desires was to learn Turkish and follow Turkish literature.
When I told him he should take lessons from TÖMER, he accepted with no hesitation. He left his house to me and headed to İstanbul with his wife, renting an apartment in Üsküdar. Throughout his life he maintained his friendship with Faris Kaya, who gave him Turkish lessons. At this time, he became familiar with Said Nursi and the Risale-i Nur community; he loved him and their works, dedicating his time and energy to introducing them to the world for the rest of his life. I told him it would be best for him to get to know other Risale-i Nur groups and he agreed with me.
During his stay in İstanbul, he met with figures who knew Said Nursi well and he asked them questions and took notes. He told me that he would love to see Fethullah Gülen when he got back to the US. This request was forwarded to Gülen but the state of his health was not suitable for this meeting. They did end up meeting later. Ibrahim was pretty happy as he told me over the phone, I met with a living Muslim leader closely and I now better understand him.
Learning from Fethullah Gülen
He believed that the Islamic movements in the Arab world have a lot to learn from the experience and actions of Gülen. His efforts to better know Turkey, the Islamic movements in Turkey and Muslim intellectuals influenced his scholarly works as well. The best indicator for this was the prestigious The Muslim World journal, where he served as editor-in-chief.
The journal, once a leading publication for missionaries and Orientalists, reserved greater room for Muslims under his administration. The number of articles authored by Muslim intellectuals and scholars was on a constant rise during this period. Ibrahim did not even find this sufficient. He published special issues focusing on the Islamic movements in Turkey, including issues published on Nursi, Gülen and the Department of Religious Affairs in Turkey. The publications of The Muslim World, which has been shown great attention in libraries and universities in the US and Europe since its foundation in 1911, reached out to large masses. I personally witnessed the role Ibrahim played in this process.
I still remember how he dealt with some board members of the journal who argued that the journal had fallen under the control of Muslims and how he emphasized the need for knowledge-based cooperation between Muslims and Christians. At this point, I would like to tell the secret that Ibrahim had aligned himself with the Nur community and his dedication to fulfilling their requests.
Let me first state this: I never witnessed a material dimension of this relationship. Ibrahim expected no material gain out of these invitations. What mattered to him were Said Nursi and his cause. He was impressed by Nursis dedication and struggle. After he learned about Nursi, Ibrahim said: He dedicated himself to Islam and he had to go through so much in his struggle. He had no children or family that would promote his cause. We all are his heirs and children. We have to promote his case. Nursis life in exile and his comments on being exiled were particularly impressive to him.
The notion of exile bore special meaning for a Palestinian whose country was occupied by Israel and whose relatives were still living in refugee camps. In addition, he also told me that he felt he was in exile in the American society despite the 25 years he had spent in the country. He even presented this as a paper in a symposium. For all these reasons, he paid particular attention Said Nursi and his works. He did everything, including serving as editor in the publication of works and books on Nursi in the Western world. He attended events organized on this particular subject all around the world. Like Malcolm X, he traveled around, giving lectures in the most prestigious universities in the world. He never turned down any call or invitation on this matter. He died in a hotel room in Amman, where he working on contributions to this cause.
All alone! Faris told me the news of his death. I could not reach his wife Fatma for several days after he died. She had left Canada to get to him. Words were insufficient when I finally got her on the phone. I read some excerpts from hadiths and Quran verses that any Muslim should recall at such a time. She repeated the Islamic testimony of faith. I witnessed that these words actually comforted her pain and sorrow. She told me that Ibrahim frequently said that they would move to İstanbul to spend their retirement. Ibrahim finally went to his homeland, Palestine, where he was buried with prayers from friends from all faiths and backgrounds all around the world. May he rest in peace!
*İbrahim Özdemir is the President of Gazikent University.