From literature to peace: a scholar who strives to be a bridge between cultures

Selected for the 2003 Juliet Hollister Award in recognition of "exceptional service to interfaith understanding," Suheil Bushrui joins the ranks of Nelson Mandela, Queen Noor, and Mary Robinson, among other recipients.

COLLEGE PARK, Maryland, USA — On one level, life for Suheil Bushrui would seem to be a jumble of contradictions.

An Arab by birth and affirmation, he is nevertheless one of the world's foremost experts on Anglo-Irish literature.

A man of deep religious faith, he nevertheless makes his base at a state-run, secular university, the University of Maryland.

And, with the self-professed heart of a poet, he has nevertheless chosen a life of the mind — and won high regard for his thoughtful scholarship and insights as a world-class lecturer.

Yet those who know Prof. Bushrui say his diverse experiences and wide-ranging preoccupations — far from being antithetical — are in part what has made him so effective as a teacher, as a scholar, and, most recently, as an advocate for peace and interfaith understanding.

In September, Prof. Bushrui received word that he would be the recipient of the 2003 Juliet Hollister Award. Given by the Temple of Understanding in recognition of "exceptional service to interfaith understanding," the Hollister award has been bestowed on international luminaries such as South African President Nelson Mandela, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, Queen Noor of Jordan, the Dalai Lama, Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai, and theologian Thomas Berry.

Underlying the award to Prof. Bushrui is a long record of work spent promoting intercultural and interreligious understanding. And in large part, this work has been built on two main themes — the commonality of all religions and the essential oneness of the human family — themes which have given Prof. Bushrui's message a substance and practicality that has won wide acceptance.

"He has a global vision for all of mankind," said David Cadman, the former Chairman of The Prince of Wales' Foundation and a trustee of the Temenos Academy. "And in particular what I like about Professor Bushrui's writings is that he not only has a global vision but he proposes structures and mechanisms that would make this common community come together.

"There are many people who profess this as a good idea, but not so many who point to a practical path," added Prof. Cadman.

For the last ten years, Prof. Bushrui's platform for the promotion of such ideas has been the Bahá'í Chair for World Peace here at the University of Maryland. In 1992, Prof. Bushrui became the first incumbent of the Chair, which is located in the University's Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM) and was endowed largely with contributions from members of the worldwide Bahá'í community.

Prof. Bushrui has used the Chair to great effect. Drawing on the Chair's resources, he has organized a number of conferences aimed at promoting international and interfaith dialogue. He has traveled widely, lecturing in the United States and Europe on topics ranging from globalization to human rights. And he has sponsored prominent guest lectures at the University here.

"His contributions to the cause of world peace are profound and significant," said Dorothy Nelson, a senior judge on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the liaison between the Chair and the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States.

"His commitment to the concept of the oneness of humanity and his belief in the emergence of a world civilization which transcends all racial, religious, and social barriers are the energizing foundations of his work," said Judge Nelson. "I know of no other scholar who has contributed more to the debate on values and the need for moral transformation and spiritual regeneration."

Prof. Bushrui is also known for the quality of his teaching — which was another factor in the Hollister Award.

"Many teachers are good," said Maynard Mack, director of the Honors Program at the University of Maryland. "But Suheil is life-changing. We hear this over and over again, that students' whole attitude towards education, their whole attitude towards life, changes in his class."

"Just a camel driver"

For his part, Prof. Bushrui projects a deep sense of humility. "I'm just a camel driver," he often says, with a twinkle in his eye, almost as if to remind himself as much as others of his origins.

He was born 74 years ago in Nazareth. His primary education was in Arab schools, but he went on to secondary school in Jerusalem at the age of 12, entering St. George's College.

"I had a foundation in Qu'ranic, Arabic studies, but then I moved to an English school, and the literature fascinated me," said Prof. Bushrui in an interview here. "In particular, I was fascinated by the romantic poets, Keats, Shelley, and Byron. They appealed to my Arab imagination, I think."

After receiving a university education in Alexandria, he went on to teach English in the Sudan for five years. In 1959, he applied to and won the chance to study English literature at the University of Southampton with Prof. Frank T. Prince.

