Why was Dr Shakil Auj shot?

Published: September 19, 2014
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He spoke about the fabricated charges of plagiarism heaped on him, about people in the department who made no secret of their hatred for him, about the blasphemy charge on him, the abusive text messages and shameful slander.

A year ago, I began working on a small report about various Islamic Studies syllabi at public universities (which, unfortunately, never made it to print owing to some editorial bottlenecks). I rang up Dr Shakil Auj, the dean of the Islamic Learning department of Karachi University, and asked if I could bring some questions to him.

“No beta, I am very busy these days, maybe next week.”

“Please, it won’t take long.”

He agreed.

I reached the Karachi University’s Islamic Learning department on a Friday morning. Not many classes are scheduled for Fridays. Girls, most of them heavily veiled, were perched on benches, reading from their notebooks. Hardly any male students were around.

I had known Dr Auj, but had never visited his office before. I asked a student to escort me. She took me upstairs.

“Just walk in”.

This absence of protocol startled me. Usually outside deans’ offices, there is a secretary or two, who might glare at you in annoyance, ask you gruffly if you had an appointment, and call the busy professor inside on the extension phone to test your veracity. But there was nothing here.

I sauntered in unsurely through the door which was ajar. Dr Auj was unassumingly cordial. I wondered why he would meet someone like me so cordially – I, mere fresh graduate, a very junior person working for a newspaper who, incidentally, had pretty much forced this meeting on him. Most of the male professors in this department wore shalwar kameez, a topi, and sported a long beard. Dr Auj wore a suit, a tie and did not have much of a beard.

He broke the ice,

“Aaj kal ke bachon ki tarha mein bhi shayad liberal hi hoon,”

(I’m also liberal like the kids these days.)

Some other students sitting in the office chuckled.

We talked about how the Islamic Studies syllabus had, or hadn’t, evolved over the years. We talked about how only some versions of religion are taught and others systematically pruned out. He told me about the many discourses on Sunnah that are weeded away from the curriculum – a practice which made for the well-spring of extremism. These were probably very juvenile subjects of discussion by his standards. The questions I asked probably sounded very naïve to him too. But not once did I feel patronised.

It was all very rare for me. Indeed, I am in no position to pronounce a verdict on Dr Auj’s scholastic calibre for I have neither the requisite academic training to do so nor a sufficient exposure to his classroom skills. But I’ll say this: I have never had such open and fulfilling discussions with a faculty member from outside my alma mater, LUMS. My silly little bias was instantly crushed and I felt quite ashamed.

Meanwhile, Dr Auj sent someone to fetch a few of Karachi University’s famous, uniquely-sized samosas for all of us. When they arrived, he spent some time praising the samosas – they seemed to be quite his favourite. He ate several of them and passed the platter around generously amongst the guests.

I wanted to know if students were schooled in inter-faith harmony in his department. What about inter-sect harmony? Had the syllabus been updated to account for the increasing extremism in today’s world? Is the university aware of the immense responsibility that rests on its shoulders?

“Inter-faith peace?” he took some time to laugh. “Beta, you are too simple!” he said, not unkindly.

“Do you know what happens when we try to change things here? This isn’t just an ‘academic rivalry’ between a few professors of the same department. These are matters of faith. These are matters of life and death”.

“But surely, the university is the most opportune site for such discourse, given that madrassas are thought to be too radicalised now?” I wanted to know.

He agreed that it was so. He agreed that enough was not being done. He had borne the most horrendous consequences for trying to make the syllabus more progressive. The messages, the threats, the rumours, the murmurs – these were fruits of his struggle. Or were these a direct result of an equal regard and respect for Shia interpretations of faith? I forgot to ask him that. Dr Auj had always been held in high regard by several Shia scholars.

“They say I am trying to taint the pureness of faith”.

It sounded remarkably close to something the blood-baying enemies would say.

One usually can’t stop arguing with people who have grown old amongst books. People like Dr Auj, who were conferred a D Litt degree – the highest of academic honours which is even a notch above the PhD. Such people, who might have spent years tediously looking up an obscure source in books, come with a certain, common characteristic – they are patient and humble enough to listen to a person much, much younger than them give off half-baked opinions on matters they spend a lifetime studying. They correct you with a gentleness that betrays a firm respect for young minds that at least take the pain of asking questions. These are the people who, quite subconsciously, train us both intellectually and socially.

He was kind enough to ask the department clerk to fetch copies of the syllabi from years ago, marking the amendments with a pen for my reference. These copies are still with me, and so is his book on women’s rights, which had famously caused many to rile up. This society jealously guards its own distinct version of Islam. Those who say that women can offer namaz with nail polish on are not welcome here.

Back in 2013, sitting in his office, a young research student accompanying us, he told me about the death threats. He told me how some students cringed ostensibly in class owing to some of his views. He spoke about the fabricated charges of plagiarism heaped on him, about people in the department who made no secret of their hatred for him, about the blasphemy charge on him, the abusive text messages and shameful slander.

“Most of my students know all this, you can ask them – but don’t write this in your newspaper because it will make matters worse for me”.

I didn’t, but I wish I had. Perhaps, it would have improved matters instead. Everyone, from students in the department to the university’s vice chancellor and the police were well-aware of the threats Dr Auj was receiving. They were well-aware of the icy-cold tiff in the Islamic Studies department and of the many jealous colleagues who wished Dr Auj ill.

Why wasn’t there an inquiry? Why wasn’t anyone deposed? Why, if at all, was Dr Auj’s name removed from the university website mere hours after his death?

I am a mere outsider to the grief of Dr Auj’s loss. If these matters are so sickening to me, one can only wonder the trauma that his students and family might be undergoing.

