Irfan Ahmad Khan, Islamic scholar who promoted interfaith ties, dead at 86

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Irfan Ahmad Khan taught many people about the Quran, including his great-grandchild Sulayman Ahmed Ansari. | Provided photo

Irfan Ahmad Khan wrote books, taught college classes, gave lectures and counseled inmates after their release from jail to help people learn about the Quran.

One of the best-known Quranic scholars in Chicago’s South Asian Muslim community, he also worked to promote understanding among different religions through interfaith groups.

“My father’s aim was not for material gain or fame,” said his daughter Humera Hai. “Spiritual peace and harmony was his main aim.”

He would go hours out of his way to drive medicine to a sick person or to resolve disputes, Hai said.

Mr. Khan, 86, who had been having heart problems, died April 3 in Chicago, said his grandson Saeb Ahsan.

Irfan Ahmad Khan in 1996. | Sun-Times files

Irfan Ahmad Khan in 1996. | Sun-Times files

Mr. Khan, who lived in Markham, spoke and wrote in English, Urdu, Hindi and Arabic. He also could read and write in Farsi and Latin.

His books included “An Introduction to Understanding the Quran,” “An Exercise in Understanding the Quran” and “Reflections on the Quran.” He also edited a journal on Islamic thought.

He was born in 1931 in British India, in Saharanpur in the state of Uttar Pradesh. His father was a well-to-do merchant and landlord. He expected his son to take a role in the family businesses, but “He wanted to study,” said his daughter.

In 1952, he earned a degree in physical sciences from India’s Aligarh Muslim University and continued his Islamic studies in the city of Rampur. He taught at the Indian university from 1958 to 1973.

Irfan Ahmad Khan and his wife Shamim. | Provided photo

Irfan Ahmad Khan and his wife Shamim. | Provided photo

Mr. Khan married Shamim Akthar Khan in 1957.

“He was always so gentle, so kind,” his wife said.

In 1974, he arrived in Chicago to study at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His wife, who was raising their seven children in India, had to await immigration clearance and wasn’t able to join him full-time until 1981, Hai said. “Both of them struggled” with being apart, their daughter said.

Mr. Khan, who admired the philosophers Immanuel Kant and Rene Descartes, earned a master’s degree in philosophy from UIC in 1977 and a doctorate in philosophy in 1986, according to the university.

Irfan Ahmad Khan, with then-Mayor Eugene Sawyer in the background. | Provided photo

Irfan Ahmad Khan, with then-Mayor Eugene Sawyer in the background. | Provided photo

He taught Islamic philosophy at UIC and lectured at schools including the University of Chicago, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Iowa, his family said.

He was founder and president of the World Council of Muslims for Interfaith Relations, an emeritus board member of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, founding president of the Interreligious Engagement Project for the 21st Century and director of the Association for Quranic Understanding.

“His message was that there was a commonality in many faiths — a commitment to justice and fairness,” said Abdullah Mitchell, a lawyer and friend who said Mr. Khan was known for his outreach to the African-American Muslim community.

His lectures were delivered with energy and humor, and he always was approachable, said another friend, Afaq Mujtaba.

Mujtaba said young people in the South Asian Muslim community referred to him as “Uncle,” a term of affection and respect.

When Mujtaba’s mother died, “The way he consoled me, I will remember for the rest of my life,” he said.

Mr. Khan made multiple pilgrimages to Mecca and traveled to educational and interfaith conferences in Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe.

Islamic scholar Irfan Ahmad Khan worked to build relationships with other religions and interfaith groups. | Provided photo

Islamic scholar Irfan Ahmad Khan worked to build relationships with other religions and interfaith groups. | Provided photo

His grandson said Mr. Khan would tell him, “Develop your relationship with God” and “Keep your studies’ focus; don’t necessarily get married too early.”

He enjoyed Red Lobster, Reza’s Restaurant on Ontario Street and anything that tasted of mango, his grandson said. Every morning, he ate toast and drank strong English breakfast tea with milk and lots of sugar. He liked it in a china cup and saucer, the hotter the better.

Once, when a student brought him tea, he removed histopi— a traditional hat — and placed it atop the drink like a tea cozy to keep it warm. But Mr. Khan forgot where the tea was. So the student brought him a second cup. “He picked up his hat,” said his son Farhan, “and he found the other tea.”

Irfan Ahmad Khan. | Provided photo

Irfan Ahmad Khan. | Provided photo

He always made sure his sherwani — a formal, knee-length coat — was pressed and crisp.

Though he usually focused on philosophical questions and lectures, his family found it endearing when Mr. Khan would catch a glimpse of an Indian or Pakistani soap opera on TV and then comment, with serious deliberation, on the motivations of the characters.

“This person is not being honest,” he’d say. “They are trying to take advantage.”

He is also survived by daughters Nusba Parveen, Husna Ahmad, Bushra Islam and Saba Khan, son Salman, brothers Ehtasham, Afzal, Iqbal and Rehan, sisters Ayesha Jamal and Rehana Bilquis and 21 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services have been held.

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