"It was very difficult for anyone other than an Englishman or an American to get to study English there," said Prof. Bushrui. "And until Prof. Prince was convinced I was able to cope with the work, he was very reluctant. So I was admitted on probation."

But Prof. Bushrui proved quite capable — to the extent that he completed his doctorate six months early and was offered a temporary teaching position to fill the time. "I was stunned," he said. "Here was an Arab boy who found himself teaching English students their literature, something that was unbelievable for the time."

It was in the junction of those two worlds — of his Arab childhood and of his English education — that Bushrui found a great resource for intercultural harmony.

"The link between the two cultures is that tremendous area — where I think many cultures meet — that is commonly referred to as the 'perennial philosophy,'" said Prof. Bushrui. "My whole work on Yeats has always been about the perennial philosophy, about his search for a universal religion."

Popularized by Aldous Huxley, the term "perennial philosophy" encompasses the idea that there is one Divine reality underlying all religions and cultures, even though it has been revealed to humanity at different times and in different forms.

Vistas of acceptance

The other main influence on Prof. Bushrui's thinking has been his practice of the Bahá'í Faith. Born into a Bahá'í family, he has lived by the Bahá'í teachings since childhood, and its themes of religious and human oneness are clearly found throughout his writings and lectures as the holder of the Bahá'í Chair.

"For me," said Prof. Bushrui, "the Bahá'í religion — which does not emphasize a narrow religious perspective — opened up tremendous vistas of acceptance of other traditions in such a way that it emphasized the commonalities between the various cultures and religions of the world."

After receiving his doctorate, Prof. Bushrui taught first in Nigeria, at the University of Ibadan, and then in Canada at the University of Calgary. In 1968, he went to Lebanon, taking a position on the English faculty at the American University of Beirut.

"In part, my return to Lebanon stemmed from a tremendous desire to publish in Arabic and to express myself in the language I have loved from childhood," said Prof. Bushrui. "It was in Lebanon that I began to work assiduously on Gibran."

As with Yeats, Prof. Bushrui found in the work and life of Kahlil Gibran a profound respository of universal thinking that he believed could be a great source of healing in the world.

"Gibran was perhaps one of the foremost promoters of world unity and the unity of religions," said Prof. Bushrui. "And he has been unfortunately neglected by academia."

Prof. Bushrui sought to remedy scholarly neglect of Gibran with publication of several books on the Lebanese poet, including, most recently, Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet, which Prof. Bushrui coauthored with Joe Jenkins and published in 1998.

"He was one of those rare writers who actually transcend the barrier between East and West, and could justifiably call himself — though a Lebanese and a patriot — a citizen of the world," wrote Bushrui and Jenkins. "His words went beyond the mere evocation of the mysterious East but endeavored to communicate the necessity of reconciliation between Christianity and Islam, spirituality and materialism, East and West..."

In many respects, those same comments could be applied to the life and work of Prof. Bushrui himself, who, through efforts to translate English poetry into Arabic and Arabic poetry in English — and through scholarship and commentary on poets in both cultures — has likewise sought to bring East and West closer together.

One of his recent projects, a book entitled The Wisdom of the Arabs, which compiles traditional sayings and aphorisms from throughout Arab culture, takes a popular approach to promoting cross cultural understanding.

"It's a critically important book," said Mounzer Sleiman, a specialist in Arab cultural and security affairs and frequent broadcast commentator, who calls Prof. Bushrui a "super ambassador" for Arab culture. "He really captures the essence of the philosophy of the Arabs for a Western audience. And he shows how the Arab heritage is wholly connected with the human experience."

Although known primarily as a literary scholar, Prof. Bushrui also has "real world" experience at promoting cross-cultural harmony. In Lebanon, one of his students was Amine Gemayel, who later became president of the country. As President, Gemayel appointed Prof. Bushrui as his non-partisan cultural advisor. It was a position that brought Prof. Bushrui directly into the field of international politics and conflict resolution.

"In Lebanon at the time, of course, the main concern was how do you create understanding and resolve conflict between the various religious groups there, especially between Christians and Muslims," said Prof. Bushrui. "I believe that it was possible to do this through the arts, through the great works of literature, and particularly through the works of Gibran himself."