May his soul rest in peace.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • ani

    I feel very saddened by these developments. Most of the people claim they don’t support extremism here. but nobody speaks out openly because of fear of backlash. If society is held hostage by means of fear and violence, no sane person will dare raise his voice, and security will continue to deteriorate. Merely saying we are peaceful people, or saying prayers after someone’s dead doesn’t do any good for the living. It must be a really hard time for his families, friends and supporters…and they are learning the really painful lessons through this incidents. I hope people more people like the author stand up and be counted. Pak needs more people like these.Recommend

  • Natty

    Such candid and honest prose with such perfect flow!!! Great piece, writer. You have made everyone fall in love with this man.Recommend

  • Moiz Omar

    R.I.P Dr. Shakil.Recommend

  • Kanwal

    I am almost sure my comment will not be published. Still i will try. Karachi university has now become infested with the islami jamiat e talba ideology. The bunch who comprise such organised gangs in universities hardly have a brain of their own anyway.
    The same is true for the faculty members who encourage and support these elements openly. I have heard so many such stories abot these is
    Aic studies departments in karachi university, that i wonder why everyone is so amazed at this killing. It was bound to happen. And all those who faced it silently, are complicit in this loss of an extrmely precious brain from our midst. Recommend

  • pakOne

    Very nice blog!

    “..Everyone, from students in the department to the university’s vice chancellor and the police were well-aware of the threats Dr Auj was receiving……
    Why wasn’t there an inquiry? Why wasn’t anyone deposed? Why, if at all, was Dr Auj’s name removed from the university website mere hours after his death?..”

    The whole society has rotted to the bone from the top down.
    let me ask give you an example of when I had lost hope. OBL was found a stone throw away from kakul, the US navy seals penetrated all the way to kakul, killed OBL and left.

    Did any one from the armed forces resign or court martial-ed for bringing the worldwide humiliation?

    If the answer IS NO, why would any one from the KU blink an eyelid for this horrendous and shameful murder of a fine human being?Recommend

  • jamshed_kharian_pak

    Very nice and kind looking Dr Shakil Auj a big loss to our society we lost a Big Man of knowledgeRecommend

  • Common Sense

    Agree. More people like the late Professor and the Author are needed.
    The biggest impetus people need to rise and speak bravely is when the authorities make an example out of these militants and self appointed fatwa issuing scholars….they must be served the harshest punishment.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Nicely written…..and although not much will happen, its necessary to tell the truth.
    When one sees incidents like this happening, one can only come to the conclusion that ‘ yes, religion is imploding ‘.Recommend

  • Iqbal Hadi Zaidi

    This really very much awful and shocking to see such an academician being gunned down in broad day light in Karachi. I pray he rests in peace.Recommend

  • siesmann

    When guns become the logic over discourse,and are sanctioned and promoted in the main stream,any one talking rationally is going to meet the fate of Dr.Auj.If even universities are not safe when airing one’s views,how one expects to take on mullahs preaching hate in Masjids.How caN A COURSE OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES at the university level not have alternate and possibly not palatable views about established mores?Recommend

  • Karachiwala

    Please ET Post this: Karachi University is now infested with Jamiat taliba students. If you are wearing jeans and shirts, a lot of eyes will follow you where ever you go. I felt like i am in waziristan like area not in Karachi University. Even professors are like Moulvis now.. i pity on karachi university… also to mention that i saw Jamiat tulba, PTI, Puktoon SF flags…and also some otherss but not APMSO. I think they have washed them out.. and i guess this is the biggest accident happened to KU.Recommend

  • Gp65

    You have written well and from your heart. My condolences to you and to the family of Dr.Auj. RIP Dr. Auj – you lived with courage and died with honour.

    It is certainly a pattern where people who try to present a different facet of Islam in Pakistan than the extreme one that perhaps a rich oil rich country wants cannot continue to live in Pakistan. Salman Taseer, Ghamdi, Dr. Auj . The fact that the killers are bullies are lionized instead of being made accountable certainly gives lie to he notion that most Pakistanis profess a moderate version of Islam. I am sure some do but things would ot have come to such a pass, if most Pakistanis were indeed moderate.Recommend

  • Ram

    He was killed people of Paksitan is busy saving Muslims in Kashmir, Gaza and every other part of the world from hindus,jews, christians and every other simply known as Kafirs, Muslims are killed every day in pakistan by muslims but even most educated and common people of Pakistan is dreaming of somehow saving Muslims all over the world, keep running away from reality and keep bashing India and expect somehow everything will be alrightRecommend

  • Sane

    Dr. Shakil Auj was a noble scholar and this society badly needs persons like him. To maintain harmony among difefrent sects and beliefs we need to have suich persons more and more. This is an unbearable loss for people of Pakistan. Writer having a natural knack of writing in minimum words has successfully narrated his philosophy and state of affairs this country is going through with.Recommend

  • J.Siddiqui

    I wonder why those who believe in sectarianism do not realize that Islam was revealed on prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and that revelation was completed during his life time. Sermon of Haj ul widah is testament to this. Thus anything which was not done or practiced by our beloved prophet (PBUH) may be a part of someone’s culture or practices but definitely not part of Islam.Recommend

  • J.Siddiqui

    I wonder why those who believe in sectarianism do not realize that Islam was revealed on prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and that revelation was completed during his life time. Sermon of Haj ul widah is testament to this. Thus anything which was not done or practiced by our beloved prophet (PBUH) may be a part of someone’s culture or practices but definitely not part of Islam.Recommend

  • sibghat

    Well written, logical, rational and true articleRecommend

  • Yawar

    He was a great teacher, who was dedicated towards inter-sectarian unity. He believed in research in religion.Recommend

  • www.ItemsInn.com

    so badRecommend

  • www.ItemsInn.com

    we came to know that he was very nice personRecommend