Tribute to Dr. Iyad Ajwa

Dr. David Aune

It is with great sadness that we acknowledge the passing of Dr. Iyad Ajwa, a highly skilled, faithful, inspiring and dedicated member of the Ashland University faculty. In what follows, I will share some personal reflections of what he meant to me and to the larger AU community.

Although we came from very different faith traditions and academic disciplines, I quickly became friends with Dr. Ajwa soon after he joined the faculty in 1997. As a practicing Muslim, he was willing to share openly about his religious practices in an honest and non-threatening way.

Beginning in 2000, Dr. Ajwa regularly offered a guest lecture in my Exploring World Religion courses in which he explained and demonstrated Muslim practices. He let students know that they could be free to ask any question and that he would not be insulted or hurt by their comments. And he never sought to influence others to change their religious views.

After the tragedy of Sept 11 2001, we saw the need to develop a course that would provide accurate information about the religion of Islam at a time when misinformation was the order of the day.

We received a “New Dimensions” grant from the university and, in the spring of 2005 began offering the team-taught course, “Understanding Islam in Today’s World.” Since then, this popular course has been offered every other year and occasionally in the summer. It was almost always over-enrolled but Dr. Ajwa never wanted to turn students away.

Many students have reported that this was one of the most interesting and helpful courses in the AU curriculum, largely because of the way that Dr. Ajwa combined clear presentations about the religion with personal anecdotes and stories from his life.

In addition, Dr. Ajwa was exceedingly generous with his time outside of class, meeting with students to provide resources and to guide them in their research projects. Even when he was undergoing treatments for cancer and clearly in a great deal of pain, Dr. Ajwa kept up with his commitments.

Dr. Ajwa had a profound impact on his students and the larger university. Apart from all of his accomplishments as Professor and Chair of the Math and Computer Science department, he contributed to our university’s core values of “faith in God, moral integrity and respect for the diversity of values and faith in others.” He was an unofficial advisor to many of our Muslim students and he helped them to negotiate cultural differences and fulfill their religious duties in safe spaces both on and off campus.

Dr. Ajwa demonstrated through his life and his teaching that the religion of Islam, rightly understood, shares much in common with the other Abrahamic faiths (Judaism and Christianity). He distanced himself from violent extremists who, in his view, hi-jacked authentic Islamic teachings. Dr. Ajwa lived authentically and embodied some of the best qualities of his religion, including humility, self-discipline, compassion and respect for the dignity of others.

Speaking more personally, Dr. Ajwa was a good friend who always greeted me with a smile and made time to talk about any number of issues, both serious and trivial. Since he provided most of the content in our “Understanding Islam” course, I gained great insights about Islam and Muslim life from an insider’s perspective.

He showed his appreciation for our work together by taking me out to lunch and by inviting me to his home more than once. He was a dedicated husband and a wonderful father to his two boys.

I also was fortunate to have as a student his wife Nadia, about whom he always spoke with sincere love and appreciation. Dr. Ajwa had a good natured, hopeful attitude toward controversial social problems and he never let religious differences get in the way. We would often remark together (both privately and in class) that we disagreed agreeably about deeply held convictions.

Much more could be said, but there are two memories that I would like to share. First, I will never forget the way that Dr. Ajwa repeatedly demonstrated the practice of prostration in prayer as part of his class presentation on the Five Pillars in Islam.

Rather than simply explaining how Muslims bow down during their prayer time, Dr. Ajwa would turn in the direction of Mecca (always known to him wherever he was) and, in front of the entire class, reverently get down on his knees with his forehead on the floor.

Here was this dignified, highly accomplished university professor displaying his submission to God without a hint of embarrassment or self-consciousness. When he arose, one could see, if they looked closely, the mark of prostration on his forehead, an indication of a lifetime of faithful practice.

My second memory is a comment that Dr. Ajwa often made about different views in our respective religious traditions. Although he honored both Jesus as well as Muhammad as prophets in Islam (“peace be upon them both,” as he would say), his ultimate faith was placed in God (Allah) alone.

When students would ask him, a data-driven mathematician and computer scientist, about issues of belief that cannot be proven, Dr. Ajwa would answer to the best of his knowledge but conclude by saying, “God knows best.” Then he would turn to the class and say, “Dr. Aune and I have different views and one day, before God, we will find out who is right.”

Now, due to what all of us view as an untimely death, Dr. Ajwa is that much closer to the fulfillment of this quest.