The point is an important one, for it underpins much of Prof. Bushrui's work as holder of the Bahá'í Chair for World Peace.

"You see, what most people don't appreciate is that literature is a holistic study," said Prof. Bushrui. "It encompasses psychology, history, culture, and politics. And what has interested me is how culture and religion have interacted towards one another. And how they can be reconciled."

"In poetry, for example, whether the poet is aware of it or not, there is a sacred knowledge, which is transmitted from generation to generation," said Prof. Bushrui. "And that sacred knowledge, which is the basis of all great poetry, is what makes poetry universal."

In speeches, conferences, and classroom lectures, Prof. Bushrui has made this insight central to the work of the Chair.

In one of his most widely reproduced speeches, "The Spiritual Foundation of Human Rights," Prof. Bushrui argued that since all religions recognize "the existence of individual souls and the relationship between that soul and its Creator," every religion in essence agrees that "human beings enjoy certain inalienable rights that no worldly authority may capriciously or systematically abrogate."

And as is typical, he salted his speech not only with quotations from the world's sacred scriptures but also with quotations from great poets, from Yeats to Donne to Gibran.

Over time, Prof. Bushrui has been invited to speak to increasingly prominent audiences. In 2000 and 2001, he addressed the House of Lords, and in 2001 he spoke at the US Library of Congress on the topic of "Globalization and the Bahá'í Community in the Muslim World."

Skepticism at first

Although Prof. Bushrui's successes are now widely acknowledged at the University, there was some doubt at first among faculty and administrators about placing a literary specialist like Prof. Bushrui into a data-oriented research center like the CIDCM when the Bahá'í Chair was first proposed.

"My own background is the empirical branches of social science, so quite frankly it took me a while to figure out where a person with Suheil's particular résumé fits into a research center like this," said Jonathan Wilkenfeld, director of the CIDCM, who is himself trained as a political scientist.

"But I've come to see that there is more to peace building than moving in United Nations peacekeeping forces or signing treaties," said Prof. Wilkenfeld. "I've come to see that there is also this need for people at the grassroots level to be communicating and understanding each other's cultures and ideas and religions. And Suheil is really a unique sort of bridge builder in that way."

Prof. Bushrui also has the ability to connect with students. In 1999, he was chosen "teacher of the year" at the University, a significant honor on a campus with more than 2,800 full time faculty.

Elie Teichman, a 21-year-old senior at the University, said that Prof. Bushrui's honors seminar on "The Spiritual Heritage of the Human Race" was "one of my most treasured academic experiences in college."

"We delved into ancient Egyptian religions, into African religions, into Christianity and Islam, and we talked bout the commonalities that exist between all of them, and common ethics and morals," said Mr. Teichman, who says he is thinking about entering rabbinical school after graduation. "It provided a very optimistic vision about the way the future could be."

It was partly because of the success of the Spiritual Heritage course that the Temple of Understanding gave Prof. Bushrui the Hollister award for 2003 — an award which will be presented in ceremonies scheduled for 1 March 2004. [Editor's note: The award ceremonies were held as scheduled.]

"The Temple's mission is interfaith education and we have always been very focused on educators," said Alison Van Dyk, executive director of the Temple, which is based in New York. "What we are looking for are people who carry the interfaith message to a large audience, and Prof. Bushrui has certainly done that."

Cynthia Roberts Hale, assistant dean in the College of Behavior and Social Sciences, where the Bahá'í Chair resides, said Prof. Bushrui has had an "enormous impact" on the University of Maryland.

"That's significant because this is a huge, secular institution and when he came in, a lot of people approached it with skepticism," said Dr. Hale, who has worked closely with Prof. Bushrui since he arrived. "But he has developed relationships all over the campus, and he has won the respect of many people, first because he is a scholar in his own right and second because he is a citizen of the world.

"So often, academics have a message that is only for each other. But Suheil has the capacity to communicate with everyone, whether a child, a student, a scholar, or the House of Lords," said Dr. Hale. "And Suheil wants you to know that he believes in God, that there is a world order, and that there is a code of human behavior — and he is constantly translating that into a formula for world peace."