Scholar to receive interfaith honor

March 1, 2004
Amine Gemayel, former president of Lebanon (second left, front row), was a guest speaker in May 2001 at a class of Prof. Bushrui (left, second row), at the University of Maryland.

COLLEGE PARK, MARYLAND, United States — Professor Suheil Bushrui, who holds the Baha'i chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland, is to receive an award previously bestowed on such luminaries as Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.

On March 1 2004, Professor Bushrui will be honored with the Juliet Hollister Award from the New York-based Temple of Understanding, a global interfaith organization.

The award is in recognition of Prof. Bushrui's "exceptional service to interfaith understanding."

As well as the former South African president, Mr. Mandela, and the Dalai Lama, recipients have included Queen Noor of Jordan, and the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson. Also receiving the award this year are Coleman Barks, and Cokie and Steven V. Roberts.

"What we are looking for are people who carry the interfaith message to a large audience, and Prof. Bushrui has certainly done that," said Alison Van Dyk, executive director of the Temple.

Prof. Bushrui has a long record of promoting intercultural and interreligious understanding.

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.

For the last 10 years, Prof. Bushrui's platform for the promotion of such ideas has been the Baha'i Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland, a professorial post endowed largely by the worldwide Baha'i community.

Prof. Bushrui delivering a lecture in association with an exhibition by the Baha'i International Community, at the European Parliament in Brussels, June 2003. Slideshow
4 images

Prof. Bushrui delivering a lecture in association with an exhibition by the Baha'i International Community, at the European Parliament in Brussels, June 2003.

Prof. Bushrui has organized conferences promoting international and interfaith dialogue. He has lectured in the United States and Europe on globalization and human rights, and has sponsored prominent guest lectures.

Prof. Bushrui is also known for the quality of his teaching -- 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."

In 1999, Prof. Bushrui 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 who is considering rabbinical school after graduation, 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."

Cynthia Roberts Hale, assistant dean in the College of Behavior and Social Sciences, where the Baha'i Chair resides, said Prof. Bushrui has had an "enormous impact" on the campus, despite some initial skepticism about him.

"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."

Born in Nazareth

Born 74 years ago in Nazareth, Suheil Bushrui went to Arab primary schools and then to St. George's College in Jerusalem.

"I had a foundation in Qu'ranic, Arabic studies, but then I moved to an English school, and the literature fascinated me," Prof. Bushrui said.

"In particular, I was fascinated by the romantic poets, Keats, Shelley, and Byron. They appealed to my Arab imagination, I think."

He obtained a doctorate in English literature at the University of Southampton. He taught there and later at universities in Nigeria and Canada.

It was in the junction of two worlds -- of his Arab childhood and of his English education -- that he 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.

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

"For me," said Prof. Bushrui, "the Baha'i 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."

Lebanon and Gibran

Prof. Bushrui accepted a position at the American University of Beirut in 1968.

"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 repository 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.

Prof. Bushrui published several books on the Lebanese poet, including, in 1998, "Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet," which he coauthored with Joe 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," wrote Bushrui and Jenkins.

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

"It's a critically important book," said Arab cultural specialist Mounzer Sleiman, who calls Prof. Bushrui a "super ambassador" for Arab culture.

Prof. Bushrui also has "real world" experience at promoting cross-cultural harmony. In the 1980s, Lebanon's President Amine Gemayel, one of his former students, appointed Prof. Bushrui as his non-partisan cultural advisor, bringing him 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."

"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 one of his 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."

Prof. Bushrui has addressed many prominent audiences. In 2000 and 2001, he addressed the House of Lords in Great Britain, and in 2001 he spoke at the US Library of Congress on the topic of "Globalization and the Baha'i Community in the Muslim World."